“I grew up in the wine business,” Alan Viader says as we chat on the porch of his family’s winery, Viader, perched high above the Napa Valley, just below the Howell Mountain AVA. Rows of vines disappear over the steep, curving horizon. “I’ve been working here since I was a kid. I helped with the first harvest and worked the summers and weekends in high school when things needed to get done. You do what your mom tells you to do—it’s a small family business.”
Born in Argentina, Alan’s mother Delia came to the United States for post-graduate studies (she holds a Doctorate in Philosophy from the famed Sorbonne University in Paris and an MBA in Finance from MIT). As a single mother of four, the last thing one might have expected was for her to plant a vineyard, but Delia could see the potential for grape growing in Napa and she wanted to raise her family in California. In 1986, with the help of a loan from her father, Delia founded Viader. Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, she planted Cabernet Franc, unusual in the area at the time. “No one understood why she wanted to plant Cabernet Franc,” Alan says. “She just had intuition.”
Having spent his childhood in the vines and helping in the winery, Alan decided to take viticulture classes after high school. “The professors could see that I had experience,” he explains, “so they had me help teach. I’d show the kids how to prune. I was 18. I was studying wine because it was an easy route, but I started to realize how much experience I actually had just from living it.” In 2002, Alan returned home to become Viader’s full-time vineyard manager. “I was barely in my 20s,” he recalls. “I was running all the production, calling all the harvest dates.”
Alan was also sitting in on blending sessions with Delia. “For a couple of years, I did blends with her as a fly on the wall,” he says, “learning, observing and adapting my vineyard practices to make better wines. In 2005 I decided I wanted to become the winemaker at Viader, but I knew I couldn’t just snap my fingers and make it happen.” Alan took classes at UC Davis to learn winemaking while he managed the vineyard. He also worked a harvest at Achaval-Ferrer in Mendoza to further his knowledge of winemaking. “It was my dive into full-production winemaking,” he remembers. “I was hooked from then. I had so much fun. I love hard, physical, active work. It’s in my blood to work during those rush moments of harvest and bottling. I excel in high-stress situations.” In 2006, Alan took over the winemaking at Viader.
Artists are often perpetually dissatisfied with their work, aware that there’s always something greater to be achieved. Since taking over both the vineyard management and winemaking at Viader, Alan has been searching for ways to make the highest-quality wines possible; his efforts are reminiscent of this artistic tendency. “I spend all my days working on ways to improve the vineyard,” he enthuses. “It’s not so much the winemaking I’m focused on. The wine will be good based on the site. I focus on making sure the wine tells the story of this place in a specific vintage. That’s cliché to say now. But all my wines are different, and I can tell you why. There’s a story there. Every harvest is unique.”
From his work in the vineyard to sampling new corks, Alan is focused on achieving the highest possible quality. “There are a lot of things I’ve been fine-tuning on my path to making better wine,” he explains. “For example, I’ve been traveling to France to see where our barrels are made and to eliminate coopers who don’t have the quality I need. Where the oak comes from, how it’s treated, the coopers’ philosophy and whether they’re family-owned, those are all important factors to me,” he says.
Alan’s search for the highest quality expands beyond the vineyard. He emphasizes how important relationships are to success in the wine business. For him, those relationships start with family. “My mom still teaches me something every day,” he says. “She’s got this drive—I bet she’s got 20 projects up her sleeve.” From so many years in the business, Delia has forged her own relationships, and Alan has been fortunate to call many of the great figures of the Napa Valley his friends and mentors, like the Mondavis, Tony Soter and David Abreu. “My mom has been in the industry a long time and she’s made so many connections,” he says. “There are always doors open for me.” He’s been able to pick up pieces of advice here and there from these figures, inching his way toward becoming the best winemaker he can be. “Tim Mondavi used to comment about the use of concrete for Cabernet Franc,” he says. “Little things like that I’ve picked up and held onto.”
An avid traveler, Alan is also on the lookout for what he can learn from tasting other winemakers’ creations. “My mom was always opening something new,” he says. “She has always been a huge proponent of tasting things other than your own wines, because if you don’t, you’ll get tunnel vision. I’m always comparing my wines to the rest of the world. I want to see what the best winemakers are doing. I travel to Bordeaux, Germany, Italy, etc. to expand my palate. I need to have a global palate because that’s the way the industry is now. You can get any wine you want with the click of a button. You have to put yourself up there with the best of the world, not just the best of Napa. I need to taste the best to be able to see where I need to go.”
For Alan, making the greatest wine possible isn’t just about him. “In this industry, you have to see things in the long term, generationally,” he explains. “This is my mom’s baby and we’re working together, so it’s my job to make it as great if not better, so I can eventually transfer it to the next generation. I’ve been making wines in the blink of an eye—this property will outlive me.” Alan hopes to give his children the same opportunities he was awarded to run the family vineyard and winery. “My mom always said, here is the opportunity. She didn’t push me, but she made everything available. Making the jump from the vineyard to winemaking was a big step. It’s not only twice the workload but three times the stress. But I like it. I can’t imagine having a middle person. To make great wine, you have to be the farmer.”
Images courtesy of Bob McClenahan.