Interview with Chateau Montelena Winemaker Matthew Crafton

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What was your first memory of wine and how did you know you wanted to be a winemaker? Honestly, wine was never a focus of my family growing up.  It accompanied the good times you remember from your childhood… but from more of a correlation, not causation perspective.  I didn’t know I wanted to be a winemaker until I was a week into my first cellar job.  I was dirty, exhausted, sore, overwhelmed, and confused.  But something about the intellectual puzzle – the act of creation, the nexus of farming and science, the problem solving, and the self-reliance – appealed to my right brain sensibilities.  So much of our lives is beset by routine and repetition.  In winemaking, every vintage is a once in a lifetime event.  It’s an opportunity to create something unique, something that makes people happy.  

What was your first wine job? Fresh out of UVA with an Economics degree, I couldn’t see myself content in a cubicle in midtown Manhattan or pouring through textbooks in law school. I’ve always loved the outdoors and hard work that utilized both my head and my hands.  I found an ad for a cellar worker – a cellar rat – at a local winery and applied.  So I started at the very bottom and worked my way up from there.

What is your favorite wine? Champagne, hands down. 

What was one of the biggest mistakes you have made? Thankfully, I’ve never made Rosé unintentionally or anything like that.  I’m a pretty methodical person these days so most of the mistakes I’ve made were early on, when I was never given enough rope to hang myself so to speak.  I did learn, first hand, that physics and fermentation are quite powerful forces during my first harvest.  Trying to save time, I made a small granulated acid addition to an actively fermenting 10,000 gallon tank of Chardonnay.  The resulting foam explosion looked like something out of Willy Wonka.  I decided to never cut any corners after that.

Who has been the most influential mentor in your career? My Dad.  He taught me character, integrity, and leadership.  He also told me early on that the only thing you can truly control is yourself; how hard you work, what you stand for, how you treat people, and the decisions you make.  I don’t think I would be where I am today without him.

Wine side mentor? There have been many people over the years, who have gone out of their way to help me.  From Matthew Meyer in Virginia, who took a chance on hiring a young guy with no experience, to John Gibson here in Napa, who molded me into a professional in the cellar.  I’ve been fortunate to have Bo and Heidi Barrett as mentors over the last eight years and I’ve learned so much from both.  They’re incredible winemakers and rely on each other’s strengths to create amazing wine.  I really admire that.  

What does it feel like to be a Winemaker at the well-known Chateau- Montelena? It’s humbling and exhilarating at the same time.  On the one hand, I’m the steward of an extraordinarily historical brand and I see that every morning when I walk across the front of the castle.  On the other, this winery is very forward-thinking and that drive to innovate and improve is deeply rooted in our culture.  We know that our best wines are still to come.   

What is your favorite after work drink? I’m an equal opportunity imbiber so it depends.  But good bourbon is hard to turn down.   

What is your favorite local spot? Lately it’s been getting off the beaten path on hikes around the valley.  While our vineyards are amazingly scenic, the natural beauty of the Vaca and Mayacamas mountains that flank our little piece of paradise shouldn’t be missed.  

Tell us something that would surprise people about you? I still want to be an astronaut when I grow up.  (Would a fish allergy be surprising?)

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