Seven Winemakers to Watch in 2012

Seven Winemakers to Watch in 2012


What do a war veteran, a tax consultant and a Kiwi have in common? (No this isn’t a bad joke.) They are some of the best winemakers in California right now. Some of these folks were everywhere this year. And some we hope to see a lot more of in 2012. Without further ado, seven winemakers we think are cool, interesting and really good at what they do—in no particular order.

Angela Osborne, A Tribute to Grace

When New Zealand native Angela Osborne was 29, she fell in love. She was so captivated that she crossed the Pacific in pursuit of her passion. No, it wasn’t a sun-tanned surfer that had her heart, it was a grape. Specifically, Grenache. “I chose California because it provides the perfect climate for turning my winemaking dreams into reality. Both literally—the sun loves California and allows Grenache to ripen beautifully—and figuratively: The culture here truly embraces entrepreneurship.” Her label, A Tribute to Grace (an homage to both her Grandmother and her favorite attribute) was born in 2007. Her winemaking practices include racking under the new moon, “Grace Dancing” (otherwise known as foot-treading) and listening to plenty of Nick Cave during fermentation. Incidentally, we recommend dancing under the new moon and listening to Tender Prey when you drink it.  

Find it: Arlequin Wine Merchant, Commonwealth, Delfina, Chez Panisse

Justin Willett, Tyler

Justin Willett’s success is a testament to Ms. Osborne’s faith in the California dream. “I was thinking about doing a Masters in enology and viticulture at UC Davis,” says Santa Barbara native, Willett. “But since I had no science background, I decided I should get dirty for a while.” That was in 2005. Today, his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay bottled under the Tyler label (his middle name) appear on some of the best wine lists in the city. “I'm really excited about the wines from 2011,” says Willett. “They've got tons of power, but are super delicate and have low alcohol.” No wonder sommeliers love him so much—his wines are a perfect match for food.

Find them at: Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, RN74, Quince, Bar Tartine, Gary Danko, The Slanted Door.

Matt Duffy and Sara Vaughn, Vaughn Duffy

Matt Duffy and Sara Vaughn love Pinot Noir almost as much as they love each other. In 2007 they gave up all the perks of city life (they still miss being able to see Giant’s games at a minute’s notice) to make Pinot Noir in Sonoma. Now married and with their third vintage on its way, the relationship seems to be going well. Matt says, “If I get to drink one varietal for the rest of my life it's Pinot Noir. Easy decision.”

Find it at: Arlequin Wine Merchant and at Vaughn Duffy's shop

Thomas Debiase, Debiase Wine

Thomas Debiase is not a shy guy. He is, after all, the manager and wine director for a very busy restaurant in Sonoma. And for cool-climate Pinot Noir, his wine is anything but demur: Maybe it’s because he includes the stems in about half of the fermentations, or that he exclusively uses wild yeast, or that he’s committed to not fining or filtering. Or possibly his wine is like this because he’s from New Jersey. “All of this is to produce wines that I feel deliver a sense of refinement; both power and intensity with elegance.” We couldn’t have said it better.

Find his wine:  Dean and Deluca, Quince and RN74. Or join the mailing list at:

Samantha Sheehan, Poe

Yes, Samantha Sheehan is that person: the former overworked financier who started pursuing her dream of making wine after having an Eat, Pray Love experience in Burgundy. But she is also not that person in all the ways that matter most. Perhaps that is because she took more then just the Burgundian’s commitment to terroir to heart: “It is one of the most beautiful, soulful places in the world,” says Sheehan. “They make some of the most expensive wines on the planet, yet they are totally down to earth, humble, generous and welcoming.” Under the label Poe, Sheehan embraces Burgundy’s philosophy with single vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Anderson Valley. “ My goal was to show that California too has incredible terroir, and that we can produce single vineyard wines that are unique and beautiful,” says Sheehan. We think she is off to an excellent start.  

Find it:  Michael Mina, Prospect, and Boulevard.  It can also be purchased at

Matthew Rorick, Forlorn Hope

The wines that UC Davis-graduate Matthew Rorick makes for his label Forlorn Hope are hard to pin down. His grapes come from regions as far apart as Mendocino and Suisun Valley, and are just as far apart on the varietal spectrum: from Semillon to Petite Syrah. But it is this range and variety that makes Rorick so interesting. For 2012, he is most excited about his “Trou Grit,” a skin-fermented Trousseau Gris that he says, “defies category. It's got both sweet fruit and savory tang, great acidity and balance, and is somewhere in between a rosé and an orange wine.” It sounds like “somewhere in between” is a fine place to be.  

Find it: The Wine Vault, K&L Merchants, Firefly and at Forlorn Hope's shop 

David Grega, Carlotta Cellars

David Grega had a busy year: He moved his winemaking operation from Napa to downtown San Francisco, released five wines of his third vintage, and had a baby (guess his wife did most of the heavy lifting on that one). For veteran Grega, “the wine business is a lot like war,” and he is well armed. The Rhone-inspired wines he makes, along with co-owner Aron Healay, are “rooted in tradition,” says Grega, “but are not afraid to push the envelope.” His rosé, a mix of Grenache and Mourvedre that was pressed and then fermented on white grape skins, certainly pushes the envelope in the most delicious way.

Find his wine: Online at or email Grega to taste his wine at The DogPatch Wineworks.

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