Aaron Miller came across wine by chance: “I was getting my neurobiology and physiology degrees at UC Davis and was planning to go to medical school. I was an intern at an ER in Sacramento and it was eye opening—I realized it wasn’t my passion,” Miller tells me. “It was serendipitous that I was at Davis. I met some people in the winemaking program and they started teaching me about wine, giving me wines to taste, and it really peaked my interest. I got an internship at Pine Ridge winery and really enjoyed the work. I appreciated the mental parts of the job—it was a lot of thought and a lot of science, but I also appreciated the physicality, labor and hard work. It satisfied both parts of me.”
Since attaining his degree in Viticulture and Enology at Davis, Miller has worked in wineries from New Zealand to Italy. He’s also spent plenty of time in Napa, having worked at Groth Vineyards & Winery and Lewis Cellars. We met outside at PlumpJack on a warm April day, overlooking their estate vineyards in Oakville, to talk about the unique terroir of PlumpJack, the challenges that Napa Valley winemakers face today and what makes a wine great.
What makes the wines of PlumpJack unique?
We are on the east side of the valley, nestled up against the Vaca Mountains on the edge of the alluvial fan. The east side of our estate is really rocky with well-draining soils—red rock from the mountainside and volcanic rock. As you move west, that starts to diminish, and you get more loamy and loamy/clay soils. Fruit from the east side is darker with more blueberry, blackberry and cassis. The wines are very rich, concentrated, dense and broad. As you move west, the wines have more red fruit, with raspberry, red cherry, sage and mint. They’re more elegant, with less structure and concentration.
What is your philosophy as a winemaker?
When I was young and just out of school, working my way up, I felt that great winemakers make great wine and that you could take any material and make great wine from it. My philosophy has definitely evolved with experience and I’ve seen that no, that’s not true. You need to have great grapes to make great wine. Winemakers aren’t magicians—that changed my emphasis from the cellar to the vineyard. Now I realize that we have to make the right decisions in the vineyard and bring that great fruit to the cellar and from that we can make great wine.
What, for you, makes a great wine?
First, it needs to be varietally correct. Cabernet Sauvignon should taste like a Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir should taste like Pinot Noir. After that, I think a great wine needs depth and complexity—to have layers so it’s not monolithic and one-dimensional. I like wines that have some tension. And a great wine needs to wow you, to give you a personal reaction. They need to have that wow factor that makes you want to come back for more.
What has it been like to learn the business side of running a winery?
When I came to PlumpJack, there were many things I had never done before, and I had to learn quickly. Some of the things I never thought I’d do when I was in grad school I’m doing here. Working with septic and water systems and contractors for those systems, dealing with the financial side of running a winery and managing staff. A winemaking degree is more about vineyards, oenology and science—they seem to forget the business side. This is obviously a very important part of being a winemaker. I’ve had to learn about marketing, budgets, communications and sales through experience. Winemakers aren’t generally schooled in those types of things.
What are some of the challenges for Napa Valley winemakers right now?
Climate change is something we need to be prepared for. We’ve seen a trend in California in the last few years with the higher temperatures and the drought, especially later in the growing season. We need to be diligent and prepared. I’ve made adjustments in the vineyards, like leaving on more leaves to protect the fruit. We’ve started experimenting with shade cloth and micro misters to bring down temperatures. But this means we will also need a larger labor force. The labor force seems to be dwindling, which is another hot-button issue. We seem to be less friendly toward immigrants as a country right now and so there are fewer migrant workers available—more people are staying in their home countries instead of coming here to work. That’s contributing to the higher costs of grapes because we have to pay more money to get labor. It’s a cascade effect.
What do you think about inflating prices in Napa Valley?
As far as wine goes, I hope we will reach a plateau. The price of wine has upward pressure because the price of land, grapes, oak, glass for bottling, supplies, labels, foils, etc. are always on the rise. Acquiring new vineyards is such a costly endeavor. Paying the mortgage is important and we have to operate in the black as a business. I hope at some point the industry stabilizes so that the wines don’t get out of reach for most consumers. There are a lot of wines that are still a great value, but as an industry we need to consider the price increases and make sure we’re not pricing people out of Napa Valley.
What advice would you give someone who wants to become a winemaker or oenologist?
Take the opportunity to travel while you’re young. When I was young, traveling seemed daunting and scary. I was very career-driven and not focusing on a career seemed almost reckless. But in this industry, you can travel and work. You don’t have to set aside your career for travel. You can take advantage of winemaking in other countries, do two harvests a year in the northern and southern hemispheres. You can learn a lot about winemaking but also about different countries and cultures. Through that type of exposure, you learn a lot about yourself. It gets you to really think about what you’re doing and the direction you want to go.