After graduating from the University of California, Davis, with an enology degree, Aaron Pott attended the University of Burgundy where he received a master’s degree in viticulture. In 1990, he became the assistant winemaker at Newton Vineyards under the legendary Napa winemaker John Kongsgaard. Returning to France, Pott became the winemaker at Bordeaux’s Château Troplong Mondot, and then director of Château La Tour Figeac. He returned to California in 1998 to take winemaking positions at Beringer, St. Clement, and eventually, Quintessa, where he was also the general manager. Subsequently, Pott began consulting for numerous wineries throughout the Napa Valley. Aaron Pott and his wife Claire purchased a 76-acre property on Mount Veeder in 2004. Three years later, they launched Pott Wine. Claire’s title is CEO. Asked his, Aaron responded, “Imperial Wizard.”
Karen MacNeil interviewed Aaron Pott for WineSpeed in May 2019.
Karen MacNeil: What wine did you taste at the beginning of your career that deeply influenced your perception of wine?
Aaron Pott: I tasted a 1961 Château Magdelaine (last vintage was 2011; it’s now part of Château Bélair-Monange) very early on, and I was surprised by the depth, freshness, longevity, and overall yummy character of the wine. I immediately wanted to go to this St.- Émilion place. It goes without saying that I developed a love for merlot and cabernet franc from this wine.
KM: What was your first job in the wine industry?
AP: During my undergraduate years, I worked wonderful internships [with Robert Mondavi] whilst still a student of enology at U.C. Davis. I was doing lab work, sampling and setting up tastings for winemakers. There were so many great wines being comparatively tasted there that I was able to taste many things that I could never dream of tasting and do a full chemical analysis on them at the same time. I could find out what the alcohol and pH was on the legendary 1947 Cheval Blanc or 1928 Romanée Conti. Nitrogen in the lab allowed me to cork up the bottles, take them home, and share them with friends. My first real job in the wine trade was as the “White Winemaker” at Newton Vineyards [in Napa Valley]. The “Red Winemaker” was later fired, and I became winemaker John Kongsgaard’s assistant. I learned so much about making wine from a wonderful teacher. John was very effective in the vineyard and had grown up growing grapes at his parents’ property in Napa. He taught me so [many] of my early lessons about working in the vineyard. Newton was a very complex hillside vineyard that required a great deal of work.
KM: What was the toughest part of your early years?
AP: Nothing was difficult. I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid to make wine! Everything was a learning experience, and everything was exploration.
KM: You spent six years working and living in France in the 1990s. How did those years influence your work?
AP: When I worked there, [St.- Émilion] was the center of the wine world. It was the age of the garagistes, a new hierarchy was being made; Châteaux fortunes were changing overnight. New talents were immerging; new techniques were being tested. Answers were being found in the timeless techniques of history and at the cutting edge of science. We were converting properties to biodynamics, working with microbubbling, many were experimenting with concentration machines and early optical sorting technology. Some of the simplest lessons that I learned in St.- Émilion in the 1990s are only now arriving in Napa Valley. It was a period of intense thought about wine and more importantly vine quality. It was the contemporary equivalent of working as an artist in Florence at the dawn of the 15th century.
KM: When you think of your own success, what character trait do you possess that’s been the most helpful in getting you there?
AP: I love to learn and to ask questions. I also have a lot of energy and perseverance. Winemaking is teamwork; in the vineyard and cellar you must have a great team working with you. I have been able to bring in great people to help me reach my perfectionist dreams. I think all of these traits can be blamed on one fault in my character—I LOVE WINE!!!
Nothing was difficult. I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid to make wine! Everything was a learning experience, and everything was exploration.
Karen MacNeil: Did you have a mentor? Tell us about her/him.
Aaron Pott: I have been so lucky to have several close mentors. I find that the master-to-apprentice system of learning is ideal for me, and I thrive under great mentorship. My first great mentor was John Kongsgaard who taught me so much about wine but also about living. He introduced me to Michel Rolland who still blows my mind every time that I talk with him. I had open-door access to him and to his incredibly talented wife Dany in France and took full advantage of their wisdom. So much of what Michel called “Le Feeling”, or the intuitive side of winemaking, I cultivated from working with him and watching him work.
Working on international projects for Beringer in France, Italy, Chile, and Argentina, I was able to work closely with Château Latour winemaker, Jean-Louis Mandrau, Hospice de Beaune and Domaine Leroy winemaker André Porcheret and Ed Sbragia. My neighbors Steve Lagier and Dr. Carole Meredith at Lagier-Meredith, both of whom I have known for over 30 years, have been great influences and very helpful.
KM: You live and work in the Napa Valley. What other wine region inspires you the most and why?
AP: I travel a lot to try wines and to learn from other vintners’ techniques. I am always in love with the last place that I have been. I just returned from a trip to Germany’s Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Rheingau regions and Alsace in France. My trip in Alsace focused mainly on natural wines and organic and biodynamic farmers. I was blown away by the originality of the wines and the great farming that accompanied them. Alsace is not an easy climate and it takes great skill to grow grapes organically with such adverse weather. The wines showed versatility, purity and originality that is stunning.
KM: What does your average day look like?
AP: A respectable news source sent a photographer to follow me around one day during harvest in order to document the life of a Napa Valley vintner. I met the photographer at the winery at 4 am as I was getting set up and starting on the morning round of punchdowns. As the sun appeared, we headed out to taste ripening grapes to determine harvest times. Back to the winery, more punchdowns. Back to the vineyard, more subtle corrections, more grape tasting, meeting with growers, more instructions, this time in Spanish. Towards 8 pm, the photographer with eyes at half-mast said to me, “I am too tired, I need to get home.” I still had four more hours until I would see a pillow. Wine work is all consuming, the vineyard is growing 220 days out of the year and needs attention all the time. One of the things that I love most about wine is that it is seasonal in that you are doing the same thing daily that you were doing last year or the year before on about the same day. The best part is that every day you are doing something different as the vineyard grows or as the wine ages.
KM: Your estate vineyards are located on Mount Veeder in the Napa Valley. How would you describe the wines from that region?
AP: Mt. Veeder neighbors Carneros and the San Pablo Bay. It is a mountain region with a strong marine influence. Weather is dictated by the sea and generally remains cool compared to other regions. In cooler regions, the stamp of the terroir is more clearly seen in the wines. During a warm day in summer our property can be more than 10°F cooler than vineyards on the Napa Valley floor. Our particular ridgeline on the flanks of a volcano is made up of fragmented sandstone, sedimentary sea floor uplifted from the depths of the Pacific. It is a very cold soil and produces wines that are powerfully aromatic and have great complexity with great flavor intensity. They are never the biggest wines in Napa Valley, but they are often the most distinctive, complex, and elegant.
KM: In addition to wine, what is your other favorite beverage?
AP: Wine to me is so outside of just a normal beverage that I can’t even put anything close to it. If I was forced to choose a second, I think it would have to be coffee. My mother loved coffee and had quite a sophisticated espresso machine throughout my childhood. She could not live without the aroma, the bitter flavor, and the stimuli. She searched far and wide to find the right beans, the correct roast. When I smell coffee, it is my Proustian madeleine, the mere distinctive scent comforts me, the taste soothing, and the effect gently encouraging just like my mother.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
AP: I have two wonderful daughters who are a work in progress and who I hope will be my and my wife’s greatest achievements. I think at this stage I am very proud of our vineyard. I did not come from a winemaking family, and I didn’t come from a wealthy family. I have managed to put together a family-owned vineyard and winery all on my own. I selected a piece of land that I loved and knew would be a great area to grow grapes and I am happy to say that I was right.