John Caldwell, founder and owner of Caldwell Vineyards in the Coombsville district of Napa Valley, was one of the first vintners to realize Coombsville’s potential for fine wine. He was at the forefront working with the French regulatory agency ENTAV (Établissement National Technique pour ‘Amélioration de la Viticulture) to import French clones into America. He is the author of “Wine Grape Clones for Professionals.”
Karen MacNeil interviewed John Caldwell for WineSpeed in November 2019.
Karen MacNeil: What is it about wine that moves you?
John Caldwell: The combination of sensual pleasure with intellectual stimulation. And really nice people and places in general. In 1985, I was invited to lunch at Alain Querre’s home in Fronsac, Bordeaux. Alain went to his cellar and pulled out a 1955 Cap de Mourlin. A 30-year-old wine. As he decanted the wine, the room was filled with this sweet wonderful smell. My first taste will be remembered for ever. I’ve had a couple of other bottles since that day that have knocked my socks off but that was the first. So to answer your question, it is the desire to make a bottle of wine from my vineyard that moves me like that 1955 Cap de Mourlin. I haven’t yet.
KM: Was there an inspirational “first wine” that caused you to want to begin writing about wine? Do you remember where you were when you tasted your first wine and what it was?
JC: I grew up spending summers with an Italian grandfather. My first taste was a watered-down jug wine from Pedroncelli Vineyards from Geyserville, California. The first wine that moved me was a Louis Martini 1968 cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley.
KM: Where did you grow up, and what was your family like?
JC: I grew up in Vallejo, California. I was fortunate to have a loving Mom and Dad and a great brother, Jay. Jay is 4 years younger and lives in Yountville. Only good memories.
KM: You had polio as a child, but it doesn’t appear to have slowed you down. Did it, in fact, have the opposite effect and make you even more determined?
JC: I was 4 years old, so I grew up as a crip. I think it did make me stronger and more determined. But get vaccinated.
KM: You came from a very successful shoe sales business background. What was the toughest part of your early years in wine?
JC: Making my vineyard payroll the first 5-6 years.
KM: You live and work in Coombsville in the Napa Valley—a striking region known for its volcanic soils. What other wine region inspires you the most and why?
JC: Bordeaux has been my inspiration from my first trip in 1982 to the present. I basically copied the Bordelaise vineyard architecture from that time on.
“…I have made hundreds of wines. It drives me crazy that I haven’t yet made my perfect wine. SOMEDAY.”
KM: You and your wife, Joy, have recently expanded the Caldwell brand into Champagne and whisky/bourbon. Both of those are quite different than Caldwell wines. What inspired you to expand your portfolio in this way?
JC: Joy inspired us to do a Champagne. She loves Champagne. We found a small producer close to Epernay, the Gamet Family, who are working with us. They make a lovely Champagne and are delightful people. The whisky/tequila project is just for fun. I only expect to bottle 3-4 thousand bottles a year. My partner Brion Wise and I love drinking the stuff. Because we have our own master cooper to make our barrels, we can experiment as much as we want with toasts and wood for flavors. Our first whisky is delicious. Two fingers is not enough.
KM: You’ve been in the wine business for several decades and know it from the ground up. You clearly love wine. But is there something about the wine industry that drives you crazy?
JC: Yes, I have been in the business almost 40 years, and I have made hundreds of wines. It drives me crazy that I haven’t yet made my perfect wine. SOMEDAY.
KM: I’m not going to ask what’s your favorite type of wine. But what wine or type of wine do you like the least?
JC: Hmmm, good question. I like drinking well-made wines. I can even drink these orange things if well-made. What I do not like, and almost refuse to drink, are wines with anything over “just a wee touch” of brettanomyces. Not a fan of Château de Beaucastel.
KM: In addition to wine, what’s your other favorite beverage?
JC: Whisky/bourbon, cognac, tequila, and gin.
KM: What advice would you give a young person going into the wine business today?
JC: Start with 1 or 2 tons of fruit from a variety you love to drink. Find the absolute best fruit available. Pay the price. Buy one or two new and one or two good used no-Brett barrels. Then call me.
KM: Do you drink lots of different wines from around the world or do you focus your wine drinking on a few regions that you want to know well?
JC: I would drink a new wine everyday if I had the option. Love to try anything new.
KM: Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing?
JC: Fine Champagne with caviar on a Lays potato chip with just a drop of cream.
KM: If you could share a bottle of wine with anyone famous, living or deceased, who would it be and what would you want to talk about?
JC: Oh boy…Andre Tchelistcheff is one man that I regret not meeting when I had the chance. I would spend most of the time talking about wine growing in the vineyard.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
JC: What I have achieved so far is incredibly satisfying. My greatest achievement is still on the horizon. Let’s talk again in 5 years.