Mark Aubert’s Ambition

The Napa native makes some of California’s most sought-after Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs

From the July 31, 2018, issue

California vintner Mark Aubert is such an aficionado of white Burgundy that he brought a bottle of Louis Latour Bâtard-Montrachet 1986 to woo a blind date. It worked like a charm too; the former Teresa Sobolik and Aubert just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.

White Burgundy also inspired Aubert’s quest as a winemaker. His epiphany bottle was Comtes Lafon Montrachet 1990, a wine made by one of Burgundy’s best producers and sourced from one of the region’s greatest sites. For the past 20 years, Aubert has strategized relentlessly to realize his ultimate goal: to make California Chardonnay that rivals white Burgundy. And he’s become a grand master.

The Napa Valley native still lives near his hometown of St. Helena, and though he respects Cabernet Sauvignon, the grape that made Napa Valley famous, he looks mostly to neighboring Sonoma County for his Chardonnay grapes. With a few exceptions, Sonoma is the heartland of California’s top-tier Chardonnays.

“You pick your battles, and I really wanted to fight Chardonnay. I love Cabernet, but we wanted to be at the top with Chardonnay—and I think we’ve done it,” Aubert says proudly. And given his track record of quality, it’s hard to dispute his claim. In the 2016 vintage alone, three Aubert Chardonnays scored a classic 95 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale.

Paul Hobbs, who makes top Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Sauvignons from both Sonoma and Napa, has known Aubert for almost three decades. “Mark is insanely passionate about his goal of making the best Chardonnay possible, and he’s not intimidated by the challenges when they’re put in front of him,” Hobbs says.

Mark Carter, owner of Napa’s Carter Cellars and the Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning Restaurant 301 at the Hotel Carter in Eureka, Calif., calls Aubert one of the great winemakers of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in California today. “Most people who are going to buy Mark’s wines know who he is, and he has a following—a cult following,” Carter says.

Aubert, 56, is a self-made man in a region dominated by corporate entities, multimillionaire vintners and insatiable egos. He’s disarmingly savvy and at times reticent, but once he opens up, his opinions are direct and unalloyed. Though his hair is flecked with gray, he is built like an NFL cornerback, and he transmits an intensity that would challenge someone half his age.

Aubert calls his Chardonnays hedonistic, and that they are: 100 percent barrel-fermented and aged mostly in new French oak, the wines are ripe and full-bodied, with about 15 percent alcohol. They are polished and opulent, staying true to their California origin with vibrantly concentrated white fruit and citrus flavors. Yet the wines are also balanced and nuanced, showing remarkable elegance and finesse.

His aim is to express the most vibrant fruit flavors possible from his vineyards. “Do you want an unripe peach? No, you want a perfectly ripe fruit. Through our winemaking, we can explore aromatics and flavors,” he says.

Aubert has worked with some of the best vineyards and wineries in Napa and Sonoma, including Peter Michael, Colgin, Monticello and Rutherford Hill. He’s also consulted for Futo, Bryant and Sloan. At both Peter Michael and Colgin, he took over the winemaking reins from the guru of California cult wines, Helen Turley of Marcassin.

For his own wines, Aubert adopted Turley’s approach to grapegrowing and winemaking, which he says involves assiduous attention to harvesting optimally ripe grapes with the highest concentration of flavor, which invariably means low yields. “I started doing this in 1989 and learned from Helen what makes a good single vineyard[–based] winery,” he says.

Aubert draws from nine vineyards in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast appellations, as well as Carneros and Rutherford in Napa. Three of them he owns and six others sell him fruit under long-term contract. Production is about 10,000 cases annually, with 75 percent of that Chardonnay and the remainder Pinot Noir. With new estate vineyards in the pipeline, he hopes within five years or so to increase his output to 15,000 cases.

Most of the wines are sold directly to consumers through a mailing list, on which prices for his seven Chardonnays range from $85 to $100. However, on the open market, they often go for multiples of that base price. Aubert also makes sure his bottlings appear on the wine lists of leading restaurants in key markets such as New York and California.

Mark and Teresa make their home on the west side of Napa Valley near Rutherford; the property includes their 7-acre Sugar Shack Chardonnay vineyard. Teresa manages the business side of the operation and is the gatekeeper for the mailing list. She calls herself the general manager of the winery and household, allowing Mark to focus on the creative portion.

“Early on, Mark and I found that our personalities, educational backgrounds, skills and talents complemented one another’s well enough to run our business this way. And most importantly, we trusted each other to do this back then, and now,” Teresa says.

One of Aubert’s prime sites is the Lauren vineyard, named for the couple’s now teenage daughter. It was Aubert’s first estate vineyard, and he has carefully overseen its 8 acres since purchasing the site in 2000. Originally an aging apple orchard, it’s situated on a gentle ridgetop south of the Russian River, near the town of Forestville in western Sonoma. Reached by way of an unremarkable dirt road, Lauren seems to float in its own bucolic splendor amid oak and fir woodlands, small farmsteads and a growing number of vineyards. Redwood trees tower to the north and west.

“I love these little hills,” Aubert says. “It’s a nice little warm spot in a cool area,” conditions he says are key to his vision for optimal vineyard situating. The 2016 Lauren (95 points) offers pure, precise, refined white fruit flavors that are lusciously spiced.

At about the time he started developing Lauren, Aubert saw opportunities to push California Chardonnay to new levels, in both vineyard and cellar. He was impressed by very few single-vineyard Chardonnays in California back then, with the exception of the versions from Steve Kistler (whom he calls a god) and Peter Michael (where he’d cemented his winemaking skills). Many Chardonnays of the period were made with overcropped grapes, ill-suited plant materials and haphazard cultivation techniques, Aubert contends.

The winemaker credits much of his success to vineyard manager Ulises Valdez, who is one of the most proficient and thus highly sought-after grapegrowers in Sonoma. [Note: Valdez passed away unexpectedly in September 2018.] All six of the vineyards Aubert draws from in the county are farmed by Valdez, from winter pruning to fall harvest, and everything in between. “If I didn’t have Ulises, I don’t know what I would do,” Aubert says. The two men share a brotherly bond.

“I never went to school for this,” says Valdez, 48, who in 1985, at age 16, left his hometown in Michoacán state in Mexico to pursue a new life in California. “Mark’s always been honest. He says, ‘If something happens to you, I’ll take care of your family.’ And I say to him, ‘If something happens to you, I’ll take care of yours.’

“I say, ‘Patrón [the Spanish word for boss], here’s what I am going to do.’ And [Aubert] says, ‘This is what I need.’ I know he always does the best to make the best wines, and when we disagree, we trust each other,” Valdez says.

Aubert concurs: “He’s more of an agricultural guy and I’m more of a winemaking technician. When we disagree on the state of the vines, say, or watering needs, I end up trusting him because of his experience.”

The soils at Lauren are based on the Goldridge formation that is common to many top vineyards in the area. It’s a sandy, loamy mix that holds water well and is rich with organic and mineral nutrients. Dig down deep and you can find fossilized seashells, Aubert says, which mark the site’s origin as an ancient seabed.

Valdez’s crew meticulously farms Lauren’s vines. The grapes are grown sustainably in a relatively tight spacing regime (1,400 vines per acre), with diligent and exacting pruning to control vigor.

“Vines are like humans: Everything must be in balance, and it’s all in the little details,” Valdez says. “Any vineyard manager can prune, disk and spray. For me it’s in the relationship and in understanding all the ideas of the winemaker.”

Vine selections are based on historic plant materials that Aubert sees as well-adapted to California, with some dating to the 19th century, though the original pedigrees can be traced back to Burgundy. There are four clones at Lauren, as selections are referred to in the parlance of viticulture: Old Wente, Villa Mt. Eden, Hudson and Corton-Charlemagne. Each offers unique traits—including flavor profiles, acidity and other underlying structural components—that Aubert takes advantage of in his cuvée.

“There’s a lot of management that goes into these four different clones. Each of them is harvested separately, and Corton-Charlemagne is always the last,” Aubert says, adding that he’s happy to wait for the acidity it delivers. “It’s one of the rarest clones we have,” he notes.

Yet as much as the vineyards are painstakingly cultivated, Aubert relies on his gut to pull the trigger at harvesttime, his instinct guided by more than three decades of experience in the business. “I’ve been doing this long enough, and when the flavors get to the crescendo, I say, ‘Let’s go,’ ” he remarks. “It’s really pretty simple. When the grapes start tasting like candy, we know we are close. There’s no elaborate analysis—just pick it.”

It’s a formula that has helped put Aubert near the summit of California Chardonnay. Since the turn of the century, 19 of his Chardonnays have scored a classic 95 points or higher, a track record that puts Aubert in the ring with heavyweights such as Peter Michael and Marcassin.

Aubert’s success is the quintessential tale of a local boy making good. He grew up in St. Helena, in the middle of Napa Valley. His father was a pharmacist, but the family also owned a small vineyard planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. The young Aubert was quick to catch the winemaking bug.

“I always wanted to be a winemaker, and my parents wanted me to be an electrical engineer, so I took a year of classes [in engineering], and I hated it,” he says. “I love being in the dirt and the challenge of chemistry. Fermentations are complex.” He graduated from Fresno State University with a degree in fermentation science (and minors in both chemistry and viticulture) in 1985.

His first winemaking gig came soon thereafter, at Rutherford Hill, where he had previously landed a spot as an intern through a connection with Rutherford Hill’s then-winemaker Phil Baxter, who had been the leader of Aubert’s Boy Scout troop.

By 1990, Aubert was helping make Chardonnay at Monticello Vineyards in Napa when Helen Turley hired him to assist in developing the vineyards at Peter Michael, where she was overseeing winemaking. Six months later, however, Turley departed to work for Colgin in Napa Valley and to make her own wines, leaving Aubert, then 28, in charge of one of the most ambitious wine projects in Northern California.

It was his big break. “A lot of people were envious of me, and they thought I wouldn’t make it, but I persevered,” Aubert declares. “If Peter Michael didn’t happen, it would have taken longer to get where I am today. I think I am 10 or 15 years ahead of my peers.”

While at Peter Michael, Aubert not only helped build a stellar winemaking program that regularly produces some of the best California Cabernets, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, he also oversaw the development of many of its prime vineyards on the slopes of Mount St. Helena above Knights Valley. And he took note of the winery’s emphasis on direct sales to consumers, a marketing approach he would later employ.

In 1999, Aubert was ready to strike out on his own and secured a small loan from a local bank to open his winery. Initially, he continued to consult, mostly for Cabernet clients, purposefully staying away from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and guarding the lessons he’d learned about those varietals. “I told people, no Chardonnay or Pinot. These were only for Aubert. I didn’t want to share the secrets I’d learned at Peter Michael.”

Aubert left consulting behind in 2009 to devote full attention to his namesake label; Futo was his last client. He made his wines at Laird Family in Napa before buying the old August Briggs winery in Calistoga in 2010. “You can’t do everything, and clients were taking so much of my time. I had to focus on Aubert,” he says. “Winemaking is engrossing.”

Along with winemaking and grapegrowing, Aubert has carefully molded his marketing strategy and brand image. As a corollary, he sees the sumptuous flavors his wines offer as a natural counterpoint to the big reds that are the primary drivers of North Coast winemaking.

“I like to be first on the table at restaurants and with collectors. Our Chardonnays and Napa’s Cabernets go hand-in-hand,” Aubert says. “I want them to grab your attention. I think if you talk about food a lot, you miss a lot of nuances. They can go well with rich dishes, but these are not wines centered around food,” he adds. “We are in the wine business, not the food business.”

His winemaking draws on Burgundian methods, with a few modifications. His fermentations are long and cold, from four to eight months, to avoid the risk of oxidizing the wines. Aubert says such slow fermentations best preserve the characteristics he’s sought from each of his vineyards. Individual lots from the vineyard clonal selections are kept separately until assemblage and bottling, which he usually conducts in December of the year after the harvest vintage.

In all his Chardonnays, he’s seeking not only site expression but also the richness and fatness in the mouth that the French call gras and which Aubert defines as “sugar without sugar.” He uses all native yeasts in fermentation, also in a bid to accentuate what’s coming out of the vineyard. (Yeasts are endemic to most vineyards, as well as to cellars.) It’s all designed to realize the clearest expression of terroir in his wines.

“To get soil-born profiles is really hard,” Aubert says. “You have to do it through the vineyard, and the oak is the frame [of] the whole thing.”

But he does eschew one traditional Burgundian protocol: bâtonnage, or the stirring of the lees in the barrel to amp up texture. He says bâtonnage can also induce oxidation, which would limit the complexity and aging potential of his wines. “Because of the fermentation, the barrels are always mixing themselves,” he explains. That natural turbidity helps stimulate the critical process of malolactic fermentation (M.L.), in which bacteria transform tart acidity into softer acidity.

“Your barrels are sizzling in M.L.,” he says. “This is where I think people have gotten into trouble with bâtonnage to stimulate M.L. The CO2 [a byproduct of fermentation] protects the wine, and if it gets displaced by too much stirring and agitation, watch out.”

In the western reaches of the Russian River Valley, just 7 miles from the Pacific, Aubert and Valdez are developing what Aubert calls a viticultural wonderland. It lies on a rolling ridgetop north of the small village of Occidental. This is where Valdez and his family now make their home. The entrance road traverses an intrusion of serpentine rock, which has high concentrations of magnesium. The presence of this element in soil is detrimental to grapevines.

The narrow band of serpentine opened up into rolling pastureland when Valdez first found it and decided to lease it to plant a vineyard, named UV-SL. More than one local scoffed at his ambitions, because of the nearby mineral. But Valdez and Aubert dug holes and tested the soil and found it fertile and filled with red, iron-rich strata and the same Goldridge loams as at Lauren. Valdez began to plant the first 29 acres in 2006, at great financial expense.

There were hurdles beyond drilling holes and planting vines. Beginning in 2010, the owner of the property was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Valdez was way down the list of creditors. But in 2012, he was able to work out a deal to purchase the site, which has since become another stalwart in Aubert’s stable. The UV-SL vineyard remains a wild terrain, surrounded by huge redwood and laurel trees that hark to times long past. Today, 44 acres are planted at UV-SL, mostly to Pinot Noir.

Aubert makes three Pinots, one of which comes from UV-SL; the 2015 version (93 points) is an elegant red with supple red fruit flavors backed by fine tannins. Aubert calls his winemaking for Pinot “quasi-Burgundian,” and a mixing pot of French and California styles—whole-cluster fermentation, with natural yeast and long macerations on the skins. Aubert’s goal with Pinot is to make wines with mouthfilling flavors but a low amount of tannins.

The Pinot at UV-SL is a 50-50 mix of Calera clones from the Central Coast and what Aubert terms his own proprietary selections from Vosne-Romanée in Burgundy. The tightly spaced vines are trained to grow low, and are pruned to yield just 2 pounds of grapes per vine. Aubert likens the technique to bonsai, the Japanese art of miniaturized trees. He learned the method from Napa vineyard manager David Abreu, who he says opened many viticultural doors for him. “I learned from [Abreu] the bonsai-ing of the vines—perfectly balanced but making the vines struggle,” he says.

For Aubert, UV-SL holds as special a place in the vineyard repertoire as Lauren. And for Valdez, it figures to grow in importance. He is planning to plant 5 more acres there and hopes one day to build his own winery on it for Valdez Family wines, which Aubert helps make. “I knew when we developed this it would make magnificent wines,” Aubert says.

For both men, the success of UV-SL bears witness to their partnership’s perseverance. “I had no money. He had no money. It’s the American dream, and it all started with a loan from the bank,” Aubert says. “When you work hard, the wine tastes better.”

On the way back to town, Aubert looks covetously at a site he’s driven past many times. “Boy, I’d like to buy that place, and I bet it would make good Pinot Noir,” he says to Valdez with a gleam in his eye. The pull of the next challenge is always strong.