Winemaker Kenneth Juhasz is the newly named board president of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance – and he’s embracing his volunteer position with the same intensity and excitement he has for making the chardonnay and pinots noir that earn raves and consistently score in the 90s.
He and his wife, Laura, own Auteur Wines, and he has long been the consulting winemaker at Dunum Estate and several other wineries. On a sparkling spring morning the couple sit in the garden behind their cottage tasting room and talk about wine, family and their love of Sonoma – as the aroma of sautéing onions being prepped for lunch at the girl & the fig restaurant two doors down seasons the conversation.
After eight years as a virtual winery, they bought a bungalow on First Street West within days after receiving a postcard from a real-estate agent announcing its availability – it happened to be addressed with their daughter’s name, which seemed like a lucky omen. They opened their by-appointment-only tasting room in 2012, and are now producing 2,000 cases with grapes purchased from “top vineyards that are impeccably farmed,” Kenneth said, in a style “that floats in and out of old and new world,” creating wines that are “very intense but still balanced.”
They live a long walk or short bike ride away from the tasting room, where Laura manages operations every day right up until after school, when her attention completely shifts to their daughters, Kathryn, 11, and Sarah, 9. “Because of our focus on our children and because we live here it just makes sense, both as a winery and as a family,” Laura said about what a great decision the Auteur tasting room has been for them.
Their presence just off the Plaza gives them a close and interested view of the ongoing explosion of tasting rooms, and it’s a goal of Kenneth’s for the SVVGA to take a look at the situation, and perhaps try to influence the future. “I don’t know yet,” he said when asked what Alliance members’ opinions may be, but he thinks the organization should have an official stance.
This is in keeping with his overall goal of enhanced communication. He’d like members to have more opportunities to share ideas, both about their own wine-related businesses and as to how, as a group, they can help raise the reputation of Sonoma Valley wines ever higher. “There’s always room to grow and get better,” he said.
“I want local winemakers to get together to bounce ideas and challenge each other,” he said. He credits some of the advancement in his own abilities to what he’s learned from others, especially the esteemed viticulturist Anne Moller-Racke, who he works with at Donum and at her winery, Blue Farm. “She’s been unbelievably generous,” he said of her knowledge sharing, a trait for which Moller-Racke is well known.
He also admires Phil Coturri, a champion of organic viticulture, for being so “in tune with the land,” acknowledging that he’s been in the Valley “forever” and, from the beginning, has taken a long-term view. “As a grower he’s always thinking about the wine, not just the grape.”
Having arrived in the Valley in 2002, Kenneth and Laura are growing deep roots and can’t imagine ever leaving. Kenneth is from North Carolina, where he developed his affinity for wine while working at a wine shop and earning his business marketing degree at the University of North Carolina.
His father came to America as a refugee from the Hungarian revolution and, from him, Kenneth learned never to let anything stand in the way of following his dreams. So after graduation he moved to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, starting out as a cellar rat where he learned how to make pinot and pursued his passion for making wine.
There he met Laura, the blue-eyed girl from Wisconsin, who’d left the life-of-the-land she cherished and the cold that she didn’t – and with her English degree fled to Oregon and began climbing the corporate ladder. After she and Kenneth became a couple, they were offered jobs at a start-up, well-funded winery/creamery in North Carolina. Kenneth made good wine under very challenging conditions (think humidity, rain, bunch rot) and Laura was thrilled to raise a herd of Nubian goats and make cheese.
“If you can make good wine in North Carolina, you can make wine anywhere,” Laura said, with Kenneth confessing, “I was pretty proud of the chard; reds were difficult.”
Then came the golden Dunum opportunity and their permanent move to Sonoma, which led to Kenneth’s additional winemaking consulting and, closest to their hearts, Auteur.
With their daughters (and even with their chocolate Labrador, Charley) Kenneth and Laura are overwhelmingly family first. Together they sail on San Francisco Bay, backpack and ski in the Sierras and enjoy any activity that allows them to all be together.
Auteur means “author” in French, and the couple thinks it’s the perfect name for their wines. “It describes everything, the story of every wine we make,” Kenneth said. It also describes the Juhasz family, writing the story of their well-lived lives, full of love for family, friends and wine.