Winemaker profile: Sonoma son is No. 1
The drive up to Mayacamas Vineyards and Winery is not for the faint of heart, or the easily carsick. But the view from the top, and the conversation with the winemaker, are more than worth the effort.
Sonoma’s very own Braiden Albrecht is the winemaker behind Wine Spectator’s No. 2 wine on its annual top 100 list for 2019, a 2015 cabernet sauvignon. The No. 1 wine is a French wine, so it can be said without much argument that Albrecht created the prestigious magazine’s top American wine last year.
Albrecht, 33, is surprisingly young and genuinely humble. When asked about his reaction to hearing the news he reflected on the brand’s long history (the vineyard was founded in 1889) and the style of winemaking that was really solidified in the late 1960s, and the lineage of winemaking that has evolved but largely stayed true to its origins.
“And so, I was probably more caught up in the reflection on that and feeling good about what we’re doing and what we will continue to do. And maybe it’s a sign that the market is open to a different style in Napa cabernet than maybe it was 10 years ago. It was totally unexpected. And, we’re humbled by it, it’s an honor.” He’s also quick to point out that it was a team effort, and a testament to the way the crew in 2015 executed the vintage.
Albrecht grew up in Sonoma, attended St. Francis Solano and then graduated from Sonoma Valley High School in 2005. He went on to U.C. Berkeley and studied agriculture and resource economics. During his summers, he interned with Sonoma resident Phil Coturri, an influential organic viticulturist who farms many vineyards in Sonoma as well as the renowned Oakville Ranch in Napa. Albrecht met Coturri through his friendship with Phil’s sons, Sam and Max; they played soccer and baseball together growing up. Before Albrecht left for college, he and Max, and a few other guys, even made some garage wine together, which Albrecht laughs about but which may have planted a few seeds.
The road from college to Mayacamas took some interesting and fruitful turns for Albrecht. He spent summers in the Himalaya where another Sonoma graduate (Elyse Gonzales Sahota) had started an adventuring company that Albrecht helped out with, called Himalayan Explorers. He also spent a few harvests in the Southern hemisphere in New Zealand and Australia. After two years he called Phil Coturri, who mentioned that maybe Mayacamas was looking for someone. One thing led to another and he was hired at Mayacamas in 2013 under Nathan Littlejohn, before Littlejohn left in 2015 to start his own wine project in Colorado. And then Albrecht really took over the reins with consulting winemaker Andy Ericksen.
The fires in 2017 did not leave the property unscathed, burning two out of the 50 CCOF certified organic planted acres, and destroying one of the structures on the property, the hospitality center. Albrecht and wife Amy. who live up on the property in a cottage, evacuated in time and feel blessed that the historic winery and the cottage remained intact. The hospitality center is being reconstructed now and should be completed late spring or early summer of 2021.
Braiden and Amy wed just this past July here in Sonoma, and Amy also grew up in town attending St. Francis and SVHS, although they didn’t meet growing up, but at a dinner party at the Little Vineyards in Glen Ellen in 2014. She teaches at St. Apollinaris in Napa and is “tolerant” of the long drive up and down the hill every day, although they both look forward to moving back to Sonoma one day. Both Albrecht’s parents and Amy’s mom still live in Sonoma, and they know how special a place it is.
Albrecht’s family owns 37 acres in Rutherford that they farm; the land has been in his mom’s family since the late 1800s. The grapes are sold to various wineries. For the moment he’s not involved in the family business, but he says one day down the road it might be fun and interesting to take it on in some capacity, remarking on how the vineyards as well as the wines are more rustic in style, not so different in fact from the style of wines at Mayacamas. But for the moment he’s focused on how much he has still to accomplish at Mayacamas.
“I’m really excited about the next chapter here,” he said. “We have the redevelopment of 20 new acres that will be coming online in the next three years, which are replanted in different ways; new places, new varietals, different orientations, spacings and clonal material. There’s a lot of new flavors for us to incorporate, seek out, and tame. So, there’s a lot to learn.”
“I can’t think of anybody more deserving of this honor,” said Sam Coturri, who now runs Winery Sixteen 600. “Braiden is a hard working cellar rat who does a great job with everything that he sets out to accomplish. I am proud to know him.”
Life hasn’t changed too much since Albrecht’s’s wine hit No. 2, and that’s just the way he likes it, being able to continue to do what he loves with his team in the vineyard and in the cellar, and to not lose sight of what gets him up and excited to work every day, that physical drive to continue to learn and explore.