As The Going Gets Tough In The Wine World, Delia Viader Continues To Move Mountains
By Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen
When Delia Viader first visited Napa Valley in the early 1980s, no one could have predicted that the 25-year-old single mother of four would one day be considered a pioneer and driving force in the United States’ most high-profile wine region. After borrowing money from her father to purchase a steep, rocky plot of land on Howell Mountain, Viader set about transforming it into a vineyard with unconventional vine spacing, row orientation, and grape varieties. Removing some of the larger boulders required her to set off a few sticks of dynamite, which is unsurprising once gets to know a little bit about Viader’s drive and determination.
Within 10 years of its first vintage, VIADER wines, made with a high percentage of Cabernet Franc, were ranked among the best in the world by critics and wine publications. However, she and her winery have faced the same challenges as all winemakers, such as uncertain weather and vineyard pests, as well as those particular to California, such as wildfires, earthquakes, and prolonged power outages. A 2005 fire at the warehouse that Viader’s wines were stored in destroyed all of her vineyard’s output from 2003. That event caused Viader to re-think her business model in terms of how to get her bottles into the hands of wine lovers. This sense of resilience carries forward in the way Delia and her son Adam, who formally joined the winery as lead winemaker in 2006, are continuing to engage and supply their customers in the time of Covid-19.
Having worked in his family’s vineyards since the age of nine, Alan Viader received a degree in Viticulture Management through a program in Sonoma, and he managed Viader’s vineyards while continuing his studies in winemaking at UC Davis. He has worked at wineries in some of the finest winemaking countries in the world, including Argentina, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, and France. A self-described “hands-on experimentalist,” Alan Viader is constantly learning and applying new practices in the vineyard and the winery in order to make the best wines he possibly can.
With 28 acres of vineyards on its 92-acre Howell Mountain Estate, VIADER produces between 42,000 and 48,000 bottles of wine each year. They make 18,000 bottles of their most popular wine, VIADER Proprietary Red Blend, which retails for $195. Ninety percent of VIADER wine is sold direct to consumers (DTC) either by allocation, which accounts for 65 percent, or via their tasting room and website. A small amount—five percent—is sold as futures, while an additional five percent is sold wholesale to the wine trade for domestic and foreign distribution. VIADER can be found in 12 US states plus Japan, Spain, Switzerland, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, with Germany and Canada on the way.
As part of their current efforts to connect with consumers and the wine press, Delia and Alan Viader held a series of personal wine tastings this spring and summer. We had the opportunity to ask them a few questions about where VIADER has been and where it is going.
World Wine Guys: As a single mother of four, how did you manage to purchase a vineyard on Howell Mountain and start making wine in 1986?
Delia Viader: After moving from Europe to attend MIT as a post-grad student in the early 80’s, I took a trip to California where I visited Napa Valley for the first time. I immediately fell in love with the vineyards, the hills and the familial energy of the community; in my mind, the ideal setting to raise a family. Then, as luck would have it, a friend of a friend presented an opportunity to buy land in the mountains east of St. Helena in Napa Valley.
I will never forget my father’s expression of concern when I asked him for a loan to help cover the down payment, “After all the money I have poured into your education, all you want to become is … a farmer?” At the time, I was a 25-year old immigrant and single mother, with a Ph.D. in philosophy who knew nothing about winegrowing or winemaking proposing to plant a vineyard on an extremely steep, rocky Napa hillside. In hindsight, I can understand my father’s skepticism!
But I was determined to make it work; failure was not an option. My father asked for plans, one-, three to five- and 10-year strategy, projected years to production and completion and most importantly: when would he be “off the hook.” Relying on my business projections, my father provided seed money as temporary loan and in 1986, and I set upon the tall task of transforming that steep, craggy hillside into a world-class vineyard.
WWG: You are considered a pioneering winemaker in Napa Valley. What are some of the “groundbreaking” things you have done in your winemaking career?
DV: In the 80’s, most vineyards in Napa were planted on flat valley floors or on hillsides on contoured terraces, but I had a different plan in mind. I wanted my vineyard design to adapt to the geography of the place and take advantage of the west sun exposure and afternoon breezes, to support the cultivation and long-term sustainability of world-class vines. A terraced design on our steep slope would have left too much terrain unutilized and completely defenseless from erosion.
After careful consultation with some of the industry’s top experts from around the world, I made the controversial decision to plant our vines vertically (non-terraced) up and down the hillside in an east-west orientation with a very tight spacing in between rows and vines: something that no one else in Napa was doing at the time. This was a groundbreaking practice that would eventually become the new standard in Napa, one that I’m proud to have had a hand in pioneering here in California.
We planted 1,800 plants per acre in a very tightly spaced 6 x 4 configuration, with six feet between rows and four feet between vines and even tighter, 2,200 plants per acre in a 5 x 4 configuration at the steepest. The norm at the time was spacing rows 12 feet apart to make room for tractors. But I wasn’t concerned about tractors. I was focused on planting our site in a way in which we could achieve the best quality and concentration possible.
More than thirty years later, tightly spaced, high density plantings are commonplace for high-quality vineyards. Throughout the growing season, our low-hanging fruit clusters benefit from a band of heat radiating from the volcanic rocky soil, allowing our grapes to continue ripening for up to two additional hours past sunset. That extra after-hours heat expression leads our grapes to full maturation ahead of neighboring properties – up to two weeks in some years – which means earlier harvests ahead of the threat of late-autumn rains.
Perhaps one of the biggest decisions I made [in Napa], where Cabernet Sauvignon is king, was to plant Cabernet Franc, in addition to Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot with a later addition of Malbec and Syrah. While I knew little about growing wine grapes at the time, I knew what I liked in fine wine. At a family dinner growing up, I remember tasting a wine I will never forget for its seductive aromatics, the complexity of the bouquet and everlasting flavors. Cabernet Franc adds beautiful aromatics, finesse and a quasi-cashmere texture to our well-structured mountain grown Cabernet Sauvignon.
The first vintage of VIADER, 1989, was a blend of 40% Cabernet Franc and 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and less than ten years later, our ’97 vintage and then our ’98 vintage, were ranked among the best in the world, a feat that put VIADER – and Cabernet Franc – on the map for wine lovers.
WWG: How has Covid-19 affected the way that you do business in terms of getting your wines into the hands of consumers?
DV: Northern California wine producers’ ‘resiliency’ has been ‘tested’ no doubt. We have battled earthquakes, wildfires, PG&E prolonged blackouts (all during harvest season) and now we are battling Covid-19 like every small business owner. As farmers and thinking always about the next generation to follow, we keep an innate optimism, long-term vision and perseverance: the sun will rise tomorrow, again.
At VIADER, specifically, our business model has worked in our favor as it relates to Covid-19’s effects on the business of selling wine. Since 2005 we have sold wine almost exclusively DTC via allocation, tasting room and website sales. In the face of bar and restaurant closures, many fine wine producers that rely on these channels are facing major obstacles that we have luckily been able to avoid. While we did have to close our tasting room for several months, we have fortunately been able to reopen, offering onsite wine sales and tastings on our beautiful outdoor veranda overlooking the valley and vineyards.
Our approach to selling wine has always hinged on providing our customers with a world-class personalized and intimate experience. Today, we are still focused on providing this same level of customer service, whether in person at the estate, or via private Zoom tastings with Alan Viader, winemaker, an option recently added to our site in light of the current circumstances.
WWG: Have there been other times of economic uncertainty during which you have had to change your business model in order to keep selling wine?
DV: Of course, nobody gets into this business without a certain flair for risk taking and calm optimism with things you have no control over, like the weather or the economy.
In 2005, I had everything going for me. My family was flourishing, the vineyard was flourishing, the winery was flourishing. Our 2003 vintage was committed to distribution in 48 states in the US and more than 10 countries overseas and pre-paid advance sales.
But then the unthinkable happened. I was at an event when I got a call that the off-site warehouse on Mare Island, which was storing our wine – valued at $4.5 million – was consumed in flames. Insurance only covered 10% of the losses due to a loophole in my policy and suddenly, all of the restaurants and distributors that I had worked with to secure placements on menus were gone as well. Restaurants can’t put placeholders in their wine lists. If you don’t have it, then they just replace you. Which is exactly what happened in hundreds and hundreds of accounts.
In the face of losing everything, I did what was necessary to save the business. I sold off vineyard assets that I had been pursuing in Italy to make ends meet and had to completely change my business model in the US. Instead of using third-party distributors and exporters to sell my wine wholesale, I decided to sell it directly to consumers. I converted my guesthouse on the vineyard into a tasting room for consumers to visit, taste and purchase my wine directly.
Today, 90 percent of my business is DTC – a complete 180 from where I was 15 years ago. It didn’t happen overnight, but the shift in business model has allowed for Alan and me to keep our focus on producing small quantities of the highest quality wine possible from out estate on Howell Mountain; while also improving profit margins by cutting out the middleman. Oh, and I also added 15,000 square feet of temperature-controlled tunnels into our hillside property, to ensure our ability to store our wine onsite (for obvious reasons).
World Wine Guys: As a winemaker, is there a lot of pressure on you to uphold the reputation your mother has earned in Napa Valley?
Alan Viader: Of course, I feel the pressure to maintain the reputation and continue to deliver quality wines like my mother has. As the next generation, everybody is waiting to see if I have what it takes or if I have this position just because of my last name. I have had to become better and work harder to earn respect in the market. It challenged me to grow and learn so much faster. I’m better for it. I do share my mother’s passion and drive to pursue the very best in everything I do at VIADER. I’m always looking at what can be improved, even if just another notch.
Each new vintage presents a new opportunity for me to explore and push new boundaries. From a very early age my mother taught me that the very best wines were “made” in the vineyards and that the best winemakers were just excellent “storytellers” of their terroir in a glass. I’ve had a lifetime of experiences growing up at the VIADER winery alongside the estate vineyards. All these experiences have helped shape me into a better grape grower and fine winemaker.
WWG: What are some of the vineyard or winemaking techniques you have experimented with and applied in order to improve the quality of Viader wines?
AV: Grapevines need a level of water stress at precise times during the growing season to enhance quality, increase concentration, balance tannins, stabilize color and improve aromatics. It’s a constant balancing act we’re playing with the climatic demands. The soils at VIADER are so rocky and well-drained that water stress can be a concern for us during the hotter vintages. We’ve invested in technology to help manage water stress levels on our older growing vines and reduce water consumption at the same time. We installed ET (evapo-transpiration) sensors and Sap-Flow sensors to show real-time water stress and help us calculate exactly how much irrigation is needed to replenish what was used based on climatic demands. These tools help keep the vines at a calculated level of water stress all season and ensure we produce rich, concentrated berries without allowing them to overstress.
In the winery we’ve been experimenting for years with extended sur lie[dead yeast and small grape particles]contact time during the barrel aging process to improve length and mouthfeel. The wines are aged on average nine-twelve months sur lie in barrel prior to their first racking and each barrel is stirred one-by-one by hand for the first six months. As a result, wines are richer, creamier with improved mouthfeel and better length. We’ve been really happy with the outcomes and positive feedback from our customers and plan on exploring more options in future vintages.
We’ve also been experimenting with larger sized French oak barrel fermentations (225 liter and 500 liter) and have seen great preliminary results. Wines fermented in barrel are more elegant with heightened aromatics. We’ll be expanding our barrel fermentation experiments again this harvest to confirm which varietals benefit the most and how they can be applied to our final blends.
WWG: How has Covid-19 affected the way that you do business in terms of getting your wines into the hands of consumers?
AV: I’ve had to become a Zoom expert! I’m super busy hosting live virtual tastings for our members and close friends over shared meal recipes from my wife Mariela, a professionally trained chef. It’s been great connecting with people online and I think our members have really enjoyed it as well. I’ve also really stepped up my presence on social media to keep members up to date on what’s going on at the property.