A Conversation With Alan Viader of VIADER Vineyards & Winery
It’s a vineyard, a wine, a family, and a legacy.
VIADER is all those things. It’s also the remarkable accomplishment of a single mother with an incredible vision for what a rugged Howell Mountain site might one day become. Delia Viader began her work in the mid Eighties and built her family’s brand from scratch into a successful, thriving business. She found a real niche with her Bordeaux blends. The VIADER Proprietary Red is the brand’s flagship label and a benchmark in Napa and beyond. The quality of her work can be measured both in critical scores and customer loyalty.
We’re privileged this week to talk with Alan Viader, Delia’s son and the current force behind the VIADER label. Alan grew up in these vines dodging the occasional rattlesnake. Today he wears two critical hats as the vineyard manager of the estate property and its winemaker. Alan is quick to tell you that he’s first a farmer. The delicious grapes that are harvested each autumn are the product of all the hard work and sweat that he puts into the soil.
Alan is putting his own stamp on VIADER through sustainable farming and experimentation in the vineyard and the winery. He has a laser focus on delivering incremental improvements each vintage to a roster of wines that are already top shelf. It seems that both Viaders share a drive to leave this unique vineyard in much better shape than when they found it. We dare say that will be their legacy. We caught up with Alan Viader recently to learn more.
The Wine Write: You literally grew up in wine.
Alan: Well, some would argue that I’m not grown up yet. I’ve been fortunate to have been raised alongside our vineyard.
The Wine Write: When did it dawn on you that your mother was a pretty big deal?
Alan: It took a lot longer than you would think. I was probably in my late teens or early twenties when I realized that this little property and the wines my mom was making from it were getting critical acclaim. By then our phone was ringing off the hook. She was hiring more and more people. We had a lot of visitors here to check out the property. I understood then that we were the real deal.
For many years we’d have a few guests at a time come to our house. We’d host them at our table and talk about the wines and the property. There wasn’t much to show on the property then. We were a working vineyard and winery. Over the years we’ve grown and expanded. We’ve added caves. We have a guest house where we host our private appointments. It’s great to see the success of the business.
Delia Viader, planting in 1987
The Wine Write: It’s interesting to see the success now and look back at what vision your mother must have had when she started.
Alan: If you could have seen this property when she bought it…. I remember the first time I came up here. There was a little chain link fence off the side of a winding road. It was a dirt road. We had a little two wheel drive car and Mom was struggling with it. I recall wondering where she was taking us. It felt like a path to nowhere.
We eventually stopped and my mom told us our house would eventually be here. We had a beautiful, expansive view of the valley below us. She pointed to different spots and told us we would have vineyards here and something else there. At the time I didn’t even know what a vineyard was. I thought this was really wild country. It was dirt, a lot of rocks, and the occasional rattlesnake. The transformation she made to the place was amazing.
The Wine Write: Did you try to help your mother as a youngster?
Alan: I always tried to help. It was a family business. My mom struggled to get everything done as a single mother. Juggling the exciting dynamic of raising kids with building this company from nothing was a challenge. I was the second oldest child. My older brother has Down syndrome, so I was sort of treated as the oldest kid. I helped take care of him and my sister. I also liked to follow my mom around. I enjoyed that connection. If she wanted to go berry sampling or check on harvest, I always volunteered to go. Looking back at it I was probably pretty annoying. I now have three kids and understand the dynamic. They get excited about anything related to a tractor.
As I got older I would help out during summer vacations. I was attracted to the farming aspect of the business. I’m a viticulturist at heart.
The Wine Write: The fact that your undergraduate degree was in Viticulture Management led me to believe that your first love was for the dirt.
Alan: My soils science professor would cringe if she heard that last part. She used to tell us, “Dirt is what you have under your fingernails; soil is what your vines grow into.”
I’m a boots on the ground guy. When we were sourcing fruit from outside vineyards, I was there once a week. I made very good relationships with the vineyard managers and the field workers. I speak fluent Spanish. That allows me to tell people in the field how I like things farmed. More than once I was told that I was the most practical winemaker they had ever met. I think those guys appreciated the fact that I am a grower first, then a winemaker.
I grew into my vineyard management position. For a long time that’s all I wanted to be. There’s plenty to do in that job and I was happy with it. As time went on I wanted to be a better farmer. I had to start tasting the wines more so I could see the results of my efforts. After tasting the wines I changed some vineyard practices along the way. After repeating that process time and again over the years I realized that I needed to be both the vineyard manager and the winemaker.
The Wine Write: Did you have mentors or influences on the winemaking side when you added that role? Obviously your mother had to be a big influence.
Alan: I grew up following along the consulting winemakers we used. My mom tasted with guys like Tony Soter and Charles Hendricks. I worked in the cellar under Charles for a few years. Michel Rolland consulted with us. He was really influential in terms of the process of blending.
I really always looked up to my mom. Growing up she would pour wines for me and tell me all about them. I’d get lessons at dinner on how differences in soil types, trellis systems, exposures, or clones impacted the wine’s taste. I’d get annoyed at the time. Oh great, another lesson. I look back now and realize how invaluable that education was. My mom and I still do the blends together and she is still teaching me things.
The Wine Write: How important is sustainability at VIADER?
Alan: I bounce that measure off everything I do. If something isn’t sustainable, I take a real hard look at why I would do it. I want to farm in ways that help my vineyard and preserve the environment. I look at everything from weed management to herbicide use to water management. All of those things are important. I don’t use herbicides. I do everything by hand. I time what I do so I can avoid mowing seventeen times when I only have to mow twice. All those tasks go through my head every year. I’m trying to avoid tractor passes. I don’t want to burn diesel for no reason.
I’m looking hard at the topic of carbon desequestration now. Our farming is very good already, but we can get better. I’m using a lot of compost which helps to invigorate the soil. I’m doing no till farming purposely. Not only does that help stop erosion, but it also helps build organic matter. That keeps carbon in the soil. I’m working on some projects this year that will ultimately have the impact of taking sixty cars off the road every year. That’s pretty cool.
The Wine Write: Do those efforts in sustainability resonate with customers?
Alan: I think people are almost expecting it now. The atmosphere out here is that if you’re not doing things that are sustainable, you’re doing something wrong. The majority of vineyards still use herbicides and are farming in ways that don’t help the soil, the environment, or people. I think there will be a wake up call at some point. We all need to think about what we’re doing and have good reasons for what we do. I’m farming sustainably because I need to be the best steward of the land I can be. I see better quality fruit as a result. It makes sense. If I have more invigorated soil microbes and better access to nutrients that are already in the soil, my roots are happy. My vines are healthier. They’re more resistant to disease and pests. They’ve got a stronger immune system, if you will.
The Wine Write: What makes your estate terroir unique?
Alan: Location is key. We’re in a little nook of the valley heading up towards Howell Mountain. It’s an area known for volcanic soils and excellent drainage. Vines love soils that drain well. I have an opportunity here to manage the stress on the vines. I can vary the size of the berries and how much concentration we have in the fruit. I work on that. I measure berry circumference and berry weights. I totally geek out on that topic. This site gives me that tool because we are in deep soils. If I were farming down by the river I’d have zero control. If it rains down there the vines are sucking up that water over the next few weeks. If it rains up here the soil is dry in a day. If I want the vines to grow, I can add water. If I don’t irrigate, I cut back that growth. I have sensors in the vineyard to show me how much stress the vines may be under.
This property is great because of the exposure. We get a lot of afternoon sun. We are in one of the warmest areas of Napa Valley. I also get quite a bit of rain in the winter up here. That gives me the best of both worlds. Spring and winter rains help the soil. That warm summer sun helps get everything ripe and concentrated. It’s also windy up here. That keeps mildew pressure down. I have a lot of owls and hawks to keep pests at bay. Rattlesnakes are still around to take care of my gopher problems.
The Wine Write: How would you describe your winemaking style?
Alan: It’s very traditional. I do push some traditional methods a bit. I push extraction, but I don’t do anything fancy. I don’t have optical sorters or any of that equipment. We farm by hand and harvest by hand. I do punchdowns by hand. I use a lot of concrete fermenters. I do a lot of tasting. I do a lot of barrel fermentations. My fermentations are often at lower temperatures to enhance the wine aromatics. The concrete vessels also enhance the aromatics. I’m a big fan of that. I’m pretty hands-off. We do stir on the lees for six to nine months on the lots that need it. I don’t rack very often.
The Wine Write: Did you tweak things stylistically when you assumed the role of winemaker?
Alan: I did to some degree. We didn’t previously do extended macerations or stir on the lees. We used to have only large tanks. Now I have various size fermenters, some of them quite small. That helps me fine tune my harvest. In the past we would just pick a whole block at one time. Now I pick by vines or rows. I’m much more selective in terms of picking. That adds more work, but I have a good reason. The vineyard is not uniform. Aspects and exposures vary. Fruit ripens at different rates. I time my picks to take each vine’s fruit off at the optimum point.
All that allows my mom and I to play more. We get to see how different clones turn out in these small lots. Our final wines are better in the long run because we have all these different lots to use. It’s like having more spices in your spice rack. Our property is small, but we’re working with about fifty different blocks at the end of harvest. Some are tiny, single barrel options that are unique. They’re cool to see. I’m always experimenting. I’m always thinking about how I can improve something. There may be a clone we want to try. We may want to try a new yeast or do a fermentation a bit hotter. I’m doing some smaller fermentations this year. I did about ten trials on Cabernet Sauvignon. We’re still evaluating those. It’s fun to have those options. Experimentation in the pursuit of quality is what I do.
The Wine Write: Is there one experiment that’s ongoing that especially excites you?
Alan: I have one barrel of Cabernet from 2019 that’s still on the skins. We’ve never done that before. It was fermented in new oak. It remains in that same barrel. We’ve topped it off with wine from the same block but from a different tank. So far it’s tasting really good. It has great structure and mouthfeel. You would imagine it would be very tannic with all that time on skins, but it’s really not. We’ll see where that goes. There’s only one way to find out, right?
The Wine Write: How important is the hospitality side of the business to a winery like VIADER?
Alan: It’s our lifeblood. We are a small company. We don’t have the marketing dollars to be everywhere. People come to us, see the property, and buy our wine. They tell their friends that they loved the experience. Those friends then visit us. That’s how we get customers. We’re at the point now where we are hosting the children of many loyal customers. It’s pretty cool to see the generational shift. I know most of the older customers. Now I have close relationships with a lot of their children. That’s pretty amazing.
The Wine Write: The wine industry is dealing with the perceived lack of interest in wine by the millennials. What’s your take on that?
Alan: I think there are a lot of options out there. I think that question hits more at the lower price points. In the past when you’d go to a restaurant you might sit at the bar before your meal and grab an inexpensive glass of wine. With the evolution of cocktails and other drinks, many people start off with something other than wine. Ultimately you get to the dinner table. You’re still going to open a bottle of wine there. You’re not going to drink cocktails all night long or it will be a real short night. I think a nice bottle of wine is always going to be on the dinner table.
The Wine Write: How important is leaving a legacy with VIADER?
Alan: For us, VIADER is this place. This great property will always be here. This company is something my mom created and built out of nothing. That’s such a powerful story. I have to be super respectful and honor that with everything I do. My goal is to one day pass this on to others in the family. We want to keep it moving. We want to keep it sustainable. We’re a small producer. We do blends really well. That’s our niche. We have a focus. Going forward we need to keep doing what we do well. At the end of the day our property does our talking. My goal as a winemaker is not to put my fingerprints on the wine. I need to tell the story of this property through our bottles. That goal should never change regardless of who is making the wine fifty years from now.
The compelling aspect of the VIADER story is that Alan, his mother, and the rest of the family aren’t content to rest on their laurels. Everyone involved is committed to caring for their small slice of Napa terroir and improving its farming and wines moving forward.
While it’s incredible that a young person in the Eighties could visualize what this property and business could become, that dream did not come easy or overnight. Delia Viader put her heart and soul into making VIADER a world class producer. Her son has now taken the baton with a conviction to make a good thing even better. There’s that theme again: vineyard, wine, family, legacy.
There’s one way to best experience the VIADER difference. Make a visit. They are open by appointment only. Your visit experience will include a walking tour of the vineyard and caves and a seated sampling through the current wine offerings. A gorgeous view of the Napa Valley and a detailed discussion about the VIADER history and winemaking style will accompany your tasting. Sound like fun? You bet it is. We’ve linked up the website for you to learn more.
(Note: Alan and I had this conversation before the impact of COVID-19 was fully felt and travel and social interaction restrictions were put in place.)