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A Conversation with Napa Valley winemaker, Vincent Arroyo
by Diannek

Vince is the owner of the Vincent Arroyo Winery, located in Calistoga, part of California's Napa Valley. Vince has been a family friend of ours for years. The other night Vince was sitting at our kitchen table with Dale and I and we were pouring a few.

The conversation began over a bottle of Napa Valley Sangiovese. "This is an Italian grape from Italy's Tuscan region. It's the latest thing in the Valley," Vince explained as we savored its rich, fruity aroma.


Vincent Arroyo.

Q: Why is it that there always seems to be a new wine coming up? Don't we have enough different types of wine to select from already?

A: Well, let me explain it this way. It's simple really -- tastes change, depending on the wine drinker's mood. We're always looking for something new. It's like this, I love roast beef but I don't want to eat it every night.  And from a business point of view, a new successful wine can add to the prestige of a winery.

Q: So, does that mean that some kinds of wine go in and out of fashion?

A: Well, maybe some do, but there are some wines that will never be out of fashion -- like Cabernet and Chardonnay, for example. We'll always be able to sell as much of those wines as we can make. But the industry is always looking for the next Merlot.

Q: Why is it that Merlot has become so popular?

A: Merlot is a big red full-bodied wine that's not as harsh or tannic as Cabernet. Merlot drinkers believe they're, shall we say, still riding the Harley -- the Cabernet -- even though they're actually on a Honda. So the industry is working on various blends and now this Italian import, Sangiovese, to try and fill that need. I'm growing a few acres myself. One of my friends came home from Italy with some cuttings and I've put in a few acres. We'll see what happens.

The winery.
The Vincent Arroyo Winery located in Calistoga, California 
~ part of the world famous Napa Valley

Q: After all these years in the valley, as a grower and now a wine maker, is it still as exciting as it was when you first moved up there from Silicon Valley?

A: Yes, I think so. I moved to Calistoga because I wanted to do something where I could call the shots. I wanted to make my own decisions and be my own boss. I think I could have been happy and successful doing another kind of work, as long as I could make my own way. I chose to be a farmer because it's something I knew how to do and had an interest in.

Q: The way I see it, you're in kind of an endless cycle: you grow the grapes, you make the wine, you bottle and sell it and then you do it all over again. Don't you get burned out doing it over and over again?

A: Well, actually it's two separate full time jobs. First is growing the grapes. That's a full time occupation with the most frenzied activity being the harvest. But there is always something that needs to be done in the vineyard.  I think I'm too busy to even think about being burned out.

Q: As a grower, do you worry about the obstacles that Mother Nature puts in your way?

A Worry? No, that's not the right word. It's like any kind of farming, some years are better than others. We know that there are a number of things that can happen to the crop and we prepare as best we can to cope with any problem that comes along. It's a challenge that we're prepared for, but I don't lay awake nights worrying about what might happen.

But in between working in the vineyards I also make the wine and I personally oversee the rest of the operation too. But with farming, there is never enough time to do it all. I just fill in the gaps in the winery. Making wine is my "in-between" business.

Q: It sounds like a big job.

A: Yes, it is. There are no breaks. Sometimes it seems like it's harvest every day.

Q: What's your favorite part of the business.

A: Oh, that's easy. The people. I love to be with the people. It's kind of like being on stage or being the center of attraction. I think anyone would like that part of it. I run a small informal tasting room. I have one staff person that works it with me but we both have the same philosophy about wine tasting. It should be fun -- like an instant party.

Everybody who comes into my cellar is a potential customer and very often that person is still learning about wine. I think it's important to help them become acquainted with wine and to learn how to appreciate it. But as you know, I'm not a wine snob and I don't try to intimidate anyone. Most of my customers are very impressed and appreciate the fact that they actually get to have a drink with a real wine-maker.  That makes me feel good.

Joy, taking a break!
This is Joy, between customers.  She is Vince's most faithful helper.  Every season Vince chooses a selection of wines that are bottled as "Joy's Choice".  They sell very well.  In the winery salesroom you'll find a line of clothing with Joy's paw prints on them. Something to remember her by.

Q: So what's the secret of a good wine?

A: The secret? That's a hard one. It's taste, of course. It has to taste good. But there's lots of personal involvement in that answer. We all have a unique sense of what tastes good to us, and even that changes according to our mood, as well as our appreciation of fine wine.

Q: I have been meaning to ask you about this. It's a description from the back of one of your 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon bottles. Let me read it to you: "The light, spicy notes of cinnamon on the nose open up into a complex medley of strawberry jam and hints of blackberry." That doesn't really sound like you.

A: No, it isn't. One of my staff does those wine descriptions for me.

Q: But how do they think up those descriptions? It sounds to me sort of like a frustrated writer staring at a blank page while having breakfast. Cinnamon and strawberry jam, good grief.

A: Actually that's probably not as bizzare as it might sound to you. You'd be surprised at the things people say when they're tasting wine. Nearly anything goes because it's such a personal thing. When you take a sip of wine, it sometimes triggers memories of things you've tasted before. Like with me, I often taste a fruitiness in wine, but I never actually identify the exact fruit. Other people can. It's not incorrect to be unable to identify the taste exactly, and some people may taste one thing and others may taste something entirely different. That's one of the things that makes wine tasting so interesting and enjoyable.

Q: What goals do you have as far as your business is concerned?

A: I intend to keep on going as long as I can. Like most farmers I would have liked to have a younger family member to turn it over to when I get too old to do this any longer. My goals would be different if I were creating a family dynasty, but I'm not. I'm just doing what I like.

Q: And is business doing well?

A: Actually, it is. We just constructed a second building, so now I can store twice a much wine. I have been able to sell everything I bottle and I have a waiting list for future bottlings. However, I'm always adding to my customer list. As some customers drop off the list and move on, I need to keep adding new ones. The marketing of wine is a very important part of the business.But as of right now, I'm working with some blends and putting in some new vines. I'm also experimenting with olive oil. I have a small olive orchard that has just come into production. It's exciting to keep trying new things. I don't expect to be making any dramatic changes in my life or my business. I just enjoy each new day as it comes along.

The next time you're in the Napa Valley, stop by and say hello.  The Vincent Arroyo Winery is located at 2361 Greenwood Avenue, Calistoga, California 94515.   Call or email for more information. 
(707) 942-6995
Wine Bottles
A nice collection of Vince's wine.
Find it here!     

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