Second-generation winemaker, Alan Viader is committed to sustainable farming and preserving his family’s legacy.
In the late 1980s, visionary Delia Viader arrived in Napa Valley with the ambitious goal of establishing a world-class wine estate on the steep slopes of Howell Mountain. A single mother of four, she founded VIADER Vineyards and Winery in 1986 with a loan from her father, Walter Viader, and released her first commercial wine in 1989. Since then, VIADER has developed a reputation around the world for consistently producing exceptional and unique Bordeaux style red wines.
Over the course of her impressive journey, Delia’s son, Alan Viader, has been by her side. Alan grew up at VIADER. He started working in the vineyards at the age of nine and continued to help at the family estate throughout his childhood. After high school, he pursued his passion for viticulture, received a degree in Viticulture Management and later went on to study winemaking at UC Davis.
Armed with years of hands-on experience at home and knowledge from his studies and several opportunities abroad, Alan became Vineyard Manager at VIADER in 2002 and in 2006, he was promoted to head winemaker. Since then, he has overseen vineyard management operations and continues to work closely with his mother in all areas of wine production.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Alan to learn more about what it was like growing up at the estate, his experience producing wine at home and abroad and his hopes for the future of VIADER Vineyards and Winery. To learn more, read our full interview below.
Know your winemaker, know your wine
Nelson Gerena (NG): You were 6 years old when your mother founded Viader, what was it like growing up around the winery?
Alan Viader (AV): As a young boy growing up on the VIADER property, I was in heaven. All the dangerous, wild and adventurous experiences I could ever ask for were just a walk out the kitchen door. My mother’s home is in the middle of our hillside vineyards, the property itself is surrounded by thousands of acres of un-touched rugged wilderness. All waiting for a young and curious little boy like myself to explore.
I experienced the property before the planting of the vineyards, saw the original plantings and helped during summer vacations growing up wherever I was needed. I started in the vineyards with the usual pruning and canopy work but then worked up to irrigation and tractor work. I also helped in the winery racking and blending the wines and during harvest seasons. There was plenty to do and always moving at a fast pace, so I had to learn at an early age to just jump in and grab on.
NG: Did you always aspire to become a vintner? And if not, was there an “a-ha!” moment/experience that pulled you in?
AV: I was the typical boy dreaming of becoming a firefighter or police officer but when I was growing up and working in the vineyards and winery, something always felt natural to me. I went to school to study viticulture and wanted to someday become the next “David Abreu” of Napa.
I had my first “a-ha” moment when my viticulture teacher saw me pruning during a class in college. Not only did I have my own set of pruning shears (that were actually worn in and not brand new like the majority of the other students) but I apparently knew what I was doing. He split the large class in half and told me to take a group and teach them how to prune. I had never taught anybody how to prune before, I just followed the instructions of our vineyard manager. I was maybe 18 years old at that time and found myself teaching some people three times my age how to really “look” at the vine and try to achieve “balance” by cutting the right shoots and leaving the correct amount of buds. I knew that farming was something that I would be doing for a long time and something that I continue to focus on every day at VIADER.
NG: What would you say was the most valuable lesson learned from your harvest experiences abroad in Argentina, Italy, France, Spain and Portugal?
AV: I love to visit other winegrowing regions and see what they are doing. In the wine industry we all have different soils, climates and challenges to overcome. The human element in terroir is fascinating and I love to see resourceful people solve problems and move forward. I’ve taken all these past experiences from my travels and in one way or another applied the principles to my grapegrowing or winemaking here at VIADER. The more “global” I can become as a winemaker, the better I feel the wines will become. The more I taste and explore, the better my palate becomes. The most valuable lesson is simple, I’m never done learning how to become a better winemaker or grower.
NG: How would you describe your winemaking style in 5 words or less?
AV: Dirty boots, dirty hands, dirty teeth. LOL. That’s 6, I guess.
NG: You’re constantly on the lookout for new technologies, methods and ways of delivering better wine quality in the most efficient and environmentally responsible way possible. Can you briefly share one or two new/exciting developments, either in the winery or in the vineyard, that you’re working on at Viader from a sustainability perspective?
AV: I’m always looking for sustainable ways to improve my farming practices and winemaking. I recently achieved Napa Green Land certification on top of already having Napa Green Winery certification. That was a large undertaking but well worth the added efforts knowing that what I’m doing in the vineyards will pay dividends to the future generations.
The latest project I’m currently working on is completing a Carbon Farm Plan through the Napa County Resource Conservation District (Napa RCD). They created a program that evaluates your soil health, irrigation, farming practices, and overall landscaping in regard to carbon sequestration. They measure your inputs and usage and come up with a number. You’re either farming carbon negative, neutral or positive. All that data then gets goes into a report. Their experts give you a report specific to your operations with multiple recommendations to improve your property’s carbon sequestration.
We were already farming the property fairly well, but they found some opportunities where we can continue to improve our impacts. If we can complete the farm plan as prescribed, by adding compost and planting shrubs and trees, etc. I should be able to farm our property while at the same time removing as much carbon from the atmosphere as if 58 cars were taken off the road each year. That would be awesome to accomplish by one single farm. I want VIADER to be a leader in sustainable farming so agriculture in Napa Valley remains the best use of the land.
NG: Congratulations on being named a “2019 Millennial Vintner To Watch” by The Wine Institute! Could you name one or two other young winemakers (either in California or beyond) whose work you admire and briefly explain why?
AV: Thanks! That was a big honor. There are a number of winemakers in the area that I admire. The beauty of Napa Valley is the “open book” mentality shared among winemakers and farmers. We have so much talent in the Napa Valley and its great interacting with other like-minded people to see what they are trying out and experimenting with this year.
Aron Weinkauf of Spottswoode is a friend of mine that I admire as a winemaker and is always somebody that I look forward to chatting with regarding innovative sustainable and organic farming practices. He’s made some incredible wines over the years while continuously improving their farming operations.
Caleb Mosely from Mike Wolfe Vineyard Management is another wealth of knowledge and experience that I respect. He’s led many trials and farms some of the finest vineyards in the valley. He is very willing to try new things and experiment with new products or equipment yet (like me) is skeptical and looks at things from a practical perspective of a farmer. I’m always curious to see what he’s been up to and what his take on the latest “innovative” thing might be.
There are many people that I respect and eagerly look forward to the next Napa Valley Grapegrower educational events where we can learn from each other and continue to push the envelope and become better as an industry.
NG: What do you enjoy most about being a vintner in Napa Valley? What do you least enjoy?
AV: I love calling Napa Valley home. When I travel and describe to people where I live and who my neighbors are, they laugh and tell me how spoiled I am. I live in the greatest place on earth for grapegrowing and am fortunate to call some of the best in the industry friends. There is always a great bottle of wine on the dinner table.
The flip side to that is that the population in Napa Valley is changing and grapegrowing is no longer the only game in town. Grapegrowing made Napa Valley what it is today yet many have forgotten the value and importance of that. More people are moving into the valley and complaining about agriculture. They love the expansive vineyard views and rugged landscape but don’t want to see or experience any of the farming practices that goes along with it. That’s frustrating as a local farmer to see and read about in the paper or social media.
The valley has changed so much recently and the 50+ year old Agricultural Land Preserve is constantly under fire. The county has tightened the regulations so much that companies are shutting their doors and moving elsewhere. It’s a challenging time for small companies and an opportunistic time for the large Goliath wine companies to push forward.
NG: What makes Viader Vineyards & Winery special?
AV: Heart. Passion. Dedication. These are all family traits that are obvious in our wines. From the moment my mother founded the winery and made wines from the estate, she’s poured her heart and soul into it. The wines reflect their terroir and their winemaker. The wines tell a story. We strive for excellence and continue to pursue it. Each vintage teaches us something new and we constantly build on our experiences
NG: What’s coming on the horizon at Viader Vineyards & Winery that you’re most excited about?
AV: The 2019’s were outstanding wines. I’ve been privileged enough to experience over 20 harvests from this property and 2019 is among the best.
Our vineyards are planted on well-drained rocky soils with extreme sun exposure at double-black diamond slopes. They love warm, balanced growing seasons with late spring rains just like 2019. My grandkids will be talking about the 2019’s someday!
NG: What are your hopes for the future of Viader Vineyards & Winery?
AV: My hopes are for us to continue moving forward and having the opportunity to make better and better wines. The market is choppy, and the county regulations are getting tighter and tighter. Many companies have shut their doors and moved away to “friendlier” regions. It’s a tough time for the small family business these days, but we’ll persevere and make it through this cycle and will be stronger and more prepared for having experienced it.
2016 VIADER “Black Label”
A blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Syrah, 14% Malbec and 3% Cabernet Franc, VIADER Black Label is a concentrated wine bursting with black fruit, floral and tea aromas on the nose. On the palate the wine is rich and juicy with layers of complex flavors ranging from blackberry and plum to coffee and chocolate all supported by a good amount of acidity and a generous finish.
Surprisingly smooth and approachable after a short decant. This wine is showing beautifully now but will continue to evolve and mature gracefully over the next 5 years. An outstanding wine worth seeking out.