Meet Sam Teakle and prepare to be captivated by his aura. The Australian-born winemaker is charming, free-spirited, and endearingly humble. But trusting only in his humor and fun-loving façade would mean missing the underlying talent of one of California’s rising star winemakers and the depth of his experience.
Entering his 22nd harvest this year, Sam has lived as a resident of the globe. Following his intuition – and a series of chance encounters – Sam’s path has been shaped by the pursuit of a new adventure, harnessing his energy within the framework of classic wine houses around the world. His résumé reflects a diverse range of global experience. It includes time spent at Alpha Estate in Greece, Hugel & Fils in Alsace, and Yangarra Estate in South Australia’s McLaren Vale, each considered benchmarks in their respective regions.
At d’Arenberg in McLaren Vale, Sam got his start as a young winemaking student and was instructed to “forget everything” he knew. He fell in love with the manual aspect of making wine, the adventure, and the unpredictability. “It was like traveling into the past,” he says, reminiscing on days spent “jumping into tanks and living on coffee beans – it was a boy’s dream.”
In 2015, a serendipitous meeting with Napa Valley winemaker Christopher Carpenter led him to the high elevation vineyards of cult Cabernet houses, Cardinale and Lokoya. In the remote landscape of the Mayacamas range, Sam discovered a synergy between his maverick spirit and the freedom of mountain winegrowing.
Six years later, Sam is still digging his heels into the mountain terroir of the Mayacamas, carving a path for Captûre wines in one of California’s newest, highest, and most remote viticultural areas. Led by mountain-grown Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, he’s drawing attention above the fog line to the little-known Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA.
“With Captûre, there was a vision and inspiration for the wines, but also the freedom to define a place and its style,” says Sam, speaking to the obscurity of winegrowing in the region. “The effort is in listening to the site and discovering what it wants to be, and how that manifests in the glass. But there is no reference point – the vineyard is not like anything else, and so it shouldn’t taste like anything else.”
Comprising 4,600 acres with only 230 acres (5%) planted to vine, the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA is largely untouched. Sightings of wildlife are more common than people, and the land is encumbered by native scrub, madrones, and oak woodland. Similar to the Mendocino Ridge AVA, the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA is defined by elevation, sitting between 1,600 and 3,000 feet above sea level and straddling Mendocino and Sonoma Counties.
The Captûre label was first established in 2008 by Denis Malbec, the former cellar master of Château Latour, and his wife May-Britt, who left Bordeaux to pursue dreams of making wine in California. With a spirit of adventure, they approached the rugged vineyards of the Mayacamas mountains through the lens of Bordeaux varieties and classic French winemaking techniques. Following the acquisition of Captûre by California’s Jackson family in 2014, Sam stepped in to define a new chapter for the wines and Pine Mountain.
Arriving at the vineyard from the base of Pine Mountain takes 30 minutes by car, traversing winding dirt roads and mountain terrain to rise 2,500 feet in elevation – or roughly equivalent to two-and-a-half times the height of the Eiffel Tower. At this elevation, harsh conditions marked by cool winds and intensity of the sun place vines under extreme stress.
With a minimal diurnal shift, budbreak on the mountain takes place one month later than on the valley floor, but vine growth is faster, and harvest arrives sooner. As compared to the valley floor’s 120-day growing season from budbreak to harvest, Pine Mountain sees a condensed season lasting just 90 days. Combined with the mountain’s thin topsoil, roots burrow deep into the rock to search for water and nutrients, producing wines rich in character and complexity.
Drawing from experience around the world, Sam’s integrated approach is defined by low intervention winemaking, yielding wines of restraint through careful tannin and alcohol management. “Mountain fruit already has so much power and tannin that you need to be gentle in the winery,” says Sam. With a sensitive hand, he employs regular pump-overs and use of oxygen to soften the powerful character of mountain Cabernet.
With Sauvignon Blanc, Sam aims for less green and more tropical fruit characters, complementing the variety’s inherent aromas with lees contact to add depth of texture on the palate. Planted between 2,500 – 2,870 feet, Captûre’s Sauvignon Blanc is among the highest planted in the United States. As a young wine, the Sauvignon Blanc can be intense in its mountain character but decanting the wine or allowing time for it to open in the glass helps to reveal its elegant, rocky minerality.
“Not many people know Captûre or Pine Mountain, so it’s given us free-range to let the terroir speak for itself,” says Sam. Over the last six years, his hands-off approach has been “a process of discovery in what the site has to offer,” culminating in a style that is defined by elevation and mountain terroir.
True to his character, Sam fundamentally understands wine as a way to enhance an experience. He produces wines that he wants to drink and that others will enjoy, seeking the middle ground between ageability and “drink now” approachability. At his core, he still sees himself as “a kid from Adelaide, trying to forge [his] own path,” but his vision to raise the profile for Pine Mountain shows the strength of his ambition. In continuing to define the profile of Pine Mountain, Sam marries the seriousness of high elevation winegrowing with his fun-loving spirit of exploration, offering a new lens to the personality of place – and winemaker – along the way.