Setting the Table with Stories


As humans, we love the art of storytelling; it is, perhaps, one the greatest joys life has to offer. We rejoice every time we get to follow Julia Roberts on her journey in Pretty Woman; we hang on every lyric of a Janis Joplin tune; we revisit the world of wizardry in Harry Potter again and again; and we remember every detail of how our parents met.

Wines, like music and art, have their own story to tell. They have a beginning, middle, and an end. Their creators make them so that, once they arrive at your table, they become that bottle you had on your first date or that cork you popped when you purchased your first apartment. They become part of your story.

As a sommelier, I am constantly seeking ways to connect the wine I’m selling to the people I’m selling it to, and there is no better way to do so than to go to its source—to see firsthand what makes it special and then share those unique qualities with my guests. So when I received the news from SommFoundation that I’d been selected for Somm Camp 2021, I was elated. The wines of Napa Valley and Sonoma would no longer just be a label, a vintage, a price, or a dot on a map that I’d memorized. Now I would see a place, a winemaker, and vines that I knew. I would truly be able to tell their story.

Williams, who has been at the helm of Frog’s Leap for over 30 years, speaks about his work in a way that is passionate and warm. We were invited in for a tasting of some of the winery’s back vintages (the 1999 Zinfandel was insane!) and a lunch courtesy of John’s lovely wife, Tori. The care that this family has for their vineyard as well as their guests is reflected in the precision of their wines. As we waved goodbye to the couple, I knew that the magic had only just begun.

We drove over the Mayacamas to Sonoma’s Kistler Vineyards—Chardonnay heaven, though the Pinot Noir is not to be overlooked—and were greeted by its tall and bearded winemaker, Jason Kesner, who was ready to get down to business. The winemaking practices at Kistler are built on consistency and I would describe Kesner as nothing short of scrupulous when it comes to maintaining the wines’ classic and delicious style. Kistler has been working with just one clone of Chardonnay, imported from Burgundy in the early 20th century, for all its production since the mid-1980s—no exceptions. The wines undergo whole-cluster fermentation and are not fined or filtered in keeping with the philosophy of “trusting the fruit,” in Kesner’s words. And my goodness, do I ever trust this fruit! The single-vineyard Trenton Roadhouse is one of the most beautiful California Chardonnays I’ve had the pleasure of tasting: With resounding minerality and bright citrus fruit, it’s a rich yet balanced wine that could only be achieved by relentless attention to detail.

After many other incredible stops, we concluded our trip on the steep slopes of Mount Veeder. The air is so fresh up here and the temperature noticeably cooler. We all smiled through purple Cabernet-stained teeth upon meeting Chris Carpenter, the winemaker for Cardinale as well as Lokoya, La Jota, and Mt. Brave. He is commanding in stature with a low, gravelly voice that makes you lean in and listen closely. He’s also a lover of music (he played the bass guitar in high school), and he regularly describes winemaking in musical terms. In referring to the Cardinale blend of Cabernet and Merlot, he compared a winemaker assessing and blending a vintage to a conductor knowing the strengths of each section of their orchestra and building pieces around those strengths. He brings this fanciful analogy to life with tons of experience as he creates gorgeous mountain-fruit blends with tremendous aging capability.

When I walk into a wine shop now and see Frog’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc, I envision Williams’ garden with butterflies fluttering around my shoulders. When I pour Kistler 2019 Chardonnay by the glass at work, I remember those tiny green berries I held in my hand at the vineyard site. When I taste a powerful Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon, I picture Carpenter, baton in hand, conducting his blend and helping it sing. These stories are mine to tell now. Thank you, SommFoundation, for giving me the opportunity to share them.

Nicole Loewenstein is sommelier at The Lobster Club in New York City.