Domestic | 01.07.2023

The Man Behind the Bottle

Winemaker of Etude Wines rides a horse along the vineyard.

By Finer Things Contributors

Jon Priest, senior winemaker and general manager of Etude Wines, brings a unique perspective to winemaking at Etude Wines. Without him, no bottle would taste the same. 

On His Inspiration to Become a Winemaker

I think of myself as an architect, with a bit of science, a bit of craftsmanship, and some artistry. 

No surprise really since my father was an architect who designed and built some notable Central Coast wineries. I grew up with that exposure and background and realized early on the symmetry between wine and architecture, which often depends on thinking outside the box, finding creative solutions, and revealing something not always obvious. That experience has been both invaluable and inspiring. It appeals to both my practical and creative sides.

On His Mentors

It wasn’t that long ago that attending a formal school for winemaking was the exception, not the rule. Mentors matter. The winemakers who influenced me early on taught me to be adventurous, and inquisitive, and to never accept the status quo. 

Rules provide a framework, but we are at liberty to be experimental, to strive for excellence. When I arrived at Etude in 2005, I felt like I won the lottery, bringing with me wide-ranging experience from the Central Coast, but able to jump in and work with one of Napa’s pioneers. Tony Soter was generous in sharing his vision, and his belief that if you get the vineyard right, winemaking can be elegantly straightforward.

The Beauty of the Grace Benoist Ranch

Tucked away in the far Northwest corner of the Carneros growing region is one of the most vibrant, special places in California. Influenced by both the San Pablo Bay and the Pacific Ocean, its rocky, volcanic soils and consistently cool weather are ground zero for Pinot Noir perfection. 

From the very beginning, Etude approached grape growing from the perspective of a winegrower. Choose wisely, farm softly, and create a holistic environment where grapes thrive and winemaking takes care of itself.

As stewards of the land, we view sustainability as a duty, not a virtue. At Grace Benoist, we restored creeks, protected wetlands, and crafted wildlife corridors to make sure our wildlife has access to the water and mobility they need. It’s a flourishing ecosystem, shared by wild turkeys, deer, and mountain lions. The largest California Bay Laurel tree – some 36 feet in diameter – calls Grace Benoist home.

In the varied soils found on the ranch, we’ve planted more than 60 blocks of Pinot Noir, each with its own personality. Each harvest, we make these distinctive wines separately, and then the fun begins when we blend varying lots to achieve the very best expression of the Ranch. Our visitors can explore these wines at our homeplace in the Carneros.

The Etude Tasting Experience

North Bay visitors will find a beautiful, peaceful setting when they visit us, but that’s just the beginning. 

Etude translates as “study” in French, and we’re able to offer a Study of Pinot Noir tasting which is very popular. In a private room that allows for great conversation, we present wines from six distinct growing regions, allowing guests to taste Etude Pinot Noir from our vineyards not only in Carneros, but from the Sonoma Coast, from Santa Maria Valley near Santa Barbara, from the Santa Rita Hills near San Luis Obispo, and from Oregon. That’s a rare treat. 

From time to time, we also offer a similar tasting featuring our limited release Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Napa’s Oakville, Rutherford, and St. Helena growing regions.

When you’re here, you’re family. We’re a bit off the track, but that’s a very good thing indeed.

On His Love of Horses 

During college, I began riding horses on long-distance rides all over the west – Colorado, Montana Idaho. I rode in the Tevis Cup, a 100 miles in 24 hours challenge that is something I’ll never forget. 

Right now, I like to ride my 15-year-old quarter horse, Java, and we both enjoy a bit more leisurely pace these days. There is no better way to check our grapes than on a horse, so it’s not uncommon to find Java and me in the vineyard. The wildlife in the vineyard seems to welcome us, and I sometimes get the sense they’d like to show off their vineyard home. 

Grace Benoist is a large ranch, with 1400 acres. The several vineyards planted here are at varying elevations, and Java makes it easier for me to climb higher for a closer look. Java never runs out of gas!

Things about Him You’d Be Surprised to Learn

I love to travel when I am not in the vineyard. 

I am a fanatical fly fisherman. My favorite places are Okanogan in Washington and the Deschutes River in Oregon. By the way, Pinot Noir and fly-fishing go very well together. I also love the San Francisco Giants. Pitchers and catchers report to spring training just maybe about the time the vineyards begin to wake up for another growing season. 

Each year, I hope for the best – in the vineyards, and for the Giants.

Favorite Movies

The Third Man by Orson Wells and The Pink Panther (all of them)

Favorite Restaurant Not in the Napa Valley

Le Bernardin in New York

Favorite Dinner Guests

If I could, my Father, Thomas Jefferson, [and] John Muir.  There would be no conversational lulls.

Favorite Vacation Spot

Anywhere you can take a horse and ride to a secluded lake with trout. 

Favorite Wine

Domain Mugnier Jacques Frederic

Best Advice

Drink Etude wines on a very special occasion because it will only enhance and add to your very memorable experience. 

Photography courtesy of Sinegal Estate. This interview was conducted by Alf Nucifora, founder of Leading Wineries of Napa and The Luxury Marketing Council of San Francisco. This article was edited and formatted by Franki Hanke.

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