As simultaneously students and teachers of wine, it makes perfect sense that sommeliers would be equipped with the knowledge and palates to make some of the finest juice imaginable. The obvious crossover isn’t particularly new, but there’s been a steady rise in the trend for the past decade—with Mike Bonaccorsi being Santa Barbara County’s most prominent example—and now there’s even a wine list at the St. Regis in New York City that denotes sommelier-sourced bottles.
One of the freshest faces on this sommelier-turned-winemaker scene is Joshua Klapper, an East Coast native who trained his taste buds working under star chef Daniel Boulud in Manhattan before moving west to become the top wine man at the Michelin-recognized Sona Restaurant in Hollywood. Though he’d become fond of Santa Barbara wines during his NYC days—particularly the Qupé chardonnays and syrahs that Boulud poured by the glass—Klapper’s serendipitous step toward winemaking came by meeting Bonaccorsi in 2003 at a Sona winemakers dinner. “Sommeliers can make the best wine,” Klapper recalled realizing that night. “We are extremely meticulous and detail-oriented, and we have the most wide-ranging palates.”
By the harvest of 2004, Klapper—who is 30 years old and lives in Torrance with his wife and two children—was spending lots of time in Santa Barbara County, working on chards and syrahs at Qupé, helping out with the pinot noirs at Summerland Winery. That year, he also made a few hundred cases for himself, giving birth to La Fenêtre Wines—which are singly sourced wines that he intends to represent the “pure experience of the vineyard and vintage”—and its sister label, À Côté, which produces regional blends from the Central Coast. Multiplying his production each year and putting more than 25 bottlings under his belt, Klapper was releasing close to 3,000 cases annually when he decided to quit his job in February 2009 to be a full-time winemaker.
But he hasn’t forgotten his roots, for the Old World wine styles that he enjoyed as a sommelier are exactly what Klapper is trying to emulate. “I like lighter, more elegant things,” said Klapper while barrel-tasting through his wines recently, explaining his preference for more acidic and food-friendly wines. “I want La Fenêtre wines to have perfect chemistry all the way through.” Training under Qupé’s Bob Lindquist and Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen—the New World’s reigning Old World-imitating darlings—certainly helped solidify Klapper’s fondness for finesse, so much so that even his bigger bodied wines lean light. Winemakers whose thick pinot noirs get mistaken for syrah are missing that point, said Klapper, laughing, “‘Your syrah tastes like pinot’ would be the best complement to me.”
That’s not a stretch either, for his 2008 La Fenêtre Alisos Vineyard syrah proved the perfect partner to a recent meal of butter herb-roasted chicken and bacon-laced Swiss chard—essentially, foods that would usually be overpowered by a typical California syrah and go better with a pinot. As to his whites, the 2007 La Fenêtre Bien Nacido chardonnay offered a light, bright compliment to a macadamia nut-crusted halibut, its acidity excellently cutting through the fresh cherry chutney. Indeed, one guest for that dinner, who was visiting from the West Village of Manhattan, proclaimed that she did not like chardonnay, but then proceeded to love the La Fenêtre for more than one pour (and was also impressed with Klapper’s Boulud connection).
Quality aside, Klapper is currently learning the ins and outs of the less-than-elegant side of winemaking: wine selling, and in a recession to boot. “At this point, I’m suffering from growing pains a little bit, and it’s a little backward right now,” said Klapper, explaining that his smaller productions of the past are paying for his more recent, larger vintages. “It’s easy to get 100 people to buy your wine. It’s hard to get 1,000 people to buy your wine.” One of his strategies is to focus more on the top quality wines he offers under the La Fenêtre label, which cost between $30 and $50, and cut back on the more affordable À Côté brand. “When I made the 2008 À Côté, $25 was an awesome price point, but now it’s too expensive,” said Klapper. “Everything is about $19.99.”
Klapper is excited about the 2009 vintage, which will be released this July and features some hard-to-get vineyards that opened up when other winemakers passed due to economic woes. That includes Bien Nacido’s Block Eleven chardonnay and H Block pinot noir, which was planted way back in 1973. But most of all, Klapper is proud to say that he remains the sole force behind his wines. “I’m doing exactly the same thing I was doing when I first started purchasing fruit,” he explained. “It’s all been handmade pretty much by me.” The recession, meanwhile, isn’t going to stop this sommelier-trained force. “I’m still going full-steam ahead,” said Klapper. “It’s the only way to operate.”
Joshua Klapper’s La Fenêtre and À Côté wines can be purchased via his Web site lafenetrewines.com, where he is offering a 10-percent discount for The Independent’s readers who use “indy10” as the coupon password.