From Buicks to Beaujolais
Napa’s rising star sommelier has a fresh take on wine.
Everyone has an origin story, a meet-cute where their career, their love life, or maybe their fortune takes a turn out of a storybook. Sommelier Zion Curiel had a different kind of epiphany moment that launched his career in wine.
“I loved vintage cars, I still do. I still remember I was working on my 1966 Skylark Grand Sport at the time, and my friend told me ‘You get out from under the car, I can get you a job at the French Laundry.’ We talked a bit, and I said… ‘They pay you how much to do what?!’”
Curiel laughs about that record-scratch moment, which put him on a different path from the criminal justice foundation he’d been building. But his meteoric rise from the French Laundry, where GM Laura Cunningham gave him his start in 2000 to blue-chip wine resort Meadowood to the wine-haven of Coi restaurant in San Francisco is proof positive that wine was always in his future.
Curiel, now 42, has been beverage director at the highend Carneros Resort and Spa for four years. He grew up around wines: His father, Juan Curiel Sr., is a 34-year veteran of Beringer, and still works as a vineyard manager today.
“They’d have wholesale days for employees, and he would bring home either a Beringer Cab or Zinfandel,” Curiel remembers. But while his father taught him to taste the wines, to appreciate process, and to enjoy the communal aspect of wine, Curiel’s path wasn’t yet set.
While anyone’s course in life depends on a complicated calculus of factors, Curiel credits a 1989 Château d’Yquem tasted during his time at the French Laundry with delivering a healthy nudge in the direction of tasting and sharing wine with others. “It opened up my mind to the uniqueness of wine,” Curiel recalls. “The beautiful acidity, sweetness, this viscous sweet balanced thing that led me to a new world of knowledge.”
At the Carneros property, Curiel focused that knowledge on the up-and-coming region surrounding the property. Not only is the Carneros region one of the last to attract speculation, it’s also closest among the growing regions to the Bay Area, which remedies (some of) the traffic pressure that the area has experienced over the past couple of decades.
What’s more, from a grower’s perspective, the cooling influence of the nearby bay and marsh and the frequency of the rolling fog—a less consistent presence in far-north Calistoga, say—also make for a more diverse, cool climate that benefits certain grapes more than others.
“It’s more like the Mediterranean, in terms of climate,” Curiel says. “You have some pockets protected from the wind, so grapes like vermentino, pinot gris, even syrah feel right at home.”
Carneros is the coolest of the Napa Valley AVAs. Surrounded by large bodies of water that moderate a climate similar to the Mediterranean. Long, sunny growing seasons with little rain, mild weather during spring and fall, and winters that are cool to cold, but not frigid. The Pacific is quite cold, compared to the Mediterranean, so it generates fog. That fog slows grape ripening by providing further cooling at night, inhibiting temperature rise in the morning, and also blocking out the morning sunlight.
Los Carneros is primarily associated with the cool climate wines such as Chardonnay and Pinot noir, as well as the sparkling wines made from those grapes. Many wineries in Napa and Sonoma use Carneros grapes as a cool-climate blending component. Recently, there has been interest in Merlot and Syrah coming from warmer areas of the region.
His love for the region, but also his foresight has led Curiel to build for Carneros the country’s largest region-specific cellar for the AVA, with 65 wines available at any given time.
And now, the rest of the winemaking world is starting to catch on to what Curiel knew instinctively. Mondavi, Cliff Lede, and Foley are among dozens of powerhouse winemakers who’ve recently planted flags in the region.
In the end, the parallels between classic cars and wine regions are unmistakable for Curiel. “All my buds were championing Chevelles, Mustangs, Cutlass Supremes. But not a lot of people are in love with Buicks.”
Your Carneros Starter Kit
As the leading sommelier in the Carneros region, Curiel’s picks go a long way. We asked him to choose a few of his favorites from the list at FARM.
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