Winemaker Profile: Elizabeth Vianna of Chimney Rock Winery
Let’s play pretend for a minute.
Pretend you are a bright young woman with a degree in biology from Vassar, and currently working as the head of a lab at Cornell Medical Center in New York City. Where would you expect to be, say, five years from now?
Just out of medical school? Still at Cornell? A chief of something-or-another at Mount Sinai Hospital?
How about this: winemaker in Napa Valley.
Meet Elizabeth Vianna, biologist-turned-winemaker at Chimney Rock Winery, a forward-looking estate with a range of excellent wines from in and around the prestigious Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, California.
Not long ago, Elizabeth was living in New York City, chief of the clinical toxicology at the Cornell Medical Center, trying to decide whether or not she should go to medical school. At that time her roommate regularly shared with her wines from his father’s cellar — items with names such as Mouton, Latour, and Lafite. Having known “wine” to be the liquid alcohol labeled as Boone’s Farm, Lancer’s, and Hearty Burgundy (c’mon, you were there once too) from her days at Vassar, these French bottles were an epiphany in more ways than one. Elizabeth caught “the wine bug”, and became obsessed with the intricacies of fine wine, attending tastings, lectures, and auctions all around New York City.
One day, she listened to Christian Mouiex speak about his family’s winery in Bordeaux prior to an auction. Mouiex went on to speak about the art of winemaking in depth, and mentioned the wine program at UC-Davis. It was at then that Elizabeth Vianna knew she would indeed be going back to school — not for medicine, but for wine.
Her scientific background is ideal for the often lab-like procedures in modern winemaking, but she also has an artistic side that comes through in the creativity of wines such as Elevage Blanc, a Bordeaux-style white blend of Sauvignon Blanc and, surprisingly, Sauvignon Gris — a grape rarely mentioned among the great (or even run-of-the-mill) wines of the world. Typically, a Bordeaux blanc would blend Sauvignon with Semillon, but as Vianna notes, “Napa Valley is not the best place for Semillon. Sauvignon Gris, on the other hand, flourishes.”
Indeed, Elizabeth’s choice of blending grape was a good one — the Elevage Blanc has a fresh, ripe, and floral nose, and offers good weight and a creamy texture on the palate. It’s an elegant wine with more complexity than expected, and includes a nice salty, mineral edge and ample acidity for easy food matching.
Ah, food matching — one of the central themes of this site. When I asked if food matching was important to her winemaking methods, Elizabeth replied in the affirmative. “In fact, what we’ll often do as part of the winemaking process is take a bottle home, try the wine with different foods, and, if we feel it’s necessary, we’ll make adjustments if we can to make the wine more food friendly.”
Shocking, isn’t it? Usually a California winemaker will go back to the lab to make a wine more “Parker friendly”, or “Spectator friendly”. But “food friendly”? Clearly Elizabeth is going against the grain here.
She went on to say that in addition to making wines that go well with food, Chimney Rock aims to bottle wines that are made to be ready to drink now — though if you can control yourself, they will hold up over time. Also, Elizabeth’s goal is to create wines with great texture. “The tactile experience is just as important as the structure and flavor,” she says.
Her Elevage (red) is a prime example of that goal being met. A Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, Elevage is well-polished, complex wine with great structure, offering a fine balance of extracted black fruit, ripe tannins, and appropriate acidity, all carried with a creamy texture that might be similar to licking a velvet pillow (did that come out right?). It’s an ideal match for slow roasts and anything braised (i.e., short ribs).
On the basis of those two wines, it’s clear that Elizabeth Vianna made the right decision about her post-grad studies — and we as wine drinkers can benefit directly from her education.
Look for more tasting notes and reviews of Chimney Rock wines in the coming weeks.