Photographer: Laura Morton/Bloomberg

A Frantic, High-Stakes Day in the Life of Napa’s Wine Whisperer

The pursuit of incredible wine is anything but easy. How Aaron Pott, a top wine consultant, spent a Friday during this year’s wine harvest. Photographs by Laura Morton/Bloomberg

For top consulting winemaker Aaron Pott, harvest time in the Napa Valley starts before dawn. Every day he juggles the needs of 12 client wineries as well as making his own wines. Constantly on his cellphone, driving from one end of the valley to the other, he’s ready at any moment to change his plans, based on a new weather report or a sudden problem to solve.

Well-known consultants such as Pott are hired guns in hot demand in the Napa Valley. Their rise parallels the boom of tiny boutique producers whose owners have millions to invest but no expertise. For some, he’s the part-time winemaker, buying additional grapes, choosing barrels, making the blends; at others, such as Fisher Vineyards, he’s an adviser, helping the winemaker kick up the wines’ quality and bring out individuality. 

His days are filled with tasting, looking, and decision-making. Are grapes at optimum ripeness for picking? How long should the wine macerate on the grape skins to pick up the right amount of tannin and flavor? 

Here’s how his Sept. 30 starts: At 4:30 a.m., he brews up a cappuccino with his espresso machine, checks the weather on his smartphone. At 5 a.m., he’s out the door of his home in the town of St. Helena and into his Tesla.

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  1. 6 a.m. — Quixote Winery
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    6 a.m. — Quixote Winery

    Pott’s first stop (and last one at night) is this whimsical winery off the Silverado Trail in the Stags Leap District, now owned by the Jilin Yatai Group Company Ltd., a conglomerate based in Changchun, China. Pott oversees the company's wine in exchange for space in the winery to make wine under his own eponymous label. He’s checking on his own wines, punching down the “cap” of grape skins that rise to the surface of fermenting cabernet franc. The punch-down regime lasts four hours, so he’ll be back.

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    Pott also checks his viognier, which is fermenting in a trendy terracotta amphora instead of a barrel. “I want to preserve viognier’s groove, its floral, scented character, and soften it without adding an oaky taste,” he says. The wine will remain in the amphora for 10 months before being racked off into bottles of Pott 20M3.

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    Pott moves barrels of fermenting cabernet, for his wine “Turf War,” and some merlot outside in the sun to warm up the barrels and speed up fermentation.

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  4. 7:30 a.m. — Stagecoach Vineyard
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    7:30 a.m. — Stagecoach Vineyard

    Stagecoach is a 600-acre vineyard carved out of rugged terrain 1,800 feet above the valley floor in the Pritchard Hill region. Along with Pott Wines' assistant winemaker Eric Hagyard and intern Jonathon Sayous, Pott walks his designated rows of cabernet vines, nibbling grapes to see if they’re ripe enough to pick. He decides not. He buys grapes from here for one of his own cabernets and for two of his clients, Blackbird and Emos, the latter owned by a Korean pop music entrepreneur.

  5. 8:30 a.m. — Quixote Pit Stop
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    8:30 a.m. — Quixote Pit Stop

    After touring the vineyards, Pott makes the 10-mile drive back to Quixote to check the macerating wine again, briefly, and decide whether it’s time to drain the juice into barrels. Not yet.

  6. 10 a.m. — Fisher Vineyards
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    10 a.m. — Fisher Vineyards

    Then it’s a 45-minute drive north to the top of Spring Mountain, where Fisher Vineyards is just over the county line in Sonoma. Up here, it’s only 50 degrees, requiring a jacket. Pott and winemaker Adam Goodrich taste malbec that’s macerating on the skins in the fermenting tank to pick up flavor and color. They combine two lots because the mix has better flavors and textures.

    Photographer: Laura Morton

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    After tasting, Pott walks Fisher’s estate vineyards, eating more grapes, and estimates that picking will start the following week. In the winery, he adjusts the optical sorter, a machine that removes imperfect grapes before they’re crushed and fermented.

  8. Noon — St. Helena Winery
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    Noon — St. Helena Winery

    By noon, Pott has decended the mountain to the valley floor, a half-hour drive, to consult with winemaker Elizabeth Tangney on when to pick St. Helena Winery’s 13.5 acres of cabernet sauvignon. After he picks up a weather report on his smartphone, they decide to harvest at least some of the grapes before an expected weekend rain.  

  9. 1 p.m. — Seven Stones Winery
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    1 p.m. — Seven Stones Winery

    Back in his car, he drives to the east side of the valley to cult winery Seven Stones, owned by art collectors Anita and Ron Wornick. Pott tastes yet another tank of macerating juice, then checks the aromas of cabernet grapes beginning to ferment in temperature-controlled stainless steel vats and fills test tubes with samples of juice to drop off at the local lab.

  10. 2 p.m. — Lunch at Quixote Winery
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    2 p.m. — Lunch at Quixote Winery

    Back at Quixote, Pott settles in for a sashimi lunch with his wife Claire, joined by Quixote’s winemaker Damon Bailey and assistant winemaker Geraldine Simoes. Pott is constantly on his cellphone, answering clients’ questions between bites. Before moving on, he tastes the Pott merlot and cabernet, from the barrels he moved outside in the morning, to see how they’re fermenting.

  11. 4 p.m. — Hunnicutt Custom Crush Winery
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    4 p.m. — Hunnicutt Custom Crush Winery

    He’s on to a custom crush winery in St. Helena. Hunnicutt is built in a cave and designed for the kind of small amounts of wine made by boutique estates. Pott makes wines for four clients here, among them race car driver Danica Patrick, whose new label Somnium has yet to be released. (The first vintage was 2014.) Pott tastes more fermenting wine and takes samples of fermenting Como No petite sirah juice for the owner to taste.

  12. 6 p.m. — Quixote (Again), Como No, Napa Wine Company
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    6 p.m. — Quixote (Again), Como No, Napa Wine Company

    Pott heads back to Quixote to taste through all the tanks yet again, and he drops off the petite sirah samples to client Carl Doumani, owner of Como No winery, Then he runs back to his car. By 7 p.m., he’s at a custom-crush facility in Oakville, tasting through tanks of Blackbird Vineyards’ wines.

  13. 'Quitting' Time
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    'Quitting' Time

    Pott's day isn’t over yet. At 7:30 p.m. he’s back at Quixote working on his laptop and setting instructions for the night crew. At 9 p.m. he gets home; after a glimpse of his “angelic,” sleeping daughters and a talk with his wife, he collapses into bed. The next morning he’ll rise at 4:30 a.m. to do this all over again.