Jesse Katz Reached the Top of the Wine Industry by Breaking With Tradition

Jesse Katz Reached the Top of the Wine Industry by Breaking With Tradition

Jesse Katz Reached the Top of the Wine Industry by Breaking With Tradition

By Justin Biel, trends editor at Grow Wire

In short:

  • Jesse Katz is arguably one of the most influential young winemakers in the U.S.  His career offers tactics to leaders who are looking to break new ground in established industries. 

  • Katz started his career by identifying a niche, Bordeaux varietals, and mastering it. He then broke tradition by creating a Malbec wine from a region where Cabernets reign.

  • Katz’s most applicable signature strategies include twisting tradition and using his network while continually delivering a high-quality product.

Since the beginning of his career, Jesse Katz has been breaking new ground in the wine industry. He landed his first head winemaker job at Lancaster Estate in California’s Sonoma County at just 25 years old, making him the youngest head winemaker in the U.S. at the time. Katz made an immediate impact at Lancaster, growing sales of its Roth wine label by more than a whopping 800 percent. 

Today, just 10 years later, Katz produces a portfolio of award-winning wines. His first solo project, Devil Proof, received numerous accolades including “cult winery of the year,” and it’s been the top-rated Malbec in California history for five years running. His other labels have both received ratings above 90 points from wine critics such a Jeb Dunnuck and Robert Parker Jr.’s Wine Advocate. Earlier this year, Katz got more media attention when a bottle of his wine auctioned for $350,000 at Emeril Lagasse’s annual charity event. He is also first winemaker ever to make the Forbes “30 Under 30” list

Katz is a powerful young voice in an established industry, thanks to his world-class varietals and modern approaches to branding and partnerships. Here’s what leaders looking to stand out in any industry can learn from his strategy.  

1. Master your craft by learning from the best.

At 21 years old, the wine-savvy Katz--whose father is an acclaimed wine and vineyard photographer--discovered his passion for Bordeaux varietals. These types of wine allow for creativity when winemaking, he told Grow Wire.

“Great Bordeaux varietals are textured and concentrated, yet they still have elegance and freshness,” said Katz. “As a winemaker, these varietals allow you to have an impact on creating your style and driving the feel of the wine.”  

Early on, Katz focused his career on mastering the sector. He pursued apprenticeships with the world’s best Bordeaux wineries, relying on networking, family contacts and straight cold-calling to score interviews. This approach led to internships, apprenticeships and eventually jobs at world-class wineries like Screaming Eagle, Petrus, Paul Hobbs and Robert Foley. The gigs paid very little, but the experience Katz received was priceless. 

“I had a goal to surrounded myself with the best winemakers and best estates in the world,” said Katz.

To get to the top of any industry, it pays to identify a unique and valuable niche--the “Bordeaux” of your market, if you will--and spend time working with the people who do it best. Of course, you won’t always have access to the “world’s best” in whichever niche you choose. It’s worthwhile to prioritize learning from the most accomplished mentors you can find.

2. Create a product that breaks tradition. 

Katz spent his twenties mastering the winemaking process for Bordeaux varietals. Then, he began experimenting with the business aspects of the industry, developing wines that stood out from the competition.   

As a relatively young producer of wine, the California region is inclined to follow trends, Katz explained. He wanted to buck the trend by making a world-class Malbec in the Sonoma County, an area known mostly for its Cabernets. 

“I fell in love with Malbec wines when I was working in Argentina for Bodega Noemia [known for its Malbecs],” said Katz. “I had made Malbec in California, but I had never seen anyone make a single-vineyard Malbec that I thought was world-class.”

To accomplish this, Katz needed to find a vineyard well-suited for Malbec grapes in terms of soil, slope and climate, which was a challenge in a region where the best sites were reserved for Cabernet.  He finally found what he was looking for in Farrow Ranch, a hillside, dry-farmed Malbec vineyard in Northern Sonoma County. 

Fast-forward, and Katz’s Devil Proof Malbec is the highest-rated one in California history, five years running. 

It’s proof (pun intended) that breaking tradition and doing the legwork to follow through with an unconventional vision pays off. 

3. Design new experiences for consumers.

Katz created the brand for his next label, Aperture Cellars, with his father. The duo set out to create a brand infused with striking imagery, family history and a passion for travel. 

“We wanted to stray from the traditional style of wine branding,” said Katz. “We’ve built a very visual, story-based label.” 

The Aperture Cellars brand is a living testament to the father-son duo. The company’s marketing materials tell the story of how Katz was inspired to become a winemaker during trips with his father, Andy.

“Andy brought Jesse to the most famous vineyards on earth, from the heart of Burgundy to the hills of Tuscany … Barely a decade later, Jesse is now one of the most exciting--and accomplished--winemakers in the world, ” the site reads.

The blend of wine, art and family is part of the brand’s DNA. The labels on Aperture Cellar wines feature colorful photos of vineyards, grapes and landscapes, all taken by Katz’s father. The name “Aperture” refers to the aperture of a camera lens.  

The Katzes regularly co-host tastings and photography exhibits for the label and plan to collaborate with other artists on future label designs. Distinct brand engagement opportunities like these draw customers to the Aperture Cellars brand and create memorable ways to experience it.

When honing your brand, consider what makes its story unique: Does it hail from some personal journey? Do you bring some unique skill that bucks industry trends? Once you’ve pegged that differentiating factor, shine as much spotlight on it as possible. 

Aperture Cellars’ forthcoming wine facility and tasting room are slated to look different than any others in Sonoma, which will further differentiate the brand, Katz said. 

“Other wineries were all building retrofitted barns with fancy interiors,” he said. “But I wanted to build a facility and tasting room was different, something with a sleek, modern design.”

The winemaking facility will be state-of-the-art, with bells and whistles like optical sorting and individually-pumped tanks. It’ll increase efficiency and accuracy in extraction, sorting and deployment of labor, Katz said. The architecture takes inspiration from the spiraling, overlapping shape of a camera lens, and tasting rooms will have moveable walls that can rotate outward for views of the vineyard or inward for closed, private tastings.  

Katz hopes the avant-garde design will further distinguish him and the label when it opens in 2020, he said.

4. Use your network to grow your audience.

Katz found himself with a long list of press-worthy partnership opportunities born of his family, friend and personal connections. These exposed Katz's winemaking talents to a broader audience, giving him high visibility at a young age. He’s used his third label, The Setting, to formalize and carry out these partnerships. 

In 2016, Katz partnered with Denver Broncos Super Bowl MVP Von Miller to create a Cabernet Sauvignon under The Setting. Miller made news when he gifted a bottle of the private label to every player in the AFC West as a stocking stuffer.

A year later, Katz teamed up with skateboarding legend Tony Hawk to produce a bottle that would raise funds for the Tony Hawk Foundation. The bottle included an embossed outline of Hawk and the skater’s signature. The proceeds helped to fund skateparks for kids in impoverished areas.

Then, Katz partnered with Hollywood super-agent Shep Gordon on a single bottle, which was auctioned off at Emeril Lagasse’s annual Carnival du Vin for a jaw-dropping $350,000, making it one of the most expensive bottles of wine ever sold. The Emeril Lagasse Foundation distributed the funds to youth education organizations. 

You may not have access to a Super Bowl MVP, but it’s guaranteed that some folks in your circle are more influential than others. Consider where these individuals and their business goals can plug into your goals. Don’t be afraid to ask them for favors, especially if doing good is part of the deal.

5. Produce a superior product.

Good PR must be supported by a good product. And in Katz’s industry, top ratings and accolades from the most prominent wine critics in the world are the best measures of success. 

And he’s succeeded: Katz’s labels are all award winners. 

While on your ascent to the top, be careful not to neglect the quality of your product.

6. Stay motivated.

Reaching the top of an industry doesn't guarantee you'll always be relevant and successful. According to Katz, it's important to take a long view and stay dedicated to improving your craft at all times.

"Wine, agriculture, and art is a lifetime study," he said. "I can't imagine a time where I won't be studying, experimenting and continuing to learn."

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