Best Wineries
Markham vineyards stone winery exterior.

Markham Vineyards in St. Helena

By Published On: August 23rd, 2023

Interview with Winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls

Markham Vineyards was founded in 1977 when Bruce Markham purchased an old stone winery originally built in 1879 (the fourth oldest continuously operating winery in Napa Valley).

From the beginning, Markham has been all about Bordeaux varietals, with Merlot being their focus.

The exterior of Markham’s historic stone cellar, located at the winery in St. Helena.
The exterior of their historic stone cellar. Photo Courtesy: Markham Vineyards.

1980 was their first vintage of Merlot, and since then Markham has expanded their portfolio to include over a dozen Merlots and Merlot blends, including their Marked Parcels collection of vineyard-designated wines made from the best hand-selected parcels in their vineyards.

Markham Vineyards Marked Parcels Merlot.
Marked Parcels Merlot. Photo Courtesy: Markham Vineyards.

Today they farm 260 acres of estate vineyards certified by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, spanning from Calistoga in the north down to Oak Knoll. Their tasting room is sleek and modern while still maintaining details from the original 1879 structure, including the historic stone cellar.

We interview Winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls of Markham Vineyards to learn more.

What type of wine do you specialize in?

Winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls of Markham Vineyards: Merlot has always been our flagship varietal at Markham. When I started I was only making two Merlots, and this year we’ll have over a dozen different Merlots and Merlot blends.

Markham Vineyard's Tasting room interior.
Tasting room, which underwent an extensive renovation in 2022. Photo Courtesy: Markham Vineyards.

We’re really focused on showcasing what an amazing wine Merlot is, and offering Merlots from different AVAs across Napa Valley. In addition to Merlot we produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé of Pinot Noir and our Frenchman’s Blend, which is a blend of 65% Sauvignon Blanc and 35% Chardonnay. 

Selection of wines at Markham Vineyards.
Selection of wines. Photo Courtesy: Markham Vineyards.

Share a popular tasting experience?

Kimberlee Nicholls: Our Classic Tasting is the most popular experience. Guests have the opportunity to learn about Markham’s history and our passion for Merlot while tasting through a flight of wines, including single-vineyard selections.

It can be enjoyed indoors in our new tasting room or outside on the patio, under the shade of beautiful olive trees. 

Guests wine tasting on the patio at Markham Vineyards.
Guests wine tasting on the patio. Photo Courtesy: Markham Vineyards.

What makes your wine unique?

Kimberlee Nicholls: Because we’ve been making Merlot for so long, we know the ins and outs of growing it, and where in the valley it grows best.

I think that that’s a really important piece for us. When it comes to winemaking, I like to think I have a bit of a feminine touch – I aim to make wines that are rich and lush with a lovely mouthfeel, often through the process of extended maceration.

Winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls examines Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Markham’s Hopper House Estate Vineyard in Yountville. 
Winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls examines Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Photo Courtesy: Markham Vineyards.

What’s one thing you wish more people knew about your winery?

Kimberlee Nicholls: We have an all-women winemaking and viticulture team at Markham, which is quite unique. It’s been amazing to see the industry become more accepting and diverse over the years, but there is still a way to go.

I feel incredibly lucky to work alongside a team of talented women that includes our assistant winemaker Abigail Horstman Estrada, enologist Patricia Sciacca, viticulturist and sustainability manager Taylor Abudi, and senior operations manager Adrienne Uboldi.

Markham’s winemaking and viticulture team
(L-R) Winemaking and viticulture team: viticulturist and sustainability manager Taylor Abudi, senior operations manager Adrienne Uboldi, winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls, enologist Patricia Sciacca, and assistant winemaker Abigail Horstman Estrada. Photo Courtesy: Markham Vineyards.

How did you get started in the wine industry?

Kimberlee Nicholls: I studied biology in college, so I had a science background but didn’t consider going into winemaking straight away. My husband, who grew up in Sonoma County, was actually the one who first suggested I apply to jobs at wineries.

My first winery job was at Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars (the only winery I worked at before joining Markham), and I was really inspired by the woman who hired me there, Francoise Peschon Straka. She really took the time to teach me about the nuances of wine, which created a strong foundation for my career as a winemaker.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the winemaking process?

Kimberlee Nicholls: I’ve learned that winemaking is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes around 12 months or more to make a wine before it goes into the bottle, and there are so many challenges that can come up along the way.

I’m lucky to have an incredible, all-women winemaking team who are there every step along the way. We all complement each other – they might have certain strengths and areas of expertise that I don’t have, and vice versa – and we work together through challenges that come up in the cellar.

Being able to taste and blend together and understand different perspectives has been an amazing experience.

Stroll through Markham’s Hopper House Estate Vineyard in Yountville.
Taylor Abudi (left) and Kimberlee Nicholls (right) strolling vineyard. Photo Courtesy: Markham Vineyards.

Do you remember the first time you fell in love with wine?

Kimberlee Nicholls: I started my career at Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars, and at the time I wasn’t a big wine drinker yet. But one of the first wines I fell in love with during my time at Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars was their Merlot. It’s funny because at the time (and still to this day), everyone associated Napa Valley with Cabernet Sauvignon.

But that Merlot really stood out to me and now I feel like I’ve come full circle in a sense. After that I came to Markham, where Merlot is our flagship, and most of my career has been focused on working with Merlot.

Describe your winemaking approach.

Kimberlee Nicholls: It all starts in the vineyard. That’s something that we’re very blessed with here at Markham, is having access to 260 acres of sustainable land that we farm. Our vineyards were purchased by Bruce Markham in the 1970s, so we’ve had decades to learn the lay of the land and figure out which grapes will thrive there.

This has been essential to our winemaking philosophy at Markham. 

Do you have a favorite story about working at your winery?

Kimberlee Nicholls: I’ve been here for so long that I can’t choose just one! But generally speaking, it’s been really amazing to build strong relationships and work alongside incredible, talented people over the years. I’m lucky that I’ve remained in contact with a lot of colleagues from throughout my career.

I also love getting to work with my friends every day – it makes any job way easier.

Markham’s viticulturist and sustainability manager Taylor Abudi and winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls at the winery’s Hopper House Estate Vineyard in Yountville 
(L-R) Viticulturist and sustainability manager Taylor Abudi and winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls. Photo Courtesy: Markham Vineyards.

What do you love about winemaking? 

Kimberlee Nicholls: I love the seasonality of it. Right now we’re in the final stretch of bottling, and in a few weeks we’ll be kicking off harvest. Harvest is the craziest, busiest, and most challenging time of the year but it’s also the most exciting. After harvest, we put everything to bed.

And then at the beginning of the new year comes blending season, which eventually leads into bottling and starting the whole cycle over again. You only get to make wine once a year, so I try to enjoy each step of the process. 

Do you have any winery traditions with your team?

Kimberlee Nicholls: My favorite tradition is our Saturday lunches during harvest season. Every Saturday throughout harvest, a different team member puts together a menu and cooks for us at the winery. It gives us all a chance to slow down, take a break and spend some quality time together during an otherwise hectic time of year.

It also provides a chance to get to know each other better – through a person’s food or family recipes.

How does your team help you as a winemaker? 

Kimberlee Nicholls: They help keep me young! It’s great to have fresh perspectives in the cellar, and I appreciate when my team suggests new or innovative ways of doing things that we might not have thought of in the past. I always try to encourage them to bring new ideas to the table, and it’s helped us grow together as a team – and make some pretty amazing wines.

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