Interview with winemakers Josh Widaman and Colleen FitzGerald.
Pine Ridge Vineyards was founded in 1978 by Gary and Nancy Andrus, in the heart of the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley. Their tasting room is tucked away beneath a ridge of rugged palisades and surrounded by steep hillside vineyards. These rarities inspire their wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon – a varietal their name has become synonymous with over the years.
Pine Ridge has also forged a new path with the production of their unusual and delectable blend of Chenin Blanc + Viognier, another beloved wine that is equal parts approachable and versatile. Today, the winery owns estate vineyards in five premier Napa Valley appellations: Stags Leap District, Howell Mountain, Oakville, Rutherford, and Carneros.
To learn more, we interview Pine Ridge’s Estate Winemaker Josh Widaman and Chenin Blanc + Viognier Winemaker Colleen FitzGerald.
What type of wine do you specialize in?
We specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc and Viognier.
What makes your wine unique?
Colleen FitzGerald, Winemaker for Chenin Blanc + Viognier:The Chenin Blanc + Viognier blend is a unicorn blend that is unique to Pine Ridge Vineyards. Both grapes originate in France but come from different regions, and typically would never be blended. The flavors meld together to make a well balanced, crisp white wine with lime and orange blossoms from the Chenin Blanc and lovely stone fruit characters from the Viognier.
Josh Widaman Estate Winemaker:The Cabernet Sauvignons that we produce are wines of place. Each of our sub-appellations provide distinctly different, multi-layered renderings of this noble variety. With the Stags Leap District being our home, we are very proud of the fruit that we grow here and its foundational presence in our Napa Valley bottling.
That being said, Carneros, Oakville, Rutherford and Howell Mountain all have something to say. It is quite amazing to me how, when they are blended, they are quite the soliloquy.
What’s one thing you wish more people knew about your winery?
We wish that people knew that our founders, Gary and Nancy Andrus, were true pioneers in this industry. They were determined to make wine on Stags Leap’s steep slopes, rather than the traditional valley floor, and while this does tend to be more labor intensive when it comes to winemaking, the added diversity of our soil types and range of microclimates allow us to craft stellar, award-winning Napa Valley wines.
How did you get started in the wine industry?
Colleen FitzGerald: After I earned a biochemistry degree at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, I landed an internship in Paso Robles for harvest. I was very intrigued and wanted to know more about winemaking, specifically in the lab through monitoring fermentations. After learning you can travel abroad for harvest, I was hooked.
I ended up only completing one harvest abroad, but have loved being able to host international interns here at Pine Ridge and exchanging information and creating friendships.
Josh Widaman:I consider myself lucky to have experienced Europe from a young age, thanks to parents who enjoy wine and travel. However, it was a chance encounter during my freshman year of college that encouraged me to transfer to UC Davis to pursue a degree in Viticulture and Enology (Grape Growing and the Study of Wine).
In 1999, my first internship changed my life. Thanks to the inspiration that experience provided, I was driven to work alongside Elizabeth Vianna at Chimney Rock Winery and Erin Green at Pahlmeyer. These experiences led me to Lewis Cellars, where our team crafted Wine Spectator’s #1 Wine of the Year in 2016. Now, my family and I have embarked on a journey here at Pine Ridge that we are very excited about!
Share a popular tasting experience.
Josh Widaman: Our Cellar 47 Cave Tour and Tasting is by far our most popular tasting experience. Tucked deep below our Andrus Estate vineyard, sits an intricate cave system of 37,000 square feet (about the area of a large mansion) of underground caves.
The Cellar 47 tasting offers guests an escorted tour of the European-inspired cave system where they can experience floor-to-ceiling views of the rock that supports Pine Ridge’s notable hillside.
Wine educators then lead a guided tasting of Pine Ridge’s impressive portfolio of limited estate Cabernets and our flagship wine, FORTIS.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the winemaking process?
Colleen FitzGerald: One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that every harvest is different, and every harvest comes with its own set of challenges. Winemaking it not just learning the procedure of how to make wine – it is also learning what the growing season brought you and how you are able to make the grapes into the best wine you possibly can.
I believe 95% of wine is crafted in the vineyard and as a winemaker, we get to take the last 5% to the finish line.
Josh Widaman: Every vintage is a new opportunity to learn more about our craft, and any time spent not focusing on the intricate details of the process is time lost that you’ll never get back. So, work hard, focus, pay attention, persevere, and you’ll make some of the best wines in the world. You can’t make great wine without amazing fruit, though.
So, for that we have Gustavo Avina, our famed Viticulture Director (that has been here for 20 years!) and his team to thank.
Do you remember the first time you fell in love with wine?
Colleen FitzGerald: I can’t lie, I didn’t grow up drinking wine so my passion for it did not come all at once, instead it has amassed over the years. I first fell in love with the hustle and bustle of each harvest and being surrounded by the active fermentations.
Josh Widaman:My father has always been a big fan of wine. So, from a young age I knew which bottles he held in high esteem. However, it wasn’t until I was gifted a bottle of 1997 Pahlmeyer Merlot (during my first internship) when I experienced a bottle of wine that was life changing. Driving a tractor by the light of the moon that year was quite romantic, in addition to the “valley within a valley” that that estate lies within. So, I would definitely say that the 1999 vintage was what did it for me!
Describe your winemaking approach.
Josh Widaman:My winemaking career started with a wine that made a lasting impression on me. So, that is what inspires me when creating wines. I want to create something that someone on this Earth will enjoy long after I am gone. To have someone taste a wine that my team grew, fermented and bottled, and to have that person be transported to the vintage through a wine of intrigue and detail is quite satisfying.
Thanks to our impeccably farmed vineyards, the wines that result are very complex and multi-faceted. How we blend them to produce a wine of precision, tension and balance is the hard part, and we achieve this through rigorous blending sessions.
Colleen FitzGerald: I love the perfect balance of chemistry and art in winemaking. As a winemaker you can look from both lenses and gain a great understanding of the wine you are making and where you want to take it. Depending on the wine and the stage, you can decide how much you want to rely on your palate verses relying on the numbers.
Do you have a favorite story about working at your winery?
Colleen FitzGerald: Harvest always has at least a good couple of stories every year. One that is standing out is: I was walking around the winery, and I hear a faint scream of “help, help!” I went over to investigate and one of the interns had unscrewed the sample valve so much that the valve had flown off, and the only thing holding the wine in the tank was her hand. We found the valve on the other side of the winery, put it back on but when we stood back, she was covered head to toe in fermenting Cabernet.
Josh Widaman: Every year, Gustavo invites the priest at his church to come to the winery to bless the grapes. This is my favorite event of the year.
We have our whole team there: vineyard, winemaking, sales, marketing, finance and accounting staff are all on hand.
To see all of our team’s smiling faces, on the first day of harvest, before we go through this experience together, is quite inspiring. The breakfast burritos afterwards are always the cherry on top of the experience!
What do you love about winemaking?
Colleen FitzGerald: I love the intricacies of winemaking and daily creative outlet that comes from hands-on work. I also love that you can make the same wine year after year, but every year is a little different and you are always learning the best way to make those grapes into wine.
Josh Widaman:I love that wherever I go, whenever I see a bottle of wine that I was a part of creating, I can remember everything that went into that bottle, from the blood, sweat and tears of the growing season, to the calm of barrel elevage before the storm of bottling. I feel an immense amount of pride in what our team was able to accomplish every time I see a bottle of our wine in the market.
Do you have any winery traditions with your team?
Colleen FitzGerald: We have been celebrating International Talk Like a Pirate Day on Sept 19th for the past 7 or 8 years. It started with the previous head winemaker, with just a name tag with your designated pirate name, and has expanded from there to celebratory shirts, flags flown in our driveway and/or decorating the cellar. Depending on the harvest timing the celebration has been both big and small.
Josh Widaman: I have a personal motto “Super Omnia Vino” or “Above All Wine”. I had this engraved on some stainless-steel barrel tags and made into keychains. I like to have a meeting with our new harvest team each year where I do my best to inspire the team and share my pride for what we do with them.
Afterwards, I give each person one of these keychains and ask them to think about the wine at all times during that harvest, and that each of us do our part to ensure that we will make the best wine we possibly can for that vintage.
How does your team help you as a winemaker?
Colleen FitzGerald: The team at Pine Ridge inspires me. They challenge me to explore new perspectives on wine and consider the best options.
Josh Widaman: As a winemaker, there are quite a lot of duties that aren’t putting your hands on the vines and wines and doing the work. We rely on many team members to be our eyes, hands and ears in the vineyard. While Colleen, Mike Conversano (Assistant Winemaker), Sarah Treweek (Enologist) and I might come up with the best possible blend in our blending sessions, we need the team to make sure that it happens in the cellar properly and without incident.
So, I would say that we need each and every person on the team to think like a winegrower whether they are in the field or the cellar. Meticulous detail, and faith in our long tenured staff, is immeasurably helpful to the overall process of winemaking.