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Meet the New American Vignerons

When you hear the word vigneron, your mind may wander to a vineyard in rural France where a figure in a dark beret and wine-stained apron works the grapevines with pruning shears in one hand and a Gauloise in the other. Or maybe the character is in a cellar, pouring liquid from a wine thief into a tastevin over a candlelit barrel.

That classic style of vigneron, or winegrower, tended to the grapes and made wine with minimal family or outside assistance. Their main companion in the vineyard was often a plow horse. There were no crews, no enologists, no laboratory or vast array of cellar equipment, only oak barrels.

While only a handful of modern winemakers mirror that profile, American winemakers who embody the spirit and work ethic of the classic vigneron­ do exist. Here are a few of them.—Roger Morris 

Edward Lee “Mac” McDonald 

Edward Lee “Mac” McDonald grew up on Texas moonshine—his dad made it—but a taste of Burgundy at age 12 made wine his dream. When he was in his 50s, McDonald bottled his first Vision Cellars Pinot Noir, under an African-mask label that he designed. Purchasing his own Sonoma County vineyard, which he named Ms. Lil’s Vineyard for his wife, was a natural step for someone with his precision, high standards and country sensibility. His wines are elegant and bright, though McDonald prefers wearing overalls and a straw hat, spending as much time tending his vines as he can.—Layla Schlack 

Jim Pfeiffer of Turtle Run Winery
Jim Pfeiffer of Turtle Run Winery / Photo courtesy Turtle Run Winery

Jim Pfeiffer

Turtle Run Winery, Corydon, IN

Pfeiffer’s first vines were planted on his Indiana Uplands AVA property in 1998, but he says that the maturation of his 12-acre vineyard “has certainly been an evolution.” Severe winter conditions in 2012 prompted him to replant the decimated vinifera vines with more cold-hardy hybrids. Now, he and just one assistant at Turtle Run Winery begin winter pruning two weeks after the first hard freeze, though he does hire student labor during the summer. Once those hybrid grapes are harvested, he seeks alternative methods to avoid too much manipulation. “I discovered that freezing dry reds, really freezing them, does drive out tannin content. I also use sur-lees stirring of spent yeast cells, including those from white wines, to achieve a similar effect.”—R.M.

Dawnine & Bill Dyer

Dyer Vineyards and Dyer Straits Wine Co., Calistoga, CA

The Dyers are high-profile winemakers who switched to small-volume, hands-on winemaking in 1993, when they planted just over two acres of vines on Napa Valley’s Diamond Mountain. Today, Dyer Vineyards specializes in a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated blend and an occasional varietal Cabernet Franc. The couple handles all the most important vineyard functions, like pruning, as well as the winemaking. Hands-on work in the vineyard creates a better understanding of the grapes, says Dawnine. “You get better and better in understanding how far you can push the fruit and to control tannins,” she says. “Our goal is to harvest in one go, and to make that happen starts with pruning.”—R.M.

Jason Murray of Arterra Wines
Jason Murray of Arterra Wines / Photo courtesy Arterra Wines

Alan Viader

Viader Vineyards & Winery, Deer Park, CA

Alan Viader grew up at the eponymous winery estate founded by his mother, Delia Viader, and now is the almost-one-man-band that runs Viader’s 28 acres of grapes which produce about 4,200 cases of red wine on Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain. “I have one helper in the cellar, and two in the vineyard, but I still drive the tractor and shovel out tanks.” Occasionally, his mother or his three siblings help out during critical periods. “I like to complicate my life by making 40 to 50 blends,” he says. “Mom was a workaholic, and I inherited that. I’m not a perfectionist, but I like things done correctly.” Mom still helps with the blending, he says.—R.M.

Jason Murray

Arterra Wines, Delaplane, VA

“I have one other guy who helps me out in the vineyards and the winery,” says Murray, co-owner of Arterra Wines, with its eight-acre plot dedicated to mainly Tannat, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. “I can’t just tell him, ‘Go do what we did last year,’ because each year is different. So we work in the vineyard side-by-side until he understands what I want done. In the cellar, I personally do all the racking, stirring of lees and most other things.” Murray started Arterra with fruit purchased from nearby vineyards until his property became fruitful last year.—R.M.

Anthony Vietri of Va La Vineyards
Anthony Vietri of Va La Vineyards / Photo by Carlos Alejandro

Anthony Vietri

Va La Vineyards, Avondale, PA

Vietri, of Va La Vineyards, may be the best Nebbiolo specialist outside of Piemonte. From a farming family, he is a prototypical vigneron. With the help of a lone assistant, he’s farmed about six acres of mainly Italian varieties since the 1990s, and today, Vietri makes four terroir-specific field-blend wines whose identity—varieties, rootstocks, clones, spacing, trellising—he’s been tweaking since he first began to make wine. Top sommeliers from Philadelphia will even drive to his Chester County vineyard to carry back wines for their lists. “I just like to stand in the rows staring at it,” he says. “It feels very right.”—R.M.

Hank Beckmeyer

La Clarine Farm, Somerset, CA

In the 17 years that Hank Beckmeyer has owned La Clarine Farm (he also raises goats) in the Sierra Nevada foothills, his vineyard has evolved from modern farmed to organic to biodynamic and now to the principles of Japanese agriculturalist Masanobu Fukuoka. Beckmeyer sees himself as “being a shepherd” to his head-trained vines rather than someone trying to conquer or control them—basically just pruning and picking. “I harvest based on acidity and not where the sugar ends,” he says. Fermentation occurs naturally, “without any helping out.” “More often than not, cellar ‘problems’ resolve themselves over time, adding to the richness of the wine,” Beckmeyer says.—R.M.

James Lester of Wyncroft Wines
James Lester of Wyncroft Wines / Photo courtesy Wyncroft Wines

James Lester

Wyncroft Wines, Pullman, MI

For years, Lester, of Wyncroft Wines, tasted great Bordeaux wine, courtesy of a friend with a large cellar. He then decided to plant his own vineyard in the warmer climes of Lake Michigan’s east side, and made his first Cabernet Sauvignon in 1983. “I was dumbfounded how good it was,” says Lester. “I didn’t know anything about winemaking, so it had to be the terroir.” In the 35 years since, Lester has made many critically acclaimed wines from mainly Bordeaux varieties on a 14-acre plot he farms with his wife and one assistant. Lester realizes most people don’t believe Michigan can make quality European-style wines, but, as he says, “a vine doesn’t understand political boundaries.”—R.M.

Christophe Baron

Cayuse Vineyards, Walla Walla, WA

“A vigneron is a vine grower and a wine creator,” says Christophe Baron, “Then they’ve got to sell the wine. Lastly, a vigneron is a heavy wine drinker—not beer!” Even though he has grown his iconic, biodynamic, subscription-only Cayuse Vineyards from one stone-strewn field near Walla Walla in 1997 to 75 acres today and another 10 in his native Champagne, Baron is in the vineyard and the winery every day when he isn’t travelling. So don’t dare call him as a “vigneron emeritus.” “I was born a vigneron,” he says proudly, noting that his family has grown grapes since 1677. Baron says, “People ask me, ‘Why are you so tan and it’s only April?’ Like, dah!”—R.M.