A Winemaker With A Wild Imagination


Julie Johnson is a different kind of vintner. Listen (and watch) how she describes her Petite Sirah at Tres Sabores, her small winery in Napa’s Rutherford appellation.

Johnson stops and laughs. “Too much?”

Not at all. Like a growing number of winemakers who are waking up to the potential of the next generation of oenophiles, Johnson knows that fresh approaches and innovative thinking are crucial. During a long, lazy tasting session, she ruminated about the future and how she is prepared to meet it.

“A lot of (wine descriptors) don’t mean anything,” she said. “They can be off-putting to people who like wine but don’t yet know much about it.”

One way to break through is by describing wine in creative terms, Johnson said. “It’s fun, and it really (challenges) me to think of my wine in different ways.”

Johnson smiled. “I think a lot about these things. We’re not familiar with using all of our senses. Wine can be more than just smell and taste.”

Johnson’s unorthodox approach extends to food pairings. When a friend announced plans to open a winery in India, they got together to decide what wines are best suited to Indian food – typically served with beer, not wine, which many assume can’t stand up to the spiciness of the cuisine.

“For me, slightly off-dry whites work well with Indian food. Chardonnays don’t work at all. Riesling, grüner veltliner – those work beautifully. Also, sparkling wines. A sparkling rosé is perfect.”

Johnson reminisced about pairing her Tres Sabores Zinfandel with a north Moroccan quail pie. “And for strong but not too spicy flavors like tandoori, I think petite sirah would work very well.” Dry, lingering and with a solid backbone of acidity – those are the must-have components of any wine, red or white, that goes with spicy food, Johnson says.

Tres Sabores is nestled in the foothills of the Mayacama Mountains near the southern end of Napa Valley. Johnson and her crew grow organically certified zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, petite syrah and petit verdot grapes as well as olives, Meyer lemons and exotic pomegranate cultivars on her picturesque, rustic land.

Johnson fell in love with the area when she was taken to an outdoor concert on a wild motorcycle date (which led to her first marriage). That was many years ago, but Johnson hasn’t lost her passion for Napa or making wine there. Clearly her family was smitten too. Her oldest son is a winemaker.

“You see this tree?” she says, pointing to a huge live oak that dominates her property, not far from a small barn full of clucking guinea hens. The tree is special – she was married under its spreading branches. “It’s been here for centuries. It will outlast us all. That’s what I hope for this winery, too.”

Visit: Tres Sabores Winery
Wine tasting by appointment only.