For the cellar hound, nothing is quite as satisfying as discovering a talented new winemaker—tucking little-known bottles onto your shelves before the name of the producer is bouncing around in almost every wine conversation. The only thing better, maybe, is “discovering” a whole region and snapping up bottles before prices surge as the place becomes all the rage.
There are pros, of course, whose job it is to relentlessly discover—to taste a thousand (or ten thousand!) bottles a year and sort out tomorrow’s stars. And no one takes that job more seriously, or puts more skin in the game, than independent wine shop owners. Their reputation—their appeal to inquisitive, and acquisitive, customers—demands it.
To launch 2022 on promising wine footing, we tapped the proprietors of two great wine shops—one on the West Coast and one on the East—to not only name check some vintners they newly love, but also clue us in on what they look for when spotting a rising star.
Karen Williams, who owns remarkably well-situated Acme Fine Wines in Napa’s north-valley hub of St. Helena, has a reputation for finding (and carrying) wines practically before the brands hit the market. A longstanding network of relationships with producers throughout California and beyond gives her inside intel on who’s making wines that are likely to be sought-after right out of the gate. And because Williams has supported nascent winemakers who’ve risen to collector status, many have, in turn, supported her with access to their hard-to-find wines even after they’re, well, hard to find. (To shamelessly name drop, her “IPO” brands have included Dana Estates, Hundred Acre, Tusk, Scarecrow, Realm and more.)
Williams describes Acme’s niche as “an incubation launchpad, featuring the best of the rare, micro, start-up projects and the soon-to-be-launched, not-yet-famous side projects from rising-star winemakers.” Part of her discovery comes in the form of branding help or blind barrel-tastings of yet-to-be-released wines. “We recognize promising projects first by taste,” Williams says, “then by the people and their stories.” Her instinct takes it from there.
In Boston’s South End, TJ and Hadley Douglas have grown the Urban Grape, which they launched in 2010, into one of the country’s most innovative shops—wines, for instance, are organized by weight as opposed to variety or region, putting the emphasis on what people like instead of what they know. And in 2021, the US Chamber of Commerce gave its Dream Big Small Business of the Year Award to the Urban Grape.
TJ and Hadley have a take slightly different from Williams’ on the up-and-coming producers they always keep their eye out for. “To call them ‘new,’” says TJ (who is the shop’s wine buyer), “is probably a misnomer. Most of them have been working on getting to this point for years, if not decades!” But he knows what he’s looking for: “The first thing is a clarity in the vision for the wine. I want to take a sip and understand what the winemaker is trying to achieve. It’s important to me that a new brand has a clear point of view, that it’s not just trying to do the same thing as everyone else.”
For her part, Hadley (the CMO) is looking for the brand story, a through line from packaging to marketing. “What is the ‘why’ behind the wine?” she always asks. “It’s hard to stand out on a wall of wine, so having a clear brand vision is so important.”
Williams and the Douglases tipped us off on a handful of producers launching at the high end, as well as winemakers—and a whole region—coming into their own as we speak. The best place to start looking for these wines (as you might expect) is at Acme Fine Wines and the Urban Grape.
Rising-star picks from Karen Williams, Acme Fine Wines
Rob Harrison, Fluent Wine Company
Harrison’s path to Sauvignon Blanc–centric Fluent, as Williams describes it, ran through a role with Bill Harlan, leading an elite team working with high-profile guests like “celebrities, royalty, and heads of state.” In spite of the beautiful First Growths and premium vintages of Napa Valley Cabernet he showcased at countless dinners for said guests—Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Margaux, Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle—Harrison reports that it was a 1993 Château Haut-Brion Blanc that virtually overshadowed the vaunted reds one night and changed the trajectory of his life. “It was time to launch a premium age-able white wine project to rival the top whites from Bordeaux and the Loire Valley.”
Fluent Wine Company 2019 Glass Cat Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley ($125)
The inaugural vintage of Harrison’s Sauvignon Blanc, from just one acre within St. Helena’s legendary Panek Vineyard (Pulido-Walker, Rivers Marie, etc.), is, according to Williams, a Chardonnay drinker’s Sauvignon Blanc in its richness and texture. “The silky, smooth palate is layered with a mélange of tropical fruit: guava, pineapple, green mango and kiwi. Bright notes of Meyer lemon and peach, along with Asian pear and subtle hints of vanilla, are intertwined with the luscious yet mouth-watering finish.”
Michael Brughelli, Brvghelli Wines
A graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (with a double major in Wine and Viticulture and Agribusiness), Brughelli built his resume in different hemispheres. But lured back to California’s Central Coast, he embedded himself in Santa Barbara’s Santa Maria Valley and focused on farming practices to elevate wine—“extrapolating cause and effect,” as he says—in celebrated sites, including iconic Bien Nacido Vineyard (where worked with luminaries like Sine Qua Non, Au Bon Climat and Chanin).
Brvghelli 2018 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley ($205)
As Williams puts it, Brughelli’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs “have a certain je ne sais quoi”—they’re graceful yet powerful. “This stunning Pinot engages the senses with succulent raspberry, boysenberry, pomegranate and violets. Hints of dusty chaparral, sandalwood and pronounced mineral follow with exotic spices. Cerebral yet precise, this wine is as sexy as a wine gets.”
Suzanne Deal Booth, Bella Oaks
In Napa Valley, the legendary Bella Oaks Vineyard—planted in 1973 to Cabernet Sauvignon by vineyard pioneers Barney and Belle Rhodes—was the subject of concern and intriguing rumor until arts and cultural heritage advocate Suzanne Deal Booth acquired it. Then came a collective sigh of relief, with expectations that the historic property would be honored “for all it has been and all it can still be in its new chapter,” according to Williams.
Bella Oaks 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($275)
In the hands of Napa Valley’s “golden trifecta”—winemaker Nigel Kinsman, international master blender Michel Rolland and vineyard manager David Abreu—the wine matches the legacy of the historic vineyard. “The fruit literally sings,” says Williams, “balanced with perfumed, floral aromatics, bright acidity and fine-grained tannins. The layers of complexity are dreamlike and alluring.”
Rising-star picks from TJ and Hadley Douglas, the Urban Grape
Tara Gomez, Kitá
“Tara is a member of the Chumash tribe in California,” says TJ, “and is farming on the only indigenous-owned vineyard land in the country. She has spent time making wine all over the world, and her wines have a very Old World sensibility that meshes perfectly with her respect of the land. Everything Tara does—from the label, to the brand story, to the wine itself—is done with an eye toward telling the story of her ancestry, her land and her vision for wine in America. She’s as exciting a new voice in wine as we’ve seen in a while.”
Kitá 2014 Hilliard Bruce Vineyard Pinot Noir Sta. Rita. Hills ($65)
As TJ says, “this Pinot Noir sums up everything I love about Tara Gomez’s winemaking. Her European education shows in the wine’s elegance and restraint. But her clear respect for, and love of, the land on which she grows her grapes shines through. This is a wine that practically screams with place and purpose.”
Black winemakers of South Africa
For Hadley, globally, “the most exciting new voices in wine” are coming from this talented group. “These winemakers are the whole package—with a strong ‘why’ behind their brands, a clear winemaking vision and a desire to turn the oldest winemaking dirt in the world into something fresh and modern. I’m mesmerized by the Kumusha Flame Lily White Blend (Western Cape, 2020; $35) every time I sip on it. South Africans know their way around Chenin Blanc, but Tinashe Nyamudoka blends Chenin with Roussanne, Colombard and Sémillon for the most beguiling and yet still laser-sharp white wine. When our imports for Ntsiki Biyela’s Aslina Sauvignon Blanc (Stellenbosch, 2020; $22) were interrupted in 2020, our customers panicked. There was actual hoarding! That’s how addictive this complex but also bright and fun white wine is.” (Update: Imports were restored, and all’s well.)
And finally, “Berene Sauls is doing something so special—restoring the ancestral land where her family was held as slaves into vineyards that provide work for the area’s descendants—that you simply cannot separate the purpose from the wine itself. Each sip of her Tesselaarsdal Pinot Noir (Hemel-En-Aarde Ridge, 2018; $62) is a gift for past, present and future generations.”