Star-Crossed Paths: Mike Trujillo and Sequoia Grove Winery… Plus Words of Wisdom from Andre Tchelistcheff

Michael Trujillo, President and director of Winemaking at Sequoia Grove winery

Michael Trujillo, President and director of Winemaking at Sequoia Grove winery

By Glen Frederiksen

Our journey through the world of wine, from our first eye-opening sip and epiphany over three decades ago, has taken us to many wine regions and down many a dusty wine trail.

When we began this wine blog more than three years ago, it was partly to tie together much of what we have experienced and written about over that long, winding road. Naturally (and hopefully!), there are many more experiences to be had, and this is the bulk of what we are now chronicling.

But there are many switchbacks while on the wine roads, as we follow our passion. Paths will be crossed more than once, and we have the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with old friends.

So it was when we recently had the opportunity to meet up with Michael Trujillo, President and Director of Winemaking at Sequoia Grove Winery in Napa, Calif.

Michael Trujillo, explaining a fine point about the Cambium

Michael Trujillo, explaining a fine point about the Cambium

Trujillo has become one of the winemaking giants in the Napa Valley over the past two decades. Arriving in the valley while on spring break from college, he fell in love with the verdant valley and laid-back lifestyle. He left his Colorado birthplace and returned to Napa shortly thereafter, and made it his new home.

His first job was at a large vineyard in the south end of Napa Valley that would become Domaine Carneros. There, he had the opportunity to meet and work with such titans of the wine industry as Tony Soter, Mike Grgich and others.

He then took a job at Sequoia Grove winery, located on Highway 29 in the heart of the Napa Valley. There, owner Jim Allen and his brother Steve Allen exposed Trujillo to all facets of wine production, from the vineyard to the bottling line.

The consulting winemaker at Sequoia Grove at the time was Andre Tchelistcheff, perhaps the most iconic vintner America has known. Under the tutelage of his new winemaking friends, Trujillo began taking extension courses at U.C. Davis in the Enology department.

Using the Sequoia Grove wine facilities, he started his own label, Karl Lawrence wines. He also consulted with other wineries, most notably Herb Lamb Vineyards. By 1998, Trujillo had been appointed Assistant Winemaker at Sequoia Grove and, in 2001, with the retirement of founder Jim Allen and the sale of the winery to the Kopf family, Trujillo assumed the reins of winery president. Today, the Sequoia Grove winery is making wines that rival those of many of the better-known estates in the valley.

We at Wine Lines first crossed paths with Sequoia Grove in the late 1980s. On one of our early visits to Napa Valley, as we were driving north on Highway 29, we stopped in at the rustic tasting room surrounded by three towering sequoia trees (thus the name of the winery).

We were impressed by the quality of the Chardonnay and especially the Cabernet Sauvignon — so much so, that we purchased our first full case of wine there.

The wines we fell in love with were the 1985 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the Estate Reserve Cabernet. These were our epiphany Napa Valley Cabs. Over the next decade, we continued to stop in on our frequent trips to the Napa Valley, and also sought out the wines at local wine shops.

By the turn of the millennium, our wine muse had led us to open a wine shop, the High Desert Wine Emporium in Victorville, Calif. We looked for wines not found in the local supermarkets — wines that were sought after by wine geeks (which we were). Among the labels we stocked were Karl Lawrence and Herb Lamb Vineyards, both crafted with Michael Trujillo at the winemaking helm.

Yet over all those years, we had never chanced to meet up with Trujillo. So, during Trujillo’s recent visit to Las Vegas, we were enthused to finally shake his hand and put a face to the winemaker behind the wines we had been enjoying for years.

The Sequoia Grove line-up of wines

The Sequoia Grove line-up of wines

Wine tasting notes…

2013 Sequoia Grove Chardonnay, Napa Valley
Ah! Our noses and palates took a trip down memory lane with each sniff and sip of this wine. It is delightfully perfumed and aromatic, mixing together sweet, almost honeyed, impressions of tropical fruit and pear with notes of butter, brioche, and vanilla. Showing a nice balance in the mouth, these flavors carry through to the finish and persist. Think of this as a fine Burgundy, but with the plumpness of California fruit. A perfect foil for snow crab legs dipped in butter.
MSRP: $28 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 92

2011 Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
In the glass, it shows an opaque, deep crimson color. The nose is already integrating the fruit and wood components, with a nice interplay between the polished leather, mocha, clove and cedar from the oak and the boisterous red cassis and raspberry fruit. The fruit carries through on the palate, showing all soft and velvety, before fine-grained tannins poke through near the finish. This wine is a delight to drink now, and should provide pleasure over the next eight to 10 years.
MSRP: $38 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 91

2010 Sequoia Grove ‘Cambium’ Red Table Wine, Napa Valley
Cambium is an interesting word to name this wine. It refers to the actively growing layer of a plant or tree between the inner wood and the outer bark. Essentially, these are stem cells in plants — cells from which all other, more differentiated cells will arise. In other words, the building blocks of a grapevine. This is a proprietary blend of the best building blocks — er, barrels — of Bordeaux red varietals produced in a vintage at Sequoia Grove. The 2010 vintage’s opaque deep crimson hue lightly stains the glass. Its uplifted, floral nose (from a large dollop of Cabernet Franc) shows dark flowers, mocha, graphite, and minerality, all cloaking the tightly wound black and blue fruit. This is a wine that would benefit from mid-term cellar aging, allowing the fruit to bubble to the surface. Patience will be rewarded in a decade or so.
MSRP: $140 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 94

If you want more information about Sequoia Grove winery, tasting room hours, tour information, ordering information, or wish to email them, here is the contact information:

Sequoia Grove Winery
8338 St. Helena Highway
Napa, CA   94558
(707) 944-2945

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By Bob Johnson

Mike Trujillo makes no secret about the influence Andre Tchelistcheff had on his winemaking style — a style that Tchelistcheff taught almost by osmosis.

“He taught me how important it is to really get in touch with the vineyard — the grapevines, the grapes and the land,” Trujillo says. “[The concept of] terroir pretty much gets thrown out the window today; everybody thinks that oak is terroir.

“The interesting thing is that when a problem or a challenge came up, he never told you what to do. He didn’t teach science; he taught art — winemaking from the gut. Many times, he’d just leave me [in the vineyard or cellar] to figure things out.”

At times, that could be scary. In 1989, a notoriously challenging year weather-wise in Napa Valley, it was a skill that proved to be the difference between making dreadful wine and exceptional wine. (There wasn’t much in-between that vintage.)

“You just had to be in the vineyard every day,” Trujillo explains. “We’d taste the grapes, sometimes twice a day, and you could just taste the dankness coming on. We caught it early, and got our grapes harvested in time while most other wineries waited it out and ended up with fruit that wasn’t great.”

Trujillo drew on that experience in dealing with the problematic 2011 vintage.

“The veteran winemakers fared okay,” he says. “They knew what to do, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. With a vintage like that, you just have to let up on the gas a little bit, and you can end up with a pretty, sexy wine.”

Part of the process involves invoking techniques and practices that result in wines that have what Tchelistcheff called “a perfect flow. And when it has that flow, whether it’s a red or a white, it has the potential for aging.”

Adds Trujillo: “I wouldn’t be bashful to say that our 2011 Cambium could go a good 10 years in the bottle, and still be drinking nicely.”

The Tchelistcheff influence can also be seen — and tasted — in Sequoia Grove’s Chardonnay which, unlike most other California Chardonnays, does not undergo malolactic fermentation.

“Andre never wanted us to do M.L. and we never did,” Trujillo says. “To bring up the creaminess and the nuttiness [associated with the M.L. process], it’s actually the grape clones, oak and lees working in combination with one another.”

Trujillo says that he thinks about his old friend and mentor every day, but especially when he’s facing a challenge in the vineyard or cellar.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to myself, ‘What would Andre do?’”

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