Everything about Villa San-Juliette Winery emanates a kind of classical charm. There are the statues and grand pillars, the well-manicured lawns and pictures of owners Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe hanging out with big-time celebrities. (The Englishmen are the producers of “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” respectively.)
Yes, the wines are as elegant as you would expect, with an Old World emphasis on honoring varietal character — but there’s a fresh, modern element in the mix, too. That element is newly appointed head winemaker Dan Smith, a millennial who approaches the craft with an open mind and a hands-on approach. I caught up with him and his vineyard dog, Draco, at the San Miguel-based winery.
Originally from Oregon, the 29-year-old never wondered what he would be when he grew up.
“My aunt and uncle were really into collecting wine and they’d sneak me sips during family dinners,” Smith said. “That really kicked off the interest — my uncle’s passion for big Italian Tuscans. At 13, I was saying that I wanted to be a winemaker and he was saying, ‘Go for it.’”
Smith’s uncle, Dr. Richard Crone, died recently, but Smith was glad that the man who got him into wine was able to see that winemaking dream come true.
Growing up, the winemaker was always attracted to California, a land of bounty and stellar collegiate wine programs. All it took was one visit to Cal Poly for Smith to realize that SLO would be his new home.
“That was 2005, the first year for the program, and it was cool to be part of small group,” he said. “Ten years later, a lot of people in my graduating class are now making their mark on the industry. It’s cool to see that, as well as to follow the ups and downs. Being a winemaker is not always the easiest road.”
Case in point: Smith could not find a job immediately after graduating. In 2009, he held a bachelor’s degree in wine and viticulture with a focus on enology, but the economy had taken a nosedive and jobs were scarce. It seemed like a good time to do a harvest in New Zealand, and Smith did, learning oodles in the process. Luckily, a research internship stateside with commercial wine company Gallo turned into a full-time job.
Smith admits that Fresno was not his first choice for living, but he reasoned that he would learn a lot of valuable techniques and real-world experience. He was right. Smith learned what it takes to make vast quantities of wine in a corporate environment, and the training was top notch. What he didn’t learn? How to get his hands dirty.
“It just wasn’t the right fit for me; it was really hands-off,” Smith said. “It really threw me off that I was technically a winemaker but wasn’t allowed to touch the tanks.”
That wouldn’t do.
Smith followed his desire to get closer to the grape, eventually returning to his stomping grounds of Oregon to work cellar jobs and harvests at Archery Summit and Andrew Rich. There, the winemaker mainly worked with cool climate grapes like pinot noir — and despite the fact
that he loves pinot noir — there was still something missing.
The vibrant abundance of the Central Coast called out to him.
“One of the reasons why I was so attracted to the Central Coast, as a growing region, is the fact that you can grow such a variety of grapes; even great pinot can get boring after a while,” Smith said, adding that he quickly returned to the Golden State.
Back in Cali, he reconnected with a mentor he had interned under during college — then Villa San Juliette head winemaker Matt Ortman. Also known for his work with his own label, Ortman Family Wines, the seasoned winemaker helped Smith land a job at Villa San Juliette as cellar master in 2013. The winery had just opened a year prior, so it was exciting to say the least.
“There was no winemaking facility here at the time, so there was a lot of work to be done,” Smith said. “I helped Matt as he got the winery started and we built a small team together. I was really intrigued with the start-up aspect of the job; plus, Ken and Nigel are hilarious guys and very talented businessmen.”
The winery now boasts its own state-of-the-art winemaking facility and grows a dozen kinds of wine grapes on site, including five Bordeaux varieties. With more than 20 acres of planted fruit to play with, it’s safe to say that Smith is as “hands on” as he wants to be.
“It’s a unique property to Paso Robles, and I love that we’re diving into different areas of the vineyard that have different slopes and we’re micro-farming them differently,” Smith said. “We make 100 percent varietals of pretty much every grape we grow, but we also have blends that are quite unconventional, like a Rhone-Bordeaux blend.”
Smith loves the fact that he gets to have fun with the single varietals, too: they’re almost always small lot, some getting special oak treatments or extra attention in the vineyard. The winemaker still has to pinch himself — Is this really his job?
“Initially, it’s kind of amazing and a tad scary thinking that this is your role, overseeing the vineyard operations and production,” Smith said, adding that he owes a lot to his assistant winemaker Lauren Herrick. “I take a team approach to the winemaking and I’ve had so many mentors and professors who have taught me a multitude of ways to do things.”
This herein lies why Smith is a winemaker to watch. He’s open to growing and learning; he’s coming into his own, one vintage at a time. Smith has gotten his wings, and now he’s beginning to soar (despite the pesky grey hairs that tend to pop up due to stress). You can already see the winemaker’s influence in the white wine offerings, which are showing more restraint, less alcohol.
“I’m trying to stop and enjoy this moment,’” Smith said of his current place in life. “It’s a beautiful property. When I walk around the vines and look around at where I’m at, I have to admit, it’s pretty cool. I’m discovering my own artistry and my own style. That’s exciting.”