Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
June 17, 2010
“Aspen is about not compromising your lifestyle.”That comment from Jay Schuppert, president of Cuvaison Estate Winery, best sums up a valuable life lesson he learned as a young man. Schuppert has, in the last three-plus decades, followed his passions through a career that has taken him from the Crystal Palace’s kitchen sink to the helm of one of Napa Valley’s most respected wine estates.This past weekend he returned to the roots of his career, pouring Cuvaison’s wines in the tent at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. He is a frequent visitor and remains fast friends with many locals he met during a 12-year stint in Aspen’s restaurant community. Jay’s journey in the wine world began in 1972 when he came to Aspen, fresh from college graduation. There were no stoplights from Independence Pass to Glenwood Springs at the time, and the living was easy. Provided you could make a living. Mead Metcalf gave him a job washing dishes at the then-thriving Crystal Palace restaurant and dinner theater. In four short years he progressed from dishwasher to executive chef, preparing “continental cuisine,” the late ’70s term for food with a French influence. Perhaps most importantly, he began to learn about wines. At the restaurant, French wines dominated, but one night he was gifted with a bottle of Barolo. “I couldn’t tell you what it was,” he recalled recently, “but it was the first wine that hit me, the first time I really went, ‘Hmmm this is something special.'”Bit by the bug, he began to explore wine. “I took my first wine course from Gary Plumley of Grape and Grain,” he notes. He also moved to Aspen Mountain, literally, where he lived and managed Ruthie’s for two seasons. “That was where I first began to develop a wine program.”In 1988, Jay left Aspen and, after a brief stint on Maui, went to work for Southern Wines and Spirits managing restaurant accounts in San Francisco. These were heady times in the city with great restaurants and a thriving wine community. “I told myself I would never do anything I wouldn’t enjoy, but I also wanted to be a professional. If I was going to do something, I wanted to do it well,” he says.He succeeded. Jay took a job with Kendall Jackson Wine Estates, which was about to explode on the wine scene. Reporting directly to the iconic Jess Jackson, Jay worked in sales, marketing and distribution for seven years, helping the brand become one of the most successful in the industry.He moved to Cuvaison Estate Wines in 1998 in a marketing position and four years later (the same time it took him to go from dishwasher to executive chef at the Crystal Palace) he was named the winery’s president. Cuvaison specializes in growing and producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in one the world’s sweetest spots for Burgundian varietals, Napa Valley’s Carneros district.Since Jay’s tenure at Cuvaison began, the majority of the estate’s 260 acres of vineyards in Carneros have been replanted, a state of the art winery, also in Carneros, was built and opened in 2004, and their historic property in Calistoga was transformed into a contemporary tasting room. The Schmidheiny family from Switzerland owns the winery and Jay noted that virtually every penny of profit has gone back into improving these special properties. Today the Estate produces about 50,000 cases.One of Jay’s proudest achievements has been the establishment of Brandlin Cabernet Sauvignon as a separate label. In 1998 Cuvaison purchased the historic Brandlin Vineyard on Mt. Veeder. While the obvious thing would have been to use the Cuvaison name for the wine produced there, Jay wanted to honor the family that had planted the vines on the property in 1926, pioneering this special growing region. He proposed that the wine be named for the Brandlin family with no direct mention of Cuvaison on the label. It was a bold suggestion, but one that reflected character. After a bit of internal discussion, much of which centered on whether Jay was crazy or not, the decision was made to go with his suggestion. Today the premium Bordeaux blends from Brandlin are some of Napa’s most respected wines.Perhaps his lesson about not compromising, learned long ago in Aspen, proved valuable.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.