Our family heritage would disappear without the winery | AspenTimes.com

Our family heritage would disappear without the winery

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen CO, Colorado
Paul Conrad The Aspen Times
Paul Conrad | The Aspen Times

ASPEN Eleven years ago, Clay Mauritson hit his father, Tom, with an idea to start a wine-making business. The elder Mauritson took a dim view of the notion: He thought I had had one too many concussions, said Clay, who had, in fact, suffered several injuries, but mostly to his shoulder, during his linebacking days at the University of Oregon.Despite Toms dismissal of the idea, making wine was hardly far-fetched. The Mauritson family had been growing grapes on its land, in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County, for six generations a blip in time by Tuscany standards, but practically an eternity in California. Ever since the mid-1800s, when Swedish immigrant and family patriarch S.P. Hallengren managed to bypass Minnesota and inexplicably settle among the Italians in Sonoma County, wine has been a staple on the Mauritson dinner table. Tom Mauritson had a sign in his kitchen A Day Without Wine Is Like a Day Without Sunshine and he lived by it.But growing grapes and drinking wine were on one side of the divide; making wine was on the other. And for five generations from the time that Hallengren devoted a small portion of his sheep ranch to grape vineyards, through Prohibition and the subsequent explosion of Californias wine-making industry that line didnt get crossed.As a kid, Clay Mauritson learned all too well what it was to live as a grape-grower. While the other kids played, Clay and his siblings picked grapes, tended to the vines, delivered semi-trucks full of produce to area wineries. It was torturous work, and when he went off to college, Mauritson not only escaped to Oregon, not only studied marketing and finance, but joined the football team, as a walk-on, to make sure his summers were occupied somewhere other than his familys vineyards. Earlier, Mauritson had been recruited fairly strenuously by most of the PAC-10 schools, but a high school shoulder injury tempered the interest somewhat. When he re-injured the shoulder before his senior year, and his rehab effort ultimately failed, he found himself staring at his first summer off in ages.I went back to California, and first thing, my dad tried to put me back on the ranch, said Mauritson, a friendly and well-spoken 32-year-old. I said, No way in hell Im working on the vineyards. And he said, No way in hell youre sitting on the couch all summer.So they found a sort-of compromise. Mauritson took an internship with the nearby Kenwood Vineyards, found his way under the wing of winemaker Mike Lee, and discovered that, while growing grapes was a chore, making wine was a passion.Sometimes you truly do not know what you have till its gone, he said. Being away from Sonoma County, in the rainy Northwest, makes you really miss Sonoma. And being away from the wine in general I realized I didnt have an appreciation for the wine business and culture.At Kenwood, he developed one. I loved it, he said. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I never recognized the artistry behind it. I had never been on the creative side of it.For several years at Kenwood, he had his nose not only in wine-making, but marketing and other business aspects of the wine industry. So when the Korbel corporation bought out Kenwood, Mauritson saw the coming consolidation of the wine business, and what that could mean for independent grape growers like his father. Mauritson preached to his father about the importance of getting into the wine-making end of the business.My father wasnt in favor of it. He said, Were a farming family, and its kept the lights on for 138 years, recalled Mauritson. So Mauritson started his own company, Mauritson Family Winery, and eventually persuaded his father to co-sign for a loan to launch the venture.For six years Mauritson leased space for his operations; for most of that time, he still worked at Kenwood and did his own wine-making as a side project. But several of his siblings who embraced the vineyards, as Clay had not, and earned degrees in viticulture joined him in the business, and in 2002, he left Kenwood to devote himself to his company. The following year, he built his own winery.Mauritson Family Winery now makes 14 different wines, several of which Mauritson himself will be pouring today in the Grand Tasting Tent at the Food & Wine Classic. Among them are the single-vineyard varietals made from grapes grown on the Rockpile, one of Californias newest appellation; Mauritsons father owns some acreage on the prized ridge, a dramatic piece of land above Lake Sonoma.Mauritson said that the generational knowledge that results in outstanding wines is only beginning to accumulate in the Mauritson family. Still, Mauritson said his wines have been warmly embraced in the industry, and for this, he credits not his wine-making abilities so much as his familys grape-growing.The most important thing Ive learned is that great wine is not made in the winery. Its made in the vineyard, he said. You cant make great wine out of anything less than great grapes. All I want to do in wine-making is let the grapes live up to their full potential. So I learn to listen to each vineyard, each block, to see when to pick them, how to treat them.Four and a half months ago, Mauritson and his wife did their share to ensure that the Mauritson family might extend to seven generations in the grape and wine business. In January, he welcomed his first child, a son named Brady, into the world. But Mauritson believes he did his share to keep the family established in Sonoma Country with the decision he made 12 years ago, to go into wine-making.I think in the long run that our family heritage would disappear without the winery, without our wine-making business, he said. Because now we control our destiny, from the grapes to the glass.stewart@aspentimes.com