Forward-Thinking California Winemakers Creating Change Through Innovation and Sustainability

Have you ever wondered how wine was first made? The origins aren’t definitive, but the earliest evidence of ancient wine production points to Georgia around 6000 BC, with Iran and Sicily following suit shortly after. Later, thanks to the influx of mass trading throughout the Mediterranean into the East, widespread wine production reached many corners of the old world.

How grapes turned into wine remained a mystery — even to the wine producers themselves —until French chemist Louis Pasteur defined the biological process of fermentation in 1857. Pasteur found that yeast lived naturally on the skins of grapes, so when the first vintners used their bare feet to crush grapes to extract juice, the natural sugar and yeast from the fruit worked together to start the fermentation process, thus creating wine.

There have been many significant innovations in wine making throughout time, including design. In ancient times, Egyptians used clay pots to store their wine. Later on, Romans discovered that wine could be stored in glass bottles. However, the popular shape and design that we all know didn’t come into fruition until the mid-1800s. For functionality’s sake, wine bottles were often green to prevent oxidation and UV light damage, and punts were included on the bottom to catch sediment. Now the patented punt design is a recognized icon for all wine enthusiasts around the world.

A new chapter in the wine industry — one focused on innovation and change — is being written right now by some of California’s most progressive winemakers. The pages aren’t perfect, but they’re great works in progress — perhaps some of the best progress that’s ever been made in the American wine industry in the areas of regenerative farming, sustainability and social equity. We’ve identified a shortlist of California wineries that are helping write the pages of this new chapter, while also producing delicious wines that are entirely worth seeking out. We hope that in addition to discovering a new favorite house wine, you’ll be inspired to support their great causes. 

RAEN Winery and Monarch Tractor

Raen Winery and Monarch Contractor
Photo courtesy of Bonafide Productions

Carlo Mondavi, Cofounder and Winemaker; Chief Farming Officer   

It’s never a given that the next generation follows in the footsteps of the previous, but in the case of the Mondavi family, farming and winemaking are truly all in the family. Carlo Mondavi, the son of Tim Mondavi and grandson of Napa legend Robert Mondavi, fell in love with wine while growing up around it at Robert Mondavi Winery and Opus One. Carlo says that his dad, Tim, is his greatest teacher when it comes to wine. When Carlo decided to make a go at the family business, he set his own sights on pinot noir. 

He worked at Domaine Dujac, a relative newcomer to Burgundy established in 1967 in Morey-St.-Denis, France, and learned the art of making polished, finesse-driven wines. Back stateside, Mondavi (and brother Dante Mondavi), began looking for true Sonoma Coast micro-climates that were capable of producing ethereal, delicate wines from terroirs that might “sit alongside the grand crus of the world,” as Mondavi puts it. “It took us a decade,” he says, but they settled on sites in the Sonoma Coast, Freestone-Occidental and Fort Ross-Seaview AVAs. They established RAEN winery (an acronym for Research in Agriculture and Enology Naturally), and in 2013 introduced three pinot noir wines: Royal St. Robert, Bodega Vineyard and Sea Field Vineyard. Today, they continue to produce highly sought-after, complex, structured, lovely wines.  

In 2018, Carlo set his sights on another goal inspired by the plight of the monarch butterfly. The butterfly’s migratory path — straight through a large portion of California’s millions of acres of farmland — has run into decades of herbicidal sprays that have decimated its population from millions to thousands and landed it on the endangered species list. Eyeing the innovations in electric, self-driving cars, Mondavi cofounded Monarch Tractor, a company that produces fully electric tractors with self-driving capabilities to “get away from fossil fuels in farming and stop the use of herbicides,” he explains. Most tractors run on diesel gas, and most farmers spray so they don’t have to mow. Mondavi’s solution is to have farms run electric tractors, which are quiet, don’t pollute the air, and can allow farmers to stop spraying, which will save farms millions of dollars spent on chemical sprays and could even make family farms profitable. “Biodiversity is how our planet thrives, and I believe that creating balance is important for our survival,” he says.

Trois Noix Wine

Trois Noix Wine
Photo courtesy of Jaime Araujo

Jaime Araujo, Founder and Vintner 

After an early career as a stage and film actress, Jaime Araujo segued to a life in wine. She attended the University of Bordeaux and then worked in the London wine scene. It was a natural shift. Her parents, Bart and Daphne Araujo, had moved to Napa in 1990, bought Eisele Vineyard, and established the iconic Araujo Estate (today, they own Accendo Cellars.) 

Araujo, who is also a partner in Accendo Cellars, established St. Helena-based Trois Noix (which means “three nuts,” a reference to family) in 2013 with a single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon from Coombsville. Her focus on producing “beautiful, delightful wines of freshness and balance, with a light touch” extends to a diverse portfolio of white, pink and red wines today. Araujo credits winemaker Françoise Peschon (who makes Accendo) as one of her top mentors.

At Trois Noix, Araujo shines a light on inclusivity and diversity in wine to foster a space “where everyone is welcome,” she says. “We support various initiatives each year and choose two specific ‘Possibility Partners’ with whom we work more closely.” In 2022, the team chose Batonnage, an annual forum focused on supporting women in wine and Hispanics in Wine, which provides education and career resources to the wine industry community of Hispanic and LatinX workers. Trois Noix, a certified B Corp, is certified Napa Green as well, committed to positive climate action, regenerative practices and social equity. 

Massican Wines

Massican Wines
Photo courtesy of Cadet Wine and Beer

Dan Petroski, Founder and Winemaker 

Seventeen years ago, Dan Petroski took a sabbatical from a publishing career in New York City to live in Italy and work on a vineyard in Sicily. He had no intention of becoming a winemaker, but in 2006, he ended up in Sonoma County working a harvest for Andy Smith at DuMOL. Smith recognized Petroski’s potential and hired him as the cellarmaster at Larkmead in Calistoga. Six years later, Petroski was named winemaker, on his way to fashioning 100-point cabernet wines of his own. 

But that Italian obsession held sway, and in 2009, with the desire to create California white wine blends in a Mediterranean style, he launched Massican. Working with rare Italian varieties, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, he began crafting fresh, floral, citrusy and salty wines in that quintessential Mediterranean white style. Today, Massican makes six white wines, including a unique bottling for Whole Foods, and Petroski is working on a global collaboration project with a handful of winemaking friends that are making their personal versions of Massican wine. 

After the Napa fires in 2017, Eric Asimov of The New York Times asked Petroski if he thought the fires were a result of climate change. “I couldn’t answer that question scientifically,” Petroski says. But he began looking into it. What he looked into was three data points from Larkmead records — the vineyard, the climate during the vintage and the winemaker’s influence — and he realized that the growing season at Larkmead shifted 45 days forward. Alarmed, he reasoned that “if climate alone can move the agricultural needle two weeks in a span of 10–12 years,” it was worth focusing on. Petroski has written op-eds, hosted seminars, joined the board of directors of Napa Valley Grapegrowers and Napa Green, and is “committed to creating awareness and solutions for preserving and protecting the vineyards of Napa Valley.”

Scheid Family Wines

Scheid Family Wines
Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Fall Photography

Heidi Scheid, Executive Vice President and Casey DiCesare, Winemaker 

Scheid Family Wines began as the Monterey Farming Corporation in 1972 when Al Scheid purchased land in Monterey and became a grape grower. The first wines under the Scheid Vineyards label rolled off the bottling line in 1989 with less than 100 cases of cabernet sauvignon. Today, the family portfolio includes roughly 12,000 cases of wine produced annually and features a host of fantastic names: Sunny With a Chance of Flowers (a zero-sugar, low-alcohol wine), Grandeur (an organically certified wine), VDR (Very Dark Red) and HOXIE (an artisanal dry wine spritzer), to name a few, along with their namesake label showcasing varietal-wines and blends from the Monterey appellation. 

Winemaker Casey DiCesare joined as an assistant enologist in 2017 and was named winemaker in 2020. DiCesare oversees the production of nuanced and elegant wines with moderate alcohol, not overly oaked and true to varietal character. “We’re at the forefront of making wines with limited inputs, as well as offering greater label transparency regarding nutrition facts and ingredients,” DiCesare says.

And with winemaking in sound hands, Executive Vice President Heidi Scheid, Al’s daughter, has time to focus on the family’s numerous sustainability initiatives. Between renewable energy and community-focused programs, Scheid is a real thought-leader in these spaces. Their “most visible” work, Scheid muses, is their 400-foot wind turbine. Since 2017, the family has been powered by 100% renewable wind energy. In 2021, “Our turbine output resulted in 3,125 tons of avoided carbon dioxide emissions,” says Scheid (the equivalent of driving 611 gas-based cars for one year). They supply enough energy back to the grid to power more than 125 homes in their community. The winery gives back, as well: Since 1988, the family has awarded $400,000 in scholarship money to local high school students through their annual Scheid Writing Contest. 

Turning Tide Wines

Turning Tide Wines
Photo courtesy of Turning Tide Wines

Alisa Jacobson, Owner and Winemaker 

Turning Tide founder Alisa Jacobson is an avid environmentalist and outdoor enthusiast. Jacobson’s early work in the cellars at Joseph Phelps in Napa introduced her to then-winemaker Sarah Gott, who was starting a family project, Joel Gott Wines, with her husband. In 2003, they hired Jacobson, and she stuck with the Gotts until branching out to launch Turning Tide, which debuted in 2020. Today, she produces structured Oregon pinot noirs alongside lush chardonnay, a minerally chenin blanc-based white blend, a rich and delicious grenache-based red blend, a zippy picpoul, and crisp sauvignon blanc and rosé from appellations throughout California’s Central Coast, mostly in Santa Ynez Valley. Jacobson also makes a California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) organically certified sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon for Whole Foods.

“The organically farmed Sojeau Vineyard in Oregon’s Eola Amity Hills inspired me to start Turning Tide,” Jacobson explains. “The wines from the site were so alive and vibrant and inspired me to make wines that highlight the purity of grapes farmed organically.” Then, she zeroed in on packaging. The idea that a heavy bottle equates to quality is a notion that Jacobson says “needs to end.” She only uses lightweight recyclable glass and recyclable labels printed with compostable ink. 

When not focused on lightly oaked, low-alcohol, no residual sugar and low-sulfite wines, she is actively involved in climate initiatives. Jacobson is a West Coast Smoke Exposure Task Force member, working on research aimed at protecting wine growers and grape buyers during fire events. She is also the co-chair of the Unified Grape and Wine Symposium Program Development Committee — the largest grape and wine production event in the US. “I’m doing everything I can to help others working in wine to use less water in farming and production and reduce harmful pesticides and herbicides,” she says. On top of that, she debuted a brand of cabernet called “AJ” that includes a nutrition label on the back.