New Producer: Napa Knockout - Massimo di Costanzo

New Producer: Napa Knockout - Massimo di Costanzo

Thursday 1st September 2016
by Julian Campbell

Massimo di Costanzo is the up-and-coming talent from Napa Valley, whose wines have really impressed. Making wine in tiny quantities, the adage good things come in small packages, or in this case parcels, has never be so astute. The 2013 vintage is one Napa knockout you will not want to miss out on...

We asked Massimo a few questions to give us a real insight into the innermost workings of this exquisite winery and just why, for Massimo, the simplicity of wine and the culture of wine is as much a necessity as it is a way of life. Read on to find out more...

Justerinis: We’re all very excited about seeing your wines over here in the UK. Can you tell us a little bit about how the project came about? There must have been challenges in building a brand from scratch? 

Massimo: The first day I enrolled in enology courses at UC Davis as an undergraduate, I felt the desire to start my own project.  As I entered the industry and began to apprentice, that desire grew. From graduation day, to the day I purchased my first Cabernet grapes, was a long five years of working and learning. I declassified 2008 and 2009 before working with the Farella Vineyard in 2010, the first year of Di Costanzo.  That year, I made four barrels of wine. The biggest challenge for me was finding the right fruit and vineyard to work with. I wanted to make a single vineyard wine and not all vineyards are worthy of that designation. What drew me to the Farella Vineyard were the volcanic soils (gravelly loam on top of ash deposits), its history of age worthiness, and its more moderate climate in the southern end of Napa Valley. The Farella Vineyard and its particular microclimate helps the grapes achieve physical ripeness at a lower sugar level and with higher natural acidity than other parts of the Napa Valley. This factor allows me to be more “hands off” when the grapes reach the cellar, i.e., use less manipulation to achieve the style I seek.  

Justerinis: How did your interest in wine begin? Were there any particular light-bulb bottles or wine moments that you can remember?

Massimo: My interest in wine began with my early interest in food. I grew up in a very southern Italian home in Berkeley, California and good food was a way of life.  I enjoyed procuring quality ingredients, preparing the meal, and seeing the pleasure that it brought to all. Wine was a natural extension of this and I soon became interested in the wonder that is wine. Berkeley has a great wine culture and the important wine importer, Kermit Lynch, was just down the road.

There were two moments that really solidified wine as a career path.  The first was when I was 19 and lived in Positano, Italy for a month one summer, with my grandparents. Each day I would come back from the beach at 1pm to my grandparents house for lunch.  My grandmother would prepare a 3-4 course meal and it was my job to prepare the wine. I would get two pitchers, one for me and one for my grandfather, fill it with ice and I would peel and slice summer peaches over the ice. I would then go to the demi-john with a tube in hand and siphon out the local red wine. I loved the simplicity of the wine and this culture of wine as necessity and as a way of life. It might not have been what some people consider fine wine, but it was perfection in my mind for that time and place.   

My second memorable wine experience was when I was 21 travelling through France on a wine tour with some of my classmates from University.  We found our way to JL Chave and were able to taste those wines from barrel. I had never experienced aromas and flavors like those coming from the glass. This was art, this was beauty, and this is what I wanted to dedicate my life to.   

Justerinis: You’re originally from Napa, but spent some time working at some pretty illustrious wineries abroad. Did that have a big impact on what you’re making today? 

Massimo: I have been fortunate enough to travel and work in other wine regions of the world. I’ve spent vintages in Italy at Tenute Tignanello, in South Africa at Rustenberg working with Adi Badenhorst, and in Argentina at Clos des los Siete. These travels shaped me in many ways, but more than anything else I learned about myself as a winemaker and as a citizen of the world.

Justerinis: Could you tell us a little about the Farella vineyard, and Combsville in general. Most people over here won’t be too familiar with this part of Napa.

Massimo: Coombsville is Napa Valley's newest AVA (American Viticultural Area), and the petition to create this region was written by Tom Farella himself, with whom I worked for many years. The Farella Vineyard the best example of Coombsville I can think of, boasting volcanic tuff soils, cool nights thanks to the proximity to the San Pablo Bay, and warm days which permit even ripening. It has long been a site for superior Napa Valley wines, growing mainly Chardonnay in decades past, and now enjoying a reputation for fine Cabernet Sauvignon with fresh acidity and age-ability. On a given day in the peak of summertime, it is 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler in Coombsville than it is in Calistoga, just 25 miles north. It’s an ideal place to create wines with balance and polish.

Justerinis: What is your stylistic vision for Di Costanzo Cabernet Sauvignon? How much of that is the vineyard, and how much what you do to the fruit?

Massimo: My stylistic vision is to create a wine that is alive, complex, is representative of the vintage, and that will evolve gracefully over time. These are my goals as a winemaker and the vision I set forth for my wine.  

Justerinis: What are your winemaking practices – and how do you use technology in the winery? What factors are most important to you in deciding when to harvest? And how does this impact the wine in your eyes?

Massimo: I believe technology should be very limited in the cellar when it comes to vin de garde.  I do not believe in filtering red wine, reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation, or any other manipulative tools.  These are tools for commercial wine that are supposed to taste the same year in and year out and have no place in the wines that I produce.

Justerinis: Your first vintage was 2010 – how is that looking today? And compared to your more recent vintages?

Massimo: My first vintage, 2010, is one of my favorite wines to date.  It was a wonderfully cool vintage here in Napa Valley and the wine has terrific structure and acidity.  I used 25% new oak, because, honestly, that was all I could personally afford.  The people that were lucky enough to purchase this wine are in for a treat.

Justerinis: Who are your Napa valley winemaking heroes – and whose wines do you most admire and enjoy, stylistically?

Massimo: My Napa Valley winemaking heroes are:  Philip Togni, Christian Mouiex, Ric Forman, Cathy Corison.  They are my heroes because they have stayed true to their style and make wines that I am proud to have and age in my cellar.
Justerinis: Money no object, which wines or producers (from around the world) would you like to drink more of?

Massimo: Back when I worked at Screaming Eagle Winery, our team was fortunate enough to travel to Bordeaux and taste the top crus from the best houses. Vieux Chateau-Certain was a standout then, as today, and I’d welcome that in my cellar. The aforementioned Chave is still a favorite. And here at a local restaurant, PRESS, we are lucky enough to get access to older California bottlings from the 1950s – 1990s that I find continually inspiring. Old Inglenook, Dunn, Ridge and Stony Hill wines keep me very excited.

Justerinis: What does critical acclaim mean to you?

Massimo: I try not to think about critical acclaim too much, although the small amount that Di Costanzo has received has brought interest to my project and helps me sustain it.  For that I am grateful. It is not easy to stand out in the sea of brands in Napa Valley.  So to be found and pulled out of the proverbial “haystack” is very helpful. You cannot make wine by committee, so I know that I must stay true to my own vision for Di Costanzo, whatever the current trends might be.

Justerinis: What is your definition of a great wine?

Massimo: A great wine should take over all of ones senses and most likely, make you want to shed a tear.

Justerinis: What is the future of Di Costanzo?

Massimo:The future of Di Costanzo is to hopefully make world class wines that stand the test of time and that can stand with the best wines of the world. This year, 2016, I will be bringing a new vineyard online, and the goal is to make that a second Di Costanzo vineyard designate wine.  I’ll have that answer in a couple of years.  This industry is a patient man’s game.

You can find Di Costanzo's spectacular 2013 vintage here.