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Winemaker Interview: Sean Capiaux of O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery


Fall Release Party

My wife and I attended the 2016 Fall Release Party for O’Shaughnessy Winery prior to the interview (had to pick-up our allocation 🙂 ) and we thoroughly enjoyed the event. Their 2016 vintage was excellent, expressing the hallmark of premium wine: approachability AND ageability. The wines showed impeccable balance, incorporating structure, fruit character and texture in the right measure. The gathering took place on top of Howell Mountain in their winery caves, creating an enjoyable ambiance for the event.  We had a chance to talk with several loyal friends of the winery and found the clientele to be generally quite knowledgeable about the product and the industry. From our discussions with the crowd, we had an interesting discovery. The mailing list was open to quite a broad group, allowing access to their wines in small quantities. For an expensive ultra-premium winery, this is unusual and refreshing. Many cannot afford to buy a case at this price point. I appreciate the winery’s philosophy not to limit access based on quantity of purchases…

Winemaking: Art, Science, or Process Management?

The interview took place at the new winery located on Mt. Veeder. A new label was being introduced and Mr. Capiaux wanted to show off the new facility… but this interview was about O’Shaughnessy wines, using Howell Mountain AVA as the backdrop. We worked our way through the list of typical questions: vineyard management, fruit quality, winemaking techniques, etc. This interview turned out to be unique, but in a subtle way that took time for me to understand. I can usually work my way through a short list of issues within the industry, before I hit on a topic that taps into a winemaker’s passion, or industry activism. In this interview, I was not able to identify his focus easily. It required more effort and insight. Mr. Capiaux was the ultimate professional, providing what I would call “accurate answers”. He was definitely well-trained with experience galore, reviewing the specifics of non-interventionist, old-world style winemaking. This is not an uncommon approach for ultra-premium wines produced from fruit originating in world-class vineyards (Howell Mountain AVA). Allowing the wine to express the character of the terroir is classic winemaking tradition. As we walked through the new winery I came to realize, this winemaker was not sharing his interest in production technology, or artistic approach… he was genuinely excited about his ability to engage precise control over the winemaking process. The notable take-away from the interview was how he went about criticizing newer winemaking techniques in the U.S. as gimmicky and unnecessary. Mr. Capiaux believes in working with the best fruit and letting great wine happen. The O’Shaughnessy success is in implementing that process fully. Their wine is a product of tight control over each stage of winemaking from harvest to bottle. Believe me, these are some of the most classically structured wines I have ever tasted. I have been a customer of the O’Shaughnessy Winery for several years now and even past difficult vintages have been of notable quality…

Analyzing this approach begs the question: What comprises quality winemaking?

  • artistic expression from a trained palate
  • a chemistry exercise
  • … or tight process control?

You would think the best answer is all three. My exposure to the industry has proven this to be far from reality. Different winemakers, different wineries… emphasize these elements with differing levels of importance.  As I taste more producers with this in mind, I may be starting to identify these different philosophies in the wine. Does this provide a meaningful experience? Perhaps not, but I enjoy feeling connected to the goals and vision of the producers I truly appreciate…

Does the Story Matter?

Does a winery’s story really need to capture the imagination to draw a clientele? I have been through dozens of conversations with winery owners, winemakers and marketing managers on this topic. One thing is clear, a message helps. Which of these messages do you think drives marketing success in the wine industry?

  • Romance – winemaker as artist, field tasting and adjusting multi-pass harvest timing until the winery’s blend matches just the perfect expression of his/her vision
  • Technology – a $1M+ equipment and lab budget that breaks winemaking down into precise measurement and management of sugar, acidity, tannin, esters and phenols
  • Control – as at O’Shaughnessy, precise management of the processes

Such a premium product, reflects a winery working with superior fruit, utilizing experience and process/quality management to deliver ultra-premium wine. Whether Mr. Capiaux views this philosophy to be his “passion” (or not), O’Shaughnessy needs to tell this story. The workman-like commitment to quality is what starts with great fruit and delivers great wine.

Below, you will find a photo of the beautiful wine library in the caves at O’Shaughnessy and the winery tasting notes for the 2016 release. By the way, yes… that is me you can barely see in the back of the first pic!

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