Despite the dear price of land, grapes, equipment and marketing in Napa Valley, John Lockwood is showing that someone with little experience and less capital still can secure a toehold in the nation’s most precious and competitive wine region.
All it takes is pluck and smarts. A few patient and seasoned guides, a market-savvy girlfriend and a roommate to help offset the high cost of living in Napa Valley also help.
As a consequence, over the past five years Lockwood’s brand, Enfield Wine Co., has become known for wines of character, distinction and finesse. He makes only around 1,000 cases per vintage and prices them modestly by Napa Valley standards, which helps explain why they sell fast and can be virtually impossible to find if you aren’t on his mailing list.
Lockwood has no vineyard, no winery and no tasting room, and his frank labels say he hasn’t thrown a lot of money to a graphics designer.
“When I started Enfield it wasn’t intended to be more than a side project,” says Lockwood. “It was an avenue for me to explore my winemaking knowledge and to start making the kinds of wines that I knew I wanted to make from vineyards that I thought really had untapped potential.”
But commercial and critical response to his wines was so quick and so positive that he soon was envisioning Enfield as his sole source of income. Thus, last May he struck out on his own after a five-year stint at Napa Valley’s Failla Wines, where he worked alongside Ehren Jordan, one of California’s more exploratory and daring winemakers.
(Another impetus for Lockwood to buckle down on his own brand was the birth of a daughter, London, with his girlfriend, Amy Seese, digital marketing manager for the St. Helena Chamber of Commerce. The two recently announced their engagement.)
From Jordan, he took away two lessons that have helped shape his winemaking philosophy. One is to exercise a light hand in making wine. Thus, he interferes as little as possible. He calls his approach “minimalist.” He prefers, for example, to use wild rather than commercial yeasts, and to let malolactic fermentation develop on its own rather than via inoculation.
The other lesson he learned is to devote as much attention to vineyard as cellar, if not more. “He taught me both how to farm and what a difference it can make in a wine if you apply the same attention and care in the vineyard as you do in the cellar, a cliché that is too often not lived up to in California,” Lockwood says.
Jordan at that time also was winemaker at Turley Cellars in Napa Valley, which provided Lockwood with an introduction to Tegan Passalacqua, then Turley’s vineyard manager and now Turley’s winemaker, succeeding Jordan.
“Tegan really expanded my vision of the wine world in California beyond the coastal areas. He showed me that great soils and old vines can be just as powerful as ‘cooler climates’ in crafting world-class wines,” Lockwood says.
His winemaking quest starts with long-established and well-managed vineyards that haven’t been widely discovered as the sources of exquisite fruit. That lack of celebrity also suppresses the price that their grapes can command, a not-insignificant consideration for cash-strapped Lockwood.
In his odyssey he’s finding grapes to his liking in such far-flung and largely unheralded enclaves as Wild Horse Valley in eastern Napa County and western Solano County, Fort Ross in the far northern reaches of the Sonoma County coast, and the Shake Ridge area just east of Sutter Creek in Amador County.
His winemaking style relies mostly on the individuality of the vineyards from which he gathers grapes. “They are sites with real personalities, and they are all farmed by individuals, not by farming companies. Since I am not doing the farming myself at this point, I want to work with real people who walk their vineyards and who pay personal attention to them,” Lockwood says.
His wines are notable for their expressiveness, individuality, moderate alcohol and conservative application of oak. They aren’t lean in the traditional European way, but neither are they California bullies. They are forward with fruit, speaking forthrightly of grape variety. They’re also infiltrated with seams of earthiness to highlight the particular site where the fruit was grown.
He makes his wines at Punchdown Cellars, a collective crush facility in Santa Rosa.
The Enfield 2012 Wild Horse Valley Heron Lake Vineyard Chardonnay ($36) is a broad and deep take on the varietal, remarkable for its assertive freshness, lemony flavor, silken feel and bright acidity. “I try to let the vineyard speak as much as possible,” Lockwood says. “I think I pick at lower sugar levels than most winemakers in California,” he adds by way of explaining the wine’s modest 13.1 percent alcohol.
During the 2013 harvest Lockwood got some Heron Lake Vineyard chardonnay that was riper than he customarily prefers. As a measure of the risks he’s willing to take, he used the grapes to produce his first “orange wine,” a chardonnay that he fermented on its grape skins for three weeks, giving the wine a deep bronze color. The wine’s only resemblance to the 2012 is an aroma evocative of lemonade, or lemon tea sweetened with honey, with a few kaffir-lime leaves also tossed into the pot. It is spicier and has more weight than the 2012, and is drier and more sternly structured. It’s a novelty sure to startle chardonnay enthusiasts, but it succeeds in showing off the versatility of the grape, the uniqueness of the vineyard and the winemaking acumen of Lockwood. It also sells for $36.
To be released this spring is the buoyant Enfield 2012 Amador County Shake Ridge Vineyard Tempranillo ($35), an unusually light-bodied interpretation of the varietal with flavors of juicy cherries and freshly harvested tobacco leaves just hung to dry.
Also coming up is my favorite wine that we tasted, the savory and lushly aromatic Enfield 2013 Fort Ross Seaview Coryelle Fields Vineyard Syrah ($35). Its teasing suggestion of lavender in the scent is just the crack in a door that opens onto a ballroom packed with extravagant fruit dusted with twists of pungent black pepper.
Lockwood, who grew up in Washington, D.C. – his father had clerked for Thurgood Marshall and his mother had worked for Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine –didn’t see himself as grape grower or winemaker. After earning degrees in geology and physics at Bowdoin Collge in Brunswick, Maine, he knew he was an outdoorsy science nerd, “but I didn’t have any vision of where I was going to go.”
He drifted through New Mexico to San Francisco, where he arrived in 2002 without a job or place to live. Celebrated Oakland guitar builder Ervin Somogyi became impressed with woodworking talents Lockwood had developed in high school. He was hired.
Two years later just before grape harvest, Napa Valley grower David Mahaffey, himself a woodworker, strolled into Somogyi’s shop. Lockwood, who was nurturing a growing interest in wine, struck up a conversation with Mahaffey. “If you come up this weekend and help out I’ll buy you lunch,” Lockwood recalls Mahaffey saying.
“I’d expected to build guitars indefinitely,” Lockwood says, but he fell hard for the vineyard scene and went to work for Mahaffey.
He subsequently worked for another star among California’s new-wave winemakers, pinot-noir specialist Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines in Sebastopol. “That was my first exposure to the subtleties of terroir in California, and the serious hard work and holistic vision that go into the understanding of building, expressing and protecting that terroir,” Lockwood says.
By 2010, Lockwood was ready to start Enfield, his middle name. (The name “Lockwood” already had been taken by a Monterey winery.)
Lockwood is energetic and upbeat and looks at the uncertain future with equal measures of realism and optimism. “This past harvest, the fifth harvest for Enfield, is the first harvest where we were able to make enough wine to even consider pulling a salary out in 2016, when that wine comes to market, seven years after the business started,” Lockwood says.
“We are definitely still not out of the woods,” he adds. “We will soon be married with a kid, yet we still live with a housemate, and vacations are a thing of distant memory.”
Still, he talks of the couple eventually having their own winery, or sharing space with another producer. “And at some point I do aspire to own a vineyard that I can farm, for that is why I got into this in the first place, but that’s all just gravy at this point.”
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Enfield Wine Co.
The only Sacramento wine outlet with Enfield wines is The Kitchen, which offers one of his Heron Lake Vineyard chardonnays and a syrah of uncommon power and finesse from the Haynes Vineyard in the Coombsville sub-appellation of Napa Valley.
To order Enfield wines directly, visit the website enfieldwine.com.