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Father-Son Duo Andy and Jesse Katz Spent 30 Years Photographing Global Vineyards. Now They’re Making Award-Winning Wines

Jesse Katz, owner of Aperture Cellars, a California vineyard, removes the plug from a Malbec barrel and listens intensely. “Can you hear the wine talking?” he asks me. I shake my head, thinking he’s joking, but Jesse suggests I hold my ear closer to the barrel. I do as he says and finally discern a gentle crackle, fainter than Rice Krispies snapping in milk. “That’s the sound of malolactic fermentation—the lactic acid bacteria making wine,” he tells me.

“Do you listen to your wines often?” I can’t help but ask. “Oh, yes, especially during harvest,” he answers. “And not just to the barrels. I listen to my grape sorter too,” he says of his ultra-high-tech operation that uses high-speed cameras and computers to select only the most perfect grapes. “If it doesn’t make that consistent hum, something’s wrong.” Soon, he’ll be able to listen to his grapes growing too. He’s working with a consulting company to monitor sap levels in the vines.

By the time Jesse turned 38 two years ago, he had been named the first winemaker on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, a rising star by Wine Spectator and then made into Wine Enthusiast’s 40 Under 40 too. Yet, his path to winemaking has been beyond unusual. To succeed at the exceptionally complex and nuanced art and science of winemaking, usually one must be born into a family that has done this for generations. No one in Jesse’s family ever farmed or fermented anything, let alone grapes into award-winning libations. You can say he grew into winemaking by traveling the world until he sprouted roots in California’s rolling hills, just like his grapevines.

The many journeys that led to winemaking

Born in Boulder, Colorado, Jesse grew up globetrotting the planet with his father, Andy Katz, a peripatetic lensman who photographed everything from American rock and roll stars to Cuban cigar-rolling grandmothers to India’s temples. “Jesse was 6 months old when I brought him with me on our first trip,” Andy recalls—and he never stopped taking him along. “A lot of my childhood memories are about traveling with my father and my family,” Jesse says—and they were far-flung trips. “I think I was 16 months old on my first international trip to Japan, and we were in Japan four times before I turned 5.”

Jesse Katz was a natural at traveling. He settled into the scenery, whether it was a plane, a dinner at a high-end restaurant or raw wilderness. “He was certainly a much better kid than I was,” Andy quips. “I’ve gotten into a lot more trouble than he did. He was a very easy person to be with and got along with everyone and made friends.”  Traveling so much meant that Jesse missed school fairly often, but he never fell behind, a fact he credits to his mother. “My mom did a really amazing job of talking to all my teachers, making sure that I stayed on track,” he says. Sometimes when he came back, he discovered that he was actually ahead of his class. He traveled to over 80 countries before he graduated from high school.

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Globetrotting photographers

Their trips were very different from the usual father-son jaunts. They lived in a van traveling around Europe long before “van life” became trendy. They spent weeks driving through India’s rugged countryside and one day woke up next to a massive sinkhole that wasn’t there the night before. Jesse credits his ability to adapt to almost anything to the fact that growing up he saw so much of the world and its people. “I think that because of my father exposing me to a lot of different unique cultures, types of people and unique places, it really shaped me and gave me an incredible perspective of how to work with and collaborate and be friends with a lot of different people who were not like me.” That skill, which became his second nature, has come in handy.

As Jesse grew older, he became Andy’s right hand. He fetched tripods, held the lights and changed lenses, well-versed in the photographer lingo. “I’d say, ‘Jesse put the 35 1.4 on,’ and he knew exactly which lens that was,” Andy recalls. Travel and work could get hectic, but they almost never argued. “Somebody once asked us, ’Did you guys ever disagree, you ever get into arguments?’” Andy shares. “And I said, ‘I can’t really remember any.’”

A first taste in France

When Jesse was 12, Andy started bringing him to California’s wine country to photograph vineyards in Napa and Sonoma. There, Andy met Robert Mondavi, the famous American winemaker, who convinced him to do a vineyard photography book. The wine country was beautiful, but Jesse was bored. “There wasn’t a ton to do,” he recalls. “Everyone was all excited about this beverage that no one was letting me try.” But then, a couple of years later, when Jesse was about 14, Andy started working on a photo book about the Burgundy wine region. In France, the attitude toward wine tasting was more relaxed, so one time at dinner a sommelier poured a little splash of wine into Jesse’s glass. “I remember looking at my parents the first time I had a glass of wine in front of me, like, am I gonna get in trouble for doing this?” he recalls. But they gave him the go-ahead for a sip.

As he helped his father photograph French and Italian vineyards, Jesse began associating wine tastes with their geographical locations—the key point in the concept terroir.  “That was my first a-ha moment of how a place has such a distinct interaction with that final product,” he says, but it wasn’t until age 18 that he realized he wanted to work with wine for a living.

Combining art and science to become the first winemaker in the family

After his first year of college, Jesse Katz realized he could turn winemaking into a vocation. He finished his junior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, studying business economics and took a summer job in the Santa Ynez Valley, where quaint vineyards dot the countryside.

“I thought that was probably my only time to be able to work in a winery,” he says—and then it all began to fall into place. He learned about viticulture, the science of growing and harvesting grapes. He studied enology, the process of making wine that focuses on achieving the desirable taste characteristics. “That was when I saw that there was a career path,” he says—for someone like him, who wasn’t born into a generational winemaking family.

When he shared his plan with his father, Andy was excited for him. “I thought it was perfect because wine is half art, half science, and Jesse was very good at both of them. And I just thought it was a perfect marriage of the two, so I was thrilled.”

Committing to winemaking 

Jesse transferred to California State University, Fresno, because the school had a full working winery on campus. “Being the first winemaker in my family, I knew I needed a lot of hands-on experience, so I worked in the winery the entire time I was at Fresno while also going to school.” He graduated in December 2007 when California’s grape harvest season was over and job prospects were slim. So he flew to Argentina where summer was in full swing and spent the next few months working at Bodega Noemia in Río Negro, famous for its Malbec, a red grape variety. While Jesse was there, Andy came to visit a few times. “He was very happy there, so I knew this was going to work out well for him,” Andy recalls. “There was no question in my mind.”

For the next several years, Jesse Katz traveled around the world to work at various well-known wineries and vineyards, not unlike young chefs who do apprenticeships at celebrated restaurants to gain culinary poise. He worked at the famed Château Pétrus in France. He came back to a different region in Argentina to work in Viña Cobos in the Province of Mendoza, then spent time working at the Screaming Eagle in California. When he turned 25, he landed a job at the Lancaster Estate winery as a headmaster winemaker.

Launching Aperture Cellars to rave reviews

In 2009, while still at the Lancaster Estate, Jesse Katz launched his own brand, naming it Aperture Cellars, at his father’s suggestion. Andy joined in and helped finance the initial tiny operation. “When we first started, we were making 60 cases of wine or 100 cases of wine,” he recalls. Jesse slowly grew his brand, acquiring small vineyards in Sonoma County with the promising terroir. In 2015, he left his headmaster winemaking job and ventured out on his own.

He rose to stardom fast. Top wine critics like Robert Parker and the International Wine Report consistently gave him top ratings. Justin Timberlake served Katz’s wine at his wedding to Jessica Biel. Tony Hawk hired him as his wine adviser. In 2021, a bottle of 2019 cabernet sauvignon he made sold for a record-setting $1 million at the Emeril Lagasse Foundation annual charity wine auction. Altogether, over the years, Jesse’s wines have raised about $6 million for various causes. “Collaborating with athletes and celebrities has been exciting because of how much money we’ve been able to raise for charities,” Jesse says.

Jesse Katz, winemaker

Despite all the glamor, Jesse didn’t change—his attention still focused on the art and science of making the most evocative wines possible, with his father still his best friend and partner. They split responsibilities. Andy focuses on the aesthetics of the tasting rooms. He also designs labels for the bottles using his award-winning photos. During the pandemic, Andy spent two years photographing America’s National Parks. When the book, titled A Walk in the Park came out, the father-son team turned Aperture Estate’s tasting halls into a gallery featuring the best images. “It works out quite well because we really just collaborate on elements that each one of us is very skilled at in our own realm,” Jesse says. “We collaborate so we can showcase each other’s artwork in a unique way.”

Photo by Lina Zeldovich.

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