Kistler’s Chardonnays are the stuff of legend – but now Steve Kistler has a new project, Occidental, crafting Pinot Noir on the outer reaches of the Sonoma Coast. Vinfolio’s Sophie Thorpe explores the winemaker’s legacy and these two very special estates
Unlike many wine-lovers, I came across Occidental before Kistler. I worked for a company that imported some of its early vintages – and they were like nothing I’d ever tasted. These translucent Pinot Noirs glimmered, but their pastel-pale shade was nothing but a nudge and wink at the Burgundies that inspired them. Aromatics leapt from the glass – floral and febrile, but it was the vivid, intense, crystalline purity of the palate that I found so beguiling. Seeing where these wines are made – on the brink of the Pacific, where ocean breezes lash at the vines, and thick fog grasps the dramatic, undulating landscape – only made them all the more enchanting.
Even today, 18 years after Steve Kistler first put down vines here, the region is sparsely planted – with Occidental one of a handful of pioneers of the outer reaches of the Sonoma Coast. The area was long deemed too cold to ripen fruit, with dairy the main industry – and fields of grazing cattle and sheep are still interspersed with plots of vines. Occidental’s vineyards – now 85 acres in total – now neighbor those of Platt, Littorai and Joseph Phelps’s Quarter Moon site, sitting at 500 feet above sea level – a modest altitude when you consider some of Napa’s mountain districts have parcels above 2,000 feet. But it’s their proximity to the ocean (which is just five miles away) that makes the climate here so cool – and damp. Leaf-pulling and spraying are key to managing disease pressure – unfortunately making organic farming almost impossible.
“We want the purity of fruit to shine,” Catherine (Cate) Kistler says. She joined her father, Steve, six years ago, working as his Assistant Winemaker – just one element that makes the venture a true family business. Not in the way that Walmart or Ford are a family business, but in the hand-to-mouth, everyone-mucks-in, this-is-both-their-livelihood-and-legacy kind of way. It’s a “tight little universe” where they work, live and farm, Cate explains. This is one reason that Steve stepped away from the iconic winery that he’d created in 1978 – Kistler had shifted and grown, becoming something larger than he’d ever anticipated, or necessarily wanted.
Kistler had humble beginnings – with Steve making the wines in what was essentially a wooden shack, and living upstairs. That building – up in the Mayacamas – was consumed by the fires in 2020, and today Kistler works with around 300 acres (including their own vines and those farmed by growers for them). The investment of Bill Price (a man whose first major move in the wine industry was buying, and later selling, Beringer) has added further gloss to a winery that has become one of California’s cult names.
If that makes it sound like there’s been wholesale change, that’s far from the truth – a clear succession plan has ensured only the gentlest of evolutions at Kistler, and ensured the producer maintains its position at the top. Jason Kesner – who describes himself as a “vine and yeast shepherd” – is the man at the helm today. He joined the team in 2008 (at 40 years old), working alongside Steve for close to a decade before taking the reins.
Although born on the East Coast, Kesner grew up around wine. He moved out to California at the age of eight, where his mother had taken a job as Head Microbiologist at Robert Mondavi, and his soon-to-be stepfather worked as VP of Vineyard Operations – the smells and sounds of a working winery firmly familiar. Despite his early initiation to the industry, he studied cultural anthropology and left both the area and industry. He was eventually lured back, working first for Francis Ford Coppola (the man behind Inglenook’s revival), but in a non-wine role – managing his special projects. Via Coppola’s poker games, Kesner connected with Pat Kuleto and ended up planting vineyards for him, before finding himself at Hudson (his “graduate school for Chardonnay production”). This prestigious name features on bottles from the likes of Aubert, Kongsgaard, Cakebread, Failla and Ramey – and Kesner got to work with all of them, growing top-tier fruit for 34 clients, including Steve Kistler.
And Steve was different. He was, Kesner says, “very, very focused”, “hyper-intelligent, borderline genius” and – along with his business partner, the late Mark Bixler – thought about things on a different level. When the duo started Kistler in the 1970s, working with a single clone and single sites, no one else was doing it – with his unparalleled energy and intent, Steve created something profound. Although Kesner had already worked closely with Steve at Hudson, it was only when he arrived at Kistler in 2008 that he realized how differently Steve operated.
“I had jumped into a different timeline and a different pace,” Kesner tells me. “Steve and I had conversations that, quite literally, spanned years.” These conversations would be picked up each vintage, just a handful of sentences on a topic expressed until the next season. For Kesner, this long-term vision was what set Kistler apart: “It’s not about the people who are doing it at the moment. It’s about everything that’s come before and it’s about everything that will come after.”
The Kistler evolution has been slow, but it has happened – past their phase of “embracing the cocaine ’90s” (“If you weren’t, you weren’t paying attention,” Kesner says), with a shift toward earlier picking, native ferments and reduction in new oak (from 50% down to around 38% across the range today) – but without sacrificing the seductive, silken style that defines their Chardonnay. “Our job is to polish the jewel,” Kesner says. “The diamond doesn’t need to be re-cut.” The vines are also gradually gaining in age (currently averaging a spritely 35 years), which is only improving the wines further.
Kesner is continuing Steve’s work and the philosophy remains true to the original concept. “The best and highest use of a given site is when you’re guiding it, not driving it,” he says, pointing to Mother Nature (rather than Bill Price) as the ultimate boss. He loathes the title “winemaker” – fully aware that it’s an entire team behind Kistler. “There are 56 people who are dedicated to the production of these wines. They’re out there pruning in January and then they’re going to be out there picking for this year in October. And it’s because of that really powerful group of people that we’re able to do what we do.”
Meanwhile, out on the coast, Steve is continuing his own quest for terroir. Occidental, Cate tells me, is all about exploring “what this ridge means”. The yields at Occidental, overlooking the Pacific, are tiny, maxing out at around two tons/acre. The work is painstaking, with careful canopy management and spraying to avoid mildews, and steep slopes that need to be hand-hoed to manage the weeds. And, as at Kistler, the Pinot Noirs here are all made identically – so it is the site, rather than hand of the maker, that shines through. Be that though it may, it takes exceptional talent to make wines like this.
“[Steve] is yet again 30 years ahead of everybody in California,” Kesner says. “It might take the American palate a while to catch up with them, but I firmly believe those will be recognized as some of the best Pinot Noirs in the world. Hands down.”
Steve’s an elusive character – and seems happiest tucked away in his remote corner of the Sonoma Coast, away from the limelight. “He’s not a man of many words,” Kesner says, although suggests that working with Cate has drawn him out of his shell a little. Cate talks about him unsurprisingly lovingly, but doesn’t shy away from admitting there are challenges to the “weird and wonderful world” of family business. Harvard-educated, she’s quick-witted and sharp, and has clearly inherited her father’s passion for wine. Not only is he clearly deeply embedded in everything Occidental, but his interest goes beyond vine-growing, with what I suspect is an enviable collection of his own, from the alluring line-ups of Grand Cru Burgundy that I’ve glimpsed on Cate’s Instagram.
It takes something rather extraordinary to be willing to give up your name, to start from scratch, all over again, with a new winery and new vineyards. But there’s a reason that his longtime vineyard manager (Ruben Molinar) and cellar master (Raymundo Abarca) left Kistler with Steve in 2017; and it’s a tribute to the man. Now Molinar and Abarca’s children are working alongside Steve’s – and the family is growing. But Cate and Steve don’t want to create Kistler 2.0. They’re developing another ranch, but they don’t want the project to become so big that they’re no longer doing most of the work themselves (“We’ve seen that movie,” Cate jests). The first vintage of Occidental was only 2011, but the wines are already making their mark.
Steve’s legacy at Kistler lives on, safely being shepherded by Kesner and his team, but it’s also being re-born at Occidental, and set to be carried forward by Cate. “Wine is my dad’s world,” Cate tells me. And it’s quite a world – one that anyone tasting his wines is fortunate to be part of.