An Interview with Jason Driscoll, Winemaker of Tilth Wines
There is a phrase tossed around that “success is not a skill, it’s an attitude.” No person has embodied this more than Jason Driscoll, Winemaker at Tilth Wines. Four years into breaking into the Napa Valley wine scene, he exudes an optimism that is irresistibly contagious. With his positive energy and charismatic nature, he has been able to make a name for himself in an elite world of fine winemaking, in one of the world’s most recognized and revered growing regions. His background is based purely on passion and following his taste buds. It’s a bit of a Cinderella story, and it teaches us that anything is possible. As he put it, “Have a smile on your face. Work your ass off. You can learn anything.”
I was able to catch up with Jason this week before his tasting in our Redwood City Store on Friday. I was curious about his journey and his wines, which are all relatively new. I caught him on the phone late one afternoon in the middle of bottling. Graciously, he gave me his time and explained his story.
MG: So, let’s start from the beginning. How did you come into wine?
JD: I never really intended to go into wine, actually. I went to college at Pepperdine, where I studied politics and met my wife. All along, I knew I wanted to be a chef, but the job market when we graduated was horrible. I got my first job selling Campbell Soup on the shady side of Los Angeles, in Compton and Watts. I drove a mini-van around with a license plate that said “MMM GOOD.” I would build my displays then get the hell out there. Eventually I realized I needed to get out of the job, and the town, all together. So we took a chance and moved to Washington, where I had a job offer to work the 2010 harvest for Elsom Cellars, a small 500-case garage winery at the time.
During the day, I shoveled tanks, cleaned pumps, hauled fruit - a little bit of everything. That was to pay the bills. But at night, I worked at a French restaurant, Campagna, for free - to keep the passion alive to be a chef, hoping to eventually get into the CIA.
MG: So, did that work for you?
JD: Yes. Six months later, I got into CIA in St. Helena. After that, I worked at Bouchon, as well as several other kitchens in Napa. But restaurant work, with its crazy, late hours, is not very conducive to having a family and we were just starting to have kids. It was strain. I was just about to leave Napa when I found a job working as a cellar hand at Hunnicutt Wines, a custom crush facility. It was there that I met and worked with some amazing winemakers, many who were coming in to create small batch wines of their own.
MG: Ah, I see the wine part coming…:
JD: Yes, after that, I got a job working as an Assistant Winemaker at DeSante, a great place with some really interesting wines, ranging from geeky, old-vine white wines to big Napa Cabs.
One day, we were sampling Sauvignon Blanc fruit up in Lake County in the Devil’s Kitchen Vineyard. It was such a cool site, awesome soil. But more than that - it just felt good. I really liked the Zinfandel, but it was too small for Tony to take on, so I decided to make a little on the side. That was our first wine.
The next wine I made was a Pinot Noir, which I love. Hard to refuse. We got grapes from the Tina Marie Vineyard in Russian River and the Riddle Vineyard in Sebastopol. It was a great wine.
MG: Was that your first vintage, in 2014?
That’s right. We sold our first bottle in 2016. And the rest is history. Each year, we look for great grapes and great vineyards to make new and interesting wines. I don’t really follow a script as much as I follow good leads.
MG: So, do you look for something in particular in a vineyard site or location?
Generally I’ll find out about some great fruit - then it’s about asking, hounding and pleading the grower to let me make wine from the vineyard. Right now, we’re still sort of a nobody. We need to get growers to trust us, let us use their fruit. The way we do that is by making great wines from their vineyards.
MG: Do you have a defining style of wine that you prefer to make?
JD: At this point, I don’t have a particular style or strict guiding philosophy. I like to follow the fruit - create something that expresses that varietal grown in that place. We make a cool-climate Pinot Noir from Mendocino with a leaner style and lower alcohol, and we also make Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley that expresses the beautiful, big, rich style typical of the area. I follow my tastes really. Once I find something I like, I pick it, ferment it, and make it into wine.
MG: You’re a “First-Generation, Family-Run Winery.” Pretty unique in this day and age. Explain how that has been, raising a young family and starting a winery.
We’re learning this together, and we’re all in together. My wife does the business side of company - so all the hard stuff - while I make the wines and get out on the road to sell them.
It’s been interesting. Many people here are born into the business, into generational wineries. We’re seeing how hard it is to get into the business - to get distribution, to get fruit. We’ve been at it for four years and it has been a real grind. But I also find that people in the wine business are really very open. It’s not cutthroat in that way. You tell them “I like your wine,” and they will talk with you. So, I just threw myself in. I found that if you immerse yourself, surround yourself, keep a good attitude, it all comes together.
MG: On Friday, we’re tasting your Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley Chardonnay, Napa Valley Pinot Noir Rosé and Russian River Pinot Noir. Anything to add to get people excited about these wines?
The Sauvignon Blanc was my first real baby. We got a chance at a great vineyard here in St. Helena. It’s a small 1 acre site that we farm ourselves, in exchange for a good price on grapes. The wine is really delicious and tasty.
The Pinot Noir Rosé is also a really fun wine to try because it was sort of a mistake. I set out to make sparkling wine and picked the grapes pretty early. In the end, I made a Rosé with crazy, screaming acid. I was so nervous bottling it, but people absolutely love it. It’s 100% Pinot Noir and a really fun wine.
Each of the Tilth bottles has a depiction of a dandelion. I asked him about the meaning behind this, which he attributed to his mother’s affinity for botanical prints and his personal love these antique designs. However, it seems particularly fitting that he stuck with the flying dandelion seed, representing a wish in the wind. It’s like his own dream - something he set forth, and has been particularly good at achieving.
Jason will be in our Redwood City Store on Friday, August 9th from 5:00 - 6:30pm. He will be tasting his wines in our SF Store on Thursday, August 15, 5:00 - 6:30pm. Wines to be tasted:
- Megan Greene