Interview with Luke Clayton from Rombauer Vineyards

Was there a moment that you remember when you knew that you wanted to be a winemaker?

There was no romantic story for me about travelling through France and tasting the great wines of Bordeaux. I was finishing high school and wanted to go to university, so I went to a few career days and one was on winemaking and it sounded interesting and exciting so I gave it a go and loved it.  

What was your first wine job? Please share more about your role at Napa Valley’s Rombauer Vineyards where you’ve been since 2008 and where else you’ve been before landing back at Rombauer Vineyards? 

My first wine job was a harvest internship at Kay’s Brothers in McLaren Vale, Australia, where I started with working out in the estate vineyards before moving in to the cellar for harvest. Since Kay’s was a small winery I got to be involved in all aspects of the winemaking process.  When I first came to Rombauer one of my first jobs was to clean tanks and pressure wash the caves. Once harvest started, I was on the pump over crew. Which was a great experience as you get to see and taste all of the different wines being made and how they evolve as fermentation occurs.  From 2008 to now I have progressed from a harvest intern to winemaker.

Can you share more stylistically about Rombauer Vineyards? Specifically your red wines, such as the Cabernet & Zinfandel both which blew me away during my tasting with you and CEO Bob Knebel.

We make wines that are fruit forward, balanced with natural acidity to enjoy with food, friends and family. 

Our Napa Valley Cabernet and Diamond Selection Cabernet are produced with sustainably-grown fruit from some of the finest AVAs in the region including St Helena, Stags Leap district, Atlas peak, Rutherford and Calistoga. These wines are elegantly balanced with notes of black currant, ripe cassis and sweet spice, lush tannins, and sweet subtle oak.

Our Zinfandel is sourced from some of the state’s oldest and most revered wine regions and family-owned vineyards with some dating back over 100 years. The vineyards are mainly located in Eldorado and Amador counties in the Sierra Foothills. The wine has aromas of ripe fruits of blackberry and boysenberry on the nose with lush flavors of fig, blackberry jam, licorice and vanilla on the palate. Subtle round tannins and great length make for a fresh and enticing finish.

What is something you’d like to share Napa Valley that many consumers may not know or have a misconception about? 

One of the biggest misconceptions for Rombauer is that we only make white wines. When in fact we have an excellent red wine program with Cabernet Sauvignon being the first wine Koerner Rombauer made back in 1980. He had it crushed at Shafer Vineyards and cellared it in his garage here at his house before the winery was built in 1982.

As a winemaker you taste (and spit) lots of wine, what wine do you feel bad about spitting because you LOVE it so much?

Bubbles! Love Champagne and sparkling wines. They are such fun wines and are meant to be enjoyed.

What was one of the biggest mistakes you have made in your winemaking career?

Once when loading a wine tanker full of wine for shipping, I unhooked the hose before closing the valve on the tanker. After the initial shock of getting covered with wine, I was able to close the valve on the wine tanker only losing a small amount of wine. Fortunately, I lived near the winery and I was able to go home and get new clothes and shoes on and come back to work. Unfortunately, the security camera caught it all on camera and the video seems to reappear every year, apparently for educational reasons and a good laugh.

What is your favorite after work drink?

You can’t go wrong with a nice cold beer, right now I am into pilsners. 

What is your favorite local spot in Napa Valley? 

Well, it was my kitchen counter for the past year with Covid restrictions, where we got very good at making the MonkeyPod Mai Tai from Maui and dreaming of being on the beach. Now I like to go to Eikos in downtown Napa, it’s a relaxed atmosphere where I can go with the family for some good sushi and drinks.

Tell us something that would surprise people about you? 

When I was growing up I did not like grapes at all. Now I eat thousands every year especially during harvest.

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