Aerika Estate: The Prologue


Over the years, I have been fortunate to see many projects get off the ground in Napa Valley. These include VHR Vine Hill Ranch, The Vineyardist, Gandona, Dakota Shy, Cathiad, Brand, Kinsman-Eades, Accendo, Pym-Rae, Haynes, MacDonald, Sinegal, Ulysses, Seven Apart, Beta/Jasud, Bella Oaks, Ink Grade, DiCostanzo, Promontory, Alejandro Bulgheroni and Fe, among others that I have tasted from or close to their inception. Founded by Rob Black and Julia van der Vink, Aerika Estate is one of the most exciting and promising new ventures I have seen in Napa Valley in some time.

I first met Rob Black atop a catwalk at Screaming Eagle as I was working my way through tanks of Merlot that were finishing fermenting. It was 2014 or 2015. The winery was full of energy and the heady perfume of harvest. Black was the Assistant Winemaker and made sure I did not do anything stupid at the end of a long day of tastings, like dropping my phone into a tank. I ran into Black and van der Vink about a year and a half ago at their home in Coombsville as I was finishing my map of the appellation, and word was starting to get out about their new project on Mount Veeder. It was the very, very early days of Aerika. Contracts had not even been signed. I was intrigued. Mount Veeder is an appellation I have long been attracted to.

Rob Black and Julia van der Vink at their Aerika Estate, high atop Mount Veeder.

“Have you been to Aerika Estate yet?” noted geologist David Howell prodded me recently when I spoke about our vineyard maps in his class at Stanford. “You really have to go,” he told me. I assured him it was in the works.

Rob Black was born in New Zealand but has spent more than half his life abroad. His first harvest was in Oregon. Stints in Spain, Canada and Australia followed, and before he ended up at Domaine Comte Senard in Aloxe-Corton, where he spent a decade. Black met winemaker Nick Gislason at Screaming Eagle during a swing through Napa Valley. The pair later spent time in New Zealand. A bond was forged. “Rob and I instantly hit it off,” Gislason told me recently. “Frankly, he was overqualified for an assistant winemaker position at Screaming Eagle, but we had such a meeting of the minds and thought it would be great to do something for a year or two. Instead, we ended up working together for eight years.”

Julia van der Vink followed a more circuitous route to viticulture and winemaking. A rowing scholarship took her to Harvard University. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden inspired van der Vink to explore a simpler life with a deeper connection to nature. She worked as a sommelier and in retail while contemplating potential next steps. Those experiences ultimately led to positions in various wineries in California and then a job with Mac Forbes in the Yarra Valley before she settled in Napa Valley. Van der Vink worked at Maycamas in 2015, just as the estate was getting a major makeover courtesy of its new owners. She helped Graeme MacDonald plant the vineyard in front of his home and then worked with Ketan Mody on his Jasud estate before becoming Vineyard Manager at Harlan Estate, where she remained for nearly eight years.

Exploring various blocks at Aerika Estate.

Eventually Black and van der Vink decided they wanted to do their own project, which is extremely hard in Napa Valley given land prices. They identified a site, formerly Veedercrest, which was owned by Hess and being carved up into what are now three distinct properties. This rugged, rocky vineyard first gained notice in the early 1970s when the Veedercrest Chardonnay was featured in The Judgment of Paris.

Black and van der Vink chose the upper section of the ranch and then set out to build an investor group that could finance their ambitious project, not an easy task, especially in today’s environment. Through a combination of grit, persistence and bootstrapping pragmatism, Black and van der Vink put together a group of 18 angel investors and were able to hit the ground running after several starts and stops.

Like many mountain sites, Aerika is marked by several exposures and variations in soil types. Some spots are quite windy, which is one of the references to the estate’s name. Elevations reach nearly 1,900 feet, which is where volcanic soils are most prevalent on Mount Veeder. The property encompasses 50 acres of land, of which 14 are under vine of a planned 20 or so. Broadly speaking, there are three main soil types on the ranch, although a more in-depth look at the terrain reveals several pockets and striations. The western part of the ranch is mostly white rhyolitic ash-flow tuff, while basaltic and andesitic soils rich in iron are more prominent on the eastern side. In some places, those two volcanic soils meld together. There is some Aiken loam as well, but those blocks have yet to be developed.

At present, Aerika is planted with a mix of 16 heritage Cabernet Sauvignon clones, some of which have origins that can be traced back to the early part of the 20th century. These are among the most famous and coveted selections in Napa Valley. When Aerika is fully planted, acreage should include about 10% Cabernet Franc, 10% Merlot and a smattering of white grapes. Some sections will be head-trained and/or dry-farmed.

The 2023s were made from purchased fruit, focusing on sites with similar characteristics to Aerika Estate.

Obviously, it will be at least a few years before Black and van der Vink can work with estate fruit. In the meantime, they purchase fruit from nearby properties that they feel share some similarities with their own. The goal is to accelerate learning by becoming familiar with some of the attributes they expect to find in their own fruit. This is not at all uncommon with new estates that are just getting started. However, I have seldom seen choices made in such a thoughtful and well-articulated manner. It’s a sign that bodes very well for the future.

Black and van der Vink made five wines in 2023, two of which will be released. The Cabernets are picked at relatively modest Brix levels and are fermented with native yeasts and minimal SO2. Malolactic fermentations are spontaneous. Aging is done in a mix of neutral 500-liter Austrian oak barrels and a bit of French oak barriques for the smaller volumes. Production for 2023 will be approximately 200 cases. Both 2023s I tasted are fabulous, hugely promising wines.

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