Though the idea of becoming a winemaker didn’t occur to Joel Aiken until later, the Fresno native had a healthy appreciation for agriculture by the time he was ten years old. “We had about 30 Kim Elberta peach trees in an orchard out back,” says Joel, who grew up on a 15-acre ranch on the outskirts of town. “I would park my old wooden wagon out on Highway 168 and sell them for 10 cents a pound. I usually made about $20 bucks a day, but one time I made $60. My brother was really jealous.”
Encouraged by his mother, an art professor, to go to UC Davis vs. Fresno State, where most of his friends were going, Joel pursued a Bachelor of Science degree in biology. But by his senior year, having seen Davis’ winemaking and viticulture programs and visited Napa wineries on the weekends, Joel’s sights were firmly set on a winemaking career. He worked the 1980 harvest at Inglenook, went back to Davis to get his Master’s degree, and in 1982 – while finishing his Master’s thesis comparing French and American oak barrels for the aging of Cabernet Sauvignon -- joined Beaulieu Vineyard (BV) as Enologist.
Joel’s rise at BV was swift; in 1985 at the age of 28 Joel was promoted to Winemaker, making him the youngest Winemaker in BV’s history. His winemaking expertise and leadership skills subsequently led to a 27-year career at the winery, where he oversaw multiple wine programs both there and at BV’s sister brands. Joel’s penchant for research, creative thinking and willingness to innovate cemented BV’s reputation as one of Napa Valley’s most respected wineries. Over the years he implemented innovative winemaking techniques for Chardonnay and conducted an extensive Pinot Noir clonal research project in the winery’s Carneros vineyards. He also directed the replanting of BV's historic vineyards in Rutherford to preferred Cabernet clones, designed and oversaw construction of a state of the art facility for the production of BV’s iconic Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and worked closely with consultant Michel Rolland to evolve the style of that wine, resulting in 95 point scores from both The Wine Advocate and Wine Enthusiast.
It was also at BV that Joel met and worked with the legendary André Tchelistcheff, who – having left BV in 1974 after a 36-year career there – returned to consult in 1990. For several years Joel worked side-by-side with the great master, and together they shaped BV's future with new blends such as Tapestry, a blend of red Bordeaux varietals, and by adding the influence of both Merlot and French oak barrel aging to the Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
“What was amazing about André was that even at the age of 89, he was such a breath of fresh air,” recalls Joel. “He was so modest and humble, such a good person. But he was also a great teacher; he was never satisfied with what he’d done in the past. He was always pushing for something new and better.”
It is this drive for improvement that fuels Joel today as he takes everything he has learned and experienced in his 30+ years as a Napa Valley winemaker and applies it to his own brand, Aiken Wines, which he founded in 2009. Working with vineyard sites he knows are capable of producing the highest quality grapes, and with growers who share his quest for perfection, Joel produces micro-lots of site-specific Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir from Napa Valley and Sonoma County.
“I’ve worked with over fifty different Cabernet vineyards in Napa Valley and elsewhere, and I have a pretty good feeling for what makes a site stand out from the rest,” says Joel. “Still, I’m constantly saying to myself, ‘This was great. Now how can I make it better?’”
In addition to Aiken Wines, Joel runs Aiken Wine Consulting, LLC, producing wines for a number of clients including Amici Cellars, Rare Cat Wines and Chase Cellars. He is married to Amy Aiken, winemaker and proprietor of Meander Wines and Conspire Wines. Amy and Joel are partners in Palisades Wine Co. in Calistoga where they make their wines.Joel is a Past President of the Napa Valley Vintners, serving on the board from 2001 – 2006, and chaired the 2004 Premiere Napa Valley Wine Auction. Joel is also a Past President of the Rutherford Dust Society and has been a member of the Board since its inception in 1994.