Tahoe native combines love of wine and the outdoors
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – The first time Jeff Stewart got up on skis was in his childhood backyard in the Tahoe Keys. His sister was a ski instructor at Heavenly Mountain Resort, and made her younger brother practice on a frozen lagoon.
All grown up now, Stewart returns to the Tahoe slopes when he’s not crafting chardonnay and pinot noir as the head winemaker for Buena Vista Carneros Winery in Sonoma.
“I get to spend every day working surrounded by these beautiful vineyards, and I spend my weekends skiing in Tahoe where I grew up. I’m a pretty lucky guy,” Stewart said.
Stewart was born and raised in South Lake Tahoe, the second generation of a local family. At South Tahoe High, he and two other students started the school’s first swim team.
“We had to petition and beg, borrow and steal to use the name of the school so we could compete,” Stewart said.
He graduated from South Tahoe High in 1983, taking a chance trip to France his senior year that shaped his future.
“Bill Frame put together a trip every year to France,” he said. “That exposed me to a little bit to wine and the culture of France.
“In Europe, wine is in every meal, like bread is on the table,” he added. “It was an eye-opening experience.”
When Stewart returned, he mentioned his fascination with wine to his science teacher who replied, “I wish I would have done winemaking.”
“I was like, ‘Really? You can do that?'” Stewart said.
So he headed off to the University of California, Davis, to study enology. After graduation in 1988, he went to work at Robert Keenan Winery in St. Helena, Calif.
“It was one the situations where you do a little bit of everything in a small place, doing everything from lab work to barrel work, pouring in the tasting room when people would show up, and working one-on-one with the winemaker there,” Steward said.
“You get that breadth of experience that really serves you later on,” he added. “It brings you back to what wine is all about. It’s not about sitting at a desk.”
Stewart went on to hold winemaking positions at Domaine Laurier Winery, De Loach Vineyards, Mark West Wines and Kunde Family Estate. He was the head winemaker at La Crema Winery before being tapped to join Buena Vista Carneros in 2003.
“I think I got very lucky,” he said. “A lot of people in the (winemaking) business grew up around it.”
At the time, Buena Vista was producing 300,000 cases a year for about $10 a bottle. The winery wanted to distance itself from the value line and focus on the Carneros estate.
With Stewart’s lead, the winery planted 440 acres of new vineyards, reduced production to 30,000 cases per year, installed 60 new open-top fermentation tanks and retooled the entire facility. The project cost $5 million in the vineyard and $2.5 million in the winery.
“You don’t get the chance to take over a winery very often,” he said. “It’s rare to have the backing like that and the support of a company to let our team do what we needed to do.”
Stewart’s mother, Brenda Stewart, still lives in the Tahoe Keys. He brings his family to visit as often as he can. His family – wife Allyson, 12-year-old daughter Kate and 14-year-old son Jonathan – enjoys skiing at Alpine Meadows and Kirkwood Mountain Resort.
“My kids are good little skiers,” he said.
As for his favorite wine, Stewart said that’s being asked to chose a favorite child.
“I can’t pick a favorite,” he said. “The biggest, exciting thing is seeing the transition for what we’ve done, really starting with the ’07, ’08 and ’09 vintages, coming from a lot of those newer (vines) we’ve planted. Seeing those come to fruition as wine – that’s a rewarding and nice thing to see.”