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Napa's Hired Gun

Mia Klein's clients describe her palate as deadly accurate. That's why she's one of the most sought-after winemaking consultants in America.

In the business world, it sometimes seems as if every second person seated at a conference table is a consultant. Indeed, the profession is so populous, it's difficult to imagine that there are enough nonconsultants left over to benefit from all that counsel. In the world of wine, it's an altogether different matter: only a few very accomplished winemakers ever earn the right to call themselves consultants. Mia Klein is among those few. In fact, Klein belongs to an even smaller professional constituency: she is one of a handful of top female winemaking consultants in America.

Klein's portfolio of Napa Valley clients reads like a collector's wish list of great American wineries. She is the consultant to Araujo Estate, Spottswoode and Viader, as well as the full-time winemaker at the vaunted Dalla Valle and the proprietor of Selene, where she produces three highly regarded wines, two Merlots and a Sauvignon Blanc.

Although any of these properties would be prize enough for most winemakers, the 37-year-old Klein, who is married to a Napa-based veterinarian, relishes the multiple responsibilities of a consultant, which can include everything from vineyard inspections to grape selection to bottling-machine repair. As she says, "The job fits my personality. It's extremely stimulating and I like the fact that it's work that will never be done. The wines can always be improved."

Mind you, the wines she is referring to have regularly received 90-plus point scores from critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., and are counted among California's best. But Klein is in serious pursuit of perfection--even if it means risking a confrontation or two with a client. Naoko Dalla Valle, owner of Dalla Valle, recalls one such showdown during Klein's first harvest as winemaker. Dalla Valle and her vineyard manager were ready to pick the grapes, but Klein said no, it wasn't time. A few tense days of waiting followed, for during harvest the pressure to pick is enormous. "You see other people harvesting and you start to get nervous," Dalla Valle acknowledges. In the end, however, she conceded that Klein was right. She adds, "Mia is not afraid to go head-to-head with me. She's very sure of herself; she's willing to take risks. I trust her completely."

Klein grew up mainly in Southern California, though she moved to San Francisco with her parents when she was a senior in high school. Once there, she promptly got a job at a wine shop (and even managed to get academic credit for it). It was then that she decided to become a winemaker. "I don't think I would have gone to college at all if I hadn't known what I wanted to do," she says. When she graduated from the University of California at Davis with a degree in enology in 1983, her ambitions were strikingly modest: "I just wanted to get a job. Period. I certainly wasn't thinking of becoming some kind of rock-and-roll winemaker." Her goal was easily met when Chappellet Winery hired her right out of Davis. "Because Chappellet is so small, I got to do everything," Klein says. "It was a great experience." A year later, she was named assistant winemaker to Chappellet's Cathy Corison. This winery, Klein indicates, has been the starting place for many well-known names, including Corison (who now makes highly regarded wines under her own label), Joe Cafaro of Cafaro Cellars and winemaker-consultants Helen Turley and Tony Soter.

Soter has had a profound influence on Klein. For many years their names have been mentioned in a single breath, almost as if they were one person: Tonyandmia or Miaandtony. The two met in 1983 when Klein was at Chappellet. Several years later, when Klein had become an assistant winemaker at Robert Pepi, they began working together. After they'd become friends, Klein confided to Soter that she was thinking of moving on. "He responded," Klein recalls, "by collaring me and saying, 'Don't do anything until you talk to me.'"

And so in 1990, Klein became Soter's assistant, working alongside him at many of the wineries to which she is now chief consultant. (Soter formally turned over the reins to Klein this past April, retiring to run his own Napa winery, Etude, and a new winery in Oregon.) Klein credits him with a great many things, three above all."First," she explains, "Tony taught me that you have to get it right in the vineyard. Soil, climate and exposure must be properly matched to the grapes you're growing, the wine you're making." Second, you have to know when to pick. "People used to pick on numbers, that is, when the grapes reached a certain sugar count," she says. "But Tony and I would rather be in the field, checking the condition of the vines, tasting the grapes." Third, and most important, she learned from Soter not to let anything get in the way of making wine: "As simple as that sounds, it's easy to lose track. But you have to forget about everything else, all the administrative details, and just concentrate on doing what's right for the wine."

As her clients testify, she has never forgotten any of these lessons. The only thing that they mention more often than her attention to detail, her conscientiousness and her focus is her palate. Soter says, "Mia has one of the most exceptional palates I've come across in the 25 years I've been in this business. She also has a unique ability to describe what she's tasting, which is an important part of having a great palate."

Delia Viader, owner of Viader Vineyards, characterizes Klein's palate as deadly accurate. In describing the Cabernet blend she and Klein created, she notes, laughing, "The French would probably define my wine as feminine. I say that if they define feminine as a female in the Nineties, then I agree."

Although most of Klein's clients and the winemakers she now works with happen to be female (Viader, Dalla Valle, Françoise Peschon of Araujo Estate, Rosemary Cakebread of Spottswoode), she eschews any gender bias in her winemaking. However, she says, "A lot of the best male winemakers have a pretty good complement of feminine qualities, and I don't mean they're effeminate. It's just that they are complete in themselves, and they make wines that are as well."

But in the end, Klein says, the key to all great winemaking is one thing, having great vineyards to work with: "I remember reading a little book on marketing a long time ago that said, 'Make sure you ride a great horse and you'll be fine.' I've been lucky enough to ride some of the best in the world."

Published October 1999
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