Join us this season as we explore California’s celebrated wine country: the rustic ingredients, world-class destinations and passionate artisans, chef and producers who bring it to life.
Jim and his business partner Duffy Keys are both former executives — they met at a barbecue in 2002 and joined forces to form B Cellars. Now, their Oakville winery is known for producing exceptional artisanal wines and distinctive blends. Here, we ask Jim all about how he got his start, what makes a great blend, and how he earned the nickname “The Mad Chef.”
What was your career before you started making wine?
My family and I had the largest chain of upscale handbags and luggage stores in the USA by the name of El Portal (we sold them in 2000). We also helped introduce Swatch Watch retail stores into the United States. I still think as a retailer and I feel that helps me in discussing our customer’s needs.
Tell us about meeting Duffy and going into business together. How did you hit it off? What made you want to enter the wine industry?
Duffy and I met at a mutual friend’s home at a fourth of July party. At that time, Duffy was trying to acquire a Pinot Noir producer in Sonoma and I was planting vineyards in a hilly area west of Temecula called De Luz. In 2002 the light bulb came on in both of our brains. As the saying goes, “If you are going to howl with the big dogs, you need to get off the porch.” That’s when we decided to source our fruit and to work with the best growers in Napa. In 2003 — which was our first vintage — we signed up Kirk Venge, who is still our winemaker. And here we are opening our new winery and hospitality house in Oakville.
What grape varietals do you grow? Where are the vineyards?
We source fruit from a total of 17 vineyards. In Napa Valley these vineyards are predominately located on the valley floor and western bench of the Mayacamus mountains in the Oakville, St. Helena, and Rutherford AVAs. From our Napa Vineyards we harvest Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sangiovese, Petite Sirah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier. From Sonoma we harvest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Green Valley, the coolest area within the Russian River Valley AVA.
What’s the story behind the B Cellars name?
We were brainstorming ideas for the name of our winery the proper “napkin” way, by sitting on a porch enjoying a nice bottle of wine, when a Mercedes Benz drove by. We said to ourselves, “That’s it!” Mercedes Benz names their cars by number; we’ll name our blended wines by number. Further delving into this idea, we realized that the scientific symbol for degrees brix (the scale for measuring sugar ripeness in grapes at the time of harvest) had never been trademarked. So we named ourselves B Cellars, and logo became the Brix symbol. From there we looked at the average ripeness level of grapes at the time of harvest — 23-26 degrees brix — and named our blends. While the name itself is not the exact ripeness, the structure of the wines does go in numerical order, starting with our lightest white Blend 23, and ending with our powerhouse Cabernet Sauvignon Blend 26.
At B Cellars, you focus on blends. Why? What do you love about those kinds of wines?
Early on, Kirk and I looked at the Bordeaux wineries who have been blending wines for 200 years but took inspiration from new wineries in Australia. The ability to harvest fruit from 17 different vineyards and blend them allows for a product that consistently presents itself well. We also love the way their complexity allows them to pair easily with different foods. Our Blend 24, which is a Cabernet/Sangiovese or Super Tuscan blend, can pair just as easy with lamb as with a meat ragu or even grilled salmon. Restaurants like blended wines for the same reason. A group who orders different entrees can take one of our blends and it works well with all of their dishes.
What’s your creative process like when coming up with blends?
Our creative process begins with each vineyard getting its own special vinification strategy, whether it be what type of barrel is used or skin maceration time. We have three different blending sessions for each vintage. The first is a blind tasting of all the wines. If we feel that a particular wine is good enough to become either a vineyard designate (we do a few single vineyard wines such as Tokalon, Dr. Crane, George III) or it represents a appellation well (Rutherford, Oakville, Calistoga, Atlas Peak), we will put aside up to 8 barrels or 200 cases of that wine. We then go into our blending session for the blended wines. Blend 26 is 100% Cabernet but it can contain up to four vineyards. Blend 25, our Cabernet/Syrah blend, is built next, and then Blend 24, which is our Cabernet/Sangiovese or Super Tuscan-style blend. We do the same process for our white wines.
What are some of your go-to food and wine pairings? Any favorites?
My go-to pairings vary with the season. I love to drink big hearty Cabernets and Syrahs in the fall. To match the powerful structured tannins of the wine, I pair lamb or roasted game meats. In the winter I drink a good deal of bold inky Petite Sirah with braised short ribs; in the spring I pair dry rose with Mediterranean foods; and in the hot Napa summers it’s Sauvignon Blanc and Tomales Bay oysters.
Tell us about how you cook at home. What are some of your favorite things to make? How did you earn the nickname “The Mad Chef?”
My wife Renee and I entertain on a regular basis. My partner Duffy likes to say our home is just a kitchen with rooms on top. We have every imaginable herb in our garden, along with tomatoes, fresh corn, zucchini, eggplant, beets and kale. My wife does not eat meat, but my children and I are highly carnivorous. I have been very much influenced by Charlie Trotter and what he did. Great fish, meat, fresh vegetables with sauces to bring out the best in them.
“The Mad Chef” was coined by my buddy Steve. I was telling him one day that I have cooked way north of 8,000 different recipes. Steve told me I was mad. Later that evening we were talking about crazy ball players. The name Al Hrabosky came up, whose nickname is the “Mad Hungarian.” Steve said, that is it, you are the Mad Chef. (I am also mad about food and great wine.)
What do you love about living and working in wine country?
This is best expressed by driving up the Silverado Trail at sunrise or sunset. The vines, the colors. It is breathtaking.