Raconteur. Maverick. Visionary. Meet Jesse Fox: our new Winemaker! Jesse, 43, began with us in February and aims to propel Sequoia Grove’s long-term vision further to produce best-in-class wines expressive of Napa Valley’s terroir.
Since 2016, Sequoia Grove has invested $25 million in all facets of the winery, hospitality areas, vineyard acquisition, and replanting nearly 80 percent of our estate properties. Investments include the recent purchase of the 21-acre State Lane Vineyard in the Yountville AVA, a new cutting-edge winemaking facility, new buildings inspired by the 110-year-old tasting barn, private spaces for events, and the development of an innovative culinary program overseen by Executive Chef Britny Maureze. According to Rick Bonitati, President of Sequoia Grove, “all the pieces are in place for Jesse to hit the ground running.”
Jesse is certainly no new kid on the block with tenure at wineries like Harlan Estates’ The Napa Valley Reserve, Promontory, and Amici Cellars to his name. Yet even as an 18-year veteran of the wine industry, his road to winemaking was somewhat unconventional:
“From a young age, I wanted to do everything. I wanted to be a chef; I wanted to have a farm; I wanted to grow grapes; I wanted to make wine and cheese. Everything! So I like to think that where I am today is a series of fortuitous events,” opens Jesse.
Born and raised in a small suburb of Philadelphia, Jesse claims his first great influence was his mother – and her delicious cooking.
“I grew up where I cooked a lot with my mom. She loved baking, and if it was a special occasion, she would also treat us to a homemade birthday cake or pizza. I loved helping her, and this experience left a positive impression on me,” says Jesse.
When it was time for him to pick a direction for college, food was front of mind. “My parents are academics – my father an engineer and my mother a professor – so I prioritized a degree that would offer a combination of business and culinary skills,” explains Jesse. He settled on a degree in Hospitality and Business Administration at Cornell University. “I had wanted to go to culinary school but wanted a more traditional education, and this program offered me that. I soon found myself gravitating toward all the wine and food classes,” laughs Jesse.
He quickly discovered that he loved everything about the hospitality industry and dove right in. He worked at a winery in the Finger Lakes District, as well as in a restaurant as a server, bartender, and eventually chef. During this era, Jesse had his first AHA moment with wine. “As a freshman, I attended as many of the Food and Beverage classes as I could, and sometimes the professors would bring in people from the industry to talk and cook for us. On one occasion, I was fortunate to attend a guest chef’s dinner with Wolfgang Puck and experienced my first food and wine pairing,” shares Jesse.
During a course of Sancerre and asparagus, Jesse first realized how wine and food interact. “It solidified the belief that wine and food are a great art and something I wanted to be involved in.”
After graduating in 2002, Jesse was the lucky recipient of the Kopf Family Foundation Scholarship. Notably, the Kopf family are the owners of Sequoia Grove. This scholarship offered Jesse a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour world-class wineries around the globe for five weeks. During his European adventure, Jesse had the good fortune to visit some of the world’s most acclaimed wine-producing regions, including Barolo and Chianti in Italy and Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne in France.
Upon returning to the States, Jesse decided to put his culinary skills to work and gained experience at some of the top restaurants in New York, including Michelin-starred Restaurant Daniel and Blue Hill. Eventually, Jesse’s late nights and dedication paid off when he received an offer to work on the West Coast at Chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville.
“California was a significant change from New York, but I loved being in wine country and an environment all about food and wine,” he shares. As Chef de Partie, Jesse’s work was fast-paced and meticulous. After a year of intense learning, Jesse’s heart began to wander in a different direction.
“Every day, I would drive through the valley, and during early fall, I remember the smell of harvest in the air. It was mesmerizing, and I knew it was time for a change.”
By the end of the winter, Jesse had once again pivoted and took a job at Robert Sinskey Vineyards working in the tasting room to catch his breath. “For me, the next move was obvious. I wanted to learn to make wine. I went for after-hours classes, and I looked for an internship. That’s when I started at Harlan Estate.
After cutting his teeth at Harlan Estate for six harvests, in 2010 Jesse was offered the opportunity to become Cellar Supervisor at a second new winegrowing endeavor taken on by the Harlan family called Promontory. He explains that his time at Harlan and Promontory afforded him various opportunities to travel, including completing harvests in both New Zealand and Argentina. “I’m grateful for the amazing team and growth opportunity” reflects Jesse.
By 2011, Jesse was ready for his next challenge and took up a job as the Assistant Winemaker running the facility and managing winemaking for Ram’s Gate Winery. “All of a sudden, I went from a specialized Cabernet Sauvignon producer to making 36 different wines at Ram’s Gate. I loved it!” Most recently, Jesse served as winemaker at Amici Cellars in Napa Valley and helped establish the winery as a force to be reckoned with.
“When I heard Sequoia Grove was looking for a new winemaker, I was intrigued. My experiences with the Kopf family were so formative, and I appreciated the winery’s approach to linking food and wine,” shares Jesse. Indeed, Jesse’s professional kitchen experience makes him uniquely suited to reinforce the Sequoia Grove philosophy built around tradition-defying culinary pairings that showcase Cabernet Sauvignon’s nuances.
For Jesse, whether as a winemaker or previously as a chef, the goal is to make something people will love. He describes his winemaking philosophy as revolving around building on palate and experience. “For me, whether it’s a $30 Chardonnay or a $150 Cambium, I want the wine drinker to say ‘Wow, that’s a great wine!’”.
Together with Bonitati and the talented team, Fox’s vision for the future of Sequoia Grove is to herald its place in Napa as a historic producer of balanced, food-friendly wines made with a sense of place and respect for the environment. “What excites me most about my new role is that it is an opportunity to take something that already has a wealth of history and captivating estate vineyards and push for greatness.”
Texting or talking?
White or red wine?
J: White after work.
Favorite day of the week?
Tuesday for business, Sunday for home.
Favorite city in the US besides the one you live in?
J: New York.
Nickname your parents used to call you?
The last album you listened to?
J: Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys
Would you rather be able to speak every language in the world, or speak to animals?
J: Every language in the world.
How long does it take you to get ready in the mornings?
J: Oh, five minutes. Have you seen my haircut?
What do you like to do in your spare time, after hours?
J: I love outdoor sports, like road biking. Cooking is a hobby and, of course, enjoying great wine with family and friends.