When it comes to wine, we all have a ‘first love’—a varietal or blend that we can’t get enough of and that, for a period of time at least, we devote our drinking to almost exclusively. For some it is a lifelong affair; for others more fleeting (as they move on to ‘more sophisticated’ wines). For me, that wine was Napa Cabernet and, while my wine consumption is quite diversified today, I always love drinking exceptional Napa Cab. That’s why I was so excited to meet winemaker Robin Akhurst and taste his wines. He makes sumptuous Cabernet with layers of flavors and a velvety texture—but they aren’t over-extracted fruit bombs. They’re elegant and balanced. His whites are worth raving about too—they’re refreshing, complex and capable of aging. Robin makes great wines, and he’s also a great guy. Please enjoy my interview with him below.
Your Scottish accent reveals that you are not a native of wine country, so how did you first become interested in wine? When did you realize you wanted it to be your career?
I first became interested in wine whilst studying at Edinburgh University. I started off a beer drinker, but when I started dating my wife she slowly began to expand my palate and turned me on to wine. Each time we tried something new I’d reach for Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine or Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course and research the varietal, region, climate and culture of the wine. An interest soon became a passion and, after four years, I knew I wanted to be involved in wine as a career. I wasn’t sure which sector of the wine industry though, especially as Scotland is not really a place to plant vines. I moved from the sommelier world, into sales and wine importing and then onto production.
You’ve worked harvests all over the world—from Marlborough in New Zealand, to the Barossa Valley in Australia, to Burgundy and Languedoc-Roussillon in France—what was the most eye opening experience for you? What were the major lessons you learned along the way?
Working for Domaine LeFlaive in Burgundy was an experience like no other…the camaraderie, the food, the wine, the landscape…a small part of my heart still reaches out and longs for those days on the Place des Marronniers. That stint taught me a lot about biodynamics and minimalist winemaking, and how sometimes overthinking can be detrimental to winemaking. I think the overriding lessons have been patience, attention to detail and maintaining a good sense of humor.
After bouncing around the globe for eight consecutive harvests it makes sense you’d want to settle in one place. What made you choose Northern California?
My wife and I are very passionate about what we do and so we knew we would have to be in a place where we could both pursue our dreams. As a documentary filmmaker my wife needed to be around her industry as much as I needed to be around mine, it just so happens that the bay area was a perfect location for us both. Also, as a wine growing region, compared to Europe, California is relatively unburdened by the rules and regulations that surround winemaking.
You’ve served as head winemaker for a number of Napa wineries, currently at Clos Pegase, but managing your own wine brand is an entirely different beast. Why did you decide to launch Apsara?
I launched Apsara in 2010 because I needed to have a completely independent outlet for the creative side of my winemaking. The winemaking is easy, it’s the sales, marketing, compliance and shipping that take the most time.
Where does the name “Apsara” come from?
The name Apsara comes from the Sanskrit word for an angelic dancer whose elegant movements reflect the key elements in our wine, balance, purity and expression.
As a winemaker, do you follow a particular philosophy? Are you trying a achieve a specific style?
I think a low intervention pragmatic approach would best describe it. I do make wines I like to drink, but my motivation is to make wines that will be enjoyed by others. It’s a mixture of passion for a certain style of wine alongside building a sustainable business.
Why did you choose to focus on the varietals that you do?
The varietals that we make are all grapes that are well suited to the local area. I like to spend less time in the car and more time in the vineyard and winery so I tend to select vineyards that are local. I am always open to making different varietals, and I get excited when I find an interesting fruit source and start thinking about the possibilities. We have a new chardonnay vineyard coming online in 2019.
How do you find and select your vineyard sources? Are you looking for any particular set of factors?
It takes me a long time to settle on a vineyard, maybe a year or so. There’s a certain degree of fate in finding new sites. They need to be brought on to your radar at just the right time, they need to have fruit to sell and most importantly, they need to be farmed by the right person. Many of our fruit sources are sealed with a handshake. I trust that the viticulturist is going to do a good job, and in return, they trust that I’m going to make a wine that does their vineyard and hard work justice.
I look towards cooler sites for my Sauvignon blanc and Syrah, whilst my Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are from slightly warmer sites.
Does your degree in Environmental Science inform of the decisions made in the vineyard?
I believe now more than ever that we need to be making a concentrated effort to improve the conditions of our environment. We are so interdependent on the natural world that I hate to see unnecessary use of synthetic agrichemicals. Any way we can work in a more harmonious way with nature we should.
What is your favorite thing about working in the wine industry?
Sharing a glass of wine that you made with friends and family at the end of the day, after working hard, is very rewarding.
When you aren’t drinking wine, what are you drinking?
Learn more and schedule your visit with Robin at ApsaraCellars.com