Written by Mike Stepanovich
Andy Amador loves Bakersfield. That’s not so unusual; lots of people do. But most of them are from Bakersfield. What makes Amador a bit of a paradox is that he’s from Napa, born and raised. He owns MadoroM winery there, which is fast gaining renown. His vineyards are on some of the most sought-after vineyard land in the world. And yet he loves Bakersfield.
I know any number of Bakersfieldians who love Napa Valley and visit it regularly; some have even moved there. But I know of only one Napan who’s coming this way, and that’s Andy Amador.
“You’ll always see me driving around Bakersfield in December with my trailer, delivering wine,” he said. “There’s a serious steroid shout for MadoroM in Bakersfield. The people whom I consider my dearest friends are from Bakersfield.”
Such is that level of friendship that Amador is considering buying a house in Bakersfield so he can spend more time here. He generously donated wines and an auction item—he even auctioned it himself—to the Bakersfield College Foundation for its annual Sterling Silver Dinner to help raise scholarship funds.
And he holds his annual release party, where he releases for purchase his next vintages of wine, in Bakersfield. Some 250 people attend, and the number is limited only by the capacity of the venue. Perhaps the equivalent of such flaunting of convention would be if the annual Academy Awards show moved to Bakersfield. I mean, when it comes to wine, Napa Valley is the center of the American wine universe.
At least one wine snob is confounded by Amador’s focus on Bakersfield. Condescendingly questioning why Amador would drive four hours south to Bakersfield to release his wines, he said, “I guess you don’t have any customers, do you?” To which Amador retorted, “Yes I do; they’re my friends.”
The feeling in Bakersfield for Amador is mutual. And we can thank a Bakersfield wine icon for Amador’s affection for our city: the late Justin Meyer. Meyer’s story is well known; a Bakersfield native who attended local schools before becoming a Christian Brother and winemaker at the order’s Napa Valley winery (The Christian Brothers many years ago closed the winery, which was in the historic Cellars in St. Helena, and the property today is the West Coast campus of the Culinary Institute of America). Meyer left the order about 1970 to found, with his partner Ray Duncan, Silver Oak Cellars, which has become one of the most famous of Napa Valley’s wineries. Meyer returned frequently to Bakersfield to visit family and friends, and to attend Garces High School class reunions. But no matter how many accolades he received, he never forgot his roots.
“Justin Meyer is my model,” Amador said.
Like Meyer, Amador wasn’t born into the wine business. “My dad was in the meat business, and my mother was a grocery clerk,” he said. He wound up going into business with his father in a butcher shop. The money he earned from that enterprise allowed him to venture into real estate.
In 1996 he was having breakfast one Saturday morning with a man named Jack Peterson, whom he’d known for many years. “Jack told me he was selling his ranch in Pope Valley—188 acres—on the east side of Napa Valley, and suggested I buy it. I said, ‘I can’t afford that.’ He said, ‘You go after the vineyard folks and have them take a look at it.’ ”
So Amador approached an old friend from his high school days in Napa, Oscar Renteria, a vineyard manager in Napa Valley. “Oscar went out to the place and kicked the dirt. Then he told me, ‘Close the deal.’ ”
After buying the ranch in 1996, Amador planted the first phase of his vineyard in 1997: 50 acres. He subsequently purchased another plot at the base of Mount Veeder and planted a vineyard there, on Napa Valley’s west side.
So now he had infant vineyards and needed to decide what to do with them. But while he was pondering that question, his life changed again. On April 1, 1998—no fooling—he spotted a young woman and was smitten. He and Marissa were married two and a half months later.
With his first harvest fast approaching, it was imperative that Amador find a winemaker, and so of course he found him in a pizza parlor. It was 2000, and his first harvest was just weeks away. He met Mike Blom, who at the time had nearly two decades of experience in the wine industry, including winemaking and management stints at Santa Ynez Winery and Firestone Vineyard in Santa Barbara County, and at Peju Province in Napa Valley. At that point in time he was general manager of Edgewood Estates in Napa Valley.
The Amadors and the Bloms were at a pizza parlor one evening, and after discussing his plans and listening to Blom describe his experiences, Amador realized Blom was just who he was looking for to launch his new winery. “I said, ‘I want you to be my winemaker.’ That’s how it started, at pizza night.
“I told Mike what I was after, that I wanted to do something like Justin Meyer.”
That first vintage “was a killer first vintage, and we’ve been blessed with great vintages ever since,” he said. Being the first vintage, he didn’t have sufficient quantities to sell it, “so our first commercial vintage was 2001.”
One of Meyer’s techniques that Amador liked was his commitment to keep his cabernet sauvignon in barrels for three years. Typically a winery will age its cabernet about 18 months in oak barrels, give or take a few months. But the extra time in barrel further softens the wine and adds complexity. Amador varied Silver Oak’s practice of only using American oak barrels; he uses a mix of French and American barrels. “I wanted soft, big Napa wines.”
A longtime devotee of Silver Oak, Amador found himself in line at Silver Oak on release day waiting to purchase some wine. “These guys were in line, and we started talking hunting and fishing (Amador is an avid hunter and fisherman), and the next thing I know, I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got lunch reservations, want to join us?’ ”
Turns out the group of guys were all from Bakersfield. Amador grabbed two bottles of Silver Oak and took the Bakersfield contingent to lunch. “My wife said, ‘You just met these guys!’ I said, ‘I know, I’m having a ball.’ ”
It was those new friends who suggested he have his release party in Bakersfield, and it’s been here ever since.
MadoroM—the name is an amalgamation of Amador’s, his wife’s, and Blom’s names—has cabernet sauvignon and merlot as its headliners, and has added a proprietary wine, Camouflage, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, cabernet franc, and merlot. In December, MadoroM released its first white wine, a sauvignon blanc, and it sold out in less than two months.
The wines are splendid, and a fitting tribute to their inspiration—Silver Oak. They’re a combination of elegance and power, subtlety and boldness, depth and breadth.
And thanks to a serendipitous sequence of events, their creator has adopted Bakersfield.
Or perhaps it’s the other way around.
Article appeared in our 27-2 Issue - June 2010