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Mitchell Katz Winery spoke with Mitch Katz, co-owner of Mitchell Katz Winery at Ruby Hills, this past spring. Larry knows him from playing hoops at the local club. We have been to his winery several times over the years and it is in a very picturesque setting amongst the Sunol Hills in South Livermore Valley. Mitch is quite a character, as you will find out while reading the interview. Enjoy!

Wine-Food pairing with Mitchell Katz wines

Mitch Katz of Mitchell Katz Winery When did you get started in the wine industry?
Mitch Katz: In 1998 I became bonded. I started making my wine in a warehouse in Benicia. Then I made wine at Garre Winery (in Livermore), where I was also their cellar master. For myself, I started a “mobile tasting room.” I would go around to all the different stores and pour my wine to try and sell because I didn’t have a real tasting room. In 2001 Mike Callahan approached me to go in as partners to start a winery.

VV: When did you open your doors to Mitchell Katz Winery?
MK: We opened November 15, 2002.

VV: What prompted you to get into the wine industry?
MK: Stupidity! (Laughter) My grandfather used to make wine for personal use. My family is from England. I was born there but moved to the U.S. when I was 6 months old. I went back to England every summer to spend time with my grandparents. As I got older I became aware that my grandfather was making wine. I helped him; it was fun and passed the time away. It was non-grape wine. We used fruits such as raspberry, strawberry, cherry, watermelon, apple, plum; we tried everything. Grandpa liked his wine sweet and strong. We didn’t mind it, and being in my teens sweet and strong was a good thing! I fell in love with the whole wine making process: how it goes from the dirt to the dining room table. I took a course one day at U.C. Davis and after spending the whole day learning how to make wine the professor said remember this: “Don’t make your wine from the numbers, make it for the taste.” I’m like, I know that! I didn’t spend all day here to learn that! Wine can be so analytical, but you need to remember too that it is magical.

Then when I was in my early 20’s I started to make my own wine. I really liked making blackberry wine because it tasted a lot like red wine. The thing about making fruit wine is fruits don’t produce a lot of sugar, so you have to add sugar which allows you to make it as strong as you want. Then my wife’s parents, with their connections through owning the restaurant Spengers in Berkeley, introduced me to Phil Wente. Phil allowed me to do “gleaning”, which is the second picking of the vines after the machines have been through the first time.

That year my grandfather died and my first son was born, and that was the year that I decided that I wanted to do this legally. I was making a hundred cases of wine and in six months I had given it all away. I thought if I was legally bonded I could sell my wine and make money! This is where the stupidity comes in. Not growing up in the wine business I didn’t know all that was involved. And before I knew it I was too far in to get out. Even with all the headaches of the business I still am loving making the wine and seeing people enjoying my wine. The wine business is so capital intensive, and I didn’t come into it with a lot of money in my pockets. I built up the business on sweat equity. I get my most work done in the middle of the night. I like coming in around 2 in the morning, work for a few hours, go to the stores, then to the gym and get my exercise and then go work for the construction job that I had to do to help make ends meet. You do what you have to do to make a successful business.

VV: How many cases do you produce each year?
MK: 10,000

VV: Have you named any of your wines after your family?
MK: Yes, I did a Reg’s Red after my grandfather and then I did a Wesley’s Blend after my youngest son and for my older son whose name is Jackson we did a J.K.’s port.

VV: What do your sons think of the wine business?
MK: Well, Jackson who is 13 is too smart to get into the business. He says “It’s a lot of work!” Wesley who is 9 and is a lot like me, is a worker bee. He has been coming to the winery since he was 3 or 4 years old and already knows how to make wine. He comes here and puts on his rubber boots and power washes, rakes grapes into the hopper etc.

VV: Is your wife involved in the business too?
MK: Yes, you know it’s a 24/7 business. If you’re not at the winery or talking about it, you’re answering emails, or are on the phone.

VV: How many staff do you have at the winery?
MK: There are 4 full time and 15 temporary employees who work 3-4 days a month.

VV: What are some of the ways you get your winery’s name out there?
MK: I’m a firm believer of going outside the box. I can stay here in the Livermore Valley and the same people keep coming to my winery, or I can branch out. That is why I like pouring at the ZAP festival (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) in San Francisco in January. There I am competing with over 100 other wineries who are all proud of their Zinfandel they produce. I get over 500 new prospective customers to come and taste my wine and hear my name. It’s great. I also submit my wines into the San Francisco Chronicle competition. Last year I won a couple gold medals this year we got 4 silvers and 2 bronze medals. It’s all good for marketing the winery. And the medals look great in the tasting room.

VV: Where do you get your grapes from?
MK: 90% of my grapes I get from the Livermore Valley. In a year I buy about 120 tons of grapes. The only grapes that I usually buy from somewhere else are the Zinfandel. It doesn’t grow very well here in Livermore. This year I’ve bought some of my Zinfandel grapes from the Paso Robles region. We will see how that turns out.

Mitchell Katz Winery in Livermore Valley VV: How many grapes are here on your property?
MK: The property is on 97 acres of grapes that are owned by Wente Vineyards. I buy back 10 tons of Petite Sirah and 10 tons of Zinfandel back from Wente.

VV: Is there someone in the industry that you look up to?
MK: Ken Rosenblum, of Rosenblum Cellars. His wines are always good and at a good price.

VV: What is your favorite wine to drink that you produce?
MK: This week? My favorites are usually the ones still in the barrel. Right now my favorite is our “Fat Boy” which is our reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

VV: What is your favorite wine to drink?
MK: Cabernet Sauvignon. But for the Livermore Valley I wish they would continue to develop how great the Petite Sirah is. It grows so easily here and it should be the grape/wine that we are known for. Our Petite Sirah won gold medals from the San Francisco Chronicle competition in 2003 (where it got 3.5 stars) and was selling for $14.99 at Safeway.

VV: What about pairing food with your wines?
MK: I don’t have the time to cook, so we just cook simple like BBQ’d meats and fish. I drink what ever wine sounds good to me at the time. I leave the pairing of food and wine to our chef at the event center. That is his specialty and he does a good job at it.

VV: How large is the event center and how does it affect your wine making business?
MK: The event center can hold between 40 and 600 guests. The events that occur are required to use Mitchell Katz wine. I do not make what they call “banquet wine”. I want people who come to weddings here to see my label and to drink the wine I am selling in the tasting room. Most guests probably don’t expect much from the wine and then they are pleasantly surprised that the wine is good, and that leads to future sales for me.

VV: What do you enjoy about making wine?
MK: It’s a lot of fun to make something that people enjoy. I’ve always been more of a giver than a taker. There is nothing better than having dinner with your friends and sharing a bottle of wine that you’ve made.

VV: Do you come and pour wine behind the bar at the winery?
MK: Yes, about once a week or so I do, but I try and not come on the weekend so I can spend that time with my family. The kids play baseball, soccer and basketball.

VV: What would you say that makes your winery different from the other wineries in the local area?
MK: My goal has always been to make a good wine for a good price. Build up a good name, and a good reputation. My sales are up 50% this year because my wine is affordable. And with the recession that we are in, if people still want to buy wine to drink they are going to find a good wine that is at a good price here at Mitchell Katz.

Mitchell Katz Winery at Ruby Hill
1183 Vineyard Avenue
Pleasanton, CA 94588
Mitchell Katz Winery