Ashes & Diamonds sounds like a long lost album that’s just been discovered from David Bowie, which is perhaps not too surprising as it is the name of the winery and wines made by Kashy Khaledi, who spent the first half of his career working first as an influential US music journalist, before becoming a major record producer and executive at the likes of Capital Records and MTV. He’s now looking to list what he sees as classic 60’s style Californian-style wines in premium UK restaurants through his importer Nekter Wines. Richard Siddle shares the story of one of California’s more colourful wine producers.
Ashes & Diamonds will be showing its new premium wines with its UK importer, Nekter Wines, at this week’s Collectible California tasting hosted by the California Wine Institute.
“I used to work with Larry Flint.” Just the opening line in my conversation with new Napa wine producer, Kashy Khaledi, is enough to make me realise I am in for a rather more unusual interview than I’m used to.
Now there are many people in the wine industry with a back story to die for. Those who have made their name and fortune in other fields before ever stepping into a vineyard. And we’re not even talking about the A list movie stars here who are queuing up to make wine these days .
But few can match Kashy Khaledi’s route into wine. In fact he’s probably got most of the A list celebrity winemakers in his phone directory, particularly those from the rock & roll hall of fame.
That’s all thanks to a career that has taken him on a journey from starting out on the fanzine for The Beastie Boys, helping to set up the highly influential US indie music magazine, Filter, before becoming a big time executive, and producer at Capitol Records, Live Nation and MTV. Responsible along the way for helping to executively produce a number of award-winning music videos.
That’s before turning to advertising where he was vice president of creative services at Katalyst running campaigns for the likes of Intel and Google. He was also part of the team at YouTube who first start to fund and seed viral videos into all our iPhone and Facebook feeds. For which he apologises.
For all the glamour and excitement of the music and advertising industry, wine was also a factor in Khaledi’s life as his father owned the Darioush Winery in Napa Valley. So when he had enough of handling the fortunes of the likes of Coldplay (who he put on the cover of Filter magazine in their youth) he was more than happy to follow in his father’s footsteps and create a winery and wine name of his own.
Creative brick wall
One of the catalysts for his change in career came when he hit a creative brick wall during his time at Capitol and was introduced to an obscure 1958 Polish war film, Ashes & Diamonds. Here’s what he told Vogue magazine: “As one tends to do in those situations, you take yourself out of the work and noodle into corners of inspiration. Then I watched the movie and was emotionally pulverized.”
So much so that he used the film as the inspiration to move into wine – and use it as the name of his winery: Ashes & Diamonds.
In terms of style of wine, Khaledi wanted to somehow capture the classic, “postcard fantasy” of the “California dream” that he thinks come through in the Cabernet Napa styles of the 1960s and 1970s. Wines that “honour some of the mid-century winemaking greats and their more restrained style, from the likes of, John Daniel Jr. of Inglenook and Bob Travers of Mayacamas”.
His website is described as “A love letter to the Napa Valley of the 1960s”. To do so means concentrating on making wines that stand out by the purity and quality of the fruit. But also wines that are stripped back, where nature has been allowed to run its course and minimum intervention is the order of the day. “Wines that capture the old and new California. Wines with a real purpose,” he explains.
“We are selling wine to a variety of people, so we need to make a different variety of wines for them. Being site specific is important from a style point of view.”
He also knows from his creative days that a producer is only as good as the talent he has working in wine’s equivalent of the recording and mixing studios. So he has chosen the members of his wine band wisely. Steve Matthiasson one of California’s new breed of highly respected winemakers has been with him since the beginning along with initially Dan Petroski and now Diana Snowden Seysses, also winemaker at Snowden Vineyards. Grapes come from both his own estate in the Oak Knoll district and selected growers.
Sustainability is also high on the agenda at Ashes & Diamonds and it is close to signing up to the Napa Green initiative and works extensively in the vineyards with cover crops and flowers to try and create the right environment. “We are learning as we go,” he says. “We have chickens to help with the nitrogen in the soils.” It’s also an area that Matthiasson is very experienced in.
Ashes & Diamonds first vintage was in 2014 even though it did not have a working winery until 2017.
The winery itself was certainly worth the wait and has been designed to look more like a living room and creative art studio than a straightforward winery. From the pictures you have expect Dan Draper to be relaxing in one of the chairs of its hip tasting and restaurant area which has quickly become one of the coolest venues on the Napa tasting circuit.
“We have to have amazing food that is all paired to go with our great wines,” he says. “Finding the right chef in Napa is as important as finding the right winemaker.”
With such an illustrious creative career it would be a bit of a let down if the labels for Ashes & Diamonds were not as stunning as they are. True to form Khaledi called Brian Roettinger, who happened put together the album cover for Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, to help design the wine labels. As you do.
So the black box designs are those for single vineyard sites, and the jumbled up letters denote those that come from multiple sites. cx z`wqz
With such a track record it’s surprising to see hear that in its early days Ashes & Diamonds failed to set the world on fire and Khaledi admits the debts were beginning to pile up. “We opened in November and no-one came,” he recalls.
It was, though, thanks to an article in Vogue that things started to fall into place and the visitors started coming to the winery and bottles started to be opened, bought and drunk. Particularly among younger wine drinkers.
Ashes & Diamonds is now running its own membership club, with up 1,800 members of which 50% are aged 21-36.
But with a trading model that relies on it selling it 80% of wine direct to consumer or by the cellar door and 20% to the trade, it needs to get the winery story right.
It’s also why it is committed to making it a good place to work. All staff, for example, that have been there for more than six months are allowed and paid to go on WSET courses. “Their quality of life is really important to us,” says Khaledi. “We want to do the right thing by them. We pay the living wage.”
It is, though, still very early days, he stresses. This is, he notes, his first official overseas sales tour, taking in his three key export markets. The UK, Sweden and Denmark.
It seems, therefore, only right he should be working with a distributor and importer in the UK who has only just started out in wine himself – Jonathan Davey, who is part management consultant part wine business man with Nekter Winers.
Davey, who has now been joined by Imogen Taylor, well known from her time as Swig, is focused on bringing interesting, eclectic, left field wines to the UK premium on-trade. By his own admission he would struggle to name every old school, classic wine producer in the world. But he knows what he likes, and most of all knows how to go and get it.
Within a year of staring out in 2016 he had managed to pull together a diverse range of 10 producers, mainly in South Africa and California, whilst working almost full time time as a management consultant. More have been added to the portfolio since, and they are all looking to tell their stories through how they make their wine, rather than long tales of heritage, tradition and back vintages.
It was on one of his reconnaissance missions to California that he met up with Khaledi, and instantly clicked.
As Khaledi says: “We just want to work with people we like. Life’s too short not to work with people you like rapping with.”
Which also goes for the customers and accounts where it can sell its wines. Restaurants like Noble Rot and the Clove Club. “We are not rushing to get into more and more accounts. We want to go to places where our philosophies are aligned.”
What makes Davey, in particular, so good to work with from a producer’s point of view, says Khaledi is that he “is so knowledgeable about every one of your wines”. “That’s a rarity.”
“We have to work harder to explain our wines in Florida than we do in the UK,” he adds.
What about the wines?
And so to the wines themselves. They certainly look the part, and on first taste more than stand up to the fanfare. Each wine is given a number based on the year they are made. So with its first vintage coming in 2014, those wines are No 1, 2015 wine are No 2 and so on.
The wines include a A&D Blanc No 2 that opened up noticeably during our chat to reveal more of a lemon curd style. A 50/50 combination of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc with the Semillon coming from 84 year old vines (DPD £30.57) which Khaledi says is “inspired by great white Bordeauxs”.
The Cabernet Franc No 1 (DPD £45.57) is a 75% Cabernet Franc and 25% Merlot blend with the Merlot coming from Ashes & Diamonds own vineyards. Khaledi says he wanted to capture Napa’s sunshine in a glass with more than a nod to Chinon at the same time. Steve Matthiasson tipped of Khaledi about the site and he believes there is so much more to come from it in the years to come.
The Red Hen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon No 1 from Oak Knoll District (DPD £55.57) is a biodynamic wine in the foothills of the Mayacamas mountains. As natural as natural wines can be. “If the rest are David Bowie, this is my Iggy Pop,” he says.
Vineyard 1 Cabernet Sauvignon No1 from Rutherford (DPD £70.57) comes from the historic George III vineyard in Rutherford, famed for helping to put Napa Valley on the world stage in the 1960s. It’s particularly important to Khaledi as it also helped make wine for Beaulieu Vineyards, including the 1968 vintage that first sparked his love of wine. “This old school 1960s style Cabernet Sauvignon,” proclaims Khaledi. “It’s got lots of ageing potential.”
“We just want to make wines we love and feel there is a market for them. We want to create our own little corner and makes wines that can complement any dinner table. That’s what is should be all about. It’s not so precious.
Fair and simple.
- You can taste Ashes & Diamonds wines, and the full range of Californian wines from Nekter Wines at the Collectible California tasting being hosted by the California Wine Institute at the US Embassy in London between 12pm and 5pm on September 26.