Last month in Santa Barbara at World of Pinot Noir, I met up with David Hejl, whose pinots feature what Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate describes as “wonderfully ripe, spicy red fruit.”
From a family of 11 brothers and sisters, David took a circuitous route to come to wine. From that extraordinarily crowded field, David found his way from Nebraska to Paris, France, working for Nabisco at the ripe old age of 24. There he experienced (before French wine attained such stratospheric prices) the finest Bordeaux and Burgundy had to offer.
While traveling the globe for his employer, David accrued a significant collection of world-class wine. Understanding that this was an avocation (and not a career), David got an MBA from Northwestern and got into private equity, crafting management teams.
Serendipity smiled on David. He became friends with a bartender at a Santa Rosa restaurant, John Ash. The bartender? Michael Browne of future Kosta Browne fame.
After getting some good advice from David, Michael founded Kosta Browne in 1997. During the following years, they stayed in touch with each other. In 2009, David took Michael out to lunch, to solicit Michael’s advice about how David could get into the wine business. Michael dropped the bombshell that he and Dan Kosta were selling KB to an investment group.
Upon further discussion, Michael and the investment group agreed to bring on David as CEO for the new version of KB, to take it from 10,000 cases to 30,000. David led KB to its case goal from 2011 to 2015. During this time, he learned both the wine business and how to craft wine with Michael’s assistance. The investment group then sold KB again, netting a return of over twice their initial investment.
After the KB sale, David opened Domaine Della (named after his mom), sourcing all of his fruit from KB vineyards. A lifetime student, David studied at UC Davis (probably the most prominent wine school in the U.S., perhaps the world) and honed his winemaking skills during the weekends at KB, alongside his sons, Zachary and Andrew.
“It takes a certain skill set to craft fine wine, and I believe I have it,” David said in answer to what draws him, from his vast world of varied jobs and experiences, to wine making. “Also, I love it. I’m surrounded by the finest staff, and maybe one or both of my sons will carry on with what I have started.”
“Pinot is a wine you can drink and enjoy at any age and at virtually any meal. But cabernet does not necessarily go with everything. I love the beauty and the complexity of Burgundian wines.” This is why he makes pinot and not Bordeaux-style wines.
While not a stranger to purchasing quality vineyards (he bought Keefer Ranch for KB while working there), David sources all of his fruit. Maybe if some land in the Russian River Valley was to become available at the right price, then David would consider becoming a vineyard owner.
With seven core vineyards, David racks up the miles on his 2007 Chevy Silverado. He visits them regularly, confirming that the vineyard owners are tending to their vines (and what will ultimately be David’s fruit) to his exacting standards. He decides when it’s time to pick or when to hold back for just a bit longer.
He plans on growing from about 2,500 cases to 5,000 cases by 2030, but he’s doing it strategically. He knows he’s going to have expand to a dozen core vineyards (maybe one of which he owns himself), but it’s not simply another place for grapes. The new sources must match the quality and consistency of what he has now.
If past is prologue, then count on Domaine Della going from strength to strength as they judiciously grow.
As I have preached before, you need to get to some tastings like World of Pinot Noir to experience what the wine world has to offer.
Carl Kanowsky is an attorney, a fledgling baker, an enthusiastic cook and an expert wine drinker.