From Buicks to Beaujolais (2024)

Everyone has an origin story, a meet-cute where their career, their love life, or maybe their fortune takes a turn out of a storybook. Sommelier Zion Curiel had a different kind of epiphany moment that launched his career in wine.

“I loved vintage cars, I still do. I still remember I was working on my 1966 Skylark Grand Sport at the time, and my friend told me ‘You get out from under the car, I can get you a job at the French Laundry.’ We talked a bit, and I said… ‘They pay you how much to do what?!’”

Curiel laughs about that record-scratch moment, which put him on a different path from the criminal justice foundation he’d been building. But his meteoric rise from the French Laundry, where GM Laura Cunningham gave him his start in 2000 to blue-chip wine resort Meadowood to the wine-haven of Coi restaurant in San Francisco is proof positive that wine was always in his future.

Curiel, now 42, has been beverage director at the highend Carneros Resort and Spa for four years. He grew up around wines: His father, Juan Curiel Sr., is a 34-year veteran of Beringer, and still works as a vineyard manager today.

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Courtesy of Zion Curiel

“They’d have wholesale days for employees, and he would bring home either a Beringer Cab or Zinfandel,” Curiel remembers. But while his father taught him to taste the wines, to appreciate process, and to enjoy the communal aspect of wine, Curiel’s path wasn’t yet set.

While anyone’s course in life depends on a complicated calculus of factors, Curiel credits a 1989 Château d’Yquem tasted during his time at the French Laundry with delivering a healthy nudge in the direction of tasting and sharing wine with others. “It opened up my mind to the uniqueness of wine,” Curiel recalls. “The beautiful acidity, sweetness, this viscous sweet balanced thing that led me to a new world of knowledge.”

At the Carneros property, Curiel focused that knowledge on the up-and-coming region surrounding the property. Not only is the Carneros region one of the last to attract speculation, it’s also closest among the growing regions to the Bay Area, which remedies (some of) the traffic pressure that the area has experienced over the past couple of decades.

What’s more, from a grower’s perspective, the cooling influence of the nearby bay and marsh and the frequency of the rolling fog—a less consistent presence in far-north Calistoga, say—also make for a more diverse, cool climate that benefits certain grapes more than others.

“It’s more like the Mediterranean, in terms of climate,” Curiel says. “You have some pockets protected from the wind, so grapes like vermentino, pinot gris, even syrah feel right at home.”

Carneros is the coolest of the Napa Valley AVAs. Surrounded by large bodies of water that moderate a climate similar to the Mediterranean. Long, sunny growing seasons with little rain, mild weather during spring and fall, and winters that are cool to cold, but not frigid. The Pacific is quite cold, compared to the Mediterranean, so it generates fog. That fog slows grape ripening by providing further cooling at night, inhibiting temperature rise in the morning, and also blocking out the morning sunlight.

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Courtesy of Carneros Resort and Spa

Los Carneros is primarily associated with the cool climate wines such as Chardonnay and Pinot noir, as well as the sparkling wines made from those grapes. Many wineries in Napa and Sonoma use Carneros grapes as a cool-climate blending component. Recently, there has been interest in Merlot and Syrah coming from warmer areas of the region.

His love for the region, but also his foresight has led Curiel to build for Carneros the country’s largest region-specific cellar for the AVA, with 65 wines available at any given time.

And now, the rest of the winemaking world is starting to catch on to what Curiel knew instinctively. Mondavi, Cliff Lede, and Foley are among dozens of powerhouse winemakers who’ve recently planted flags in the region.

In the end, the parallels between classic cars and wine regions are unmistakable for Curiel. “All my buds were championing Chevelles, Mustangs, Cutlass Supremes. But not a lot of people are in love with Buicks.”

Your Carneros Starter Kit

As the leading sommelier in the Carneros region, Curiel’s picks go a long way. We asked him to choose a few of his favorites from the list at FARM.

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1 of 4Courtesy of Domaine Carneros

Domaine Carneros ‘Le Rêve’, Blanc de Blancs, Carneros, 2012

Zion Says: One of California’s best sparkling wines. It’s winemaker Eileen Crane at her best bringing out the best of two countries, making a California wine with a French expression. A versatile wine for us at the Resort when it comes to pairing with food from fish, crab, lobster, and poultry to a ripe cheese.

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2 of 4Courtesy of Bouchaine

Bouchaine ‘Swan Clone, Pinot Noir,’ Caneros, 2018

Zion Says: Under winemaker Chris Kajani’s direction, Bouchaine’s wines have reached new heights. The small berries of the swan clone offer intense aromatics—from raspberries, strawberries and cranberries to violets. Graceful with structure I’ve found this wine pairs with a variety of flavors from leaner meats like roasted chicken and pork loin to fatty cuts like lamb.

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3 of 4Courtesy of Hudson Ranch

Hudson Ranch‘Pick Up Sticks’, Grenache, Carneros, 2018

Zion Says: From the organic gardens, olive oil, and heritage breed pigs and lamb to the wines, all are made with the same care and respect at Hudson Ranch. This grabbed my attention right away in the glass with aromas of ripe cherries, spice, and leather. It’s medium-bodied, and both fruity and savory, similar to a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Perfect for Thanksgiving dinner.

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4 of 4Courtesy of Sweetwater Springs Vineyard

Brick & Mortar Brut Rosé

Zion Says: Winemaker Matt Iaconis’s wines for me are always made with great balance and acidity, while allowing the terroir to shine. Harvested early to preserve the natural freshness and acidity of the grapes, this wine was aged for 40 months in bottle to develop richness and complexity of flavor. With only little more than a thousand bottles produced, this is a gem to add to your collection.

Essential Wine Gear

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Le Creuset Waiter’s Friend Corkscrew

A textbook version of the ubiquitous sommelier’s knife, but with a comfier handle, a sharp blade for slicing through capsules, and a double-hinged lever for easy extraction of even the most stubborn synthetic corks.

Le Creuset Waiter's Friend Corkscrew, from $22.46

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Riedel WineWings Glasses

We’ve duked it out over fancy glassware in the past, but this series of wine glasses might make converts of the mason jar set. With a flatter bottom profile and undulating curves to afford for vigorous swirls, the Silhouette of each glass is designed to provide maximum air contact with the contents. That means the aromas meet your nose and meld with the palate of your wine to provide an orgiastic crescendo of sensory components.

Riedel WineWings Glasses, from $35

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Hard Strong 7-Ounce Stackable Glasses

Made in Japan since 1967 and strengthened through an Ion-Exchange process, these glasses are compact, stackable, and ultra-durable. They’re often used for hot tea in ramen shops, but they function just as well with a weeknight Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (or a thumb of whiskey). Bonus: A six-pack of these costs less than a single Riedel!

Hard Strong stackable glasses, 6 for $33

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North Drinkware Glasses

Glass half-empty or half-full is not what we’re mulling with this smart series of tumblers, which features relief sculptures of prominent mountains in the base. What better way to contemplate the heights you’ll reach in the year ahead than to drain a dram with heft like this?

North Drinkware Tumblers, from $48

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Corning Pyrex Erlenmeyer “Decanter”

Go ahead, drop $300 on a fancy blown-glass decanter. That’s blown money, once it meets the edge of an elbow after the third bottle of the night. We’ll be drinking the money we saved by using this dirt-cheap and durable Pyrex surrogate, which is made for the lab but works damn well enough on wine, too. It’s food safe, brand-new, and best of all cheaper than most wine we’d recommend.

Corning Pyrex Erlenmeyer Flask, $24.37

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Coravin Wine-Preservation Systems

Previous models of this system injected inert Argon gas through the cork via hypodermic needle, pushing wine back out and preserving the delicate juice inside. That’s fine for sipping your way through $800 bottles of cult cab, but for the average drinker just looking to prolong something pretty damn good, or maybe to work through a few bottles in a night without the pressure of draining them, this system is a life-saver. Instead of punching through the cork, you’ll swap on grommeted rubber necks after the cork is removed. The result: Four weeks versus a few days of post-cork longevity—and zero opener’s remorse.

Coravin Systems, from $99

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NewAir Wine Refrigerators

Consider a dual-zone compact wine fridge like NewAir’s—perfect for cramped kitchens.

NewAir Wine Fridges, from $120

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