An Interview with Kurtis Ogasawara Winemaker, Robert Mondavi Winery, at VanWineFest 2024

Kurtis Ogasawara, Winemaker for the Mondavi Winery
Kurtis Ogasawara, Winemaker for the Robert Mondavi Winery

The Robert Mondavi Winery is historic for putting California, and New World wines, on the international stage. I was fortunate to have a chance to interview Kurtis Ogasawara, Winemaker for Robert Mondavi during VanWineFest 2024.  I was told, “Growing up in Sunnyvale, California, Kurtis lived just outside of wine country in the Bay Area. When he went off to college, he moved even closer to wine country and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Viticulture and Enology from U.C. Davis. When asked why he wanted to become a winemaker he said, “It is the perfect mix of science and art; wine is something you can create to enjoy with family and friends”…

…Kurtis began his career in California wine, working with sparkling wine at Domaine Chandon and Mumm Napa then moved further up the valley to Newton Vineyard where he was an Enologist. Drawn towards the idea of working for a historic winery and vineyard, Kurtis began his career at Robert Mondavi Winery, and in 2017 joined the winemaking team as Assistant Winemaker and in 2018, Senior Winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery.”

Besides chatting with Kurtis, I had the chance to taste two of his quality red wines and discuss the wines with him.

My Interview with Kurtis Ogasawara

Karl: You are a native Californian, raised around California grapes and wine.  Has this influenced your style, or do you get some inspiration from other parts of the world?

Kurtis: My whole career has been in Napa Valley but you need to take inspiration from around the world. Wine is a worldly thing.  I’ve travelled to Bordeaux a couple of times and have other countries to visit. We buy wines from around the world and taste them as a team. Make sure we know what else is out there.  You can always grow and improve in winemaking.

Karl: Over the last 10 years you have been there, has the style changed for the reds?

Kurtis: Slightly. It is important to stay true to the brand. It has been successful for decades.  In the spirit of Mr. Mondavi to be innovative and push quality, there are little tweaks, 1/4% changes, here and there that make a difference.

Karl: Keep to the house style, but you can tweak it a little bit.

Kurtis: Exactly. I’m not trying to change it.  I’m not trying to put my style stamp on it.  I’m trying to keep to the house style as much as possible.

Karl: The two wines we have here to taste are the Robert Mondavi Winery To Kalon Vineyard The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 and The Estates Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2019.

Kurtis: The two wines come from the same year, 2019, same place, the To Kalon Vineyard, and show two different expressions of Cabernet. The Oakville is mainly To Kalon Vineyard.

Karl: Tell what the 2019 vintage was like.  Was it a hot year?

Kurtis: It was one of my favourite vintages in the past decade.  Lower crop yield in general.  Not much rain.  Some rain in the late winter and spring.  The vines adapted and self-regulated so we did not have to green harvest. That brought grapes with great colour, acidity, and freshness. We did not have many heat spikes or forest fires. We could take our time to harvest the grapes when we wanted, which is not a luxury you get every vintage.

Karl: The Estates Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 is lighter-bodied, not overly heavy and overpowering, which I prefer. We need elegance.

Kurtis: We are not looking for blockbuster wines where you have one sip and are done for the day. We want freshness, elegance, power and intensity.  Wines I want to finish and have another glass.  That is what we are after and is timeless.

Karl: When I taste and write about wines at home, I write tasting notes as soon as I open the bottle, but then I will re-taste the wine the next day with updated notes.  I will then tell my readers if they should decant the wine for the best presentation.

Kurtis: That is an interesting aspect of tasting wine. To open a bottle and taste it right away then see how it evolves over time.

The Estates Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 uses 100% new French oak for ageing but it is not overpowering.

Karl: The oak isn’t overdone, which is really nice. I know that there are some wineries that love to oak their wines, especially Chardonnays.

Kurtis: Oak is such a big player in wine.  The way we select oak barrels, is to pick those that support the fruit, push the freshness and structure of the wine and maybe lengthen the wine and freshness to the end. I don’t want you to have a glass of wine and only taste oak. I want you to experience the fruit, where it is coming from the personality of the site and invite you to have another glass.

Karl: This wine is very inviting.  I can have glass after glass and enjoy it with some cheese.

I read you were at Domaine Chandon and Mumm Napa, but wasn’t sure if there is any sparkling wine at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Kurtis: Over the history, there has been some sparkling.  We made some sparkling for the 2021 vintage and it will be sold direct to the consumer;  A fun side project.  Our focus is still wines.

Karl: Have there been any issues with forest fires around your vineyards?

Kurtis: We didn’t make some wines in 2020.  We were confident in our white wines and are on our market and as well made Pinot Noir.  We did not feel confident about our Bordeaux blends.  We harvested and tasted the grapes, but were not confident that they were not tainted.  The Pinot Noir was ok as it was harvested earlier in the season. Plus the Pinot Noir vines were in Carneros which was not as affected by forest fire smoke. We kept tasting it through ageing in barrel to make sure it had kept its quality. Forest fires and smoke taint puts you in a tough spot if that is your livelihood.  It is important to have crop insurance.

Karl: Is there anything else you would like to tell my readers?

Kurtis: The winery is undergoing a major renovation that started last summer and will finish in 2025. As we need new equipment we will purchase smarter equipment, more sustainable equipment.  It is exciting.  We have a new tasting room in downtown Napa during the renovation.

Karl Thank you for talking and tasting your wines with me.

My Wine Tasting Notes

Robert Mondavi Winery To Kalon Vineyard The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 and The Estates Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 wines
Robert Mondavi Winery To Kalon Vineyard The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 and The Estates Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 wines

Robert Mondavi Winery To Kalon Vineyard The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 – This wine is 97.5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2.5% Petit Verdot.  It is a selection of particular barrels and parts of tanks that best express that vintage and the To Kalon vineyard.  2019 was a good vintage with lower rainfall.  The vines made fewer grapes, but the grapes produced greater concentration.  The wines were aged in 100% new French oak barrels for 21 months.

This wine has a deep, opaque from rim to core, garnet colour.  A dark fruit nose.  Dry, fuller body, with a smooth and soft mouthfeel.  Sweet black fruits plus light oak and touches of capsicum and sweet spices.  Fresh flavours.  Medium-acidity and medium-minus soft, fine-grained tannins.  Medium length. Sweet fruit on the finish with a drying medium-intensity tannic finish. 4.5 stars

Robert Mondavi Winery The Estates Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 – Most of the grapes for this Oakville District Cabernet Sauvignon come from the To Kalon Vineyard. It is a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec, and 1% Merlot.  According to Kurtis, this wine is a bit juicier, a bit more approachable, fleshy and fun, but it is still serious and ageable.  More of an everyday wine.

It has a deep, dull garnet colour.  Deep aromas of ripe berries, plus cedar and chocolate.  Dry, medium-minus body with a lean mouthfeel.  Juicy black fruit flavours along with a touch of sweet spices and capsicum. Medium acidity and light tannins.  An elegant wine. This wine is listed for sale through BC Liquor stores. 4.5 stars

Video Interviews

In previous years at VanWineFest, I interviewed Mark de Vere from the Robert Mondavi Winery.  Here are the videos of those interviews.

Mark de Vere from the Robert Mondavi Winery at VanWineFest 2019

Mark de Vere from the Robert Mondavi Winery Part 2 at VanWineFest 2019

Mark de Vere from Robert Mondavi Winery at VanWineFest 2016


Author: mywinepal
Drink Good Wine. That is my motto and I really want to help you drink good wine. What is good wine? That can be a different thing for each people. Food also loves wine so I also cover food and wine pairings, restaurant reviews, and world travel. Enjoy life with me. MyWinePal was started by Karl Kliparchuk, WSET. I spent many years with the South World Wine Society as the President and then cellar master. I love to travel around the world, visiting wine regions and sharing my passion for food & wine with you. Come live vicariously through me, and enjoy all my recommended wines.

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