Devil Proof is the unlikely story of some of the world’s greatest Malbecs.
Jesse Katz hadn’t planned on becoming a winemaker. The notion would come to him later in life, but in his youth, the idea began to take hold.
Jesse’s father, Andy Katz, an award-winning photographer, was building a reputation for capturing the stunning beauty of the world’s greatest vineyards. For the young Jesse Katz, accompanying his dad to wine country was not about the wine—it was to see a new world, experience a new culture, and observe life through all of its apertures.
Wine country for young Jesse Katz wasn’t what a wine lover sees—those patchworks of sacred plots under vine weren’t, in his mind’s eye, the grape beginnings of Grand Cru wines. Rather, wine country seemed an endless playground of natural and cultivated beauty, filled with the pure joie de vivre of discovery, and it became a siren song.
Travels to Bordeaux and Tuscany during his teen years only cemented Jesse’s fascination with the culture of wine. And the seed planted in his youth, which had taken root in Burgundy, now began to blossom at home.
Jesse Katz would wow the wine world with his Bordeaux-style creations under his Aperture Cellars label. Those complex wines would land Katz on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list—the first winemaker ever to make that list. And later, building upon his experience having worked alongside legends like Paul Hobbs at Argentina's Viña Cobos, he would craft the first-ever 100-point American Malbec under a new label called Devil Proof.
But first, there was Cuba.
A photography project would bring Andy Katz and his family to Cuba over the summer of ‘97. The family had to beg the border patrol agents not to stamp their passports because it was illegal to be there at the time.
Once in Cuba, the sorrow of an impoverished nation weighed heavily on Jesse. A driver who showed them around was the number two nuclear physicist in Cuba and was making more money driving a cab than at his day job.
But in the streets, behind that backdrop of economic despair, the people of Cuba were generally happy, outgoing, and full of spirit and generosity. If you live well and drink well, the devil can’t get you. One afternoon, walking the cobblestone streets of Havana, Jesse and his dad spotted a Cuban woman dressed for any of life’s potential celebrations—freedom, joy, life, death, poverty, wealth, morality, immorality. When they first met her, she was seated on a bench outside her house, feeding birds—a cigar in hand. She bore an infectious, beckoning, almost sinful grin, and Andy Katz just had to talk to her—just had to capture this cosmopolitan woman.
Day after day, they would pass by her bench, and she would be there, holding that cigar—always that same infectious grin. This Cuban woman fell in love with the idea of being photographed by Andy. She posed as his shutter clicked. They would form a bond, cast in pin-pricks of light, etched onto film, and, eventually, developed into prints.
Andy captured many images of her, naming one of them a Cuban phrase that embodied her energy, joy, and mystique, her living life to its fullest—Devil Proof. Because she was.
Years later, in 2012, long after their trip to Cuba, Andy and Jesse would be standing in a barrel room, tasting a singular wine—a Malbec Jesse had produced that was so complex and enigmatic, so expressive, so bold and brazen—that in an instant, they would both realize the same thing. “Is this the Devil Proof photo?”
Neither father nor son fully realized it at the time, but it marked the birth of a new wine label that would be called Devil Proof.
There’s an old saying that goes: live well, drink well, the devil can’t get ya.
In the context of grape growing, a devil proof wine is an elixir of life, born of the fruit from vines that live and drink well and keep you safe from the devil—however you interpret that.
The vineyard-designate wines we produce for our Devil Proof labels offer our interpretations as singular expressions of each site—of grapes grown within the ecosystems of those vineyards. Those vines are well-tended throughout the growing season, from winter pruning and springtime bud break to summertime bunch growth and fall harvest.
Because many of the vines we work with are dry-farmed, their thirst is quenched by a metaphorical well of nutrients derived from the land with generous pours of bright and vivid California sunshine.
In wine, as in life, context is everything.
During the harvests Jesse Katz spent in Argentina at Bodega Noemia and Viña Cobos with famed vintner Paul Hobbs, he sat at the tasting table with the best makers of Malbec in the world—tasting the finest examples the variety has been known to produce. It left an indelible mark on Katz.
Over the years, his passion for Malbec only intensified, and he dreamed of pushing the limits of what the grape could achieve in California soils under the California sun. But the proof of Malbec’s potential would have to come from a unique source because grapes do not make the wine—the site makes the wine.
Only when Jesse discovered a plot of unique Malbec vines rooted in the rich soils of Farrow Ranch in the Alexander Valley did he become convinced that crafting a world-class Malbec in America was possible.
The owners of Farrow Ranch—Carol and Vic Farrow—agreed to sell him grapes. When, after a year of employing strict farming protocols, reducing yields, and encouraging stress, and the grapes were harvested, fermented, and aged in barrel, did something magical happen.
The memories of his boyhood trip with his dad, Andy, to Cuba—where the pervasive culture was to live well, drink well (so the devil can’t get you)—came flooding back when Katz tasted the young, still-aging wine produced from those Malbec grapes. Simply put, it was a devil proof wine.
That saying—the name of one of Andy Katz’s most acclaimed photos from their Cuba jaunt—now graces the front label of Devil Proof’s wines.