Kistler Vineyards founder stepping down as CEO from Sonoma County winery

Steve Kistler with son Jason.

NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL, NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL

Steve Kistler is stepping down as CEO and director of winemaking at Kistler Vineyards in Sonoma County.

Kistler founded the winery 39 years ago. His departure will take place before the end of the month, the announcement stated. It added that Kistler will “move on to focus on winemaking at his family’s Occidental brand, crafting site specific Pinot Noir with his daughters.”

“Steve and I have been working together since I purchased Durell Vineyard in 1997, and will continue to do so in the future,” stated Managing Partner Bill Price in making the announcement. “When I led a group of investors that eventually purchased a majority stake in Kistler in 2008, Steve and I planned out an orderly succession plan and brought in Jason Kesner 9-years ago to begin an Old-World style apprenticeship at Steve’s side. Today’s announcement is the natural conclusion of this process, and we are all very excited about the next stage in Kistler’s storied history.”

After a brief writing career, Kistler studied at UC Davis and Fresno State before logging two years in the cellars at Ridge Vineyards.

At Fresno State, Kistler met his partner Mark Bixler, who has a degree in chemistry and oversees the winery lab. (Bixler died in November, according to a posting on the winery’s website.)

Together, they began Kistler Vineyards, with the first vintage a 1979 Dutton Ranch chardonnay.

``We didn’t set out to make chardonnay and allow it to express itself:`This is California chardonnay.’ My grandfather was a collector of really fine wine, so I was brought up exposed to great French wine,’’ Kistler explained in a Press Democrat story in 1995.

``We wanted to see how closely we could capture the unique aspects of French wines. It was a real learning process.’’

From the beginning, Kistler’s greatest concerns were the location of the vineyard and the grape clone planted.

The vineyards are in cool regions: Sonoma Mountains, Russian River Valley, the Sonoma Coast -- areas that most approximate the growing conditions of Burgundy.

While most vineyards in Wine Country are planted with new, highly prolific clones, Kistler prefers the intensity of flavors found in old clone vines, which yield fewer grapes and produce smaller grapes and clusters.``You have to end up paying by the acre. It ends up being an exorbitant.”

In the announcement, Kistler said, “For years my hope has been that my daughters Catherine and Elizabeth would one day join me at Occidental, working by my side in our vineyards and winery. This day has finally come, and so I am pleased to be handing off my current responsibilities at Kistler Vineyards to people I have worked with for many years.”