Matthiasson + Social Good
Matthiasson Winery in Napa is a pioneer among producers helping to bring about a more equitable and ethical vision for American wine. After all, if oats can be milk, why can’t wine be a force for social good?
Walking in the vineyard with Steve and Jill Matthiasson, the first thing you’ll notice is that the vines are trained several inches higher than any of their Napa neighbors. “It’s so our crew doesn’t have to bend down as far,” Steve explains.
Though widely considered pioneers on environmental issues, it’s the Matthiassons’ commitment to social sustainability — details like this one to broader employment programs — that makes their work feel more relevant than ever, particularly now as the industry looks for a sense of purpose that can’t be expressed on a 100-point scale.
Yet in the end, the Matthiassons’ argument is an ethical one: wine quality shouldn’t come at a human cost. (For employees, an irregular work schedule can mean having to rearrange everything from transportation to childcare).
The more time you spend with Steve and Jill, you become increasingly aware of a finely calibrated moral compass at the heart of every decision they make. Rather than accept wine’s quality-at-all-costs paradigm that often sets stylistic goals at odds with ethical ones — back-breaking work you say? Delicious! — Matthiasson is proving that social responsibility and wine excellence can, and should, go hand and hand.
One of the winery’s more radical practices is that it is staffed almost exclusively by full-time, year-round employees — unheard of in an industry highly dependent on a robust migrant workforce. Maintaining a year-round staff requires flexibility and creative work-arounds — like their practice of rotating vineyard workers into winery roles — but the results are significant: a culture of collaboration, deep engagement, and a shared sense of accomplishment.
Like many, we first learned about Matthiasson back in 2013, when the winery became synonymous with New California Wine, a movement catalyzed by Jon Bonné’s book (of the same title), which presented restraint and elegance as wine’s higher calling.
The movement was clearly a game changer: it lit a fire under a new generation of producers and made “cool-climate Pinot Noir” a thing people actually said. However, by making it all about ripeness and alcohol the book fell short of broadening the conversation from a debate about style to a deeper one about ethics.
This is exactly the conversation we need to be having now — and Steve and Jill, along with a new wave of mission-driven producers they’ve helped to inspire, are the best equipped to guide us.
Because here’s the thing: making Matthiasson the face of New California Wine is like putting Bob Dylan on the cover of Acoustic Guitar magazine — it doesn’t really get to the heart of what they’re all about. This is not to say Matthiasson isn’t worth drinking on the basis of taste alone. The first Matthiasson wine I tasted (the Napa Valley White) shot me like an arrow through the heart, the taste of lime-tinged ricotta and acacia blossoms shimmering over my tongue. However, it’s the Matthiassons’ ability to trace each stylistic decision back to an underlying ethical framework that makes their wines so resonant and meaningful for me today.
Article by Sam Decker