by Charlene Peters | PHOTO By Sandoval Media
Matt Sands, a native of New Zealand’s Waiheke Island, found his way to California through snowboarding. The wine came later, following a career as a snowboard instructor at Lake Tahoe, where he met his American wife, Amanda. The couple relocated to New Zealand in 2009, and Sands began working at Passage Rock Winery, helping in their café and vineyard, pruning vines, bottling, and in every aspect of the winemaking process. “It was a four-year boot camp on how to make wine,” he said.
While his education at the Eastern Institute of Technology in New Zealand was more than hands-on, Sands said his biggest influence was from David Evans at Passage Rock Winery. In the off-season, he spent about six months in California to gain more experience. Admittedly, Sands had no idea which wineries to contact, so his outreach began with a Google search on interesting Napa wineries.
“I sent about 100 emails,” he said. “Ten people responded, seven said no, and I received three offers.”
The offer he accepted was from Screaming Eagle. Following his second harvest in Napa at Bryant Estate, he was introduced to Philippe Melka, a French-American winemaker from Bordeaux with his own label, Melka, and a consultant for several brands in the Napa Valley. The two met for coffee to discuss potential work for upcoming projects and stayed in touch.
In 2015, Sands moved to California full-time with his family. He began to work on a new project with Alejandro Bulgheroni, an Argentinian-Italian businessman, farmer, vintner, and entrepreneur with an impressive portfolio. Sands has been working at Lithology in St. Helena ever since, and this is where the team has the freedom to select the best grapes each year, which is a huge factor in making premium wines.
Access to the best vineyards, such as To Kalon, helps. Still, the biggest influences on his winemaking style have been attributed to his New Zealand experience training as a winemaker at Passage Rock, Man O’ War, Stonyridge Vineyard, and his work with Melka.
For this year’s harvest, Sands has reported the canopy looks good, which is a crucial element of winemaking as the vineyard offers the expression of taste. In fact, Sands explained the grapes are harvested on the earlier side to create voluptuous Cabernet Sauvignon with a stronger sense of place.
“Everything about it, climate, soil, varietals that grow in the right place – all of it coming together,” Sands explained of Lithology wine’s success. “It’s not just the climate of To Kalon that’s good. It’s the particular climate that, combined with the alluvial soil, gives an expression of Cabernet Sauvignon that is unique.”
And then there’s the winemaking. With time spent with Melka at Lithology, Sands finds it interesting to see how vintages perform when blending more restrained wines with a team that includes the famous French consultant Michel Rolland.