Alumni of Northern Arizona University have achieved success in many fields, but did you know NAU alums lead two of California’s finest wineries?
Bill Smart (BS), general manager and vice president of Lambert Bridge Winery in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley, attended NAU 1995-99 and earned a bachelor’s in business marketing.
Jon Ruel (JR), chief executive officer of Trefethen Vineyards in Napa Valley’s Oak Knoll District, was at NAU 1997-2000 for a master’s degree in biology (plant ecology).
Here are their stories, from NAU to wine.
What brought you to NAU?
BS: NAU has a great School of Business, and Flagstaff offers wonderful skiing. In-state tuition finalized the decision.
JR: My top two choices for graduate school were the University of Washington and NAU. One had 300 cloudy days a year, the other had 300 sunny days. Easy choice!
Favorite NAU memory?
BS: Too many to count, but one is living in the center of campus in Raymond Hall with all the incredibly fun people I met there.
JR: Being able to bike and walk everywhere across campus and in town.
Favorite Flagstaff memory?
BS: Also too many to count, but I remember a snowstorm with several feet of snow that shut down Flagstaff just before the start of a spring semester. It was awesome!
JR: The first time I ever had chilaquiles at MartAnne’s…amazing! Also, the smell of roasting chiles in late summer outside Flagstaff Farmers Market on 4th Street and getting some runs in at Snowbowl before/after class.
What do you miss most?
BS: I miss the mountain vibe. I loved that Flagstaff has four distinct seasons with the Peaks changing so beautifully during them.
JR: Being surrounded by National Forest, National Monuments, National Parks – so much open space, so much room for exploration and recreation in beautiful natural areas.
Have you returned?
BS: I came back in 2008 to show my college town to my wife. We drove all over campus and visited one of my other favorite places on earth – Oak Creek Canyon.
JR: Yes, took my kids sledding and got coffee at Macy’s.
How did you become interested in wine?
BS: Dad collected wines from around the world, and my family moved to Vienna, Austria while I was at NAU. My visits there gave me a global perspective that enhanced the appreciation of fine wine and food already imbued in me by my family.
JR: My parents had wine on the table when I was growing up. I also spent time living in Sienna, Italy, as an undergraduate and saw the integral role of wine in Italian cuisine and culture.
How did you start in the trade?
BS: As a marketing assistant to Michaela Rodeno, CEO of St. Supery in 2001. She taught me so much about the industry and how to be a professional. I still consider her my mentor.
JR: When I was considering a career change after my master’s degree, I looked at my hobbies. Travel was a passion, so I worked at travel agencies in Flagstaff. But I missed science. Viticulture seemed to combine the intellectual challenge of science with my desire to craft something delicious. I returned to school for a master’s degree in viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis, and was hired by Trefethen in 2004 as a viticulturist.
Favorite aspect of the trade?
BS: Great wine attracts great food and great people! The industry is a lot of fun. But it is also a lot of work. Mother Nature truly holds the cards, dealing us a new hand every year that demands our full attention as we farm in real-time, responding to the vines and the weather. It never gets old!
JR: I’ve eaten at great restaurants, consumed iconic wines and met incredible people. I’ve learned wine is the great unifier. In a world so divided by politics, race and religion, wine has the ability to bring people together and find common ground.
BS: Cabernet Sauvignon for sure.
JR: The answer has changed over time – interesting how our palates are always evolving. Right now, it’s Pinot Noir.
Favorite from your winery?
BS: Our proprietary blend, Crane Creek Cuvee. If stranded on a desert island, this is the bottle I want with me! It’s amazing.
JR: Like asking if I have a favorite child! Our Dry Riesling is a fantastic first wine of the night – pop the cork and enjoy a glass while pondering what to cook for dinner. (Or have it with carryout from Dara Thai!) And our Cabernet Sauvignon.
Here are my own personal favorites from the NAU-led Lambert Bridge and Trefethen:
Trefethen 2015 Riesling “Dry, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley” ($25): This favorite of Jon Ruel’s has a vibrant, forward personality featuring attractive fruit framed by fine acidity. Quite dry, the pleasure continues throughout an exceptionally long-lingering finish.
Lambert Bridge 2016 Sauvignon Blanc “Bevill Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley” ($38): Highly refined, this Sauvignon Blanc has modest color and nose, but reveals itself on the palate in a beautiful manner that makes it a truly memorable Sauvignon Blanc. Order online.
Trefethen 2014 Merlot “Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley” ($40): This serious Merlot is very attractive in the glass and features strength, fruit and complexity on the nose. Strong on the palate with medium-soft tannins providing engaging texture throughout an impressive finish.
Trefethen 2015 Chardonnay “Harmony, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley” ($50): Outstanding, with full-body, attractive fruit, polished acidity, medium-soft oak, excellent integration, strong personality and extended finish. “Harmony” indeed!
Lambert Bridge 2014 Chardonnay “Sonoma County” ($55): Exceptionally smooth, its medium-light attack is soon followed by a burst of fruit and power accompanied by fine integration and honed balance. Modestly oaked, long-lingering and deliciously food friendly. Order online.
Trefethen 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon “Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley” ($60): Another favorite of Jon Ruel’s catches the eye with its purple hue and entrances the nose with intensity and complexity. Full-bodied on the palate with smoothly textured fruit. Absolutely wonderful for slow sipping!
Lambert Bridge 2013 Cabernet Franc “Sonoma County” ($70): The best Cab Franc I’ve tasted in a long time pleasures the palate with delicious fruit, velvety texture, excellent balance, beautifully integrated tannins and exceptional power and length on the finish. Order online.
Trefethen 2014 red blend “O•K•D Four, Knoll District, Napa Valley” ($75): This fine blend of mostly Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec is strong all-around, but has especially rich fruit, layered complexity on nose and palate and a very forward, long-persisting finish. Order online.
Lambert Bridge 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon “Sonoma County” ($80): Oh my! Strong and impressively complex on the nose, this beauty is also extraordinarily refined on the palate, melding excellent balance, smooth integration, ripe fruit and medium-soft tannins. Order online.
Lambert Bridge 2013 red blend “Crane Creek Cuvée, Sonoma County” ($110): Bill Smart’s favorite wine features memorable grace and strength. Its nose has multiple levels of engagement and sets the stage for exceptional balance, finely textured tannins and appealing complexity. Order online.