Mantra Wines: Sonoma County’s Greek wine
Recently, I traveled to the Napa/Sonoma winemaking region of California with a singular mission: to discover the area’s Greek-owned wineries.Mantra Wines is a family owned enterprise in Sonoma. I met up with Winemaker Mike Kuimelis, Jr. at their popular Novato tasting room to learn more.
From the mountains of Arkadia to the ridgetops of Sonoma County
Mike Kuimelis, Sr. was born in Kandyla, about 30 km from Tripolis in Arkadia, Greece. One of five children, Mike Sr. jumped on his uncle’s invitation to migrate to the U.S. He arrived in California in the 1950’s. Though just 12 years old, he worked tirelessly to send money back home to help his family. In the 1970s some of his family from Kandyla relocated to Chicago, however, Mike Sr. loved California and felt there were opportunities for him there, so he stayed.
Mike Sr. graduated from St Mary’s College of California. He worked in the insurance industry for many years, but in 1978, destiny called — he bought a vineyard as an investment. Mike Jr. recalled that time.
“I was 10 when my dad bought his first vineyard. He loved working with the vines and got the bug. He started selling grapes to other wineries and then began buying more vineyards.”
Today, Mike Sr. owns vineyards in the Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys, located in Healdsburg and Cloverdale, both in Sonoma County. Of those, approximately 50 acres are farmed; another 25-30 are in development in Petaluma.
Not only did the father get the bug, so did the son.
Home among the vines
“I grew up with an appreciation for vineyards,” Mike Jr. explained. “I always loved it. There was freedom among the vines. I learned about growing grapes. We’d prune for days, training every vine. It’s an art. It’s meditative. You get in the zone and it’s like the rest of the world is gone. It’s truly exciting, thinking about how it’s all going to turn out. We’re transforming a landscape.”
Though Mike Jr. enjoyed working in the vineyard, he had other plans for his future. An avid reader, he studied “The Great Books”, known as Integral at St Mary’s College, which has an emphasis on Greek philosophy and literature. After he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree, he decided to join the Peace Corps to give back to society and see more of the world. He recalled the experience.
“I spent 1991-1995 working in a remote agricultural village in rural Guatemala. My vineyard experience got me in. We did some grape growing, but the conditions weren’t conducive. So, we grew citrus, avocados, and various vegetables. We helped the locals grow crops to sell in local markets and to diversify their diets. During my time there I saw the lack of medical care as an issue that I wanted to help alleviate.”
Back home, he entered a graduate program at Mills College for students with non-science degrees who wish to go on to study medicine. At the same time, he started making wine – the first barrel was from the vintage 1995. After the two-year program and while studying for his MCATs (Medical College Admission Tests) to get into medical school, he worked in the vineyards and made wine on a small scale. During this time, he met his wife, Dez, who was studying forestry at Cal Berkeley. They moved to Healdsburg to be closer to the vineyards. Then he realized his true calling was there, between the vines.
“I knew then that med school wasn’t for me. This was where I was supposed to be.”
Mantra Wines is born
Though Mike Jr. was helping to manage his family vineyards he was captivated by the art and science of winemaking. Thirsty for knowledge, he went to work in nearby wineries to learn everything he possibly could. By 2000, he was ready.
Mantra Wines is truly a family effort. Mike Sr. and his wife, Lorene, are the grape growers. Mike Jr. is the winemaker, sales team, and forklift driver. Dez is the all-around support crew. Mike Sr.’s two other sons – a scientist and a lawyer – are not involved in the family business. When Mike Jr. and Dez sought names, they thought to use their name, ‘Kuimelis’. His sister-in-law, Gina, mocked up a logo.
“It was a cool, art deco label,” Mike Jr. remembered. “We mocked up some bottles and I took the wines to restaurants to sample. The feedback was consistently that if people can’t pronounce the name, they likely won’t order it. So, it was back to the drawing board.”
Mike Jr. and Dez sought other names, and Gina designed more potential logos. Nothing clicked. They discussed their guiding principles and philosophy for their wine.
“We kept saying, ‘Our mantra must be that this is a family-owned business. Our mantra must be that we only produce the highest quality wine.’ We kept saying ‘mantra’ over and over, and it stuck.”
The logo is a clean and simple design, allowing the name to stand out.
“We started with the infinity logo, and then my sister-in-law introduced the concept of the Mobius, a 3D strip. We thought it was cool, bringing science to the art, sort of like what goes into winemaking.”
Art, science, and luck
Mike Jr. called the winemaking process “great fun”, and described it as a fusion of art, science, and a little bit of luck. Though most of their wines are single varietal, he does like to create blends.
“Blending is really fun, because you can take some liberties and try new things. However, I think that for great wines, you need only minimal intervention.”
For their first vintage, they utilized a custom crush facility in Santa Rosa, where they also made and bottled the wine.
“Our first production yielded four barrels of Cabernet Sauvignon – about 100 cases,” Mike Jr. revealed.
Mantra Wines receive critical acclaim
By 2003 the critics were giving high praise to the Mantra wines, so Mike Jr. quit working at other wineries to focus their efforts only on Mantra Wines. Five years later, they moved to a larger facility. At their peak in 2014, they produced 7000 cases, though they have scaled back to about 4000-5000 cases per year, to focus on producing the best wine possible and to sell mostly out of their tasting room
“We set the most vigorous standards for our grapes. With that, we can produce ultra-premium wines that reflect the unique characteristics of grapes grown on our high elevation and mountain-top vineyards.”
Currently, they produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah, and since 20
13, their wines have grabbed the attention of wine experts, garnering multiple awards. Their Cabernet and Merlot recently won ‘Best of Class’ and ‘Gold Medals’ at the California State Wine Tasting Competition. The Cab also won a ‘Gold Medal’ at the Sunset Magazine International Wine Competition. Previously, Wine and Spirits Magazine included their Old Vine Zinfandel Reserve among the ‘Year’s Best’. Not to be forgotten, their Syrah was awarded 93 points in the Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine.
Renowned wine critic Robert Parker, Jr. – The Wine Advocate also praised Mantra Wines, placing them all in the ‘Outstanding’ category. He’s written about them several times. He wrote, “These juicy Cabernets emphasize loads of fruit, impressive purity, and beautiful texture,” and described them as “Hedonistic, smoky, full-bodied, voluptuously textured flavors”.
Novato tasting room
Like many small wineries, Mantra Wines didn’t have their own tasting room. A few years ago, the downtown in Novato, a picturesque town in Marin County, was experiencing a resurgence, and Mike Jr. and Dez thought it a great place for a tasting room. Opened in 2017, the tasting room and lounge has evolved into “one huge living room”. With some semi-private nooks, the big open space is cozy, with comfortable couches and decorated in a modern, rustic style. Mike Jr. carved the bar top and did much of the woodworking, a hobby he thoroughly enjoys.
Here, it’s about wine, art, and music. With rotating art exhibits, open mic nights on Thursdays, and live music on Saturdays, the Mantra tasting room is the hottest place in town. We met at 11 am, and Mike Jr, mentioned that people started lining up outside just before 1 pm when they open. He wasn’t kidding. It was 1:05 and we were so enjoying our conversation and tasting wines, that he forgot to unlock the door. People were knocking on the door, pointing to their watches. The place quickly filled up, with people sipping wines, perusing the art, conversing, and even ordering food from the restaurant next door.
Mantra also does something very special with its art exhibits. When they open a new art show, they turn the artwork into a special label for a limited-edition wine.
“The locals love it. They want to have a piece of the show. The artists love to be featured in this creative way.”
Not only does Mantra Wines produce these popular California varietals, but they have something special in the works: a nod to their Greek roots.
“We’re starting with Moschofilero. Our first harvest will be in 2020. Next will be Assyrtiko.”
Mike Sr., Lorene, Mike Jr., and Dez are dedicated to growing and evolving, to produce the best wines. The family remains committed, and now the third generation is getting involved; Mike Jr.’s son, Nikos, has worked on the harvest and helps in the tasting room.
Stop by to visit them in Novato to taste the wines, enjoy some music and art, and join the Wine Club. Offering ‘A Taste of Infinity’, wine lovers can join at different levels, named in a nod to the Kuimelis’ Greek roots – Artemis, Apollo, Demeter, and Zeus – each offering a different number of bottles per year, discount level, and more.
What a great day we had with Mike Jr. We enjoyed our visit to Mantra Wines and took several bottles home. Next time we are up in that area, we will definitely be back. Put it on your must-visit list.
Visit Mantra Wines Tasting Room and Lounge, located at 881 Grant Avenue, Novato, CA. 415.892.WINE
Mantra Wines are available on their website and in the tasting room.