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  • Writer's pictureMelissa L. Smith

From GarageBand to Garagiste Wines

Updated: 17 hours ago

Xander Soren photo by Margot Duane

You may not have heard of Xander Soren (although his name does have a very cool super hero tinge), but you definitely have been on the receiving end of his genius as the director of music marketing at Apple for over 20 years. Xander co-created GarageBand, giving countless artists and people (myself included) the tools to create music, podcasts, and audio presentations for the world. A fanatic of Japanese culture and cuisine, and a frequent traveler to the country, a pivotal dining experience happened when chef and sommelier Otani san (third generation) of restaurant Hidezushi in Kyoto paired Burgundy with sushi inspired Xander to pursue making a wine to pair specifically with Japanese cuisine. Pinot Noir, like Japanese dishes, is completely reliant on high quality ingredients treated with the utmost respect and skill, so that the final result is better than the sum of its parts. How else would you explain Pinot being the most sought after, expensive, and collectible wines in the world? Or an omakase meal being transcendent when most dishes consist of not more than a few ingredients prepared by someone that has spent their lifetime perfecting knife cuts, elevating grains of rice, and expertly selecting pristine sections of fish and produce assembled into the perfect bite?

This insight and admiration starts with my time working with famed Japanese chef Hiro Sone. When I was 19 years old I worked in his kitchen at Terra in Napa Valley. Around the same time I would also stage at the French Laundry, and on my 20th birthday I dined in the famed restaurant solo. No one questioned my age and they paired wines with every course, except for one. Divine Droplets sake was served, my attendee Sur Lucero (now a Master Sommelier), told me the story of how it was made, and that pairing forever changed my life. I learned from the best at a very young age, and my passion and interest in Japanese cuisine and culture eventually brought me to an opportunity to live in Tokyo at the Four Seasons in Chinzanso in 2001, where I would spend my time exploring neighborhoods and markets while listening to the Moby Play album on my handheld discman. I would dine at places from six seat restaurants where I’d point out different fish and vegetables for the chef to grill over binchotan charcoal, dipped in a swipe of miso or kewpie mayonnaise, to Yoshinoya beef and rice bowls piled high with pickled ginger juliennes, and omakase dinners hidden in bamboo forests where the servers dressed as geisha’s and the sake pairings would impact my career transitioning from a fine dining chef to a sommelier. It was a bizarre, privileged experience that included an onsen bath with Kate Hudson, attending Black Crows concerts at night while swimming in the pool with their manager during the day, and has circled back several times, including expert witness testimony in the Fat Leonard trial where I got to revisit associations with the Park Hyatt and Lost in Translation. But what was I drinking at 21 in Tokyo? Not wine. Lots of big bottles of Sapporo in small glasses, some sake, some whisky, but never wine. 

In fact, nearly ten years later when I was working at K&L Wine Merchants, I took over the role of the sake buyer, and made the pursuit of understanding sake, and pairing sake with cuisine other than Japanese my life’s mission for years (until an unfortunate trade trip to Fukuoka caused me to abandon the category all together until fairly recently, but that’s a story for another time). Japanese food for me meant Champagne (or sake if you were being basic). So it was that much more mind blowing, to be seated at the Japanese inspired Michelin three starred restaurant Single Thread in Healdsburg, presented with a tasting menu carefully and thoughtfully designed around Xander’s Pinot Noirs, that I started to fully grasp his mission. This meal wasn’t just constructed to impress wine and tech press and high profile sommeliers, it was absolutely inspired, and perfectly executed. With every sip and every bite I gained more and more respect for Xander, and the line that he created with his winemaker Shalini Sekhari. (Not to mention the incredible talents of the kitchen and the sommelier team.)

Pinot Noir. 

One varietal treated with finesse and elegance, which isn’t the first thing that I think of when I hear of a tech guy getting into wine. 

When you’ve been in this industry as long as I have, you get a little jaded, especially if you live in the Bay Area where the wealth discrepancy is felt and seen all around you. What is one of the things that tech and VC bros love to sink their money into? Wine and wineries. That’s why when the Forbes article came out mid pandemic, my inbox was flooded with inquiries about how many of them were going to get their wines into the cellars of my clients. Many of them had the same thing in common, $400+ bottles of Napa Cabernet, all made by the same celebrity wine maker from grapes grown by celebrity vineyard managers, and nothing distinguishing them from the sea of ripe over-oaked and over-priced Cab. Another thing that is painfully obvious when tasting through those wines is that they have little to no soul. They’re too polished, the expensive oak too obvious, the fruit lacking a sense of place and balance. There are of course exceptions to this rule, but nothing that gets me as excited as the wineries that have been making wine for 50 plus years, a Bordeaux house that has made moves into the Valley, or new and up and coming winemakers that have a fresh approach to making wine. 

That’s where super star winemaker Shalini Sekhar comes in. A former musician, Shalini pivoted from her Master’s Degree in Flute and Piccolo Performance to a career in wine. After completing her studies at Fresno State University in Enology and Viticulture, she began her journey into winemaking marrying the same combination of art and science that fueled her passion in music. She’s largely flown under the radar, but her experience with boutique producers and Pinot Noir dates back to her time at Williams Selyem. What followed was a series of steps into the custom crush world where she began working with small clients to execute their visions for their boutique brands including Bluxome Street Winery, Roar, Waits-Mast Family Cellars, Furthermore, Neely and several other smaller brands. 

Shalini was included in the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2019 Winemakers to Watch. In 2015, she was awarded Winemaker of the Year at the San Francisco International Wine Competition for her work with Furthermore Pinot Noir. In 2020, Shalini launched her own small brand under the Ottavino label, exploring Grüner Veltliner and less planted varietals in California. 

In order to connect Xander, Shalini, and Pinot, we need to go back to the mid 90s, when Xander was attending University of Wisconsin Madison and playing music. Known as a beer town, there was only one wine bar where all of the cool musicians and tech people hung out. He remembered going there, drinking Pinot and listening to music. In 2001, he moved to California and started taking day trips to wine country where Gary Farrell’s Pinots left a big impression, then a trip to Italy from Turin and continuing through Barolo where he fell in love with Nebbiolo. His friends Bob Zeches and Chad Richard from U of W moved out to California around the same time. They started the wine label Furthermore, which started at Bluxome Street (a glorified warehouse turned winemaking facility, but one of the locations responsible for the urban wine movement in San Francisco). Xander asked if he could borrow a corner of their facility, and from 2012 to 2018 he entered the hobby era of making wine using their winemakers and vineyard connections. One of the most important connections was meeting their winemaker Shalani, the wildly talented clasicly trained musician who built and incredible resume making Pinot Noir up and down the coast earning well deserved accolades. The wines that Shalini and Xander made together set the path for his success in Japan. Setting out to create Pinot Noir, that seemingly had no intention to ever be experienced outside of Japan, until now. 

In October 2022, Xander left Apple in order to focus on his wine brand, and travel. The first commercial vintage wasn’t released until 2023, prior to that the wines were made and given as gifts on his many trips to Japan. Shalini and Xander make the wines with the goal of having them ready to drink upon release after 4 years (17 months in barrel, and then the rest of the time maturing in bottle before releasing them), the 2019 vintage was released exclusively in Japan. The biggest challenge has been the strong dollar to yen, where his entry level bottle Xander Soren Santa Rita Pinot appears on wine lists at a steep 11,000 yen ($75 in the US) and his premium bottling Ludeon which is his second best seller sells for 27,000 yen ($195 in the US).

Producing only 500 to 600 cases, the wines are not made with the intention of mass production and distribution. In Japan his wines are imported and sold commercially through Hotei Wines where they have gained a following at restaurants, hotels, and wine shops. In the US the opposite structure is in place, where the wines are sold directly to the consumer exclusively through his website (if all of his rockstar friends leave any for us). The only other opportunities to find his wines are at restaurants like Single Thread in Healdsburg and Niku in San Francisco, where Xander has close personal relationships with the chefs and restaurateurs, both of whom are cooking exclusively Japanese inspired cuisine. It is because of these incredibly strategic moves that his wines are not lost in a sea of Pinot Noir in either setting, and are being celebrated and enjoyed.

Shalini Sekhar photo by Margot Duane

Rapid Fire Questions for Shalini:

  1. Talk to me about Pinot Noir. Making it for several  different producers, how do you create different styles for each?

  2. Yes, I make wine for Waits-Mast, Neely, Xander, and my own label! It starts with the site and the producer's style. All of my clients want to engage in minimal-intervention winemaking. I have the privilege now of working with clients who share my stylistic goal of pure fruit and structure. But that’s where the similarity ends. Each of my clients has their own vineyard, long-standing vineyard relationships, or combination thereof and goals of how and where their wines will be consumed. Each of them brings their palate to the table and my job is to make sure that regardless of a personal preference, I meet them to guide the wine where we are both happy. And regional differences and all the winemaking decisions along the way create wines that, while might be in one part of the stylistic spectrum, are distinctly different than one another. If you put a Xander Soren wine next to a Neely next to a Waits-Mast next to an Ottavino, I don’t think there are any questions about which is which, but I do think you’ll pick up a “Shalini” signature. The truth is this is a partnership and I’m only one part of the equation.

  3. Xander mentioned that you pair certain barrels with specific vineyard sights. I've never heard of this, can you elaborate?

  4. Yes I think there are 2 main schools of thinking around this. One school says keep the barrel consistent and then you are using it as a “control” like in a science experiment. Any perceived differences are attributed to the site. I think stylistically this can be great, but I do think sometimes certain sites don’t shine with the particular barrel choice and therefore are not showcased the way they deserve. 

I’m of the other school. I like to think about what each barrel or clone in a site offers (acid, dusty earth, red fruit, tannin, etc) and then think about which Cooper, which forest, and which toast would best support that fruit. My approach is very much about purity of fruit from a site in terms of when I pick and then how barrels are chosen. I work with my clients to understand their palates and goals for the finished wine and tailor barrels accordingly. Having made wine with Xander over the years, we have really done a lot of benchmark tasting and fine-tuning of our own program to make sure we are using barrels as a supportive and structural element to the sites we work with.

  1. Is pairing Pinot with Japanese cuisine new to you?

    1. It is! I am grateful to Xander for really opening my eyes up to the range of Japanese cuisine. I actually grew up vegetarian and only started to be an omnivore after 2 years in the wine business. His love of Japanese cuisine and generosity of sharing meals and taking me to places I could only dream of (Japan!) have truly elevated my knowledge and love of Japanese cuisine. I’m still learning, but the first thing I did when we returned from Japan last year was to make my own dashi (I’ll still take suggestions!). But these meals we have shared together have truly informed my palate in another way and given me insight as to how I can approach winemaking decisions differently to compliment the cuisine. I’m a proud third culture kid (South Indian parents hailing from Karnataka, India) and I know my cultural cuisine shapes my palate. I know working with Xander has added another dimension for me.

  2. What similarities do you find between wine and music?

    1. My brand and winemaking consulting business are named “Ottavino” which is the Italian word for the piccolo or ’small flute’ and alludes to my passion for making small lots of wine. I used to teach college level music theory in addition to performing. I loved that theory was a concrete structure underpinning composition and analysis of music but in no way explains why a particular piece of music is pleasing to us as humans. Similarly chemistry and microbiology support sound winemaking, but do not at all explain why a particular wine is transcendent. This marriage of art & science is what drove me in music and now in winemaking. Above all both are about creating something pleasing to the senses and also that connects us to one another as humans. 

  3. What music do you listen to in the vineyards versus while making the wine?

    1. Ha! As I am getting older, I’m finding myself enjoying a bit of silence here and there. I’ve been moving a million miles an hour working my way to this place as a winemaker, and with two small kids at home, I actually enjoy the quiet in the vineyard. Call it my John Cage “4’33”. The “silence” allows me to notice everything else happening in the vineyard: the wind, the birds, other animals, the mist, any sound pollution from modern life, etc. In the cellar, it’s a whole different ball game: I’m an early Bad Bunny fan, and I’ll unabashedly blast reggaeton. Other times I’m listening to Romantic era Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Jon Batiste, or 90’s hard rock - I want to feel that energy that fills your soul and keeps you moving. If I’m alone topping barrels, I’m deep into a Preet Bharara podcast (super-fangirl over here).

  4. Top musicians living or dead that you want to pair a bottle of Xander Soren Pinot with? 

    1. This is an interesting one. I’ll be a little cheesy and say that it depends on the wine, just like it depends on my mood what I want to listen to. Lately, I’m digging into my old CDs with my daughter and I would say The Cranberries, Jon Batiste, Bad Bunny (x100pre & Oasis with J. Balvin), Jacqueline DuPré performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto with her husband, Daniel Barenboim conducting in Philly, and LIVE (Secret Samadhi & The Distance to Here).

Xander Soren photo by Melissa L. Smith

Rapid Fire Questions for Xander: 

  1. Favorite foods to pair with your wine in Japan:

    1. Shirako with ponzu, tempura, darker fish like tuna and eel, and silver fish like mackerel and sardine, which I learned from Japanese chefs. Using only 20-25% new French Oak, and Shalini using specific barels for specific sites and clones provides a thoughtfulness and brilliance that allows the fruit to shine instead of the oak dominating. 

  2. Would you rather people drink your wines or collect them?

    1. I want people to be able to enjoy and drink them, but love experiencing the aged ones. So, buy enough to drink and enjoy, but buy enough to drink them down the line. The Ludeon in 15 years should be incredible. 

  3. What is the connection between wine and music?

    1. Both are creative ventures that use your senses, one is taking frequencies of music and combing them together in ways that people listen and have an emotional rection to, and it’s the same thing with wine. We’re growing this fruit, and sweating over soil differences, and what day to pick and putting it into wooden barrels, and then blending it into something that people taste and have with food and have an emotional response to. Something that ties them together with sensory reactions and how it ties into emotions, but they are also both social experiences whether you are at a concert or at a dinner table. 

  4. Music you’d pair with your wine:

    1. “Chill Wave”, I actually created a playlist for my release parties. (Dear reader Scott Hansen (aka Tycho) was seated at the adjoining table, and I will forever associate his music with Xander Soren and his wines.)

  5. Top musicians you’d want to share your wines with:

    1. Miles Davis

    2. Paul McCartney

    3. Jimi Hendrix

    4. Finneas of Billie Eilish

    5. Jon Anderson from Yes

    6. N’Dea Davenport from Brand New Heavies

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