It is rare when a winemaker has a background as a top-level chef in restaurants. Nonetheless, there are some interesting parallels between these two noble professions. Great chefs gather top ingredients, and then imagine them compiled and executed artfully and creatively through the various means of the kitchen to craft a dish. Great winemakers, by the same token, have top vineyards and the grapes they produce as their ingredients. The cellar then becomes the de-facto kitchen, where innumerable techniques and winemaking practices can transform their ingredients into a complex product to delight the palate and mind, i.e. a compelling bottle of wine!
In the case of Alex Pitts and Marty Winters of the Maitre de Chai winery, both food and wine figure prominently in their resumés. Having worked in top kitchens, cellars and even as front-of-the-house sommeliers, this combined experience has informed their approach to making their own wines. Their winery, Maitre de Chai, was established in 2012. Together they look to make wines of high quality in a way that best showcases the ingredients that top California vineyards can produce. From unique and distinct single vineyards that are impeccably farmed, they seek a sense of place where the grapes are grown as well as a true personality of the sites. Their wines obviously are meant to go with food, and not surprisingly, have always been mainstays in restaurants.
Maître de Chai translates to “keeper of the cellar”, i.e. chef, or the person responsible for the creative development and aging of wine. As the name implies, Marty and Alex care for the wines in the cellar and defer to what nature has provided, limiting their intervention, and letting their ingredients speak for themselves. They approach winemaking with a chef’s mentality relying on their palates, and not numbers, to determine moments of harvest and making the wines. They taste and wait, allowing the wines to develop and speak for the places in which they are rooted.
Alex started working in restaurants in Phoenix, AZ as soon as he turned 16. He moved to San Francisco in 2008, working as a chef at Nopalito, Aqua, Cav Wine Bar, Siros, Cyrus, and The French Laundry. In 2012, he left the kitchen and transitioned to wine production with an internship at Scholium Project. He worked with Abe Schoener for years as his Assistant Winemaker, producing some of the early wines of MDC on the side. Aside from making wine, Alex is also a licensed pilot, and enjoys hand-shaping pasta around a table, curating situationally specific playlists, and (like a devout restauranteur) dimming the lighting in public and private dining spaces.
Marty started his cooking career at the Spruce outlet in Park City while attending college at the University of Utah. In 2010, he packed his car and headed further West to the Bay Area, joining the kitchen team at Cyrus, and spending time consulting at Quince. He pursued a winemaking/viticultural apprenticeship with Leo Hansen at Stuhlmuller/Leo Steen Wines in 2011, which prompted a shift to the front of the house in Sommelier roles at Addison Restaurant, in San Diego, and later, The Restaurant at Meadowood in Saint Helena, CA. In 2016, he worked as the harvest intern at Kongsgaard Winery, and in 2017, became the opening Estate Director of Ashes & Diamonds Winery before leaving to run MDC full time. Marty grew up in Maryland, and of course believes blue crab is superior to Dungeness!
The wines of Maître de Chai demonstrate a commitment to the less is more approach. The winemaking goal is to capture the purity of fruit and site specificity without the interference of oak (no new oak is utilized in the cellar), additives, or excessive use of sulphur.. All ferments are done using native yeasts and all the winemaking and elevage is done at their own facility located in Berkeley. Although they are always on the look for top vineyard sites, the roster includes: Ellison Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain (Sauvignon Blanc), Wheeler Vineyard in San Benito (Chardonnay), Stampede Vineyard in Clement Hills (Zinfandel), and Gala Vineyard in Napa (Cabernet).