David Mahaffey is part of a dying breed. In a time of specialist, he is a generalist, a true renaissance man. David grew up woodworking and playing sports in rural West Texas, spent time in the Navy, studied and taught at Harvard and traveled around the world shooting photos for Polaroid before settling in Napa, CA at the age of 30 to “drive a tractor”. He taught himself how to grow grapes and make wine and 38 years later he produces some of the most delicious and unique Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in the Country.
David’s victorian home in downtown Napa is surrounded by fruiting trees and with a backyard garden producing various types of greens, tomatoes, beans, peas and root vegetables. In the corner is a redwood hot tub that he built which is, of course, heated by solar panels seated on the roof of his woodshop. In the woodshop you’ll find antique tools belonging to his father and grandfather, a lathe that could turn a tree trunk and the starting of custom guitar. Across an apple tree from the wood shop is a traditional Japanese style cabin free of metal hardware. He built it with pegs so that he could, conceivably, deconstruct it at some point if it need to be moved. The floor is made of meticulously placed wine corks on end.
A life of learning and nonstop inspiration seems to be David’s goal and it shows in his work. He farms a rocky, windy hillside vineyard constantly battling various wild animals eager for that sweet nectar of the Organic grape vines of the Olivia Brion Vineyard. 2016 will be David’s 36th vintage as he began in 1980 and his experience shows in the quality of the wine that very uniquely represents the characteristics of this special site.
You seem to be quite the Renaissance man. What are your top 5 favorite ways to spend your time?
I am passionate about my winemaking. It is my career and my livelihood. I spent a good chunk of the weekend bent over the lathe with a chunk of exotic rosewood from costa rica. I can’t wait to spend more time exploring the American West hiking and being out of doors. I love being outside and taking photos, camping and whitewater boating.
What is the name of your winery and what makes your wines unique?
The name of the winery is Olivia Brion and the uniqueness factor for my wines has to do with the place we grow them. We have the distinction of having the only winery with its own designated appellation which is called Wild Horse Valley. We are the only winery in that appellation. It is special because of soil type and altitude. I am also still a student of the craft of winemaking. I think there is always more to learn to building and assembling the wine, which is how i think of it.
What is the most challenging part of growing grapes and making wine that most people don’t realize?
Honestly, sales and marketing but that’s not so sexy… Beyond that it would be the challenge of keeping everything clean and embracing nature’s microflora to work with the wine and not against. Also, it’s especially challenging working with a vineyard that is out on the edge in a unique vineyard site that is rocky and windy. Not to mention extended drought.
For the same reasons I farm organically in my tomato garden in my backyard. I am looking for the maximum amount of flavor and I find that organic farming and gardening gives me the most flavorful material to work with.
How do you collectively draw from your varied interests and apply a unique perspective to each?
Alfred Einstein said that he wasn’t particularly special but that he was extraordinarily curious. And to the degree that I’m interested in lots of things has to do with the foundation of curiosity. Im curious about the way the world works. Im curious about the way people interact. So my curiosity is what drives my passion and interest in the wide range of areas I work in.
First real job out of High School?
Out of highschool and out of the navy, I was traveling and photographing. I felt very lucky that in my 20s I got to photograph for Polaroid. I spent time visiting every state in the Union and around the world.
Who are your top 3 most inspiring photographers?
Ansel Adams because of the way he saw yosemite and the range of light. Taught showed so many people how to see a place and to see differently. He was a great practitioner and a great teacher.
Henri Cartier Bresson because of his ability to live in the moment and to capture the decisive moment and be prepared to catch something that was happening that was fleeting.
Christopher Burkett because of his astonishingly beautiful color photographs of real world.
When did you get hooked on woodworking?
I was lucky to grow up with wood tools around me. My dad had taught industrial arts and we had a nice shop at our house. So when I needed a spinning top instead of buying one at the hardware store, I started designing and making my own tops. I realized that turning a top on the lathe could be gratifying to have something unique, functional and different from everyone else’s. I also fell in love with furniture once I needed furniture for myself. Im now trying to build a really special guitar so that I can, as a later in life project, teach myself how to play the guitar.
I heard you say you rode motorcycles for much of your life. What was the most memorable trip?
A cross country trip in 1979 from California to Massachusetts by myself with only saddle bags and smelling the whole country. I was on a mid 70s BMW 750 cafe racer.
What is the most satisfying thing about being in the wine biz?
The most satisfying part of wine business is that it requires that I know something about a lot of areas. From tractor driving and maintenance to wild animal control as well as working with graphic design. Very few businesses that produce their own goods, do their own marketing and advertising, and sell it all the way to the end user. That multi-disciplinary approach is really satisfying and interesting to me because it demands that I know something about a lot of different areas.
One bit of advice for young creative people?
Most simply it would be to constantly be in a state of beginners mind, to teach yourself something all the time.
David’s Round Toe 8196 are the perfect “do everything” boot for the various tasks and interests that he pursues – from selling to restaurants, driving the tractor, to cleaning the wine bins.