Nathan Stambaugh picked Sonoma County in Northern California as a honeymoon spot for its romantic scenery as much for the chance to meet some of his favorite winemakers.
The 31-year old marketing director wanted to partake in the coveted exercise of sampling young wine before it's bottled, called barrel tasting. He'd developed e-mail correspondences with some well-known winemakers, including Adam Lee of Siduri Wines.
"They make themselves so accessible, and you see how they are about their wine and it's kind of infectious. I'm interested in culminating that give-and-take in an effort to learn more about what they're doing," said Stambaugh, of Wooster, Ohio, as he was planning the trip.
Much to his delight, he and his wife did more than taste wine with winemakers: They got to go dinner with Lee and talked about politics, history and even Jessica Simpson, Stambaugh said.
"They were what we were hoping for-- casual, relaxed, informative and typically humorous," he said in an e-mail after returning.
Winemakers aren't just the guys squeezing the grapes anymore. They get recognized in restaurants, are asked to sign bottles and are even the subject of a new reality show.
To the masses, winemakers aren't close to the level of celebrity chefs, with their national television platforms and cookbooks.
But to adoring wine geeks-- who follow winemakers on Internet bulletin boards with the vigor of sports fans monitoring ESPN, wait in long lines to shake their hands at tastings or plan their vacations around visiting wineries-- some winemakers in the United States are becoming something like rock stars.
"I didn't grow with up in the idea that we're ever gonna be winemakers at all, much less celebrity winemakers," Lee said. "That's something I never anticipated."
Thomas Rivers Brown counts celebrities among his fans and employers. The South Carolina native makes mostly cabernet sauvignon under 12 labels, including GTS, owned by retired Mets Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver.
When Seaver needed to hire a winemaker to turn three acres of cabernet planted next to his Napa Valley house into wine, he tapped Brown, 36, who received two perfect scores of 100 points from wine critic Robert Parker for Schrader, another label. Seaver liked Brown's zinfandel and met him through his vineyard manager. "We got together and about 15, 20 minutes later, he was the winemaker," Seaver said.
Winemakers have also become part of the discussion as diners select their bottles at restaurants, said Conrad Reddick, head sommelier at Charlie Trotter's, the top-rated Chicago restaurant that boasts a cellar of more than 1,600 bottles. He said guests may request a certain wine because they've read about the winemaker or have been to the winery.
"It comes up all the time. They want to know about the person who is behind the wine they are drinking," he said.
The Internet has provided accessibility to wine enthusiasts, allowing them to create relationships. It has given high visibility to boutique winemakers, some of whom produce small quantities that are available only to their limited mailing lists or in high-end wine shops and restaurants.
One emerging winemaker who has developed a following on Parker's bulletin board is Jamie Kutch, a 34-year-old former NASDAQ trader. Kutch Wines received an impressive 93 from Wine Spectator for his first release, a 2005 Russian River Valley pinot.
A few years ago, a vintner might have seemed like an obscure profession, yet it is increasingly becoming a desirable job. Kutch left Wall Street five years ago for Sonoma to make pinot noir. Enthusiasts now clamor to be on his list, and chart his progress on Parker's site.
Fan Todd Pearl developed such a personal relationship with Kutch a few years ago that Kutch asked Pearl to read his annual release letter before it went out to his mailing list.
Pearl, 48, a New York wealth manager with Smith Barney, said winemakers weren't as accessible when he began collecting 20 years ago.
"I never would have entertained the notion of contacting the winemaker directly," he said.
Kutch's mentor, Michael Browne of Kosta Browne, is another fan favorite. Kosta Browne produces 11,000 cases annually and has a waiting list of 15,000.
David Niederauer, who has barrel tasted with Browne, admires his passion and skill. "He has a memory like I've never seen for taste and aromas in each barrel, hundreds of barrels," said Niederauer, 66, who runs a chain of retail stores in the San Francisco area.
PBS even plans to air a reality show this spring set in California's Central Coast that promises to crown America's next top winemaker. Kevin Whelan, executive producer of "The Winemakers," said about 700 aspiring winemakers auditioned for a dozen spots.
"It's amazing how many people want to do this," he said. The winner, selected by wine writers and experts, will produce more than 10,000 cases, from grapes sourced from the Paso Robles region.
But those wannabe winemakers should be warned that the fan experience can sometimes get out of hand.
Steven Rigisich, who holds annual pinot tastings in New York and San Francisco, said at June 2005 event attended by 1,500 people, at least half wanted to meet Browne.
"All everyone wanted to do was touch Michael and they wanted him to remember their name," said Rigisich, who also hired Browne to make wine for his label. He said many winemakers don't want to be thought of as celebrities.
"These guys aren't embracing it. They're almost offended by it," he said.
While Browne, 40, takes satisfaction knowing that customers enjoy the fruit of his work, he is almost uncomfortable with the attention.
"It can be a little much, but I appreciate it," Browne said.