Kari Auringer didn’t set out to use her creativity and craftsmanship to make wine at Cornerstone Cellars. Her initial thought, after college graduation in 1981, was that she was cold – very cold – and packed up her Z28 Camero with the goal of move from Wisconsin to anyplace warm that she could get a job using her marketing and design degree.
That led to her starting her own agency in Dallas where she worked for big clients like Texas Instruments, Frito Lay, Dr Pepper and 7UP. Wine came into the picture when she was doing a lot of entertaining for clients and was expected to know wine. As the owner of the agency, she would be automatically handed the wine list at lunches and dinners and expected to make the right selection. She decided to learn as much as she could about wine and she realized she was doing impromptu tastings with several bottles that would be more fun with more people (and maybe look a little less problematic if not done solo). She invited people to bring bottles, take their own notes and themed the tastings. “The need to figure out wine caused me to fall in love with wine,” she said. “I powered through the wines of the world.”
Then she started focusing on pairings. Salmon and Pinot were the first one that caused the epiphany. And the journey grew from that point on.
She planned to stay in Dallas for five years – that turned into 15. She moved to Chicago in the mid 1990s for a few years to be closer to family in Wisconsin. She planned to look for jobs in wine, but she found the opportunity to be mostly marketing focused. She was asked to join a startup in San Francisco and immediately accepted with an eye on buying her own winery in Napa or Sonoma with the anticipated gains. Like most start-ups, a lot of money was raised, a lot of promises were made and a lot of dreams were lost when the company failed to secure another round of funding.
By that time, she was making her own wine in her kitchen and garage in 2000, she began freelancing designing labels, brochures and other products for area wineries while earning degrees in viticulture and enology and in wine sales and marketing at Napa College. Kari first worked at Cornerstone Cellars as assistant winemaker under Celia Welch from 2000 to 2007 and then returned for her homecoming as head winemaker for Cornerstone Cellars in 2015. She has also done winemaking and consulting work for boutique, small production wines like Lindstrom, Keever and Kelly Fleming and was named as a rising star in Napa Valley winemaking.
Kari talked about the unique approach that Cornerstone Cellars took when Michael Dragutsky embarked on a quest to deliver on the potential he saw in a select few of Napa Valley’s finest mountain and benchland Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards. “We have an owner who allows us to produce great wines from great vineyards, and making the kind of wines that we want to drink. Wines that are a reflection of the vineyard, the vintage and the variety.”
Cornerstone Cellars has been making wine since its first Howell Mountain vintage in 1991. The winery focuses on limited production wines, showcasing what vineyards and appellations can do.
We tasted four wines from Farina Vineyard in Sonoma Mountain AVA (Sonoma Valley) and vineyards that are well-known, but not named from Howell Mountain, Oakville Station and Rutherford. Here’s our line-up:
- 2019 Cornerstone Cellars Farina Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc — this wine is fermented in a concrete egg, Acacia barrels, neutral French oak barrels and small stainless-steel barrels stirred by hand. Kari talked about the component tasting involved in making this wine and “how making a blend is better than each of the parts.” I tasted lots of tropical notes, stone fruit, citrus and herbal notes. It has a great acidity and lots of fruit.
- 2016 Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon – made with 100 percent mountain fruit, there is a reason this is known as the winery’s signature wine. I tasted notes of spice, nutmeg, chocolate, blackberry, blueberry, violets, herbs and currant. It’s elegant, nuanced and complex.
- 2017 Cornerstone Cellars Oakville Station Red Wine — Formerly part of the iconic To-Kalon vineyard as well as a world-class research facility for UC Davis, wines from this area are some of the most highly researched in the world. I tasted black and blue fruit, spice, herbs and earth. This is a savory Bordeaux-blend that thankfully had the Cabernet Sauvignon picked a day prior to the fires that broke out that year in the region.
- 2017 Cornerstone Cellars Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon – I tasted blackberry, plum, espresso, cigar box, chocolate covered cherries, herbs and that unmistakable terroir that is only identifiable from Rutherford.
I’ve known Cornerstone Cellars since I’ve been writing about wine. They were one of the early wineries to understand that there were some bloggers who wanted more education to delve into what made them different. So over the years of Wine Blogger Conferences, thanks to former Managing Partner and General Manager Craig Camp, who threw some of the best going rogue events possible, we learned all about Cornerstone Cellars (and no, it wasn’t just a great dinner or party, but those were great too).
I asked Kari about the parallels of precision in design and winemaking. She describes herself as a hands-on winemaker and stays involved in every step of the process. Kari is that kind of person in everything she does.
A perfect example is her 365+ love letter project to her 89-year-old mother, who has been sheltering in place alone since March 16, 2020. She (like so many other Americans) is dependent on the US Postal Service and looks to the mail as a bright spot in breaking up the monotony of the pandemic. Kari had long established sending postcards from her travel pre-pandemic and her mom always looks forward to her daily deliveries of mail, magazines and packages.
She wanted to stay connected, so she started sending daily postcards marked with the day of lockdown on the back with a few other sentences. It first started with commercially printed postcards then she began making the postcards with her husband.
“For a year (see a great representation of the postcards) , we’ve been sending cards created from our photographs and sometimes hand drawn cards, as time allows,” Kari said. “I had no idea we would still be doing this 360 days later. The arrival of our daily postcards has helped ease the loneliness that this pandemic has inflicted on my mother and all of us to varying degrees. She eagerly awaits its arrival each day, and it gives her a sense of connectedness and normalcy.”
Kari Auringer is the perfect blend of talent and humanity. She makes the world of wine and our world a better place because she’s in it.