He started out as a teenaged dishwasher at Nordstrom Café in Brea but within nine months he was assistant manager. Little did Craig Becker know that a cleanup job not many Orange County kids would want could kick-start a stellar career in the food and wine industry.
Now he is the general manager and director of winemaking and viticulture at Somerston in the Napa Valley, a winery with 1,682 acres and three labels producing 8,500 cases per year. Born in Long Beach at St. Anne’s Hospital, he grew up in Orange County, attending Mater Dei and Foothill high schools. He played football, studied, and worked hard to get to UC Davis. There, in a plant physiology class, he met his wife Courtney. He had signed up for the course because of his interest in plants, but she was enrolled in the wine program. Their relationship blossomed—married 11 years, they now have three daughters—and so did his interest in vino, he said in a recent interview. “In 1996 I got a job at Mondavi as a tank sampler and they told me, ‘We think you can do more than sample.’” Turns out it was a lot more. As time went on he made wines for Spring Mountain and Peacock Family vineyards, building a reputation for finely styled reds. So when Somerston owner Allan Chapman called, Becker was ready.
The winery makes three distinct brands in luxury, mid, and affordable price ranges: Somerston, Priest Ranch and Highflyer—named for Becker’s love of aviation. Fruit is sourced from the estate in the eastern mountains of Napa and from other parts of the state including Lodi. Becker maintains lofty standards throughout the line. Among his current releases a light and fruity grenache blanc ($19) with proper acidity, charming stone fruits, and light minerality leaves just as big an impression as his Somerston cabernet ($129), a heavy hitter with a lush finish, floral notes, and gentle tannins. It compares favorably to many Napa cabs in the same and higher price ranges.
Becker sees to it that wines at every price point deliver, even if he has to leave fruit on the vine to maintain quality. He says he learned a lot about customer service working in that Nordstrom Café, and it shows. For a highflying vintner he remains grounded and grateful for his Orange County roots. He says having a level head and keeping an ego in check help him compete in a tough industry. “You’ve got to have thick skin. It’s Hollywood, and pomp and circumstance. Everywhere there’s the Kardashian effect of fame without substance. Where I come from you’ve got to do something, be somebody to get famous.” And he has. Sip his cabernet and you’ll be proud of all his accomplishments.—Anne Valdespino