Life Lessons with winemaker Maya Dalla Valle

The Dalla Valle winemaker and DVO director discusses Napa Valley’s Italian connection, tells of a dream dinner party filled with intellects and confesses a soft spot for Harry Styles

Words by Adam Lechmere

maya dalla valle in wine tank

‘This is going to be highly collectable,’ Maya Dalla Valle tells me. We’re sitting in the comfortable upstairs room at 67 Pall Mall, eating scotch eggs. In front of us are the 2018 and 2019 vintages of DVO, the Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend she’s producing with her old mentor Axel Heinz of Ornellaia, from three Napa appellations: Oakville, Mount Veeder and Coombsville (they’re going to add a bit from the top of Howell Mountain in the 2021). There are some 500 cases to go round, and it costs $300 a bottle.

The blueprint, Dalla Valle says, is ‘a California wine with Italian or old-world sensibility. We’re not striving to make something bombastic or opulent, but something that has tension and clarity and freshness.’ The wines have lovely texture and balance, a herbal sweetness and fine length. They’re high in alcohol (the 2018 is 15.4%), but there’s not a trace of heat on the palate.

The style has been achieved through attention to detail. ‘The first few years [DVO started in 2015 and the first release was 2018] were small lots and small fermentations to understand how to treat the fruit. We learnt very quickly that you can’t treat Mount Veeder fruit like valley floor fruit as it can get so massive so fast.’ 

Maya Dalla Valle – a tall, aristocratic presence in one of the St James’s club’s wing-backed armchairs – has been steeped in wine since she was a toddler. Her parents Gustav (who died when she was eight) and Naoko founded Oakville winery Dalla Valle Vineyards in 1986. Robert Parker assured their ascendancy by giving the 1992 Maya cuvée 100 points, and Maya and Naoko (Maya took over as winemaker in 2021) have cemented its place in the pantheon of what used to be called Napa ‘cult wines’.

Dalla Valle, 35, trained at the Bordeaux Sciences Agro school, where Heinz also trained, and her first international experience of harvest was at Ornellaia. She worked stages at Château Latour, Petrus, Canon La Gaffelière and La Mondotte, before returning to Napa to work with her mother.

She notes the Italy-Napa connection is interesting. Ornellaia, of course, was a joint venture between the Mondavi and Frescobaldi families; her father was from the north of Italy. But even though there are numerous Franco-Napa projects, ‘there hasn’t been this sort of joint venture for a Napa wine in collaboration with Tuscany, so it’s exciting in every sense.’ There are some serious talents involved. Heinz is there three times a year, but the whole Dalla Valle team is involved, including consultants Michel Rolland and Andy Erickson. ‘There are a lot of egos in the tasting room. We’re very diplomatic,’ Dalla Valle says with a smile.

She has huge admiration for Heinz – ‘He’s done probably 25 more harvests than I have’ – and notes with interest that it’s he, the European, who sometimes ‘stays her hand’ at harvest. ‘I have a tendency to jump the gun, but with the 2019 he said we might have sugar ripeness, but we should wait for the phenolics to develop.’

What’s striking is her keenness to learn more about her region. When she and Heinz started talking about a collaboration, she said she’d prefer to go to Italy. They decided on Napa because of the lack of restriction: it’s a ‘lesson for me,’ she says. ‘I was only familiar with our estate, and to understand the AVAs has been so interesting. The variety of soils, climate, height – the temperature difference alone is fascinating.’

Napa is soaked in privilege. DVO, made in tiny quantities from the world’s most exclusive terroirs, by winemakers from two world-renowned estates, is indeed highly collectable. But Maya Dalla Valle (as every committed winemaker does) exudes a different sense of privilege: the sense she’s lucky to be given this opportunity and she means to respect it. ‘This is a wine that came from a place of friendship,’ she says. ‘We’re two partners expressing what we both believe in.’

dalla valle maya wine bottle
Maya is a blend of Maya’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and selected blocks of Cabernet Franc

What was your childhood ambition? 

As a child, I toggled between a desire to become a dolphin trainer, professional dressage rider and a diplomat. Though these sound silly, in reality these childhood ambitions represent things I’m still drawn to. For example, I’ve always felt a strong connection to animals: I think they are more intuitive than humans and to understand them is akin to learning another language. The desire to become a diplomat was the allure of living in far-off places and connecting with different cultures. I think that is because of my parents and how they taught me to view the world. Luckily, I am able to still pursue my love of being a dressage rider.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21? 

That it’s okay to voice your opinion and challenge ideas. The Japanese half of my upbringing [her late father Gustav was Italian, her mother Naoko is Japanese] taught me to always respect my elders. That meant even a hint of challenging an idea or presenting a different opinion was perceived as being disrespectful. Over time I’ve learned that it’s okay to present a different perspective, as long as it’s done in a respectful manner.

What exercise do you do? 

I train and compete my horse in dressage, so I normally spend about five days a week training, supplemented with weekend hikes. I also do Orangetheory, a fitness programme that helps me round out my exercise regime. 

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?

I’m over-analytical and tend to be very cautious in decision making. Sometimes I lose time and sleep because of overthinking. 

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (apart from property)? 

Definitely my horse.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

Somewhere in the Tropics. Perhaps it’s because my parents lived in the West Indies, but there is something very calming for the soul about being in a warm, temperate climate. I also dislike being cold, so the idea of warm weather year-round is appealing. 

If you could do any other job, what would it be and why?

Diplomacy is still an intriguing job. I like the idea of connecting two countries and assisting in global affairs. Being able to affect change diplomatically is very challenging, so it would be a considerable achievement. This desire is likely to be a result of my Italian, Japanese and American upbringing. All are different cultures, but they all find common ground through food and beverage.

What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island (apart from wine, whisky or spirits)?

If it can’t be wine then it will be food. I consider uni [sea urchin roe] and ikura [salmon roe] to be luxuries.

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to? 

While there are many goals on the bucket list, I would say one of the more obtainable ones would be to travel to every continent. I am still missing Antarctica and Oceania/Australia. 

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?

A worldwide ban on whining, and racism.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party – and why?

André Tchelistcheff is the first name that comes to mind, as I have just finished reading his biography. I would love to hear his stories and learn from him for one evening. Joan Didion is an author who I admire and would love to include for her stories and life experiences. Marcus Aurelieus who practiced Stoic philosophy and was a man of great power as emperor.  

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

Listening to Harry Styles.

What’s your secret talent?

Reading people, and a reliable gut instinct.

When were you happiest? 

I am always happiest when riding my horse. It is my moment of zen where I clear my head of all thoughts and exist completely in the present. It brings a sense of freedom that I can’t recreate anywhere else.

Who do you most admire? 

[New Zealand Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern is a model leader who happens to be female. She has shown that motherhood, and the ability to be empathetic, are not barriers to a successful career. Her ability to show strength as a leader while being authentic and kind is truly admirable.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

‘Interesting’ and ‘you know’.

What’s your greatest regret?

Not having more time with my father, who passed away when I was eight.  

What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?

Currently I am obsessed with Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend podcast. I find it absolutely hysterical. I love the endless and witty banter between Conan and his guests. I have a dry sense of humour and his podcast provides plenty of it.

What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?

My Blundstone boots. They are versatile for the vineyard, winery and stables.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Asador Etxebarri in the Basque Country in Spain. I still think about the most perfectly grilled prawns I had there. I love an effortless meal that is not over-the-top but can showcase clean flavours in a refined way.

What time do you go to bed? 

I typically wake around 5am, which means I am in bed by 10pm.