Story By: Layne Randolph // Photo By: Dakota Salazar

MIGUEL CARATACHEA: A Napa Valley Treasure

In early October 2017, wildfires broke out across Napa Valley. Over the next month, these wildfires would break records for the most damage and loss of life in California Wine Country history. Luckily, Winemaker Miguel Caratachea had sensed the extent of the impending danger. So in the early morning hours of October 8, he called his crew up to Spring Mountain for an emergency harvest. Later that night, Napa Valley was encircled in flames.

That wine, Punch Vineyards’ 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Bracero, became the last snapshot of the 2017 Napa Valley vintage before the fires. It was later ranked second in the world in Robert Whitley’s 2021 Sommelier Challenge.

The youngest son of a bracero (guest agricultural worker), Miguel began making wine when he was 14, working after school and on weekends at Frogs Leap Winery. Winemaking came naturally to Miguel, and after graduation, he was immediately hired by Stonegate Winery. Since then, his career has flourished, so much so that his Punch Vineyards wines were selected for the Smithsonian exhibit at the Napa Valley Museum in 2017.

As Miguel’s reputation grew, more winemakers asked for his input. “Miguel has become an integral part of our winemaking team, providing key insight in ways to get the most out of the grapes we use. His dedication to all aspects in the winemaking process reflects the quality in the glass,” praised Tom Bougetz, owner and winemaker at Bougetz Cellars in St. Helena. Robert Parker Wine Advocate gave 90-plus scores to Bougetz’s entire selection of current releases.

Recently acclaimed wines made with Caratachea’s assistance. // Photo by Hal Brandes

Miguel has been instrumental in nearly one hundred 90+ point scores. “Miguel may not be a household name, but he helps many wineries earn big scores. Every wine Miguel touches gets better. He is a Napa Valley treasure,” said luxury winemaking consultant Kian Tavakoli.

Miguel’s partner in Punch Vineyards, Lee Nordlund, describes Miguel’s reputation among his peers. “In the early days of Punch, one of Napa Valley’s all-time top-scoring winemakers stared me down and said, ‘Lee, your wines are so good it makes me angry!’ I said, ‘Don’t blame me. Miguel made the wine.’ ‘Ah, Miguel,’ said the winemaker.”

“Miguel has a sixth sense for grapes,” commented Mark Marinozzi, owner of Vitesse Vineyards. “He mixes current techniques with secrets of the old masters and crazy ideas of his own. You can’t teach what he knows.”

Miguel described his unique approach, “If a client wants me to make a wine for ratings, I can do that, but I like to make more artistic wines. I challenge myself with the idea that in a great wine, everything comes from the grapes – flavors, acidity, a complete range of tannins, and textures – all are right there in the fruit, but you have to know how to unlock them.”

Nordlund considers Miguel a true artist. “Miguel is the Vincent Van Gogh of Napa Valley. He taught himself how to make wine, and his flavors and textures are dazzling. He has no set recipe. He was just born with this gift, and he never stops working.”