An Aggie Winemaker in Napa Valley

By Sandra Crittenden
Kathleen Ward 

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Kathleen Ward immigrated to the United States when she was 8 years old. Her family settled in Texas, and Kathleen grew up in League City and attended Clear Creek High School. Her father was an ardent sailor, so she spent time during the summers sailing and fishing as well as in the Hill Country at the family ranch. There, she enjoyed fishing the creek, going horseback riding, and exploring the forest.

“Growing up in Texas, I was an avid horse lover, and my goal was to become a large animal vet,” Kathleen remembers. “I always favored math and science, and my life had revolved around studying, riding horses, and interning to become a vet.” At 16, she started working summers at a large animal vet clinic in Alvin.

She continued on this course and began studying Animal Science at Texas A&M in 2007, but during her junior year at Texas A&M University, she noticed an Enology (winemaking) class was being offered. She decided to take the class as an elective, not knowing at the time that this class would alter the trajectory of her entire career.

“I realized I could apply all my science background into creating wine I could share with family and friends,” says Kathleen. “I like to think of a bottle of wine as a mini time capsule. Each year, the vines go through their normal yearly life cycle: bud break, flowering, fruit set, veraison (ripening), and finally harvest.”

Kathleen Ward 


She continues, “Mother Nature is sometimes kind, and we have a nice cool, even growing season. Other times she throws us heat spikes, high wind, rain, or frost. No matter the curve balls thrown, it is our job as winemakers to harness what mother nature has given us and turn it into something spectacular to be enjoyed for many years to come.”

Ward reversed a Texas stereotype after graduating in 2012 when the naturalized Texan moved to California to further pursue her dream. She was offered an internship at Failla Wines, and she packed up her car with everything that would fit including her dog and younger brother. Together, they headed to wine country to get her settled in.

Ward recounts how her first harvest was an incredible learning experience. “Ehren Jordan, owner and winemaker of Failla, taught me a lot about sanitation, winemaking, and the chemistry to determine harvest dates. While working at Failla, I was introduced to Acumen Wines and was fortunate to meet the late Denis Malbec.” Denis was a third generation winemaker of the famed Chateau Latour in France.

After two years working at Failla making top quality Pinot Noir, Chardonnays, and Syrah, she decided that in order to be a well-rounded winemaker, it was important to expand her experience to include overseeing the making of some world-famous Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. In 2014, she was offered a full-time position at Acumen Wines as their Enologist where she worked closely with Malbec.

“Denis became my mentor and he taught me how to taste wine and refine my palette and all about the art of blending. He insisted that I trust my instincts when tasting and encouraged me to start my own boutique wine label,” she recalls.

While working at Acumen, Ward met Thomas Brown. Wine Spectator featured Brown in a 2018 cover story claiming that he had the “Midas Touch” with his choice of projects.

In early 2017, Thomas shared with her that he was working with a new client called Theorem Vineyards and how the owners Jason and Kisha Itkin were from Houston. Theorem is a boutique winery focused on making exceptional wines from 100% Estate Grown fruit.

Kathleen Ward“The more Thomas spoke about the Diamond Mountain Estate and what a great couple Kisha and Jason are, the more I knew I wanted to be part of the team,” Ward remembers. The Theorem Vineyards property is a hidden gem with incredible vineyards, historic buildings, and breathtaking views of Mt Saint Helena and the valley below.

“One afternoon, [Thomas] stopped by the winery and asked if I would like to go visit Theorem together. I remember driving up the long windy driveway and first seeing the old vines which were planted in 1985,” she says, referring to the block of Cabernet Sauvignon that yields Theorem’s inaugural wine called “Voir Dire.”

“Then [I looked to my] right and set eyes on the old Victorian Cole House and Schoolhouse. I was speechless!” she exclaims.

During this ride, Thomas mentioned the Itkins were looking for a day-to-day winemaker to manage the operation and to ensure that everything was running smoothly in Jason’s absence since he oversees multiple projects. If she was interested in the position, Thomas would be happy to introduce her to the couple.

The Diamond Mountain property was very overgrown and restoring it has been a continuous passion project for the owners. A great deal of work has gone into saving the old vineyards, preserving the surrounding forests, and encouraging biodiversity, all while constructing a barrel room, a winery, and a tasting space for visitors in addition to restoring the historic buildings.

Soon after that drive with Brown to Theorem Vineyards, Ward interviewed with the Itkins in the old Schoolhouse. Ward described feeling incredibly nervous prior to the meeting. Those fears proved unfounded as she was asked to join the team.

Describing her employers, she unabashedly gushes, “They are a young, dynamic, forward-thinking couple who took a chance on me as a young female winemaker. I am honored to work with such an incredible team from ownership and winemaking to sales and marketing to our culinary director and our incredible vineyard management team.”

Kathleen WardWard is truly a lover of nature and shared that her favorite part of working in the vineyard is watching the entire growing season before finally harvesting the fruit at the optimal moment of ripeness.

“As harvest approaches, I start walking, tasting and sampling each vineyard block a couple times a week. I love walking the vineyard blocks early in the morning and tasting how flavors are developing, acidity is balancing, and sugar concentration is progressing. While walking the rows I start to plan for harvest and think about what the vintage has to offer.” Ward also raises hives of bees on the property.

When planning a visit to California’s premier wine country, appointments must be made in advance to taste at Theorem. Ward explains that she is typically at the winery processing fruit or working in the wine cellar this time of year, but she enjoys stopping by to say hello to guests and happily answer any questions they may have.

Ward is particularly proud of her stellar Sauvignon Blanc which she ferments and ages in a concrete, egg-shaped vessel that creates a crisp, concentrated, elegant wine, available on the Theorem website now for $48. Theorem also produces Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot, and three unique 100% Cabernet Sauvignons ranging from the elegant Old Vine Voir Dire to the highly structured Moon Mountain District Cabernet.