Most winemakers learn their craft through a combination of the new and the old-fashioned — by taking technical classes at a university, then dragging hoses and cleaning out barrels as apprentices under the eyes of experienced winemakers as they work their way up the ladder. Then comes that moment where they are in charge of creating the wines, either at large wineries or as owner and winemaker of their own brands.
We asked five impressive rookie winemakers to tell us in their own words about how they got their starts, their winemaking styles, obstacles, mentors, and the tastes of their first creations.
Melissa Stackhouse, VP winemaking, J Vineyards, Healdsburg, Calif.
“I discovered winemaking as a career in 1994. I was living in Bellingham, Wash., at the time, and was out wine tasting on Lopez Island. I just happened to ask the proprietors of this small winery how they got into winemaking. I was told that they had gone to school to study winemaking. For me, that was an ‘ah hah’ moment. I immediately researched where a person would go to study grape growing and winemaking, and discovered UC Davis. I enrolled in 1996 and graduated in 1998 with a BS degree in Viticulture & Enology.”
“I approach winemaking as a team effort — lots of collaboration between all involved in growing the grapes and making the wine. Our intent at J is to produce a wine with varietal integrity, balance, and concentration.”
“My mentor is Jeff Stewart, who is presently the winemaker at Hartford Family Wines. I apprenticed under him at La Crema from 2001 through 2003, and as far as mentors go, he’s the best.”
Catrina North, enologist, Galer Estate, Chadds Ford, Penn.
“I've come to realize that I do not see obstacles as others see them. I moved from California to Pennsylvania to make wine, which I've come to understand is what some would consider making your own obstacle! I feel my biggest obstacle is not having as much experience as I would like making wine in the East. But, I'm working on that.”
“I was pretty sure I was going to be a marine ecologist of some sort until I met a gentleman named Peter Bell, the winemaker at Fox Run. I discovered that his job was in fact the coolest intersection between artistry, science, agriculture, travel, and luck — and that I had to have a job just like it.”
“The final check in of the day always involves a taste after I've tested the brix and temperature, so I tasted the Pinot Grigio ferment. It tasted great! I had been used to tasting sugary sweet (but delicious) juice, but I realized this this was suddenly bright, aromatic, acidic, tangerine smelling-wine! Needless to say, that called for a second sip.”
David Scheidt, proprietor/winemaker, Mastro Scheidt Family Cellars, Healdsburg, Calif.
“I’d heard all the jokes about how to make $1 million in the wine business, you need to start with $5 million. All my training as a financial analyst said ‘Don’t do it.’ When I finally committed to making this a business, not a hobby, it crystalized the mission (find great grapes) and the goal (build a successful wine business).”
“My winemaking style is the same as my cooking style — start with a great product, then prepare, always prepare, and strive for balance in your final creation. Tasting my first wine was the same feeling that I had after I made orecchiette pasta for six hours, or the first time I made mozzarella — it was focused emotion and extreme satisfaction.”
“Antonio at Masseria Gianferrante in Ugento, Italy, let me get my hands dirty and he pulled back the curtain. There was no chemistry lab, no oak barrels, no pad. There were no written instructions, no protocols, only tradition. This traditional technique was something I never had growing up — the tradition that was passed down from generation to generation. My entire extended family told my generation to go to college, not make wine. No one in my family has made wine in over 40 years — until now.”
Ryan Moreland, owner and winemaker, Corvalle, St. Helena, Calif.
“On the edge of my family’s vineyard in Rutherford there is an old redwood plank table, surrounded by a canopy of trees. It was the memories I made in this spot that I think had the greatest impact on my decision to become a winemaker.”
“I've always thought of wine like a table with many legs, each leg representing a different component, things such as alcohol, tannins, fruit, acidity, body, and so on. What's important is making sure your table is balanced, so that each leg supports the whole. It doesn't matter whether your table is 2 feet tall or 10 feet tall, so long as it's all in balance. My 2010 Rutherford Runway Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc is a wine that I am very proud of. I have made every single vintage from this vineyard since it first began producing fruit in 2007. The vineyard is especially personal, since it was planted by my family, and I was able to be a participant in training the vines onto the trellises and watch them grow before my eyes.”
“One of the most challenging ancillary activities for me has been sales, especially in this overcrowded recessionary market. It has challenged me to go outside of my comfort zone as I learn to connect and create relationships that will sustain my ability to make great wines. But this is exactly the reason I am enjoying it so much, because it's like a real life MBA, it has allowed me to continue to grow and learn, and I'm very proud of what I'm doing.”
Katy Wilson, owner/winemaker, LaRue Wines, Sonoma, Calif.
“I grew up on a walnut orchard, so starting out at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo I knew I wanted to be involved in agriculture. I was attracted to winemaking because it is agriculture, but also requires creativity. It is an industry where you have to know chemistry, how to fix a pump when it breaks, and drive a forklift. It also requires an exceptional palate and sense of smell. I worked under Ross Cobb, winemaker for both Hirsch and Cobb Wines, at Flowers Winery for two years and learned a tremendous amount about Pinot Noir winemaking from him. He is very in tune with his vineyards and wines and continues to evolve as a winemaker. He is also able to balance a family, a fulltime winemaking position, and his own wine label and vineyard.”
“My style of winemaking is more towards the ‘hands off’ approach than the ‘invasive.’ I am aiming to make a wine that is feminine, but firm. I want my wine to be able to pair with food. In order to do that it cannot be overly powerful and tannic or too light and flimsy. I aim to make a wine that is very layered and complex.”
“There have been nights when I have been at the winery until 2 a.m. after working for 45 days straight and thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? Why did I choose this for myself?’ I then think about it and realize that I am doing this because I love it.”