Successful winemaking involves balancing the elements of agriculture and chemistry with a unique talent of blending wines.
Three Napa Valley winemakers discuss what happens during harvest, the strength of teamwork and the rewarding aspects of this interesting art form. In 2012, Terlato Winemakers Elizabeth Vianna, Marisa Taylor and Kimberlee Nicholls were featured in Vintage TV Series, a six-part TV series that captured the behind the scenes life of each winemaker throughout the harvesting process. The series will air on television throughout 2014.
Harvest happens once a year during early spring through summer, depending on the vineyard location’s climate and hemisphere, when winemakers are actively deciding on when to pick the grapes, when to ferment them and when to start the production of wine. “A lot of it is being at the mercy of nature. The wind, rain, and heat- those are a lot of balls in the air,” said Elizabeth Vianna of Chimney Rock. “And what’s beautiful is that every year it’s different. And your job is to put the best juice you can into the bottle.”
Winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls of Markham Vineyards agrees that part of the magic is that each year is a different challenge. “The most stressful part of harvest is right before it starts, said Nicholls. “You have insecurities-you ask yourself ‘Can I do this again? It is time? How will it turn out this year? Is it ever going to start?’ Then all of a sudden, you’re in the middle of it all, and you’re too busy to ask those questions or to worry about anything.”
The job of a winemaker requires the ability to juggle the process of winemaking, blending, and a big portion of it is also traveling on the road to promote the winery and educate vendors about his or her unique wines. Rutherford Hill winemaker, Marisa Taylor loves working with her team the most. “There’s lots of adrenaline involved, but it’s exciting and there are lots of decisions to be made in a small amount of time, said Taylor. “Harvest is really intense and really fun. There are times when it can be stressful, but it shows what people are made of. It’s definitely a big team effort. I’m lucky to have the title, but everyone in the cellar is a winemaker.”
In addition to working closely with their teams, these winemakers love to do what they do. From walking the vineyards every morning to taking ownership of the the wine bottle on the dinner table, they all thrive on the intensity of harvest and look forward to perfecting their wines year after year. “It requires decision making, tasting grapes, and putting blends together, like painting on a canvas,” said Vianna. “Your job is to create something beautiful, drinkable and age-able.”
For more information on the winemakers’ Vintage TV series, please visit www.vintagetvseries.com.
Winemaker: Elizabeth Vianna
Winery: Chimney Rock- Napa, CA, Stag’s Leap District
How do you describe winemaking? It’s a blend of science and art, starting with farming and then getting the perfect liquid into a bottle. It’s plant biology, chemistry, microbiology, a fermentative process, but also it is an artistic job where you can be creative with the blending aspect of the job.
What inspires you? Museums. I love seeing artwork. It reminds me of one of my wines, for example I have a wine that I compare to work of Roethko, because of the uniqueness of its texture.
What do you enjoy most about the job? All of it. You’re taking something from the Earth and putting it on the table for your friends and loved ones to enjoy. It’s a very romantic way of making a living.
Winemaker: Marisa Taylor
Winery: Rutherford Hill- Rutherford, CA, Sonoma Valley
How did you become a winemaker? Growing up (in wine country) was great because it’s home. I never thought I’d get into the business. I was always around it, my dad was a vineyard manager and I think I took it for granted. In college I was always science focused, but my parents always thought I’d go into medicine. As a joke, my dad once suggested attending UC Davis- and that was my “A-ha” moment. And I just fell into it. I like the blend of agricultural science and the family and friends culture. I thought that I always wanted to get out of wine country, to get out and travel abroad, but then I realized I had all these opportunities right at home- so it’s a win-win situation.
What do you enjoy most about the job? I think that I like the entirety of it the most. Like 90% of it. I enjoy the people I work with. I love sitting down and blending. Tasting, I love. The other thing is that my son is almost 5, and I get to share this with him. To be able to bring him up in the environment surrounded by family and friends and the vineyard is great.
What inspires you? Being outside, being around the vineyards with my dog Lucy, those are the happiest days. I love starting my days walking around the vineyard tasting the fruit. I’m very appreciative and when I’m in the vineyard it fills me with gratitude and that is very inspiring.
Winemaker: Kimberlee Nicholls
Winery: Markham Vineyards- St. Helena, CA
How did you become a winemaker? I had a degree in biology and I met a boy (who I’ve been married to for 25 years) who had grown up along the Russian River so he suggested we move to wine country. I had originally moved to CA with the intent to pursue a career in medicine. But this boy suggested the idea of becoming a winemaker and I thought, ‘that sounds like a fun job’. And it has been. It’s been a great job. I cook a lot at home and I feel like cooking and winemaking have a lot of overlap. I’m a good cook, so I like to think I’m pretty good at blending wines.
What’s a day in the life of a winemaker? Every day starts the same, nothing starts before I have my non-fat espresso latte. We have a pow-wow with my team in the morning, discuss where we are going for the day, the month at a glance, taste between 10-12pm and then we take care of analysis and actions in the afternoon. And then I get to emails later in the day.
What inspires you? I am inspired by other people. I really love the enthusiasm of others in our industry. For me, there are also lots of experimentations- friends tasting their friends’ wines and having open discussions about the wines. Especially when you can talk to young winemakers and get to exchange/ share interesting thoughts. You get lots of fresh ideas from them. That is truly inspiring- as well as a great food and wine pairing. It’s the taste of the perfect pairing that keeps your mind fresh and keeps the wheels spinning.