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Perspectives on the Wine Industry & Reflections on Winemaking
— An Interview with Five Northern California Winemakers —
Any enthusiast will agree that wine has the potential to inspire our minds, fulfill our hearts, and arouse our souls like few other things in life do. But in experiencing the magic of wine at its best, it's not very often that we stop to think about the very people whose talent and skill are essential in making it all happen. Curious to learn firsthand about the personal impressions and professional experiences of these craftsmen, outside the context of any single wine brand, I gathered together a group of five winemakers, all of whom have made wine over the last ten years in Napa and Sonoma counties for boutique and medium-sized wineries and/or their own private labels. On an unusually cool summer afternoon in the Stag's Leap District of Napa, I engaged them in an animated conversation touching on various themes: attitudes on the wine industry at large, both in California and worldwide; observations about wine consumers and trends in the marketplace; positions on evolving wine styles and practices in production; and finally, reflections on the lessons they've learned in the process of raising vines and crafting wines. Whether in expressing the satisfaction they've enjoyed in this unique vocation or in describing some of the challenges inherent in it, their candor, insight, and occasional irreverence made for a discussion that was engaging, enlightening, and altogether entertaining.
Sally Johnson (SJ) is winemaker at Pride Mountain. She was previously at St. Francis and St. Hallett (Australia), and made wines for Lalys (own label).
Robbie Meyer (RM) is winemaker at Jericho-Canyon, Versant, Peirson-Meyer (own label), and Vogelzang. He was previously at Peter Michael, Lewis, and Sage.
Matthew Rorick (MR) is winemaker for Forlorn Hope (own label) and Elizabeth Spencer. Previously: Peter Michael, Miura, Chasseur; worked in Chile, South Africa, New Zealand.
Elizabeth Vianna (EV) is winemaker at Chimney Rock. She was previously at Napa Wine Company and Trefethen.
Timothy Milos (TM) is winemaker at Rubissow. He consults for The Bounty Hunter, Black Coyote, Hidden Ridge, Haber Family, Howell at the Moon, Loomis Family, Liquid Sky, Sedna. He was previously at Girard, Cliff Lede, S. Anderson, Opus One, Stags Leap Wine Cellars.
Observations on Changes in California's Wine Industry
NM: All of you have been making wine now for about a decade. In that span of time, what changes have you witnessed coming about in California's wine industry, particularly in this immediate region encompassing Napa and Sonoma?
EV: I have a little joke about wine: in Los Angeles, everybody's is writing a screenplay; in New York, everybody's writing a novel; and in Northern California, everybody's got a wine label. And I think that's become so much more the case in the last decade, in particular. It's become very trendy [to make wine]. And the custom crush facility has changed the face of the wine industry, so that you don't even have to own a facility in order to make wine. Not that people weren't doing that before, but I think that now it's really exploded.
TM: Yeah. The only spin I'd put on it, though, is that while there has been a rise in the proliferation of small brands and labels, in the last five years, the large, corporate wineries have been picking up most of the mid-sized wineries. So, for producers making up to a thousand cases, there are lots of independent guys, but anything at around 50,000 cases or above, it seems like the trend at that scale is going in the other direction, becoming part of fewer and fewer conglomerates or larger groups.