Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small rural area outside of El Paso, Texas, which is the desert in the southwest of the country.
It’s not an area renowned for wine.
You know, the first vines in America were planted along the river in El Paso by the Spanish missionaries that came through in the 1500's.
Are there any vines left?
There are a few. There’s a small resurgence. There are a couple of wineries near my parent’s home, but there weren’t any when I grew up there.
Who or what inspired you to enter the wine industry?
I was doing medical research at the National Institute of Health in Washington D.C. and I really thought that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But it left me feeling unfulfilled. I’m a really tangible person and at the end of the day, a piece of paper with data on it wasn’t doing it for me. I wanted to produce something that I was really proud of.
Do you make wine for the critics, the consumers or yourself?
My philosophy is, I make wine for the sake of the wine. Ultimately, the grape and the site dictate the initial course of that wine, and even though I have overall preferences in terms of style and interpretation, I’m not going to make a cabernet sauvignon from mountain fruit as I would from valley fruit. It’s about respecting the wine and doing what’s right. If the critics happen to like that wine, that’s wonderful, but if they don’t, it’s not what I set out do in the first place.
Wine scores are important to Napa producers. What’s your opinion of ranking wines?
I find it really interesting to give wines a score and call something a perfect – or 100-point – wine, because there was no concept of having a perfect wine until we had numerical scores. In my life, I have a perfect albarino on the beach with oysters or a glass of cabernet when I’m catching up with a friend. But perfection is contextual and subjective. So while it feels great to get a really good score, it’s impossible for those scores to be objective. We don’t give scores to Shakespeare or Picasso, because it’s difficult to put parameters on greatness. We can probably all agree on parameters for flaws, but greatness? Never.
Do you think there is such a thing as luxury wine?
It depends on the person. Personally, I can’t afford many of the luxury wines and more power to the people that can. There are really good, really drinkable wines and then there are wines that are pretty exclusive, made by hand, and so these wines do cost more. The price-to-quality ratio is important to consumers. If we are going to charge a premium for a wine, we want it to the best product we can make, with a lot of care and attention.
In wine terms, who are your heroes?
I like to think outside the box and the pioneer women of Napa fascinate me, particularly those who made wine. They were here in the late 1800's and were beginning to start farming and growing grapes. When I’ve had a hard day I think what it must have been like for them, plowing fields with horses, not having pumps or refrigeration. Everything seems so much easier today. I think they are the real heroes that made a name for Napa wine a century ago.
What has been your greatest winemaking achievement?
While making an amazing wine feels really good, I actually get more pleasure from troubleshooting or fixing a really challenging issue. Harvest 2011 threw everything at us that nature could think of. If you didn’t make the right decisions or take the right steps at the right time you got some pretty unusual stuff. I found that really thinking about what we were doing made wines that were good, and way better than expected. To me, it is really rewarding to come out ahead when something is so challenging and difficult.
Whom or what do you pray to during vintage?
There are three very important things. Firstly, the ‘Please don’t let it rain' god. Second, the ladies who make the breakfast burritos at Soda Canyon deli, and third, the Colombian coffee growers. Because without those three, our world would not go round at harvest.
There’s a noticeable disparity between the numbers of male and female winemakers. Why do you think this is so?
First of all, winemaking is a physically challenging job. You get really dirty and really sticky some days and so that’s not always appealing to some women. It’s also a multidisciplinary field. It’s not just taking grapes and making them into wine; you have to understand plants, the weeds, microbiology, organic chemistry, and on top of that, it’s mechanics. Throw on public speaking and customers relations and it’s a really multifaceted career. It can be overwhelming for some women. But things are changing.
What do you drink on a "school night"?
What do you see when you look in the mirror?
I see a very hardworking person who has also been very fortunate in life. I had some tough things to deal with early on, but hard work, support from family and friends, and a little good luck along the way has got me where I am today. I couldn’t be happier.
Where would you like to be buried?
My thought on that is I’ll be dead, so I doubt I’ll mind where they bury me.
What would you want your last wine to be?
An old vintage Sauternes, because it makes me smile every time.
What brings you the greatest happiness?
Something as simple as sharing a nice bottle of wine [and] some bread and cheese with friends, and having a lot of laughs on a sunny day.
What do you think would make the world a better place?
Tolerance for everyone else, because most problems and conflicts are based on intolerances of other people’s views and actions.
In the end, what really matters?
Finding what you love to do, surrounding yourself with people that add to your happiness, and doing something good for someone else.
As told to Rebecca Gibb