My Passion – Wonderful Friends, Great Food, Awesome Wines
I have posted this before, but wanted to share it again.
What is it about wine that intrigues me so much? Maybe because it captivates so many of my senses. Maybe because it is so connected to the culture and geography. Maybe because the process is so interesting. Maybe because there are so many varieties. Maybe because I just like the taste of it. Maybe it stirs up my soul.
May 20, 2007. Entering an urban warehouse, I confirmed through the spectacular sights and smells that I was inside the “open-house” of a custom crush winery. Immediately, I knew this spot was home; this was where I intended to make my first wine…this was why I came to California! I searched for the head winemaker and, finding him, saw a long line of people ahead of me. Determined, I waited until I had my turn.
Finally, the long line subsided. I stepped up and told my story, revealing what I wanted to do. I wanted to make an unoaked chardonnay. Listening to those words come out of my mouth, I felt my dream become a reality. I was going to make my own wine. I was actually talking about it…out loud.
After a bit, the winemaker asked me if I would be interested in working at the winery. That’s when my winemaking career all began…or was it?
At a young age, I watched my Italian grandfather make wine in his basement. I loved the smells in the single room where he created his magic. I was fascinated with each bottle, marked with masking tape telling the holder of the varietal. What is known as “tape wine” became treasured gifts to family and friends, gifts crafted with loving hands in the old world way. Visitors coming to this house were greeted at the kitchen table with wine and great Italian food.
It was this life of hospitality that shaped me. The passion of making wine, community, and great Italian cooking was instilled in me at that kitchen table. It was there where I learned that growing, making, and sharing from my abundance of blessings was what life was all about.
Let’s say we are sitting here in my house and I am showing you how to blend wine. I have a 100 ml graduated cylinder and pipette. There are 5 wines in front us. ok class…let’s begin!
Wine is an intriguing liquid to say the least. What I want to talk about today is the art of blending. One of my favorite parts of winemaking. Blending is used to maximize the expression of a wine. It can enhance aromas, color, texture, body and finish, making it a more well rounded and complex wine. The idea is to highlight each grape’s strength and compliment the other grapes being used in the blend.
For example: Merlot
Merlot can be used to give the wine a better aroma and make it seem fresher or smoother. Cab Franc or Cab Sauv are often added for structure or tannin to make a more powerful wine.
A Bordeaux blend (which you might be more familiar with) is often a blend of all or some of Cab Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Cab Sauvignon adds intense aromatics and tannins. Merlot adds fruitiness and roundness. Cab Franc may add some herbal notes. Malbec may add a darker color or smoother palate. Petit Verdot may add structure. When one base wine is enhanced with other great wines, it enhances the base wine to make it a better wine than it was by itself.
There are times in our lives when we have tasted that perfectly balanced wine. We sit up and take notice right away as it crosses our taste buds – all is well with the world. Then there are those times when we pour a glass of wine that lacks balance, or integration. Much like our lives at times when we are bogged down with pressures at work, deadlines to meet, children’s activities we can’t keep up with, having to answer one more email, grocery shopping on our way home from work on Monday because we didn’t have time on Saturday – these are the things that fill our lives leaving us no room for what may enhance us.
I believe an integrated life is more of a blend than a balance. Blending occurs when we understand that all aspects of what I refer to as vocation, family, professional community, and spirituality – are equally important.
I moved to CA in 2004. I left a 15 year law enforcement career to follow my passion for winemaking. I found myself, at the age of 43, changing my career…changing my life. The challenges ahead were great but this was something I yearned for in my life.
My journey these past 15 years has been one that I would refer to as a “wonderful blending”. When I arrived in California, I had no job and no way of knowing how to get into the wine industry. I thought, maybe, if I start working at BevMo, I would run into someone who could point me in the right direction.
Every Saturday, at BevMo, in the back of the store, they would have wine tastings for a dollar. Hal Hanifl conducted these tastings. Of course, I had to work on Saturdays so I would always look forward to Hal’s tastings and conversations. During one of our conversations, Hal told me that he worked at Chateau St Jean during the week. He told me he could probably get me a temp job for harvest 2004. I was so excited!! I did get the job!!!
(this is where we add 70 mls of Cabernet to the cylinder)
As it turns out they put me in the cellar. I was doing pump-overs, filling barrels, etc. About two weeks into harvest, the lab manager, Kathy Moeller, asked me if I would mind moving into the lab for the rest of harvest. Talk about an opportunity!! The ladies in the lab took me under their wings and showed me everything they knew about lab work, chemistry, etc.
After harvest, I was hired on full time. Chateau St Jean sent me to Napa Valley College for the enology program.
(we add another 20mls of Merlot to the cylinder)
Fast forward to 2007. I had heard of this place called Crushpad, a custom crush facility in San Francisco. I decided to attend their open house in May of 2007. I met with the head winemaker, Michael Zitzlaff. I told him I wanted to make an unoaked chardonnay. Now it was not very popular at the time but he encouraged me to follow that passion. Not only did he encourage me to do just that, he offered me a job as Lab Manager.
(add 5mls of Cab Franc to the cylinder)
I made two stainless drums of Chardonnay in 2007 and launched Passaggio Wines. In 2010, when Crushpad moved to Napa, I was promoted to winemaker for the white wine program. In 2011, when Crushpad moved to Sonoma, I decided to branch out on my own. I left Crushpad in May of 2011 and I called my friend, Elizabeth Vianna, winemaker for Chimney Rock. I asked Elizabeth if she was hiring for harvest 2011. She politely said yes. Elizabeth Vianna, one of the best winemakers I know in Napa Valley, let me work along side her for harvest 2011.
(add 3mls of Malbec to the cylinder)
After harvest of 2011 I needed a place to make Passaggio Wines because Crushpad did end up folding. I called my friend Dave Gifford. Dave Gifford used to work for Crushpad but left them in 2010 and started his own custom crush facility back in San Francisco. Dave let me bring my barrels of Pinot Noir over to his facility. – I could keep adding great Bordeaux varietals to this blend but I think you get the picture.
(add 2 mls of Petit Verdot)
Fast forward to 2014. I opened a tasting room on the Sonoma Square, in Sonoma, California, and in 2016, I open my own production facility…whew! What a journey!!
As I have always said “Success can be ever changing.” It can change from day to day by following your passion and loving every minute of it. I don’t think you can measure it by the amount of money you make. I am not even sure you can measure it all. It comes from within. When you are sitting around the table with great friends, wonderful family, awesome food, and great wine, what could be better? That’s success…”
Follow your passion – whatever it may be. Let it be something you can share with others to create a better place for everyone…
(pour out the 100 mls into a glass)
We all can be blenders in someone’s life making their life and their journey a better one.