Do you recall the first glass of wine that captured your heart?
This is the question NorthBay biz posed to some notable winemakers in Sonoma and Napa counties. Here, they candidly share the intimate details of that first glass of wine that captivated them, revealing their passions and personalities.
Back in 1997 my father, a long time wine enthusiast, set up a tasting for some friends to which I was invited. He wanted to find a bottle from each decade of the 20th century. One of the bottles was a 1918 Chateau Laffite. The wine was alive, still structured, with dried fruit, flower, earth and more. Being transported back to a time and place almost 80 years before was captivating. I was hooked. I had never considered wine as a career before this moment, but this bottle opened my eyes; wine is so much more than just a beverage.
In my early years, wine played a rather small role. I remember my parents having the occasional bottle of Cold Duck or Hearty Burgundy at the table, but my father preferred beer. It wasn’t until I was college age that I finally discovered the world of wine and started down the path of discovery on my own. My mother would tell stories of my grandfather having a barrel of wine in the tank house where he would go out to each evening to get a glass. I was too young to remember him, but I do remember the stories. My interest in wine began during my first college days at SRJC. It sounds cliché but it was a girl. She was interested in wine and we began to share different bottles over lunch. My first favorite was Gundlach Bundschu Gewurztraminer. Not only was it impressive to say, the wines were easy to appreciate, floral, spicy, sweet, delicious and so perfect on a warm summer day. As it turned out I fell out of love with the girl, and in love with the wine and that relationship continues to this day.
Trione Vineyards & Winery
In 2003, I was living in Virginia and a few months into my first job in the cellar. I had graduated from college earlier that year and had decided to forego a lucrative job in finance in favor of making $7.25 per hour lifting barrels, scrubbing tanks and dragging hoses. I was ecstatic. Looking back, I didn’t know much about wine (or anything) at that point in my life, but had convinced a winemaker that all I had to offer—brute force and ignorance—was enough to merit an entry-level position at the winery. My new boss had worked for Heitz Cellar previously and one night after work at his home, in lieu of another beer or martini, he pulled out an old, dusty bottle of 1976 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet from his closet. At that moment in my nascent career, I hadn’t quite figured out what I was in for, as harvest approached, or even what I was working toward exactly. But that glass of Martha’s opened my eyes to what was possible in creating something truly extraordinary, and more importantly, set the bar for what I look to accomplish today.
Chateau Montelena Winery
I define the first glass of wine that got me hooked a little differently. It was the first vintage I ever worked, and I was digging out a tank of 2001 Carmenet Winery Sonoma Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon skins that we just recently drained and were destined for the basket press. The physical stamina, long hours, camaraderie, the blurry line between art and science and working alongside Mother Nature—I knew making wine was for me! I’m now in my 18th harvest and hopefully a little bit wiser. I was on a 2012 traveling winemaker vacation, visiting some of the best domaines in Burgundy. I was fortunate enough to taste all Grand Cru vineyards out of barrel with the vigneron at Comte de Vogue. I was down in a cellar underground, with black mold seeping from the walls, a language barrier making communication challenging, standing next to my husband, and speaking philosophically and poetically about some of the best wines in the world. Those type of experiences, bringing together total strangers who share a common passion, are priceless and remind me during the long days of harvest why I do this every year!
Emma Kudritzki Hall
One of my first notable experiences with wine was when I was about 16 years old and a sophomore in high school. One night, a friend spent the night. Rather than drink my parents’ beer, we took a bottle of wine from my dad's cellar—an unlabeled wine he was given off the bottling line at Kendall Jackson, where he worked as a winemaker. I didn’t know the vintage or varietal, just that it was red. After my parents went to bed, we slipped outside, popped the cork and took turns taking sips (more like slugs). I know chugging wine isn’t the preferred method for appreciating wine for all it's wonderful aromatics and complexity, yet I was able to accurately assess the quality of the wine. I distinctly remember looking at my buddy and saying, "This really isn't that bad." By the end of the bottle, I thought it was the best wine I’d ever had. That night I was introduced to the not-so-euphoric side of alcohol, and spent part of the next day in bed swearing I’d never do that again. Years later, after sharing the story with my dad, I learned that wine was a 1997 Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. This marked the early stages of a career in winemaking and a lifetime of wine appreciation.
I was 21 years old working as a server at a downtown Petaluma restaurant when a gentleman came in for dinner, carrying a bottle of Krug Champagne. As I opened it, the top of the cork broke off in my hand, the other half stuck in the bottleneck. I was horrified that I broke a Champagne cork—who does that?! He laughed, “That’s what happens when these bottles age for 30 years!” I finally “MacGyvered” the remains of the cork out with my corkscrew and the gentleman invited me to sit and have a taste. The night was bustling at the restaurant, so I stood next to his table for a quick sip. But the moment the fragrance reached my nose, I was compelled to sit down. The restaurant around me disappeared and the only thing in focus was this incredible aged Champagne—dark gold in color with just one or two small strands of bubbles lazily making their way to the surface. Those bubbles brought nutty, brioche-like aromas bursting with clove and honey and dried apricots. Creamy, plush mouth-feel supported the fruit, spice, and toasted hazelnut flavors that echoed and lasted seemingly forever. I can still taste it now over a dozen years later. Fully Champagne and entirely something more; this was a transformative lesson in wine’s potential to transcend freshness and youthful beauty, offering even more with age and care. This memory inspires me every time I approach the blending table or the crushpad.
Adobe Road Winery
My first glass wasn’t my first, but its impression changed my winemaking style. I had already been making wine for four to five years here and was promoting my wines in Pennsylvania. My marketing counterpart, David, mentioned he had brought a special bottle of Gaja for us to enjoy at dinner. I was excited to try a wine, which was made by a leader in winemaking, all day long I wondered. When we sat for dinner, inevitably starting with a little bubbly before the promised bottle emerged. I remember distinctly that it was Cabernet Sauvignon, because I was expecting an Italian varietal. (I don’t actually remember the vintage, 2000 or 2001 vintage). But I remember being completely in awe of how utterly seamless and beautiful the wine was. It literally made me go “OH!?!” That wine that inspired me to push to begin making our single-vineyard designate wines in 2006, specifically our Calistoga Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. It isn’t a hugely tannic Napa Valley Cabernet as you might expect, but rather beautifully layered expressing its terroir.
The wine that inspired me to become the winemaker I am today was the 2001 Masseto from Ornellaia. I had the pleasure of experiencing the 100 percent Merlot with winemaker Gustavo Gonzales, who has a winemaker with me at Robert Mondavi Winery almost 15 years ago. It showed me what the Magic of wine could truly be. I now focus on every possible detail in the vineyard and in the winery, pushing the boundaries of what is possible for us at Rodney Strong Vineyards. My hope is to one day make a wine that speaks to me, and hopefully others, the way the 2001 Masseto did that night. It is truly an amazing wine, which I will never forget.
Director of Winemaking
Rodney Strong Wine Estates
The first glass of wine that captured my heart was a 1985 Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay. St. Jean, under the direction of Dick Arrowood, was an early pioneer of Single Vineyard Chardonnay in California and that bottle was shared at Thanksgiving with my parents and brother in 1987. It was an incredible wine that was only bottled in magnum and left a lasting memory on a young and aspiring winemaker.
Benovia Winery, LLC
My first glass of wine was actually a bottle. I was 17 years old and hanging out with my girlfriends. I had stolen a bottle of wine from my parents’ basement cellar. We managed to find a wine opener, but we didn’t have any glasses so we just passed the bottle around with the intention of getting a buzz whether we actually liked the wine or not. Varietals, appellations, and wineries weren’t on my radar at the age of 17. All I knew was that it was red, and while a couple of my friends were clearly not enjoying what they were drinking, I remember that I loved it. I will never forget the moment that I realized how incredibly good it tasted and that I didn’t want to share the bottle. I was trying to discreetly avoid passing the bottle.
Years later, as most of us do, I was sharing stories with my parents about some of things I did in my youth, including this story. They told me that they had only stored Cabernet or Cabernet-based blends in the basement, with many of them being from Bordeaux. Of course, I wasn’t getting away with anything. They figured it was me that was taking the cellar wine (I couldn’t stop!), whereas my brother admitted he was stealing the everyday box wine out of the refrigerator poured into a coffee cup.
Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery
The first glass of wine I remember vividly was not a glass at all—it was a bottle. I was a sophomore at Montgomery High School, and my parents were out of town. I had some friends over, and they persuaded me to raid the cellar. I knew my dad would notice if I took some of his more prized bottles, so I selected his homebrew Zinfandel made from our own vines. Sitting outside, we took turns swigging straight from the bottle and joking about being hobos. It was quite good—lots of ripe fruit, but more tangy than sweet. We had a second bottle, but unfortunately, I soon found out it didn’t taste too good coming back up and back into the vineyard! I was not yet persuaded to become a winemaker. My most memorable first glass came a few years later when I was a student at UC Davis. One of my classmates had inherited an incredible wine cellar from his grandfather and was generous with sharing these special bottles with us, many of which were from top Bordeaux chateaux. We knew these were all highly sought-after wines, but I was particularly struck when we opened a bottle of 1982 Lafite Rothschild. This wine had a depth and richness I hadn’t experienced—dark fruit and earthiness, amazing tannins that rolled throughout my mouth into a long finish. It was one of the wines responsible for making Cabernet Sauvignon my favorite wine to drink. Little did I know that years later, I would be the winemaker for Carmenet Winery and Moon Mountain Vineyard. Carmenet was 46 percent owned by Lafite Rothschild, and on several occasions I had the pleasure of meeting with Baron Eric de Rothschild. I don’t think I ever told him the story of my one glass of 1982 Lafite.
Laurel Glen Vineyard
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