As someone who grew up on a walnut farm and drove a tractor before learning to drive a car what piqued your interest in winemaking? Was there a moment that you remember when you knew that you wanted to be a winemaker?
Yes, I did have an exact moment that I decided to become a winemaker. Having grown up on a walnut orchard in the Central Valley of California, I knew that I wanted to work in agriculture in some way. I went to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo to study Agricultural Business. During my freshman year Agricultural Business 101 class, the professor was talking about various opportunities within the agricultural space. When she started talking about wine, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Wine is first and foremost agriculture, but it is also a unique combination of science and creativity. I think it also captured me because unlike walnuts, with wine, you are taking the grapes and making them into something completely different- something that is alive. Every decision that you make along the way changes what it becomes.
Soon after that class, I added a second major and in 2005, I graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in Wine & Viticulture as well as Agricultural Business.
What was your first wine job?
My first job in the industry was working on a 1,000 acre vineyard in the Central Valley the summer after my freshman year at Cal Poly in 2002. It is really crazy to think that was 18 years ago!
I worked ten hours a day, six days a week for minimum wage with no overtime (which was legal for farmworkers). It was definitely a tough job, especially in the 100+ degree heat of the Central Valley. I have huge respect and admiration for all of the farmworkers that we depend on in California, not only in the wine industry, but also throughout all areas of agriculture. When I finished working the season, I knew I was on the right path. Even with the hard work, I was just as passionate as ever about wine and excited for my next step.
Can you share some of the wineries you’ve worked at along the way including one of my favorite’s Reeve Wines where I think we met?
It is a long road from that 1,000 vineyard to when we met at Reeve Wines! After graduating from Cal Poly, I was determined to get as much experience as possible. For me, this meant doing as many harvests as I could. I traveled back and forth from the northern to southern hemisphere working the harvest. I worked at Testarossa in Los Gatos, Ca., Torbreck in the Barossa Valley of Australia, Joseph Phelps in Napa, and Craggy Range in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand.
I landed back in California and knew that I wanted to work with Pinot Noir. I ended up at Flowers Winery on the Sonoma Coast where I worked for two years starting as the harvest enologist and becoming the Assistant Winemaker after my first year there. I really fell in love with the Sonoma Coast and the Pinot Noir & Chardonnay that is grown there, but I knew that I still wanted to challenge myself.
I decided to leave Flowers in 2009 to work at Kamen Wines with winemaker Mark Herold. It was probably the best choice that I could have made. Mark is almost opposite in style to my winemaking, but I think that I learned the most from him. He challenged me to be able to explain why I did something the way I did. We were not the same, but we worked together well and had tremendous respect for each other. I worked at Kamen until 2014.
During my time at Kamen, I was VERY busy. I also started my own winery, LaRue Wines, in 2009 and was able to make my wine at Kamen, which was amazing. In 2012, I started a consulting company with Ross Cobb. We worked as co-winemakers for Claypool Cellars and Banshee Wines, which is where we met Noah Dorrance (owner/winemaker of Reeve Wines). For a few years, I was basically working three full time jobs.
In 2014, I started working with Smith Story Wine Cellars and I decided it was time to leave Kamen.
Later that year, I started working with Anaba Wines. It was as if it was meant to be- I met John Sweazey through a mutual friend who introduced us because he thought that I would be a great fit for Anaba– he was right!
In 2015, Noah started Reeve Wines and asked Ross and myself if we would be interested in working with him on the winemaking. We were off and running with the new winery in no time.
In the following years, we built a winery for Anaba and now have an amazing home for most of my clients. I am now working as the Winemaker at Anaba Wines, Consulting Winemaker for Reeve Wines, and Consulting Winemaker for Smith Story Wine Cellars as well as continuing to make my own wine- LaRue Wines.
As a winemaker you taste (and spit) lots of wine, what wine do you feel bad about spitting because you love it so much?
That is a great question- I do spit a lot! When I am working, I don’t think about it too much as far as spitting or dumping- I am mostly tasting barrels of unfinished wines, so it is second nature to just spit.
In 2013 Jon Bonne named you as a “Winemaker to Watch” what an honor. What did it feel like to be highlighted as such a young age by such a prestigious wine writer?
I was so excited and completely honored to be included. I had just started LaRue four years prior, I was still the associate winemaker at Kamen, and I was one year into working as a consultant. That time was quite the whirlwind!
What was one of the biggest mistakes you have made in your winemaking career?
I think that it would be not standing up for myself as much as I could have, and being too polite. As a woman in this industry, it can be really tough. People have certain expectations of who you are and what you do. Even now, I meet people who think I am someone’s assistant or “that woman who helps such and such man.” For the most part, I let it roll off my shoulders, but I think that I might be in a different place if I would say something more often and demand respect for the work that I do.
I know that you’ve also made wine with legendary Sonoma Coast Winemaker Ross Cobb (who I’m also a HUGE fan of). Can you share a fun memory of you and Ross making wine together?
I would say that it would have to be all of the crazy days during harvest where we would divide up a huge list of vineyards and both drive all over grabbing samples. We then would meet back at the winery and taste through everything, talk about what was going on in each vineyard, and then make decisions about picking. Harvest is a crazy busy time, but it is the most exciting time and one of the most important as well.
If you had to pick one vineyard (not just for Anaba Wines for all the brands that you make wine for), that you make Pinot Noir from that is your FAVORITE or the most interesting and challenging to work with, which would it be?
Ahhh- I can’t pick a favorite. That is like picking your favorite kid! Every vineyard is interesting in its own way and has its own challenges. I make more than 60 different wines, across 18 varietals, sourced from more than 50 vineyards across Sonoma and Mendocino counties. I love how every vineyard has its own signature and my goal is to do my best to capture it.
Who has been the most influential mentor in your career?
I have had so many amazing winemakers and business-minded people in my life that have helped me out along the way. It is like choosing a favorite vineyard- I can’t choose just one! I have tried to learn from every winemaker that I have worked with along the way. I have also had a few wonderful people in my life who are not winemakers, but who I really look up to and who have taught me so much about moving forward in my career and running a business.
What is something you’d like to share about Pinot Noir Wines (your specialty) that many consumers may not know or have a misconception about?
That Pinot Noir can age! A lot of people think of Pinot as a wine to drink young, especially California Pinot. I would like to let people know that a well made Pinot Noir can age and many are just starting to hit their stride at six years old.
What is your favorite after-work drink?
Champagne!! I love Champagne and could drink it anytime.
What is your favorite local spot in Sonoma?
I am going to have to give you a few- one is not enough. One of my favorite harvest lunch spots is the old Fremont Diner – now called Lou’s Luncheonette. I love their chicken sandwiches and onion rings. For coffee- my favorite spot is Cotati Coffee Company. I take the back roads between the vineyards and Sonoma all of the time and it is such a great stop along the way- there is always a friendly face there. Lastly, I would have to say El Molino Central. They make everything from scratch- including the chips. The food there is so great.
Tell us something that would surprise people about you?
I think that most people would be surprised to hear that I know how to weld. My dad always told me that I could do anything that any guy could do. So, as a teenager, I decided that I wanted to learn how to weld and my dad was all for teaching me.
What do you think?