Just how did a girl from the Texas Hill Country end up in Sonoma County to work on the Crush Pad of a well-known and top-rated winery? The short story is, that after spending the past year studying and learning how to make wine, it was time to dig even deeper by working a harvest in California. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work the 2022 vintage at Gary Farrell Winery in the Russian River Valley.
But what could I expect to learn there that I wouldn’t get from another vintage in Texas? I really had to consider the pros and cons to be sure this would be beneficial. Changing our address to California for a few months would be a move that likely would cost more than the salary I would make on the job. So why would I do it?
Well, because I can. I mean, my hubby and I are approaching 50. We don’t have kids. We’ve sold our businesses. So, we have the flexibility to make a temporary move for the purpose of learning about a bigger scale of winemaking. And what a great chance to see harvest in a different, more widely known wine region.
In Texas, I’ve spent time over the past three years doing a little work with three different winemakers. I’ll take a minute here to give a shout-out and HUGE thanks to Jesse Villarreal with Whisper Path Cellars, Michael Barton with Hilmy Cellars, and Michael Bilger with Adega Vinho for being patient teachers and mentors to me. These talented and passionate producers are making what most would consider a very small amount of wine – from 800 cases annually, moving up to 3,200 and about 5,700 cases. A case holds 12 bottles, so at the largest scale I’ve worked with, we’re talking about 68,400 bottles of wine. That sounds like quite a bit – and it is, in Texas. But in California, a boutique winery like Gary Farrell in Sonoma County is producing 27,000 cases. That’s 324,000 bottles of wine being made from just this year’s harvest. This is a completely different scale than what I’ve come to know. And this isn’t even considered a big winery by California standards!
Other than just ‘because I can,’ why would I take on this challenge? The small wineries I know as the norm in Texas show the hands-on style of winemaking that I value and would want to do myself. At the same time, I’m still learning. And maybe the best way to know if I’m doing things well is to know how others are doing it. I have made a few wines of my own, but don’t have my own wine label, and I’m not sure I want my own winery. I’m taking time until the end of this year, to determine what my next path is. What I do know is by knowing how wine is made, I savor every sip. This is an appreciation I wish more people could have. An appreciation I don’t want to take for granted. And that’s why I keep digging deeper into winemaking.
I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity in Sonoma. This meant I needed to have a serious talk with my husband. From there, I just needed a few days to figure out the logistics of getting there and staying for nine weeks. Next, I had to break the news to my Texas winemaker friend and employer just a couple of months before harvest. He’s a lover of good Chardonnay and is making some in the Lone Star State, so he understood my desire to jump on the chance to gain this experience with Sonoma Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. With my husband’s encouragement and our dog who always loves a road trip, I was set to pack up and drive west.
The possibilities are limitless when I consider what I can learn during these short months in Sonoma County. I want to explore what makes wines from this region great, to learn how the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes differ from what is popular in Texas, to dig deeper into winemaking topics such as pH and acidity, and even touch on philosophies from winemakers and winery owners I meet along the way. If you’d like a peek behind the curtain to see how wine is made, I hope you’ll follow along on this leg of my journey.