Crushing on grapes

The business of wine exerts a powerful pull on those who go near it.

July 14, 2014



Grace Stufkosky ’01, M.S. ’06, a commercial and editorial photographer, extensively photographs architecture, food, and wineries and vineyards in Arizona. See more of her work at www.gracestufkosky.com.

I remember finding myself kneeling in the dirt at a vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills near Lompoc, California, when I’d been writing about wine for a little over two years. I wasn’t there for sunsets and beach houses, linen and fresh produce, or to make like Russell Crowe in A Good Year. Instead, the wine bug, as so many of us call it, was driving me to seek out what a life in wine really means, with the long days, the sales junkets and the low profit margins, as well as how the stuff is made and how it changes.

Like many others living in the world of wine, or on the outskirts, I’ve never made a living at it. I’m a teacher and freelance journalist who has a sommelier certificate to his name along with one amateur winemaking prize. I write feature stories and I teach high school students the finer points of Shakespeare if I can. There is symbiosis here, since the complexities of wine require study and provoke writing. Still, I’m only caught up in this because wine chose me.  

Something similar happened to other Cal Lutheran graduates, many of whom have the bug worse than I do. I can’t imagine why anyone supposes a life in wine resembles a tasting tour. From my observation, most people who have the bug reap modest, if any, financial rewards from the work they do. They frequently hold down two jobs or look for a tiny industry niche to avoid giving up on their dreams.

Take the Kasten family up in Napa. John ’74 is an architect with his own business, Kasten Design, and Cynthia (Roleder ’75, MBA ’80) works as a human resources consultant after 21 years as personnel director for the City of Napa. She also teaches part time through Chapman University. 

They got into wine in the 1980s with a group of amateurs at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Napa who called themselves Leap of Faith Vintners, using a label with a Trinity symbol designed by John, who was an art major at CLU.

“One thing led to another and our all-consuming hobby took on a life of its own,” Cynthia said. 

Now Kasten Family Winery produces about 400 cases each year from a vineyard they own in the Oak Knoll region of Napa, mostly Bordeaux blends since varietals from that region of France do well in clay loam soil, according to Cynthia. They sell directly to consumers through their website and to local restaurants. The couple’s daughters, Laura (Kasten ’05) Solomon and Sarah Kasten ’08, pitch in at the winery while maintaining day jobs of their own. 

Four hundred cases of wine may sound like a lot, but not if you’re trying to make a living from them. In one of the industry’s ironies, many of the best wines are “boutique wines” that come from small producers who do not get rich and sit on the porch at sunset. Instead, they’re crushing grapes in their garages or in small barns with flecks of paint peeling off, or in buildings with aluminum siding next to a metalworking company.

Like Cantara Cellars in Camarillo. Next to the little airport for private jets, Mike Brown, MBA ’94, and his wife, Chris, have transfigured a humble industrial office space into a winery and tasting room that is named after the housing tract where they live in Moorpark. The Browns make 2,500 cases a year, including an elegant, balanced Chardonnay and a Zinfandel that I like as well as any I’ve tasted (disclosure: we are friends). 

Still, just like the Kastens, Mike keeps his day job, as director of operations at a furniture manufacturer in Oxnard. That means very long hours during the harvest, when he travels five hours to Lodi and back again with all of Cantara’s fruit. He is one of those lucky souls who grew up among vineyards, and his parents still live on the one in Lodi where he gets his Chardonnay.

 

There is anecdotal evidence that the wine bug infects children, possibly through the eyes. Kristen Kate Smith ’05 grew up looking at the vineyards and scenery in Santa Maria. This spring, she moved with her husband to Paso Robles to run direct-to-consumer sales for Eberle Winery, after jobs at Cameron Hughes in the Bay Area and Laetitia Vineyard & Winery in Arroyo Grande.

“At its soul, it’s an agricultural job and everyone is very grounded and, of course, the customers are positive and want to immerse themselves in the wine experience,” Smith said. “I wanted to work in a place where I could soak up that kind of energy, and the wine business is that.”

Things worked out this way in spite of Smith’s double major in political science and history and her master’s in international relations from Cal State Stanislaus. For a while she plied those degrees in jobs that left her exhausted and frustrated each week.

The wine bug lay dormant for 20 years or more in the system of Stephanie Ehlers ’99, who grew up in Lodi where her father worked for Mondavi wines. “I saw harvests done all my life and I was always fascinated,” she said, “but after a while, the appeal wore off.”

Recruited to Cal Lutheran as an athlete, Ehlers studied communication but was unable to land a reporting job, so she went to work on a harvest to earn money. From there, she moved on to working in the lab, learning the science of winemaking known as oenology. 

“At some point, you catch the grape bug, and I did and wanted to learn more so I went back to school,” said Ehlers, who is earning a second bachelor’s degree at UC Davis with a specialty in pest control.

 

Ninety percent of the wine produced in the U.S. goes to what’s called the “bulk market.” Larger winemakers and producers like Gallo buy grapes or grape juice from vineyards all over California, Oregon, Washington and elsewhere. That ultimately goes into the modestly priced bottles you find on grocery store shelves, and there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re a good bargain and some even taste pretty good. 

But if you want to know the people who make the wine and taste what they’ve crafted, you’re going to have to get down in the dirt like I did. The best wine experience comes with that discovery of the little tasting room off a country road where a family or friends have a wooden plank between a couple of barrels and are pouring wine into small glasses for you. You can ask them how they work with farmers, or farm the land themselves, to produce sustainable, serious wine. 

In one such place, a nondescript industrial building down a dusty road in Atascadero, Keith Nichols, MBA ’83, keeps his “upside-down wine cellar.” That is, since there are no real basements to be had on the Central Coast, he has the wine upstairs. If you go, you might get the opportunity to walk up and choose a bottle yourself to taste with Nichols. 

And you might not realize right away what a rare treat you’re in for. Nichols Winery is the only spot in the United States where his labels are sold. Fourteen years ago, he learned about international trade in California wines and decided to start selling his own in Japan. 

Now he travels and markets wine to Canada, Singapore, Taiwan, China, Korea and Vietnam and is trying to get into Malaysia as well as Indonesia. “Once I started doing that, I didn’t spend much time going from state to state,” he said, “because in the U.S., the distributors make all the rules.”

So, after many years of night school, travel and teaching himself viticulture from books, Nichols has become one of the few CLU alums who makes his living in wine, “a dream come true.” That doesn’t mean he’s making a lot of money at it, but he does it full time.

Like many winemakers, he doesn’t own expensive vineyard land but sources the fruit. He buys multiple varietals from designated blocks at vineyards “from up near Monterey all the way down the Central Coast.”

At the Atascadero winery, my wife and I tried a rich 2000 Chardonnay, equally balanced between acidity and oak with a creamy texture and a fruit-forward finish. It defies the odds at 14 years old because American white wines don’t usually get stored that long. Nichols said he’s found that keeping his wines in bottles past 10 years gives them character he loves.

 

As much as a career, people who make a life in wine view it as a destination. They want to end up someplace they love to be.

“We picked this business,” Brown said. “We sat down and said, When the kids get out of school and funds become available, what kind of business do we want to create and maybe retire in? If you have to find a place to spend time in, a winery isn’t a bad place to do it.”

When Smith changed career paths, she wasn’t looking for a wine job, “but I knew I wanted something that made me happier.” Her latest position has her working again with a winery that sells to consumers from its own vineyards. 

“I joke with my husband all the time and tell him I will never retire,” she said. “I love the wine industry. When I’m 80, I’ll be working in some little tasting room somewhere.”

I’m with Smith. My wife and I have said for years that we could easily find ourselves in vineyard country working in a tasting room and selling wine. So after you’ve visited Brown and Nichols and made an appointment with the Kastens, look for the two of us along one of those dusty roads on the Central Coast, where we’ll be seeking out quiet upstarts who have a few barrels fermenting and a dream.

 

Competing against other amateurs with a good friend, Mark Storer won a gold medal at the 2008 Mid-State Fair for a Spanish-style Tempranillo made from local Paso Robles grapes. He lives in Camarillo with his wife, Susan, daughter, Shannon, an assortment of pets and the wine stash he’s collected along the West Coast.

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