1. What’s your Napa love story?
When my husband Brian and I first moved to California, we lived about 3 hours away from Napa. We started traveling to Napa after coming to Robert Mondavi Winery for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band Concert during the summer concert series in June of 2007. After a while we found ourselves spending every weekend up here and finally we looked at each other and said “We need to move here” so I started looking for a job. My job ended up being in Cloverdale over in Alexander Valley and Brian got a job down near the Napa Airport, so we moved to Calistoga to split the difference. We loved living there where we could walk downtown and get ice cream every Sunday and just relax. Clearly this was pre-children! 🙂
2. What was the first Napa wine that gave you that “ah-ha” moment?
Ironically it was at that same concert! We went up early to taste in the To Kalon Room with Jani Dicarlo and she found out I was a winemaker and took me through a bunch of Reserve Cabernets from the 1990s. The 1997 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon blew me away and ever since then I wanted to make wines like that. I bought three bottles that night and tasted them over the next decade. It’s still one of my favorite wines. It didn’t hurt that I also met Bob and Margrit Mondavi that night (again thanks to Jani) and just sat on the wall at the back of the lawn and bawled my eyes out afterwards. It was such an overwhelming evening. I felt drawn to the winery ever since!
3. What was your first winemaking gig in Napa?
After what I just told you, it should come as no surprise that my first job in Napa was working as the Red Winemaker for Robert Mondavi Winery. Once that job was posted, I immediately applied for it even though I was 5 months pregnant and very happy at my job in Alexander Valley. I seriously pinched myself when I was offered it. I started there in 2013 and had the privilege and honor of blending the 2011 and 2012 vintages of Cabernet family wines in addition to my first grape to bottle vintage of 2013.
4. What was your last gig before you relocated to the Finger Lakes?
Ha! Also at Robert Mondavi, but by the end of my tenure there in early 2022, I had worked my way up through the ranks to oversee not only all the winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery but also the winemaking teams for Schrader, Mt. Veeder, To Kalon Vineyard Company, and The Prisoner Wine Company. It was really an amazing role where I got to work very closely with such a great and talented team of people. It was an honor to be part of carrying on the legacy of Mr. Mondavi for as long as I was involved and I was so excited to see all the hard work paying off when the team landed two wines in the top 10 of the Top 100 wines for Wine Spectator for 2022 – #6 for the 2019 Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, now called “The Estates,” and #1 for Double Diamond Cabernet Sauvignon 2019. We had some very special wines in 2021 in the tank when I left so I can’t wait to see how they have evolved through the blending process.
5. What continues to draw you back to Napa as a winemaking consultant?
I love making Napa Cabernet. I really enjoyed all the wines I made in Napa, but there is a reason Napa is king for Cabernet and it is absolutely evident when you are making the wines. There is so much you can influence by choice of picking date and pump-over method. It was really fun to see the differences between winemaking styles when I worked at Mondavi because we had Thomas Rivers Brown, Andy Erickson, and I all making wines side by side. We would totally geek out on the differences and similarities. It was a ton of fun. That is why I have continued my Napa journey with my consulting clients and my own brand, Fiadh Ruadh.
6. What lessons has being a bicoastal winemaker taught you?
It reinforced the importance of having a great team to back you up. Winemaking is never a one-person show even though a lot of people want to think of it that way. Having a strong vineyard team, cellar team, and group of winemaking friends to bounce ideas off of always makes better wine. To do what I do, I have to have a strong team on both coasts. I’ve had an amazing partnership with the team at Fox Run Vineyards in the Finger Lakes since 2015 – first with Peter Bell and now with Craig Hosbach. My vineyard crew lead Angel and his team have been working really hard in the vineyards all year – and the Miles Winery Group does our vineyard sprays so I work really closely with all of them. In Napa, the Robert Mondavi Team was incredible. I’ve always told them they were the best and I absolutely meant it. Now I work with Tamber Bey in Calistoga and their team is super tight and fantastic! I know things will be done right.
7. What drove you to step out on your own as an independent winemaker?
Several things happened all at once in 2020. Obviously the pandemic was a big deal. I also had my second child during the early part of the pandemic. It was very scary but also very isolating. He didn’t get to meet his grandparents until he was well over a year old. Also, my wines back in the Finger Lakes exploded in part due to the partnership with Naked Wines for Snowshell Vineyards. It completely changed the game for our company and suddenly we went from generally small to decent size for the area. I went from working on this small company on nights and weekends to staying up until 2:00 AM trying to keep everything going – and in mid-2021, I knew that I either needed to shut it all down or go in with both feet. I chose the latter. It was heartbreaking to leave Robert Mondavi just as I felt like we were really making progress towards reinvigorating the brand. Sometimes it is when you are just feeling comfortable that life decides to make things uncomfortable for you to be able to grow. I have never felt so fulfilled and energized as I do every day now. I know my kids are able to put down roots and we won’t have to move them permanently again but my husband and I can still jump on a plane and be anywhere we need to be.