The Wine Makers

CATEGORY: Alumni
TYPE: Articles

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Published in Macalester Today

The Wine MakersGiven its Midwestern location, Macalester doesn’t come immediately to mind as an educator of vintners. Yet our small Minnesota college does have a presence in northern California’s wine-growing region, we discovered recently. Following are the stories of a handful of Mac grads whose worlds revolve around winemaking. Nice work if you can get it, right? But it’s not all chardonnay sipping and golden grape fields. Read on to learn of the rigor as well as the romance.

Sara Peterson '72

The Grower: Sara Peterson ’72

Sara Peterson ’72 may be a big city corporate lawyer with an apartment on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, but her true home is in wine country.

There she lives on a 193-acre ranch in the Sonoma Valley, purchased in 1937 by the parents of her late husband, Charlie Cooke. And there she oversees the care and nurture of ten acres of grapes used to make some very fine Zinfandels for Ravenswood and Bedrock Wineries.

Cooke planted the vineyard in 1980, says Peterson, at a time when “there weren’t many hillside vineyards” in the area. Cooke and Peterson were early proponents of organic growing, eschewing chemicals, and could get away with it, she says, because of the vineyard’s steep site that enjoys regular breezes.

The rockiness of the site, Peterson speculates, also leads to a longlasting wine that doesn’t mature as quickly as other Zinfandels. “Our wine is still beautiful ten years or more later, “she says. “I think it’s the rock that gives it that structure.”

Cooke is a low-yield vineyard, producing less than a ton of grapes per acre compared to the five or more tons per acre produced by many valley vineyards in the same area. After many of years working closely with Ravenswood, producing the well-respected Cooke Zinfandel, Peterson now sells her grapes to newcomer Bedrock, owned and operated by the son of Ravenswood’s founder.

Family-owned wine businesses are important to Peterson, who is also on the board of Napa Valley’s Heitz Wine Cellars. “It’s a very interesting industry,” she says. “Yes, the wine industry has its corporate giants, but there are still lots of small family-run businesses—and these people truly love what they do.”

Devotion to the legacy of the Sonoma wine industry as well as to the future of the county’s natural environment led Cooke to help found Sonoma Valley’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. A small county sales tax increase has helped the district purchase property and development rights, ensuring that some of the land will remain in vineyards rather than ending up like the Santa Clara Valley—now known as the Silicon Valley—where once bountiful orchards have been replaced by housing developments and high-tech headquarters. “Charlie’s idea was to bring together the agricultural people and the environmentalists,” says Peterson. “He was a very forward thinking person.”

Although Cooke died five years ago, Peterson plans to continue growing Zinfandel grapes on the land for many years. The attraction of the wine world, she says, is simple. “There’s something very fundamental about having a glass of wine and a meal with friends. It’s why people are attracted to the wine industry—it’s something basic about life.”

The Nalle Family

The Legacy: The Nalee Family

No one in the Nalle family takes himself very seriously. Their wine club membership is called the Squirrel Club and their most recent brochure, titled “Barrels of Zinfundel,” features a photo of their dog sniffing grape skins, with the caption “elite organoleptic evaluator.”

The Squirrel [buyers] Club crest.

What they do take seriously is making great wine, which has been a passion for this family for 30 years. Doug Nalle, father of Sam Nalle ’05, started Nalle Winery in 1984 on land that had been in his wife Lee’s family since 1927. He and Lee, together with their older son, Andrew, continue to run their business today in the Dry Creek Valley outside Healdsburg, California.

Through the years the business model has changed—distributors having given way to direct sales—but the wine itself remains: European-style Zinfandels and Pinot Noirs, lower in sugar, alcohol, and oak than the recently fashionable products out of the neighboring Napa Valley.

“A whole generation of wine judges and wine drinkers believe that a big soft juicy red is the ultimate in the wine world,” says Doug. “But when you’re having a bottle of wine with food, everything is different. There are standup wines and sit-down wines—ours is a sit-down wine, one that matches well with food.”

Long before sustainability was a watchword in the wine industry, the Nalle family was working that way. In 1990 Doug Nalle erected an above-ground cave out of a half cylinder structure and retaining walls, covering it with five feet of dirt planted with rosemary. Just as in traditional caves, this unconventional one maintains a regular temperature of 55 to 60 degrees and a constant humidity of 75 percent or greater—ideal for winemaking and aging.

The rosemary-covered cave.

Their winery has also dispensed with the fancy foil caps found atop most wine bottles—they’re unnecessary, says Andrew, used only for show. (Real corks, however, he says, do make the wine better, recent trends notwithstanding.) Nalle also uses much lighter, recycled bottles for its wine; the heavy ones, again, are impressive but unnecessary for making a great product.

Lee and Doug live on the 20 acres of vineyard that Lee inherited from her family, in a modern home about a third of a mile from the winery.

Closer to the road is the older house where Lee’s grandparents once lived. Plans are in the works to remodel it soon for Andrew and his girlfriend, who now live in town.

Because direct sales are vital to any small winery’s financial health, Nalle—like many of its competitors—is open for tours. Tourists are often surprised to find this winery housed in a kind of herb-covered Quonset hut rather than in a classic Spanish-style hacienda, says Andrew. “They drive in here and they’re shocked it’s so funky,” he says. “But we’re authentic: We’re a small family really making and selling our own wines. For us it’s about the quality of the wine, not the drive up to the door.”

Sam Nalle ’05

The Scion: Sam Nalle ’05

He may have grown up in a vineyard, but when pressed, Sam Nalle ’05 admits he prefers beer.

Sign for the Nalle winery

Which is not to say he doesn’t appreciate the benefits of having grown up amidst the grapes. Nalle, now a postdoctoral fellow in research oncology at Genentech, is a member of the Nalle family of California’s Dry Creek Valley. His parents, Doug and Lee Nalle, founded Nalle Winery in 1984 just outside Healdsburg. The lifestyle was idyllic, he now says. “It’s really beautiful there, of course, but owning the business also gave my parents more flexibility. My Dad coached sports and my Mom could be home with us. They were always there.”

Although as a boy Nalle focused on school and sports—later majoring in biology and playing baseball at Macalester—he worked at the winery after school and in the summers, sorting grapes, bottling, labeling boxes. Even more memorable were the trips his family took around the country and the world, visiting distributors and other wine contacts.

The independence of a family business influenced him profoundly, Nalle says. In college he found that lifestyle replicated in biology professor Paul Overvoorde’s lab, where Nalle did research. “Working in Paul’s lab inspired me to apply for graduate school,” says Nalle. “I loved doing research with him and found that independent environment was one that I craved.”

Nalle wine

After several years in graduate school at the University of Chicago, Nalle now works happily—and independently—in his South San Francisco lab. He and his wife, Stefani, recently relocated to the Bay Area to be closer to his family. On many weekends they head back to Healdsburg, where there have been plenty of changes since Nalle’s 1990s boyhood. For one thing, his brother, Andrew, is now in charge of the family business. And Healdsburg itself, once a sleepy agricultural town, has become another tony tourist destination, with high-end inns and restaurants opening downtown.

Yet despite the glitz, says Nalle, the wine business remains as it has always been, rewarding, yes, but also hard work. “People don’t realize how difficult it is to run your own small winery,” he says. “You have to do everything for the business—buying or growing grapes, producing it, marketing it, shipping it. It’s not just sitting around waiting for wine to ferment.”

Rebekah Wineburg ’99

The Winemaker: Rebekah Wineburg ’99

A visit to the Napa Valley as a teenager first ignited Rebekah Wineburg’s interest in the wine industry. After a family friend gave her a tour, talking about the chemistry and fermentation of wine, she remembers, “It gave me the idea for something really interesting I could do with science. And the idea just took hold.”

The notion that first took root in the Napa Valley 20 years ago is fully flowering there today. Wineburg works as winemaker for a small Napa vintner called Buccella (mouthful in Latin), which produces 3,000 cases of Cabernet and Merlot a year and for whom she is one of just five employees.

Oak barrel

The trajectory of Wineburg’s career was laid out for her years earlier by chemistry professor emeritus and wine enthusiast Truman Schwartz. “He really encouraged me and helped me figure out a career path,’” says Wineburg. Schwartz suggested she intern at a winery and then earn a master’s in viticulture and oenology at the University of California-Davis. “And that,” she laughs, “is what I did!”

Founded in 2002, Buccella isn’t located at the end of a scenic, grapevine-laden lane. Instead, like many of the valley’s recent arrivals, it’s a garagiste or warehouse winery. Never open for tours, it’s based in a suburban office park. “This is how you start a winery if you’re not a billionaire,” Wineburg laughs.

Once inside though, you know you’re in a winery: there’s the de-stemmer, the crusher, the fermenter. And across the parking lot lies the barrel vault, where floor-to-ceiling casks of red wine spend 22 months in oak before being bottled. These “big reds” then spend another nine months aging in bottles before they’re released to the public.

Winemaking, then, is a patient person’s business. Although Wineburg began at Buccella in 2009, her first vintage wasn’t sold until 2012. Relationships with vineyards are equally long lasting. Like most small wineries, Buccella doesn’t grow its own grapes, instead leasing vineyards and overseeing the grape growing and harvesting at fields throughout the Napa Valley.

Wineburg loves this part of her job, visiting each vineyard throughout the growing season and daily at harvest time, directing the farming and controlling yields and picking dates.

Wineburg in her mini-chemistry lab.

Once harvest time comes, every day is 12 to 14 hours long—picking starts as early as 3 a.m.—and there’s no such thing as a weekend. “I do 70 percent of my work between Labor Day and Thanksgiving,” she says. “It can be tough and really draining. There are no sick days—the grapes and the wine won’t wait.”

After harvest comes fermenting, pump-overs, putting wine into barrels, more fermenting, racking, tasting, blending, bottling—the toil never ceases. But Wineburg enjoys the variety. “I like doing a little of everything and not getting pigeonholed,” she says.

Given the physical nature of the work and her T-shirt and jeans wardrobe, it’s clear that working at a winery “is not as glamorous as people think,” says Wineburg. “I spend a lot less time at tastings and a lot more time driving a forklift and getting sweaty in vineyards.”

Tastings, however, are a part of Wineburg’s work life. She conducts regular ones at Buccella and belongs to three outside groups as well. “You have to keep your palate trained,” she points out, “and avoid having what we call a ‘house palate.’”

Whatever the task at hand, Wineburg never loses sight of her ultimate goal. “At a small winery it’s about quality, not marketing,” she says. “I’m just trying to make the very best wine possible.”

Justin Lee '08

The Sustainability Guru: Justin Lee ’08

It was a love for the environment rather than a love for wine that led Justin Lee ’08 to his job at Kendall Jackson. Now a sustainability program manager for the five-million-case-a-year company, he first discovered his passion for the environment while in Chile, studying the policy implications of establishing a national park system.

Justin Lee '08 next to a large-scale wine press.

Upon returning to Mac, Lee was chosen—thanks in part to having once run his own painting business—as project manager for the just-purchased EcoHouse. “I was given the keys to the house, a $50,000 budget, and told to figure it out by August 16,” he says. He managed it beautifully, thanks to help from building maintenance manager Mike Hall and mechanical systems manager Curt Stainbrook (“To this day when I come back to Mac, it’s those facilities guys I visit first,” he says.)

After the successful completion of that project, Lee took on a student job in which he explored energy-saving ideas for the college—such as recycled toilet paper, new fluorescent bulbs, etc.—followed by a one-year post-graduate job helping newly hired sustainability manager Suzanne Savanick Hanson get up to speed.

A few months later, following a cross-country bike trip, he found himself in San Francisco, sleeping on a friend’s window seat. Thanks to his rich experiences at Macalester, however, Lee wasn’t couch-surfing for long. He was soon working as a consultant for green building firm Integral Impact Inc. Jackson Family Wines (the holding company for Kendall Jackson) was a client, and before long they had hired him away.

As sustainability coordinator, Lee’s projects have ranged from installing the nation’s largest rooftop solar generator to ensuring that all 10,000 acres of Kendall Jackson vineyard are certified as sustainable wine-growing areas.

With twelve wineries, three office buildings, eight tasting rooms, a bottling plant, and a distribution plant, Kendall Jackson is a huge operation, and Lee admits he and his small team could never do the job alone. “We’ve worked with at least 50 different people at our various sites,” says Lee. “Maintenance managers, cellar masters, growers—they all believe in what we’re doing. We can only get this all done through partnering.”

Justin Lee '08 amid the large-scale barrels of one of the dozen wineries owned by Kendall Jackson.

Lee also does a lot of employee engagement, holding workshops and contests and writing blogs to “create a culture of sustainability.” Given that a third of Kendall Jackson’s employees speak Spanish, he is helped immeasurably by his fluency in that language.

Kendall-Jackson’s sustainability team also does research and development that benefits the entire industry, says Lee, such as inventing a new water filtration system that reduces water use up to 90 percent. Although he admits that bringing a sustainability focus to the gigantic California wine industry is “a bit like turning the Titanic,” he remains optimistic. “The more I work in it, the more hopeful I am,” he says.

PUBLISHED: 07/29/2013