What inspired you to work with wine?
I stumbled on the wine industry when I graduated college in the depths of the recession. After sending out dozens of resumes in various fields, I took the one job I managed to get an offer for, which happened to be a harvest internship. As for inspiration, ultimately I was (and still am) drawn to winemaking as a true craft. It’s the perfect combination of science, art, and the hands-on work of creating something.
So what's the difference between being an enologist and a winemaker?
This can vary a lot from winery to winery, and practically speaking, enologist is often one step on the path toward becoming a winemaker (though there are plenty of “career” enologists too). I tend to think of winemakers as the big picture decision-makers, who need good information to make good decisions. Enologists provide that information, in the form of lab data, research, and organizational skills, and as another set of taste buds and input in the blending process.
What type of education did you achieve to work as an enologist?
I have a degree in Food Science from the University of Nebraska, and just last year finished the UC Davis online winemaking certificate program. Equally, if not more important, have been my years of experience on the job, learning from those who’ve come before me. Prior to joining the Montelena family in early 2016, I worked as an intern for five harvests: one in Western Australia and the rest at Vinify, a boutique custom crush in Santa Rosa. I also spent a year as a cellar hand at Brack Mountain Wine Co. in Sebastopol, which is where I honed my lab skills.
So what exactly goes on in the “lab” at a winery?
Simply put, we measure and track a whole bunch of metrics on incoming grapes, fermentations, and finished wines. Those things include sugar, acids, nitrogen, alcohol, free sulfur, phenolics, and more. From the outside, winery lab data can seem like an inscrutable and arbitrary pile of statistics (even I tend to glaze over when those details find their way onto wine labels). I think for most winemakers, lab numbers are not the final goal, but can be useful to calibrate the palate and gain certain insights. This “pile of statistics” is important in its ability to improve our winemaking decisions, and help us make delicious and sound wines.
Give us an example of your typical day?
My day always (ALWAYS) starts with good coffee (because I love it, and also we start at 7am!) Other than that, it really varies. I might be running periodic lab analyses on wines in barrel, making benchtop blends to taste with our winemaker, or doing research and organizing experiments. During harvest, my days are spent monitoring fermentations, running lab analysis on new lots, tracking everything in our computer database, writing work orders for the cellar crew, and even getting out in the cellar to do additions and inoculations.
What are the major challenges or problems you deal with in the winery?
As the enologist, I am often “first on the scene” in detecting potential issues or oddities in our wines. Lab results, when understood in the context of the wine’s current stage or past history, can be helpful indicators of problems that need to be solved. On a more positive note, we are always running experiments here, testing new techniques, and it’s my job to collect data in a way that will tell us if our theories actually panned out. Parsing through what’s significant and what’s not, especially with the endless variables of a winery environment, can be quite a challenge. As in all scientific work, the answer is often “more research needed."
How do you balance today’s technical advances with winemaking “traditions” and philosophies that we’ve learned over the decades?
Traditions exist for a reason, and the knowledge that comes with plying a trade for decades, if not centuries, is invaluable. However, it’s also important to recognize that winemaking techniques are always based on underlying assumptions and conditions, some of which are unique to one site, varietal, region, winery, or point in history. Every winery will find a different balance of methods that work for them (hopefully based on experience and experimentation, not assumptions and dogma). For us, we draw on our legacy of winemaking every day, but ongoing research and improving technology is just as important. It helps us make better wine, full stop.
When you aren’t crunching data at the winery, how do you spend your time?
On the weekends you’ll find me working in my vegetable garden, cooking, talking wine with my cellar master husband, binging TV shows with my cat (the cutest tabby you ever did see), and reading reading reading. I also love podcasts, dinner parties, and planning my next great vacation.
Have your own question for Jamie? Ask us on social via our handle @chmontelena.