May/June 2009 California Country magazine
By Brandon T. Souza
These young entrepreneurs find opportunities in California’s wine business.
Whoever said “wine improves with age” certainly had a valid point. But time knows no bounds for a select group of young men and women in today’s California wine business. As the older end of the so-called millennial generation—those ranging in age from 21 to 30 years old—begins to appreciate the complexity of varietals like chardonnay, pinot noir and zinfandel, the wine sector has become the career destination for many young entrepreneurs. These winemakers, marketing coordinators and tasting room managers are the up-and-coming aficionados of everything wine. And with California’s wine sales at their highest ever, they are uniquely positioned to extend that success well into the future.
Midwesterner becomes California winemaker
Favorite varietal: It depends!
Winery: Saucelito Canyon, San Luis Obispo
In Amy Freeman’s world, there’s no such thing as a favorite wine. Instead, the 30-year-old believes that wine varietals have to be appreciated on their own.
“My favorite wine is the wine that’s right for that moment,” said Freeman, adding that many factors, including the food, the occasion and even the mood of the wine drinker, all play into how a wine is enjoyed.
And there’s no doubt she knows her wine. From lab technician to cellar worker to enologist to assistant winemaker, Freeman has essentially done it all. Now the winemaker at Saucelito Canyon in the rugged upper Arroyo Grande Valley, Freeman uses her experience and expertise to turn an ordinary barrel of grapes into an extraordinary bottled work of art.
A native of Minnesota, Freeman came to know California wine through her many travels to the state as an avid surfer. The youngest sibling of four, she began to learn about wine through her sister, who at the time was studying viticulture and worked at a California winery. So when her brother also made the permanent move out West, Freeman followed and sought temporary work at a winery during harvest season. She found her niche in wine and never looked back, but acknowledges she’s had help along the way.
“I’ve been fortunate to work for people who believe in me,” said Freeman, whose small stature and quiet demeanor often leave people surprised that she’s such an accomplished wine professional.
“Well, I definitely don’t fit the stereotypical winemaker profile, but that doesn’t bother me at all.”
Today, wine has become an integral part of Freeman’s entire family. Her sister and brother are both winemakers and her parents, now retired, own a small vineyard in California.
“My family will be getting the first crop off the vineyard this year,” said Freeman. “It won’t be much, but it will be ours and we’ll make something great out of it, I’m sure.”
Back to the family farm—and loving it
Favorite varietal: Syrah
Position: Director of sales/proprietor
Winery: Hill Family Estate, Yountville
Ryan Hill had his heart set on the National Basketball Association. But after realizing his dream of making it big in the NBA wasn’t going to come true, the Napa Valley native decided to explore California for a while. From San Diego to San Francisco and back a few times, Hill dabbled in a bit of everything. Eventually it was his love for the family farm that brought him back to Sonoma State University, where he earned a degree in wine business strategies.
At 27, Hill is still traveling around the state—indeed, the country—but with a new goal in mind: to make his family’s wine business the best.
“My whole life I was surrounded by good wine, good vineyards and good people,” said Hill. “But I just took all those things for granted.”
Hill represents the fourth generation of his family’s farming roots in California, dating back to his great-grandparents, who began with apricots, cherries and prunes in the San Jose area. His father, Doug Hill, has been managing vineyards in the Napa Valley for 33 years and growing his own grapes for the last 25. When Hill Family Estate released its first vintage in 2004, Doug Hill asked his son to go out and sell the product—even as he finished his college degree. The young man jumped at the opportunity.
“Family farms are a dying breed these days,” Ryan Hill explained. “I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen to my family.”
So Hill, alongside his father, works to carry on the family tradition while striving to produce quality wine. And as sales director, he has found a niche developing unique ways to promote the wine, including pairing it with custom wine-stained items like surfboards, guitars and baseball bats.
“There’s been a lot of growing pains working with family, a lot of ideas thrown against the wall to see if they’ll stick,” he said. “But Dad is a patient man who has taught me patience, too. That’s helped a lot.”
Farm girl finds perfect fit in wine
Allison Dana Addison
Favorite varietal: Sangiovese
Position: Marketing and wine club sales
Winery: Niner Wine Estates, Paso Robles
Allison Dana Addison wasn’t even a wine drinker to begin with. But when a friend approached her about taking a marketing position with a start-up winery, she saw the chance to use her creative skills and accepted the position. Now she not only enjoys good wine, but is also on a long-term career path that she never plans to leave.
“With every passing day, I fall more and more in love with wine,” said Addison, standing atop a Caterpillar tractor at the construction site of Niner Wine Estates in Paso Robles. At 24, Addison is helping oversee the building of the winery’s new tasting room and crush facility on historic Highway 46 West. The company plans to open its doors by the end of the year.
Although Addison grew up around farming and ranching in nearby Nipomo, she hadn’t given a moment’s thought to the wine business being in her future. In college she wasn’t sure how her enthusiasm for marketing, design and statistics could fit into a career with agriculture. But during her three years at Niner Wine, Addison has learned that a job in wine is a perfect fit for young and ambitious agriculturalists.
“The wine industry is the perfect blend of agriculture with a new-age feel,” she said. “Even if someone takes a job in a tasting room, they’re going to want to learn more about what it takes to make wine from start to finish.”
Addison goes on to say that once someone has the chance to get out into the field and work during a wine harvest, they establish a connection to the land that many people never experience. And the younger a person begins in wine, the more their appreciation for agriculture can grow.
“Wine is a great way to get the millennial generation excited about agriculture because it’s already something that most of them enjoy,” said Addison. “It’s the perfect mix.”
Learning the tricks of the trade
Favorite varietal: Grenache
Position: Winery production assistant
Winery: Justin Winery, Paso Robles
Someday, David Baird hopes to have his own wine label. But in the meantime, he’s finding a renewed appreciation for wine and the people who produce it.
The son of a real estate agent and a school counselor, Baird was always encouraged to pursue his dreams. So when he discovered through a personality test that he was a perfect fit for the wine business, he had his family’s full support.
“With wine, you’re not just drinking something. You’re drinking the fruit of someone’s labor,” said Baird, adding that he would have never imagined the romance of wine being under the umbrella of agriculture. Now, however, he values all the efforts that are put into a single bottle of the delicious fermented juice.
While making the daily drive from Templeton to Justin Winery on the western edge of Paso Robles, Baird looks upon the rolling vineyards and is reminded of how much he enjoys his job as a winery production assistant.
“I get the chance, every day, to work under a very experienced winemaker who can teach me long-term skills,” said Baird, adding that the ability to continue creating good wine depends on those who can build on talent from harvest to harvest.
And the skills he’s learning aren’t restricted to just winemaking. It’s a multitude of marketing, branding, bottling, customer relations and business etiquette proficiencies, he says, that makes the breadth of the wine business a priceless experience.
Baird says that his future aspiration of his own winemaking isn’t necessarily profit driven. It’s about the challenge of creating a quality wine.
“I think my first wine will be a pinot noir,” he said. “Not only because it’s a popular wine with my age group, but because of all the winegrapes, it’s the most demanding. I love that idea.”
New-found passion fuels creativity
Favorite varietal: Pinot noir
Position: Communications manager
Winery: Vihuela Winery, Paso Robles
According to Katy Westgaard, wine is more than a drink. It’s a lifestyle. And although Westgaard was raised on California’s Central Coast, a region known for its premier vineyards, it wasn’t until her university days that she discovered her true calling for wine. Three years at college and two unsuccessful majors later (math and microbiology), Westgaard found herself at a loss of what path to take next. So at the suggestion of colleagues, she changed her major for a final time to agriculture business and decided to focus on wine and viticulture. The move ended up being the best decision she ever made.
“With my job in wine, I have the creative freedom to be myself,” said Westgaard, who manages marketing and communications at Vihuela Winery in Paso Robles. “I love what I do. There’s always something different going on every day and it keeps life fun.”
But setting aside excitement and creativity, Westgaard says that the recent surge of young professionals into the world of wine has been met with challenges.
“When I show up for a meeting with seasoned wine professionals and they realize they’re dealing with a 22-year-old, it definitely creates some tension,” she said. “But people are beginning to understand that my generation is the one that will be the future of wine.”
And with a younger generation of wine aficionados comes a renewed appreciation for California’s agriculture. In fact, Westgaard’s new wine club at Vihuela is specifically designed to help the 21- to 35-year-old crowd develop an overall appreciation for growing and making good wine—not just the act of drinking it.
“Once you get involved with wine, you get involved with agriculture, and when that happens, you just can’t let go,” she said.
More information about Seth Kweller will be available soon.
Brandon T. Souza is a reporter in Sacramento. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.