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Winemaker Kimberlee Nicolls picks a few grapes

I am nesting in preparation for the birth of a new vintage here at the winery.  It starts by cleaning my desk to see what things I may have forgotten to address, writing tasting notes for any new wines that will be released in the next few months, and escaping to the vineyards at every opportunity.  Harvest is THE BEST time of the year, but no matter how long I’ve been making wine, I still get nervous when it rolls around.  It made me think, am I the only one? I decided to ask some other winemakers to see what they say. I admit I only asked women - these ladies have been at the wine game for a long time, too, and have been a great source of education and support during my own winemaking journey. I asked everyone the same thing: “With harvest right around the corner, do you still get anxious about making that first initial pick? How do you calm yourself?”


Marisa Taylor, Winemaker & General Manager at Rutherford Hill

Marisa Taylor, Winemaker & General Manager at Rutherford Hill

"I think my anxiety is heightened by everyone around me asking, “Are we picking?” “Have you scheduled the first pick?” It's the only thing on everyone's mind, especially once Mumm has started to pick (sparkling wine harvest typically begins three weeks before still wine). But yes, the anticipation with the first pick may be more excitement than anxiety. I end up walking that first expected block more than any other pick of the harvest. To calm myself, the therapy of walking blocks is often the cure. Plus, chatting with my other winemaker friends about pending picks and what they are seeing in the vineyards…"
One harvest, I was sampling Sauvignon Musque when I bumped into Marisa sampling an adjacent block of Sauvignon Blanc for Rutherford Hill.  She mentioned that the fruit “didn’t smell ripe yet” and I remember coming back to the winery utterly confused. Years later I finally asked her what she meant. She laughed, saying the juice sample in the laboratory still smelled green, but for years I was worried I had missed a key element during my vineyard visits.

Paula Moschetti, Winemaker at Frog’s Leap

Paula Moschetti, Winemaker at Frog’s Leap"Since we usually pick earlier than most, we are anticipating starting this year sometime the second week of August, BUT you never know? The unpredictability is what gets to me sometimes. Am I anxious about the first pick? No, probably not, as we have been working with these same Sauvignon Blanc vineyards for years, so we have a good idea as to what to expect from them." 
Paula and I became friends while visiting Portugal together to learn about cork 17 years ago.  She laments about something of which I often hear myself complaining - how to keep our figures with all the great chefs and delicious food with which we continually surround ourselves. "I’m sharing my favorite picture from the first day of crush - 15 years younger and at least 15 lbs thinner! Notice the champagne in hand from the blessing of the grapes earlier-tough day at work!" Guess that’s how she stays calm - and she’s not the only one!

Jillian Johnson DeLeon, Owner & Winemaker at Onesta Wines

Jillian Johnson DeLeon, Owner & Winemaker at Onesta Wines"As the taste of the first grape sample hits my lips, my heart flutters with the excitement of that special time of year…harvest! I know I can stop thinking about sales and marketing to focus on the artistic side of the business, turning grapes into wine. I don’t get anxious about making the first pick anymore. I get anxious about lining up the pickers, the trucking company and having all the winery equipment ready to go. It seems like easy planning, but with a small winery, we are at the mercy of the picking crew and the trucking company for scheduling. When the schedules are difficult to line up, I practice deep breathing and sip on really good bourbon at night. That restores the peace in my life, at least for a short while!" Jillian and I met only recently, but yet I feel as if I have known her forever. She is an amazing cook and loves to experiment with food. I actually see this translate into her personal winemaking style and unusual grape varietals with which she works. My personal love of cooking fortunately allowed me to translate that skill into blending wines since I view it as another form of cooking.

Kristy Melton, Director of Winemaking at Clos du Val

Kristy Melton, Director of Winemaking at Clos du Val"I certainly still get a little anxious, nowhere near like before, but I think if you didn’t you are far too arrogant. I find that I will analyze the data very carefully, then have some Champagne, and feel much better about the first pick of the year." I love Kristy’s photo because let’s face it, we all have days like that! I’ve always enjoyed her spirit, she tells it like it is but maybe I'm seeing a bit of myself in that? With women winemakers only comprising 10% of the total here in Napa Valley, it is a necessity to the position. Every single one is tough, but fair. Strong spirited, capable of creating wines that show both incredible power but delicacy that celebrates both the masculine and feminine within their wines.  And I need to mention their faithful crews who help them, standing beside each winemaker, fiercely loyal & proud!

Megan Schofield, Winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery
Megan Schofield, Winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery"Yes. I still get anxious, especially with an early year like this one.  Yoga and Pliny the Elder are my coping mechanisms."
Of course there are my friends who use exercise as a way to stay calm.  Megan has decided to keep her response short and sweet, but it’s probably because she’s out riding her bike 30 miles or maybe building a new chicken coop for her brood today. Kristin (below) did mention she hoped to get away to the Sierras for rock climbing but neglected to mention she usually runs a marathon somewhere in the middle of harvest! Where either of these two find time is a well-kept secret.

Kristin Belair, Winemaker at Honig Vineyard & Winery
Kristin Belair, Winemaker at Honig Vineyard & Winery "There is definitely a bit of anxiety involved in getting started, especially because we typically start somewhat earlier than many folks. The checklist always helps. Making sure all of the equipment has been serviced and is ready to go and all of the supplies have been ordered and delivered is a good distraction. The anticipation of the first grapes arriving is a bit like the start of a race, lots of nervous energy, cheering and excitement until we hit stride several days down the road. Calm?!?  Hah! Just smile and jump and trust it will work out just fine. We get to make wine…again!"
Kristin and her unlimited amount of energy also have her sampling repeatedly and sharing harvest information for those of us who ask. I had always thought that she was my personal source, but apparently Elizabeth (below) discovered my secret. I love that the industry really can be collaborative. With each of us getting fruit from different vineyards grown in totally distinct microclimates which we bring into our individual wineries and process distinctively, the results are always unique. We are a stronger whole because of our diversity!

Elizabeth Vianna, Winemaker & General Manager at Chimney Rock Winery
Elizabeth Vianna, Winemaker & General Manager at Chimney Rock Winery"I absolutely sweat every first white pick and every first red pick of the year. Some years I can walk the block long enough that I get my confidence back. Some years I draw on friends and talk through it. I have been known to call Kim Nicholls, Kristin Belair and other friends to talk about flavors and trends of a new harvest. Talking through the anxiety with friends is the best!  Picking decisions are some of the most critical in winemaking and I think that it is important to question your thinking and be your own devil's advocate every time!" 


And then there is the true professional, Pam was already a ROCKSTAR when I started here at Markham.  She has always been a force to be reckoned with but surprisingly encouraging to all of us coming up the ranks.

Pam Starr, Owner & Winemaker at Crocker & Starr Wines
Pam Starr, Owner & Winemaker at Crocker & Starr Wines"Thanks for the giggle. Do you have a different question? I haven’t gotten nervous about making the first picking decision of the season in many years – mostly I’m juggling how I’m going to finish bottling before my first Sauvignon Blanc comes in or how I was going to pull off my wedding and harvest at the same time – everything always works out. That was 2007 btw… I definitely get excited...unlike other beverages, making wine provides only one opportunity per year!"



Thank you to all my wonderful colleagues who helped calm me down this harvest by confirming I’m not completely crazy. The nervous excitement Marisa revealed is normal. Working a single task, as Jillian points out, to focus solely on making wine is a beautiful thing. We understand the history within each of our vineyards, but the unexpected force that Mother Nature throws at us every vintage keeps Paula and the rest of us on our toes. I also try to work myself slowly into each vintage like Kristin and Elizabeth, wandering until the vineyards bring peace. Usually the first pick is a small and unhurried, ensuring we all celebrate and bless the grapes together with everyone at each of our wineries over a hard-earned glass of bubbles. My nerves fray worrying about a safe harvest for everyone involved and whether I will remember how to ride the proverbial bike, but that is the limit of my exercise - unlike Megan! Who doesn’t enjoy Kristy’s relaxation method?  I just know we all need to embrace our inner R-O-C-K-S-T-A-R like Pam!
- Winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls

Kimberlee Nicholls with Elizabeth Vianna  Kimberlee Nicholls with her family  Jillian Johnson DeLeon and Kimberlee Nicholls

Kimberlee with Elizabeth Vianna; Kimberlee with her husband & small children a looong time ago as the boys are taller than she is now!; Jillian Johnson DeLeon and Kimberlee enjoying the wines of their labors.