I studied chemistry at Cornell, and during final semester I took “Introduction to Wines”. During the lecture on Burgundy we tasted several wines, including a 1959 Vosne Romanee. That’s when I had my epiphany. That wine moved me emotionally, similar to great music, or art or literature. I thought that if wine could evoke this kind of response, then I want to be a part of this world and experience that again.
My first job in winemaking was at Heron Hill Winery, in the New York Finger Lakes, as the assistant winemaker. I learned most facets of wine production there, from cleaning tanks, filling barrels, running presses and even packing bottles on the bottling line. I was also doing lab work, designing blends, working in the tasting room and working with the sales people in the market place. In other words, I learned a little bit of how to do everything.
Right around the end of my first year in winemaking I met my future wife, Lisa. We started dating, and I started thinking more seriously about my “career”. I knew that I wanted to eventually have my own winery, but at the time I didn't know enough about winemaking to make a wine I could truly be proud of. I also knew that the best place for me to gain the right winemaking experience was on the west coast.
Lisa and I got engaged, and I found a job as a harvest intern at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. For the next six months I learned as much as I could from them, until I found a job as the enologist for Cosentino Winery in Yountville. After about a year working in Napa Valley we moved to Monterey, where I was hired as the Assistant Winemaker for Estancia.
Estancia was a mid-size winery on the Central Coast of California (it has grown since). Here I was able to gain experience with a large number of vineyards in different appellations, along with a much wider array of grape varieties, barrels, and even other winemakers and their philosophies. I was also introduced to the concept of intentionally pushing the boundaries of “conventional” winemaking wisdom, knowing that I could always blend away any “mistakes.” Working this way I was able to learn an enormous amount about different yeasts, fermentation techniques, oak types, etc. Most importantly during this time, Lisa and I got married.
In early 2005 I was contacted by a recruiter who asked me if I would be willing to relocate to Washington. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I was completely unaware of what was happening in Washington. I flew up to Seattle and had an interview with Chateau Ste. Michelle for their Red Winemaker position. After touring the winery, tasting the wines and seeing the vineyards, I was amazed by the quality of what I saw and the potential of what could be done. I called my wife that night and told her that I tasted the style and quality of wine I wanted to make for our own label someday, and Washington is definitely the place where we need to make it.
We moved in Spring of 2005, bought a house in Richland and I started working for Chateau Ste. Michelle. There were similarities between my new job and working for Estancia – I could play around with different techniques and ideas and not fear ruining an entire blend, and I was working with multiple varieties from numerous vineyards across the state. Aside from having this amazing opportunity to learn firsthand how different techniques affect different aspects of wine quality and style, I was also fortunate to work with many talented winemakers during that time, some of them from the other wineries in Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, some of them from overseas wineries affiliated with the company, and even some prestigious winemaking consultants. I soaked up all that I could, keeping the ideas and techniques that worked and discarding the ones that didn’t. I incorporated these ideas into the winemaking protocols for Chateau Ste. Michelle to improve the quality and the style of the wines we were making, at the same time that the brand was growing in volume. During my time as red winemaker, we produced many wines that scored well over 90 from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Advocate – well over 50 such scores at last count. Also during that time the volume of red wine bottled under the Chateau Ste. Michelle label more than doubled.But most importantly during that time Lisa and I became parents to two beautiful girls, Fiona and Daphne.
In the summer of 2011 I saw an advertisement posted for a Director of Winemaking for a Washington Winery. I applied for the job and soon got a call for an interview with Butch Milbrandt, the co-owner of Milbrandt Vineyards. I knew Butch and his brother Jerry from the vineyards they owned – half of them on the Wahluke Slope and half of them in the Ancient Lakes area. I personally had made wine from the red grapes grown on the Wahluke Slope, and the reputation of the whites being grown is well known in winemaking circles. Butch explained that they ran a custom winemaking operation and needed a winemaker to replace their winemaker who was leaving. They needed someone who was well versed in producing wines of varying styles across a broad spectrum of quality for multiple clients. One of those clients was Milbrandt Vineyards. The position I was interviewing for was the head of winemaking and the winemaker for Milbrandt Vineyards. I guess I said the right things, because they made me an offer shortly after the interview, which included among other things the right to work as a consulting winemaker, and the right to start my own label.
I started working for Milbrandt Vineyards in early August 2011. After completing the 2011 vintage and making some changes to the winery, I decided that fifteen vintages under my belt was enough experience and I was ready to make a wine that would bear my name. And so with the 2012 vintage we formed our own company, bought a few tons of Cabernet Sauvignon, and began my next phase of winemaking…