One of the most beautiful aspects of my career in hospitality has been building connections with likeminded, equally passionate professionals that share the same passion for creating experiences through food & beverage. Their exact medium may differ from mine such as being the chef developing tasting menus or the vineyard manager sourcing the best fruit for a wine. The idea is that the finished product of their work is a means to share what they love with others, instilling that intangible feeling of hospitality within them as a result.
In the wine world, as with any industry, you have your "celebrity" or "big names" that everyone knows & wants to get starstruck over, but us wine lovers tend to cherish meetings with lesser-known producers even more. When I met Emily Haines of Terra D'Oro Winery back in February of this year, I was immediately enamored by her sense of calm, quiet yet fiery passion for her work as a winemaker, and her ability to present her vast knowledge without coming across as "better than thou". We clicked even more as I began to understand her as a professional beyond just the juice that she was crafting. While wine was the catalyst for conversation, passion for the industry & creating for others is what established the friendship.
This entry on the blog, if you didn't already realize it, will be dedicated to this modern day alchemist and the understanding of her journey through the lens of her current work with Terra D'Oro Winery. With us being thousands of miles apart and both entering into a busy third quarter, I opted to let Emily answer these interview questions at her own pace versus setting up a timed ZOOM stream or phone call. I believe you'll get a better purview into this winemaker as a result. My questions/responses are marked as "TCW" for The Certified Wino, and responses marked with "EH" are for Emily Haines. I'll make some interjections throughout, but otherwise, my girl Emily is taking the reins on this one----so enjoy!
TCW: Though much of our conversation will be focused on wine & all things Terra D'Oro, I want audiences to really tap into who you are. Give me the career highlights & a snapshot of who you are behind the winemaker title.
EH: I grew up only about 2 miles from Chateau Ste Michelle in Woodinville, WA. I spent most of my weekends as a kid thinking that the property was just a really cool park that my dad and I would go feed ducks at. I went on to pursue degrees in Biotechnology and Biochemistry at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, WA. In my last year at EWU, I met a gal who is still one of my best friends & she worked in a winery tasting room. I started being introduced to wine via that friendship. I really grew to enjoy it: the nuance, the science, the storytelling, the social aspect. SO much so, that I got a part time job in a tasting room in addition to a full-time research position----that’s where the bug really bit. I slowly realized that I had the science background that became such a solid base for my transition into the wine world.
FUN FACT: In 2008, Emily completed her first harvest as a temp lab tech at a custom crush facility & got hired full time afterwards. She moved from Lab Tech to Head Winemaker over the course of 8 years with them---– learning from some of the great winemakers of Washington State.
TCW: The journey in any field is a winding one, and we rarely stay in the same place as we seek further growth. What led you to work with Terra D'Oro?
EH: While making wines for a bunch of different clients in Washington State was fun, I was really ready to put my mark on a brand. I was done with making Cab, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, etc. Great wines, but I was ready for a new challenge. I’d never heard of Amador County or worked with varietals like Zinfandel, Barbera, Aglianico and Teroldego. The unknown challenge of Terra D’Oro presented exactly what I needed & wanted. They were open to change and exploring what I could do with their wines in the next chapter of Terra d’Oro.
TCW: Are there any winemakers/producers you attempt to emulate when producing wines for Terra D'Oro or do you often think/consider their approach when crafting the final product?
EH: Maybe this is a little narcissistic, but I don’t follow anyone else. I combine institutional knowledge, intuition, and creative freedom as the building blocks of our wines. Amador County is such a unique area, and I am proud of the opportunity to be one of very few Amador County brands that is distributed across the country. My main driver is to create wines that truly speak to the region, express the fresh red fruit, dried sage, and baking spice that the region is so great at expressing.
TCW: Haha, not narcissistic at all! It just means you are creating something entirely new, and not replicating the art of someone else. Maybe instead, tell me about the wineries or projects you've consulted on & how that has influenced your work with TDO.
EH: I’ve been honored to work with and make wine for some of the greatest wineries in Washington State. Some of the greatest knowledge I gained came from what I call “reverse engineering a wine”. For example, a client brings you a few bottles of wine and they want the aromatics of bottle one, the tannin of two, and the fruit & mouthfeel of three. So, you go into the available bulk wines and start to blend – mix together wines to see how they interact to get to the final product your client wants. It wasn’t a fast-learning experience, but it directs me every day, even beyond blending.
TCW: Very interesting take on a learning process! So, you used to create for many houses and now Terra D'Oro has your sole attention. We touched on it when we first met earlier this year, but regale me with the "why" of your passion for TDO; what about the brand has kept you satisfied as a winemaker?
EH: I’ve been honored to be entrusted with the future of a winery with 50 years of history, in an incredibly historic California winegrowing region like Amador. I love the challenge that it’s provided me to learn new varieties and how to best express them using the tools I already have, while also exploring new avenues to create the best wines possible. My role here has allowed me to go out and meet the people consuming my wine, like you, which truly puts the human element into why I love what I do. Creating a product is one thing but sharing it with others for them to share with their friends and family is next level.
TCW: I've always stressed the importance of mentorship & how that can positively impact our careers, especially in the industries of wine, food, and hospitality. Are there any mentors you gained over the course of your career & what was the most impactful thing they taught you?
EH: I’ve definitely had some mentors throughout my career. Some were great and taught me organization and how to be a thoughtful manager and how to use intuition and science to drive your decisions. I’d love to tell you it was always hunky dory, but there was also one mentor that wasn’t as kind, but my “I’ll show you” attitude prevailed, which ultimately lead me to Terra d’Oro. If I weren’t the person that I am, I could have allowed it to end my career in wine or give in to the pressure to take paths in my career that I didn’t feel would benefit me. You can learn a lot from both good and bad mentors.
TCW: You nailed it on the head with that last bit; there's something to learn even from mentors who aren't the best or as supportive. Paving your own way in spite of this is key, especially since winemaking has long been a male dominated space. What advice would you give to aspiring female winemakers as they navigate the field?
EH: I always will tell anyone that is interested in going into the wine industry to just go for it. Figure out the path that works best for you. For some people, it’s going to school for it while others, like me, find their foot in the door by patiently working your way up through the ranks.
A WINO's LAST MEAL: "Hmmm…. I do love food, especially hearty foods. I dream of fall and winter all year long. I’ve been jamming on mushroom risotto with Sangiovese, lately. AND Curries with our Pinot Grigio------Yum!"
TCW: While the "core 4" are likely the skus people are most familiar with from Terra D'Oro (Pinot grigio, Chenin blanc-viognier blend, Barbera & Zinfandel), the winery also works with a LOT of Italian grape varieties! Why is that & what benefits are you seeing as a result of focusing on these grapes?
EH: The region was settled by people from many different backgrounds, Italian, Serbian, Chinese, and more.. The gold rush brought people from all across the globe. Zinfandel was mostly what was planted when the region was established as a wine growing region, along with some Mission grapes (ew, but has its place). A lot of the Italian varieties came later, when Cary Gott planted Barbera in the early 1970’s. Other varieties followed. Now the region grows varieties inspired by predominantly 4 regions – Zinfandel, Spain/Iberia, Italy, and the Rhone Valley in France.
Even during the rebirth of the region in the 1970’s, there was foresight to start planting more heat tolerant varieties, like Barbera. Back in the mid to late 1990’s, our team did a thorough trial to test what other Italian varieties could do well in the region, which lead us to Aglianico, Teroldego, Sangiovese, Freisa, and many others. Other growers in the region have done the same, expanding the varietal diversity withing the Amador growing region. I feel like Amador County is ahead of the curve having had more heat tolerant varieties planted than other regions that are now faced with having to pivot in recent years.
A WINO's CONFESSION: To be completely honest, I was not a fan of Zinfandel before coming to Terra d’Oro. I felt a lot of the pre-conceived notions that people have with the variety. Creating a Zinfandel for people like me is really my goal. I believe that every great wine, white or red, needs 4 components to be exceptional: Fresh Fruit, Spice/Herbal, Minerality, and Structure. I aim for those components to be highlighted in our Zinfandel.
TCW: Alchemist is a term I've used to refer to you many times, ha! You're doing really interesting things with certain yeast strands to accentuate specific phenolics & flavors within the wines you are making. Tell us more about what that really means & why you find it effective.
EH: Wow, alchemist sounds way cooler than nerd, ha! I use a portfolio of up to 25 yeast strains each year. Each isolated strain is developed to highlight different characteristics – red/dark fruit, color, structure, acid retention, citrus, the list goes on and on. The main reason why I use so many different yeasts is best described by going to a musical concert. An unaccompanied single vocalist is beautiful to listen to, but compared to a full choir adding in harmonies makes a richer more complex experience. We use this process in nearly all of our wines – Zinfandel, Barbera, Pinot Grigio, Chenin Blanc/Viognier, etc.
Beyond that, all of our red wines are aged sur lie – much like Chardonnays are. All Sur Lie means is that the wines are aged on the “fluffy” solids(lees) that result from fermentation. The extended contact with them caused the cells in the lees to break open, releasing mannoproteins which add viscosity and texture to the wine. This is especially important with our wines to create a seamless experience on the palate.
ON THE HORIZON: Terra D'Oro has quite a few things for consumers to look forward to as harvest season wraps, including a tasting event called "The Big Crush" where attendees will get to experience the wines of various producers in Amador County. Plus, there's always time to sign up for their wine club!
For those who follow me on the lovely social media channels, please tune in on October 27th @1pm EST/10am PST for a live chat on wine, music & the harvest season with Emily Haines. I'm really passionate about this producer for many reasons, but the joy from the team working tirelessly behind the scenes has been awe-inspiring and given me even more reason to sing their praises from every rooftop. This small, but mighty producer should be on everyone's radar and the intimate insights from Emily hopefully sealed the deal for those on the fence.
What wines have you all tried from Terra D'Oro Winery? Aaaand if anyone is planning a trip to Amador County soon.....feel free to pack me in your carry-on bag, please & thank you.
The Certified Wino