Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Nikki Nelson. Nikki and husband Jeff are the owners of Liquid Farm, a small winery specializing in Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay and Happy Canyon rosé.
Nikki first developed an interest in wine while working in restaurants in and around her hometown of Temecula, California, and at 22, she helped open the city’s first fine wine shop.
Nikki then went on to obtain her bachelor’s in wine and viticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, focusing on wine business. After graduation, she landed a position with The Henry Wine Group, a wine distributor, and departed in 2011 to release Liquid Farm.
When free time presents itself, which happens just rarely, Nikki and Jeff kick back in their Los Angeles home with their two dogs and parrot, sipping from their own supply.
Check out our interview with Nikki below the fold.
What is your general winemaking philosophy?
As natural and hands off as we can be, while always monitoring and taking great care with every vineyard and every barrel in the cellar.
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
A bottle of 2012 White Hill that I didn’t finish from last night and a little Fiano that Jeff blinded me on the night before last.
Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
From the old world, Francois Raveneau and his sons who have taken over for him – there’s just no disputing that those wines are special.
Donatella Colombini for being such a female pioneer in Italy, leading one of the first all female-run wineries in the country. Her Brunellos are gorgeous.
There are just so many amazing winemakers — way too many to list. I will say that Brandon Sparks-Gillis of Dragonette Cellars is incredible, as is James Sparks, his brother-in-law, who is a friend and now on board with Liquid Farm full time. Both exhibit a great attention to detail and the patience with fruit and in the cellar. It’s artistry. That’s one side of a great winemaker — the other side is a hell of a lot of unglamorous stuff like driving a fork lift, pallet-jacking, cleaning, and being willing to get your hands dirty and roughed up.
What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
Anyone making balanced wines with little or no manipulation is exciting to me.
How do you spend your days off?
Days off? What are those?!
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
A 1982 Cheval Blanc — a birth year — was certainly interesting and amazing. I also find old Champagne is really interesting. And I’m a total freak for pretty much any style of dry to off-dry sherry.
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
Well, that would be Jeff’s but, what’s his is mine, right?!?
Probably some late-1980s Champagnes and most expensive would probably be a 1995 Bouchard Pere & Fils La Romanee.
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
No rosé? Okay, okay. Well, this is not easy.
To stay local, for one I would say the 2011 FOUR Chardonnay, as it’s rocking my world this past month. The majority of the fruit comes from Wes and Steve Pepe’s vineyard, Clos Pepe, and has to be one of the most magical vineyards in the entire New World. Plus, if we had enough of it and I didn’t feel guilty having it too often, I’d really just try to drink it every day.
For red, let’s go with a medium-bodied, versatile Old World wine with some age to it. A toss-up between a Red Burgundy like Volnay-Caillerets or maybe a cru Barbaresco or a really kick-ass Taurasi.
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
Firstly, I’m just beginning to earn my cellar badges fully as this harvest was the first that I was able to be up in Buellton and in the winery helping James, our now lead winemaker, with the labor of crush, fermentation monitoring, and decisions.
I feel though the biggest challenge for most winemakers is trusting the process and being willing to let things take their course. Often, winemakers don’t allow for barrels to fully express themselves by having a set way that all wine has to be handled, year in and year out. Or they feel as if they haven’t placed their “mark” on a wine if they do not do enough, whatever that may be. Some just can’t help tinkering to fix a current “issue” – even if fixing it could take something inherent about the wine away from it or worse, create a new problem.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world, other than your own?
Is beer ever better than wine?
Yes. In Mexico, with margaritas.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
My senior year of high school, I was voted the Tallest and Worst Driver among all the girls in my class. I was told I had to pick one and chose Worst Driver. I was clearly not the tallest girl but the driving was disputable.
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
Selling it or writing about it or both. Or, maybe we would be crazy enough to open up our own shop or wine bar.
How do you define success?
Doing what you love and loving what you do. I believe one has to be truly passionate about her career for it to be worth the hours needed to do it really well. I guess just knowing who you are and staying on the path that you feel is right for you and knowing that whenever your journey here is over, you are proud of what you have worked on and left behind.