Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Stacia Williams, who just opened Cairdean Estate with her husband Edwin in St. Helena, California.
Stacia grew up in Rhode Island farm country. After high school, she headed to Worcester Polytechnic Institute to study computer science and then started a career as a software engineer, first working for Sun Microsystems and later for Object Design.
Stacia slowly fell in love with wine, so in 2000, while living in Woburn, Massachusetts, she and her husband began buying grapes from California to make wine in their garage. The hobby soon became an obsession, complete with travel to wine regions, lots of tasting, and more and more wine production.
Finally, they decided to drop everything and move to California so Stacia could study winemaking. In 2010, she earned a certificate in enology from Fresno State while also interning as a viticultural research assistant.
That same year, Stacia and Edwin found 50 acres in St. Helena and started construction on a family winery. In 2011, they purchased an adjacent, seven-acre parcel and have since purchased
the 10-acre Acquaintance Vineyard in Coombsville and the 28-acre Confidant Vineyard in the Russian River Valley.
The winery, which is located two miles north of downtown St. Helena, just opened. Check out our interview with Stacia below the fold.
What is your general winemaking philosophy?
Most wine is indeed made in the vineyard and I make sure to get out there as often as I can to observe, report, instruct, and taste. I like to listen to the fruit and respect what it tells me and not try to morph it into something it is not meant to be.
No matter which vineyard or variety, each has a story and a way to shine in the glass. I’m the type of person who adapts as I go and I can have a lot of rules in my head about how to crush this particular fruit, but if it comes in and won’t do well with the parameters I have already set up, I am quick to adapt protocols. The ultimate goal is to make the best wine possible, even if it is not the wine you set out to make.
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
Our open wines at this very second are mainly our own (Cairdean Vineyards Napa Valley 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012 Haley Margaret White Wine, Cairdean Vineyards Napa Valley 2012 Sauvignon Blanc); I also have two wines we purchased from local restaurants that we took home that are currently open: Stepping Stone Napa Valley 2010 Cabernet Franc and Homage Calistoga 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, along with a wide array of left bank Bordeaux reds from Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, and Haut-Medoc.
I try not to develop cellar palate and seldom finish any bottle (hence all the opens around). And I do like to cook with wine quite a bit, so I hold onto bottles most would probably not.
Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
That is a very difficult question to answer. I have never really followed winemakers per se. In the past, I have paid more attention to the vineyards and particular wineries’ styles. I did not like the inconsistency that occasionally occurred when a winery changed owners or winemakers, which is why it was so important to me to become a winemaker myself before building a winery. Being the owner and winemaker and owning our own vineyards allows us the ability to ensure a continuity of style. Vintage to vintage you will always have variations and those should be cherished as they truly embody a piece of history. When you mix winemaker changes, vineyard changes, ownership changes, and vintage differences, I think that consumers can get too confused and, in the end, it is not fair to them.
What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
I would say those simply being fresh to the industry, but a lot of those come without a trained palate. I have been fortunate to have been tasting some of the best wines from all over the world in these last 20 years and there is simply no replacing that knowledge and experience. I wish I could magically convey it to the next generation and believe me, I do try. I have started with my daughter who is now 7 years old; when she was just over a year old, we were in Bordeaux and had barrel samples of 2006 Lafite Rothschild and Chateau Margaux and I caught her tasting the last drops out of our glasses and baby signing me for more. That excites me the most — the possibility that I can develop her palate from such a young age. We have a lot of smelling contests in our house: are those “lilacs or lilies,” “thyme or sage,” “spearmint or peppermint.” It has become a natural part of her upbringing and I doubt many kids get that. She seems to appreciate and enjoy it.
How do you spend your days off?
Days off? I don’t know what that means! I do take some “time” off, occasionally, but usually that is to go to the gym or have a Sunday night family dinner. I am somewhat obsessive when it comes to work. My staff bemoans the 2:00 am emails because I couldn’t sleep and had some “great” ideas. If I take days off — especially in a row — it is usually for a family event which requires significant travel time.
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
The best wine? I keep going back to that barrel sample from Lafite Rothschild from 2006. I am not one who likes over ripe styles or Cabernet without tannin and whether it was the company or the place, it just blew me away.
The most interesting wine?
Probably the Angelica from the 1800s that Darrell Corti brought to dinner at the Antica Estate a couple of years ago.
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
I am not a huge fan of older wines. The corks disintegrate and they require topping and replacement and all that. I do have two bottles from 1996, a Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and a bottle of Chateau Maucaillou which I saved for my son who was born that year. Lucky for me, he doesn’t like wine. So we may have to open it for his high school graduation dinner next month.
The most expensive bottle is probably the Chateau Haut-Brion from 2006 that we bought for our daughter.
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
Our 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and our 2012 Haley Margaret Napa Valley proprietary white wine.
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
What’s your favorite wine region in the world — other than your own?
I had a dream when I first started down the enology path and it was the opportunity to grow wine in Napa Valley or in Bordeaux. In the dream I weighed both options and I chose the Napa Valley. However, Bordeaux would be amazing and in Bordeaux, I’d probably say the Haut-Medoc.
Is beer ever better than wine?
Occasionally. I have brewed some incredible beer. I once accidentally “stole” my friend’s hops and put them in my Irish red. His had more IBUs than mine and the end result was that I had to use my winemaking prowess to soften the beer. It worked and it was the best Irish red I had ever tasted. I’d be hard pressed to reproduce it, but we do still talk about that day and what an amazing beer came from such a simple mistake, knowledge and ingenuity.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
Probably my age or that I have been type 1 diabetic for over 30 years. I look so young – I have done my best to take good care of myself – but my general appearance given all that often shocks folks.
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
Drinking it or blending it or importing it or distributing it or dreaming about it or judging it — wine and me were just meant to be.
How do you define success?
Success is multi-step and continually revised. I don’t think I could ever step back and say I have reached success, ever. I think you have to take each and every step and reach towards your goals. And each step you make in that direction is progress and therefore success. I am not the type of person to take comfort in success for very long. An hour, a day perhaps, but on to the next blend, bottling, harvest.