While Ryan was enamoured of wine for quite some time, it was not until recently that he joined the wine industry. Ryan took the famous wine class at Cornell, where he had his wine-”Aha” moment, as he describes. Ryan then started work as a management consultant, but he could not part ways with wine. He would volunteer at local wineries and make his own wines, and even decided to take a winemaking program at UC Davis – all while maintaining his full-time job.
When Ryan finally decided to make the jump into winemaking, he started with an internship at Williams Selyem. He then ran the cellars at a custom crush winery, before spending some time at Medlock Ames in Alexander Valley, and finally landing at Three Sticks Wines.
What an interesting path to winemaking! We’re excited for Ryan and excited to see what he’ll continue to do at Three Sticks and perhaps beyond.
Check out the interview below the fold!
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in San Francisco and lived in Sonoma County until second grade, then moved to Berkeley and grew up there through high school. It was a great mix of living in a really rural setting in my very early years – next door to a cattle ranch, across the street from a chicken farm – then a much more urban upbringing for my formative years when we moved into my grandfather’s house in downtown Berkeley. From chicken coops to graffiti and hoops – and I loved having both of those unique experiences in my life.
When and how did you get into wine?
Growing up in the Bay Area, wine was never too far away, but I really became interested in wine while away at college at Cornell University. I took a class during my senior year that was a tasting and educational course on wines of the world. We would learn about a wine region each week and would get to sample a number of wines from that area during the class. We tasted modestly priced wines as well as some very expensive wines and really got a basic understanding of the wines of the world during the semester. After taking this class, I dove headlong into learning more about wines and got the itch to make some of my own. Back home, we have some dear family friends up in the hills of Philo in Anderson Valley, and they would pool together and get grapes every year and make their own wine with a bunch of friends. I asked if I could help out one year and I was hooked. I started making wine at my home from kits, frozen grapes, then grapes that local producers would sell to me. The shower in the second bathroom was reserved for fermentation vessels, August through December!
What has been your career path to where you are?
I graduated from Cornell with an Operations Research & Industrial Engineering degree. In its simplest terms, we would look at various processes and find ways to make them better. I went to work in San Francisco at Anderson Consulting (now called Accenture) doing management consulting. I started taking treks up to Sonoma County, Napa and Anderson Valley, visiting and learning more about the wines of these regions. I eventually moved out to Boulder, CO so my wife could pursue her PhD and I slowly started diving into winemaking. I would help out at local wineries, make my own wines, and I took the Winemaking Certificate program at UC Davis while continuing to work full time. After years of doing this, I realized that I was spending almost all of my free time making, learning about, and interested in wine. Nine years into my career, I decided then and there that I’d need to make a change and try winemaking full-time. Lucky for me, I landed an internship at one of my favorite producers – Williams Selyem. I ended up staying on past the internship and almost for a whole year. I learned so much during those months and that experience only solidified my goal to become a winemaker. From there, I went on to run the cellar at Copain Custom Crush – a winery where over 35 boutique and high-end wineries made their wine under one roof. This allowed me to work alongside dozens of great winemakers. After a few years there, I left to become the Assistant Winemaker at Medlock Ames winery in Alexander Valley which allowed me to focus more specifically on winemaking and viticulture for one estate. Now I’m the Associate Winemaker at Three Sticks and am so excited to be making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from our exceptional vineyards and working with such a talented and dedicated team.
In your view, what makes your vineyards special?
Our vineyards at Three Sticks are some of the best in California. They are all at confluence points that take varying soils, climates, altitudes, and weather patterns to allow the grapes to have unique and expressive fingerprints. Our iconic Durell Vineyard in the hills west of the town of Sonoma is at the corner of three different AVAs: Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley, and Carneros. Each of these AVAs has different influences and cooling/warming patterns, and it really shows in the different microclimates in that vineyard. Gap’s Crown in the Petaluma Wind Gap gets fog and wind blasts early in the afternoon, every day, during the growing season, which lengthen out the growing season. Our Walala Vineyard out on the extreme Sonoma Coast near Annapolis sits above the fog line which gives the grapes a little more warmth to grow in a climate that might otherwise be too extreme for world class grape-growing. Finally, our One Sky Vineyard is the highest vineyard in the Sonoma Mountain AVA and sits on the cooler Northern side of the mountain. The vines here are still young but we have been loving the fruit that comes from yet another unique and extreme vineyard site.
What is your general winemaking philosophy?
My general winemaking philosophy is to make delicious wines that are true to their site. I don’t subscribe to making wines that fit in some box. Certain vineyards will show their best in a riper style while others shine with a much leaner look. I like wines that have life and some verve – a little “zing” and a whole lot of “yum.”
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
The biggest challenge as a winemaker is also the most important piece of winemaking – doing all of the little things that are required to make a great wine. There are many very good wines out there but what makes a wine truly great is doing each step of the winemaking process at the right time, to the right degree, the right way.
Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
At Three Sticks, I’m very fortunate to be able to work with one of these winemakers – Bob Cabral. I’ve always admired the wines he made at Williams Selyem – they were so consistently great and showed a really nice balance of rich fruit, vibrant acidity, and structure. Historically, I think Robert Mondavi is an icon who probably did more than anyone else to elevate the status of California wine in the world. His focus on quality, scaling, and marketing that quality is admirable.
What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
There are a lot of exciting winemakers out there right now. John Raytek at Ceritas is making really pure and minerality-driven Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs. Chris Christensen is bringing the fun at Bodkin Wines with his Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc and still wines. Theresa Heredia has done a great job at elevating the quality at Gary Farrell. Morgan Twain-Peterson at Bedrock is making delicious Zins from heritage vineyards and doing so at great price points. The future is exciting with folks like those out there.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
My favorite region is oftentimes a moving target. I love exploring new wines and don’t love to drink the same stuff over and over again. I really enjoy Italian wines and one region I love is Piemonte. There are serious wines that sing with age (Barolos, Barbarescos) and wines that are simply delicious as an everyday wine like Barbera. You put that together with the food of this region, and it is pure heaven.
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
I believe that wine is a reflection of time and place: both when/where it is from and when/where it is enjoyed. It is the intersection of these two things that brings life to the wine. A few years ago, I enjoyed a 1990 vintage Dom Perginon at my 10-year anniversary dinner with my wife. We went to a restaurant that we went to on special occasions when we lived in San Francisco many years ago – a little French restaurant called Café Jaqueline that serves souffles as main courses and desserts. This night was perfect – I was with the love of my life, laughing over great memories, eating decadent and delicious food and drinking a Champagne that had beautiful texture, still had life left in it and was starting to take on the wonderful secondary notes of aged Champagne.
The most interesting wine I’ve ever had was the 1959 Chambolle-Musigny that I was able to taste in my Wines class at Cornell University. This was my “Aha” moment – (not the 80’s band – though that was the first cassette tape I ever bought from Berkeley Flea market in grade school. That’s another story, however.) Back to the wine class, we were fortunate to be able to taste Burgundy in the first place but when I had a chance to first try a truly aged Burgundy, it blew my socks off. How could fermented grape juice take on such complexity? It no longer resembled fruit at all – it was all earth with nutty hints and almost a savoryness. It opened my eyes to how wines can change and improve with age. It seemed to be more than just a beverage – wine had moved into an art form for me at that moment.
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
I suppose that our 1978 Chateau Mouton Rothschild would be the oldest and most expensive but I have very few wines older than the 90’s in my cellar.
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
We just finished bottling our 2015 Gap’s Crown Pinot Noir at Three Sticks so I’ve opened some 2014’s and 2013’s of that to try again. I just finished a Bedrock Old Vine Zin, and last week I had a 2011 Pessac Léognan Bordeaux that was perfect with a beef tenderloin holiday dinner.
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
I think that Pinot Noir is the most versatile wine and it is my favorite to make and to drink. I go through cycles where I enjoy drinking other red wines but I cycle off of them for a while. I never cycle off Pinot Noir. It is always great. If I had to choose one white wine, I’d go with Chablis. I love the verve and minerality of those wines and the premiers and grand crus are sublime.
Is beer ever better than wine?
Oh yes – I love a great beer! I’m a big fan of Porters, Stouts, IPAs – okay, I like most well-crafted beers. There are many a summer day that I come home and grab a beer over wine. Plus, Guinness is good for you!
How do you spend your days off?
I spend as much time as possible with my wife, two kids, and dog. We love heading out to Bodega Bay to the beach, hiking around Sonoma County, and generally exploring. If I can fish, ski, play a round of golf, or get a run in – well that’s a bonus.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I can do a mean imitation of Aaron Neville singing Amazing Grace.
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
I love traveling and figuring out fun and different things to do while traveling. I guess that means I’d be a good travel agent? I’ll stick to wine, though.
How do you define success?
Achieving an aim. But I think it is the process – HOW that aim is achieved is just as important. I don’t respect success if it requires tearing someone else down to get it.