In vino veri-dawgs

UGA alumni are following their passions in the California wine industry

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In vino veri-dawgs

Winemaker Robbie Meyer covers a lot of ground at the Jericho Canyon vineyard in northern Napa Valley, where grapes are grown to produce Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Meyer also makes wine for two of his own labels and serves as a consultant to other winemakers in the valley.

It’s almost 9:30 on a June morning and the fog has not yet lifted from the top of Howell Mountain. Dew hangs on the lush leaves of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc vines that line the hills and valleys just outside Calistoga, Calif.

Robbie Meyer (BS ’93) checks the tiny green grapes growing in bunches below the elephant–ear like leaves of the Merlot vines. As the vintner for this particular Napa Valley vineyard, Jericho Canyon, Meyer carefully monitors the crops from the spring buds to the fall harvest.

“A winemaker needs to mandate what happens in the vineyard,” he explains.

Meyer, who earned his degree in enology from the University of California at Davis after graduating from UGA, has been making wine in northern California for five years. In addition to the wine he produces for Jericho Canyon, he also makes wines for his own labels, L’Angevin and Peirson-Meyer, in which he partners with another vintner.

He is but one of a number of Georgia alumni who have made their way to California, lured by the temperate climates and the laid-back lifestyle of the wine country. Former UGA and Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Terry Hoage (BS ’85) is perhaps the best known of the Georgia grads in the California wine industry. From his vineyard in the central California coastal town of Paso Robles, he has been producing award-winning Rhone-style wines since 2002. A favorite is “The Hedge,” a Syrah named for the legendary hedges that line the field at Sanford Stadium.

But in addition to Hoage, Georgia alumni are scattered throughout northern California, making careers out of growing grapes, making wine, selling wine and marketing the local vineyards.

“It has been a very fortunate sequence of events that lets me do what I do,” says Rhett Gadke (AB ’97), a buyer for Bounty Hunter Rare Wines & Provisions in Napa, Calif.

Gadke, whose company sells wine from its riverside bar and restaurant and by mail, says he developed an interest in wine when he was a teenager working at a deli and wine store. While at UGA he worked as assistant manager of the wine department at the ABC store on Atlanta Highway.

“I realized I had a knack for it,” he says.

It was Meyer’s interest in science, and fascination with the complexity of wine, that drew him into winemaking as a career. The Marietta native moved to northern California even before he was accepted into the program at UC-Davis and began working at local vineyards to learn the trade. He worked for several years with winemakers at Peter Michael Winery and Lewis Cellars before becoming the winemaker for Jericho Canyon in 2005. Since then he has overseen construction of a winery on the property and produced a number of top-flight wines served in fine restaurants across the country as well as at the Augusta National Golf Course.

It’s a tough business. The weather in any given year determines the yield of the crop and the quality of the wine. You do the same amount of work whether you’re producing 1,000 or 2,000 cases of wine, he says.

“We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t love to do it,” he says.

 

A fascination with wine also drew Greg (BSEd ’88) and Jennifer (BSEd ’87) Hauck to northern California. Education majors at UGA, they had teaching jobs in South Georgia for a year after graduating. They moved back to Atlanta the following year where Jennifer got a job teaching French to high school students and Greg went to work for his father’s pharmaceutical sales business before launching his own company. He sold the business in 2000 and spent the next three years perfecting his golf game and deciding what he wanted to do next.

They were drawn to California after vacationing there for several years.

“We decided we wanted to make wine,” Greg says simply.

Greg and Jennifer moved to Healdsburg, in the Sonoma Valley, where they found jobs at a small winery in Dry Creek Valley, It was there they began learning the business and met the winemaker who would produce the first wine under the Hauck label in 2004.

The Haucks don’t own vineyards; they instead contract to buy grapes from area growers. Their winemaker, like many in the business, makes wine for several labels and consults for wineries in the area. They lease the use of a crush facility to produce and store the wine.

There are now more than a half dozen varietals and blends produced for the Hauck label, including Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc, Meritage and a Rose of Syrah.

“We make the wines we love to drink,” Jennifer says. “If it doesn’t sell, we can drink it.”

Most days they’re in the Hauck Cellars tasting room in Healdsburg entertaining visitors and selling wine. On fall Saturdays they wear their Georgia football jerseys and tie black and red balloons outside the front door. Greg’s iPod is loaded with UGA-related audio, including “Glory, Glory to Old Georgia,” that he plays over the tasting room speakers for visitors—especially those who come in wearing clothes from other SEC schools.

Opening the tasting room, which is somewhat uncommon for a small production winery, was part of Greg’s dream, Jennifer says, adding, “We don’t have the next goal yet.”

“Our goal is to break even,” Greg says. But Jennifer adds, “Our goal is to make wines we love.”

 

Wednesday afternoon is tasting time at Acme Fine Wines in St. Helena. Unlike a typical wine store, Acme focuses on selling wines from boutique wineries that aren’t big enough to have national distribution.

Owner Karen Williams (AB ’87) and her staff of three gather around a long table with bottles, water, wine glasses and spittoons in front of them. On this June afternoon, they’re sampling wines brought in by a local representative who works for nearby boutique vineyards.

They sample the Baby Blue, a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Blue Rock Vineyard in Alexander Valley. Each takes a swig of the rich, red liquid, swishing it around in their mouths and holding it long enough to get the full flavor before spitting it out.

Next up is a 2006 Cabernet Franc from Gridley Family Cellars in Napa Valley, followed by a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Cimarossa vineyards high atop Howell Mountain.

The store will sell only the wines they agree are top notch.

“We have to be able to look our customers in the eye and say, ‘This is fantastic,’” Williams says.

The wines the Acme employees select will be added to their stock and sold in the tasting room as well as to the 5,000 to 6,000 people on the Acme mailing list. It’s a way, Williams says, for the small wineries to get exposure and for customers, who are scattered across the country, to try something they can’t find in a local store. Acme has roughly 180 labels in its inventory, which changes regularly. Employees keep notes on regular customers’ tastes and contact them when a wine comes in that they think matches that taste.

Williams also stocks a small collection of wine from other parts of the world to distribute to locals and interested clients.

“It keeps them up to date with what’s going on with the Joneses around the world,” she says.

While Williams is bringing in wine for the locals, Pete Przybylinski (BBA ’90) takes his out to the rest of the world.

As senior vice president for sales and strategic direction at Duckhorn Wine Company, Przybylinski spends a lot of time on the road. Last summer he attended the High Museum Atlanta Wine Auction event, which brings together representatives from some of the best wineries in the world to raise money for the museum.

“You don’t get paid like a king, but you get to live like one,” Przybylinski says of his job in the industry.

It is a different Duckhorn, he says, than when he arrived 15 years ago. Then it was a “mom and pop” operation, begun by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, who along with some college friends ponied up $50,000 to buy 12 acres in Napa Valley in 1976.

Przybylinski, who was then in the restaurant business, was looking for something different. Duckhorn was looking for a sales rep with restaurant experience.

“As I grew, the company grew,” he says.

The Duckhorn Wine Company now includes three winery estates: Duckhorn Vineyards and Paraduxx in Napa Valley, and Goldeneye in Anderson Valley. Duckhorn Vineyards alone now produces 50,000 cases a year of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.

Przybylinski, who started college as a mechanical engineering major at Georgia Tech but quickly transferred to UGA, never envisioned himself in the wine business, much less directing strategy for one of California’s prestigious wine companies with a second-floor office balcony overlooking acres of grapevines.

“I thought I would go into the insurance business,” he says. “The wine industry happened to be there as an opportunity.”

Get More

Acme Fine Wines

St. Helena, Calif., (888) 963-0440, http://www.acmefinewines.com

The Bounty Hunter

Napa, Calif., (800) 943-9463, http://www.bountyhunterwine.com

Duckhorn Wine Company

St. Helena, Calif., (888) 354-8885, http://www.duckhorn.com

Hauck Cellars

Healdsburg, Calif., (707) 473-9065, http://www.hauckcellars.com

Jericho Canyon

Calistoga, Calif., (707) 942-9665, http://www.jerichocanyonvineyard.com

L’Angevin, Peirson-Meyer Wines

Yountville, Calif., (707) 944-9566, http://www.langevinwines.com http://www.peirsonmeyer.com

Terry Hoage Vineyards

Paso Robles, Calif., (805) 238-2083, http://www.terryhoagevineyards.com