Tammi’s wine story

When I was about 5 years old, I would often visit my grandparents’ house, spending hours baking and playing with my grandma. My father’s mom was the most entertaining person I knew. She was a short, round woman, always well dressed and often found behind the wheel of a Lincoln Continental. Inside her spotless home, she loved entertaining guests and experimenting with recipes picked up on trips all over the world.

During one of my visits, she was doing laundry when I noticed what looked like a little barrel on the shelf of the laundry room over the dryer. “What’s that?” I asked her. “Your granddad is making wine,” she said. I asked how and she said, “You will have to ask him, but he put grape juice in there and when it is done, it will be wine.”

My granddad always had side projects. Once when I was a kid, he built a contraption that helped flock Christmas trees and ended up flocking part of a boat he had in his garage. He was probably much like a Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor of his time. His heart was in the right place, but things never quite worked out.

A typical distracted kid, I forgot to ask how the wine was made. On a return visit not long afterward, though, my granddad was repainting the laundry room and grandma was not so happy. I asked what happened. “I’m not sure, but I think it was too hot in here for making good wine,” he told me. It was my first take-away lesson in winemaking: don’t make wine in the laundry room over the dryer!

My grandparents were very social people who constantly had a stream of clients, neighbors and friends at the house. I remember one lady who always ended up with red teeth after a few sips of wine. I thought that was pretty funny as a kid, but that was really my only connection to wine until I was 17 on spring break in Daytona Beach with all my friends from Yorktown High School.

I really didn’t like beer much, so we went to the grocery and got some TJ Swan Easy Nights.  We drank until all of that sticky-sweet wine was gone, not realizing we were drunk and ridiculous. It took me over a decade to recover from that wine hangover.

About 10 years later — very mature now — I was planning a “fancy” Christmas party and went to the liquor store. While buying supplies, a clerk suggested that I get a box of something called White Zinfandel. “People are loving it!” he exuded. So in my enthusiasm, I grabbed a box and had it chilled and ready for friends. That night, lots of my guests were enjoying it, so I thought I would have a glass. It was easy to drink, cold and kinda sweet. OK, so maybe I liked wine.

My aunt (the daughter of my very social grandparents) is a huge wine fan. When she would come to town and we would have dinner out, she would buy amazingly expensive wines and seemed to enjoy them sooo much. I was jealous, so I kept trying them. Some I liked. Others, no way, but tasting taught me a lot. I was beginning to tell the difference between sweet and dry wines. I was starting to order wine when I went out with clients, and I soon learned the wooing power of good grape. When I dined at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Sullivan’s Steakhouse or another clubby steak house and ordered a bottle of Cakebread, Opus or Jordan Cabernet, my clients loved it and I closed deals.

The first batches

My best friend Sara always buys the best gifts. You know, the ones that you never thought of asking for but inevitably become a favorite? For Christmas in 1996, Sara gave me a homemade wine-making kit from Wine Art Indy. I had just moved into a big house with a massive basement and I thought, cool, I can build a cellar and make some wine.

I am a design engineer by education and I like having defined processes. I love baking and following recipes. Halfway through making my first batch, I was seeing changes I would make to the next batch, and I was sure I would be upgrading some of the manual equipment, which was often frustrating and time consuming, for more updated things such a floor corker and fermentation tank.

After the first batch was complete, I took a sip. It was a merlot, and it tasted like apricots and raisins. Sara said, “I like it. Let’s drink it.” So we sat on the porch and started figuring what cheese we should have with it. We decided from that point on that my wines would be called “Shea Tam’ Mae” — say it with a French accent to get the full effect.

When the next batch started, I went back to the Wine Art Indy store and started asking questions — lots of them — like why does this happen, what would happen if I tried this or that? I drove the poor guy crazy and I started making batches like a bottling factory, two cases per month. Cab, Riesling, Shiraz, whatever concentrate he had, I made it. My friends and I had a ball naming my wines and just sitting on the porch laughing. Shea Syrah, Syrah was our tribute to Doris Day, and a batch of black currant Merlot was dubbed Currently Single Black Merlot. I had become my grandparents.

After about a year or so of all this fun, a woman I worked with asked me to make two cases of wine with labels for her daughter’s bridal shower. The request really made me think about getting more serious about understanding wines, really digging into the process. I spent lots of time on the Internet doing research and my pal Sara and I started going to winemaker’s dinners. She only went to eat and drink. Sara could not have cared less about the percentages of alcohol or if the barrels were American or French, but she is great company and an excellent chef. Sara would whip up incredible dishes and I would figure out which wines we should drink with them.

Learning from the pros

I attended my first official wine class around 2002 at Chateau Thomas Winery in Plainfield, Indiana. Over the course of six three-hour classes, I met Dr. Charles Thomas and fell in love with everything he said and, of course, with him. He is a soft-spoken winemaker and a retired OB/GYN. He talked about terroir, grape varieties and how long wine should be aged. He said he was good at thinking about it in nine-month intervals, which made me laugh.

Dr. Thomas also gave the gal who was helping take care of all the students a hard time for her generous pours. He asked her to back off, or these kids will be rocked and won’t come back next week if they have a hangover. Then he launched into a discussion of why people get hangovers. His description was awesome and so articulate that he earned all kinds of credibility with me. After class one evening, he told me that the winery was in need of volunteers to help bottle. He probably knew the experience would answer all the questions I had been peppering him with. The night before I was set to bottle, I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep a wink. We were bottling 600 cases of wine on an assembly line. (Remember I am an engineer, so I love manufacturing.)

During my bottling session, I got to do a little of everything. The morning began with dragging hoses and connecting the tanks to the bottling line. Unloading clean bottles from boxes, turning them right side up and loading them onto the line was my next job, making sure to keep up with the line flow. In the afternoon, I was a “floater,” watching to make sure we had plenty of corks, capsules and labels. If we were running low, I would refill them so we didn’t have to shut down the line. What I learned most that day was that as cool as the equipment looked and how quickly it moved, issues arose. Some bottles didn’t fill all the way up, so we had to run them back through the line. Or a label machine would get out of whack and require adjusting. It always took some real creative thinking to fix the problems.

From the time our day started to well into the evening, I was inspired. I wanted to know more and do more. I was ready to quit my day job and work there for nothing. Then my brain kicked in and reminded my mouth that the wines I was starting to enjoy are expensive. A steady paycheck was necessary. I continued to volunteer at Chateau Thomas, met other home winemakers and started buying fruit. These were real grapes that had to be shipped in from all over. First, it was Riesling from Yakima, Washington, and then syrah. I got Zinfandel grapes from Lodi, California, and Sauvignon Blanc from Lake County, California, just north of Napa. Once the grapes arrived, we had to press, ferment, age the juice and bottle it — and it was fantastic fun.

As I got bolder and bolder, I started entering my wines in competitions. My first wine won a gold medal at the Indy International Wine Competition during the Indiana State Fair. It was a Barolo, it was fantastic and I was thrilled. Every moment of free time I had was spent hitting wineries, taking classes and, of course, tasting all the time. I learned about the 12 individual tastes of wine, which really opened my eyes to dissecting wines as I tasted them. I spent countless hours among the vines at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, where I learned about planting, graphing and the construction of a vineyard from the ground up.

The big leap west

Over time, I knew I had to turn winemaking into what I do each and every day. I continued to learn and began talking to more winemakers and folks in the business. I had the opportunity to attend business development events sponsored by Purdue University, but one really stood out. During an all-day event at a hotel in Indianapolis, people who were considering opening wineries in Indiana met. It was awesome to meet so many men and women who started out planting grapes for fun and turned it into a full-on business.

I knew what was next. I wanted to do the same thing, save for a few little hitches. I wanted to do it in California and I wanted to be in Napa. But the more concrete issue was the fact that it is way pricier in California than Indiana. So I worked hard and saved money and stayed on track for several years. I kept making contacts, too, including a fellow engineer I met through the Internet who wanted to buy a hobby vineyard. His story was just like mine, except he did not realize that he had purchased property that was landlocked. As I read about his experience, we started writing back and forth and he taught me so much about real estate and what not to do. About a year later, he called.

“Hey, I know an old dude looking to sell some land in Sonoma County in Cazadero,” he said. I immediately started to research the area, applying Perc tests to measure how well the soil would absorb water, soil tests to determine composition and every other test known to man. Students from the University of California Davis looked at the place; students from Purdue University checked it out. I even had a consultant visit and lay out how we should plant the land to get optimum grape production. I had to figure out if and which types of grapes would grow well in this cooler, hilly area.

Once I took a deep breath and made the decision to buy, I spent my entire life’s savings during an 11-minute conference call. There was no turning back. I owned the land — now I just had to rebuild the bank and get ready to move to California.

Three years later, around 2004, I was still making batches of wine and actually had bottled what I thought was a very outstanding batch of cabernet in the corner of the kitchen, until I heard the telltale Pop! Pop! Pop! I had reinvented the mess my grandfather had mastered 35 years earlier. As I scrubbed the floors and counters, I learned the hard way why it’s important not to rush a wine if it’s not ready.

Over that summer, I took a hard look at what I was doing with my life. I had a few months to sit and think about life, love and feeling fulfilled. I started evaluating what I wanted to do, and winemaking kept coming out on top. You could call it a midlife crisis, but I would call it a choice to get healthy, be happy and follow my passion. As a result, I left the Midwest and headed to California to pursue my dream. I would not be ready to make wine yet, but I could get closer to the land, surround myself with folks from the industry and ask lots of questions.

The Winemakers Season II

In July of 2009, I went to a cattle call audition for a PBS reality series that puts contestants through all the necessary steps to become a winemaker. I am not an actress and I’m not trying to be one. I just wanted to see what The Winemakers was all about. The first season had not aired yet, but I had seen the trailer on the Internet and thought, how cool, they got to work a harvest and blend wines, work with marketing people and really entrench themselves in the process. The winner would get to produce and sell 15,000 cases of wine and win a cash prize to help launch their own label — a prize worth tens of thousands of dollars.

I am competitive by nature. At this point, I had spent 15 years of my career in engineering sales and recruiting, and I love to be challenged. I decided to call in sick and try out. In addition to the standard tryout, one person would win a spot on the show by accumulating the most views for a self-made video on YouTube. My friends found Kristina Hontalas, a young rock star of a filmmaker whom I met over a couple glasses of wine. She shot a two-minute video as I just hammed it up.

The audition in San Francisco was a fun but nerve wracking. Editing down my passion was really hard, but the video was in the bag and online, so I felt like I had a backup plan when I went in for the audition. My friend is an actress by profession and she gently reminded me not to get my hopes up too much. “They are casting,” she said, “not picking who they like the most. Just be natural and relax — if it happens or not.” That was not going to cut it. I wanted the chance to go to France and learn. I wanted to meet the judges and pump them for information, and I wanted more than anything to meet the winemakers and ask them questions about what they would do differently if they were launching a wine label.

Despite all my sincere desire, I was not picked based on my audition. I left San Francisco with my tail between my legs. The Winemakers film crew and contestants were leaving in a month for shooting in Central Coast, California, and I had to figure out how to get noticed.

As an executive recruiter, I have met a lot of people and helped them make their career dreams come true. Maybe if I asked them, I thought, they would help me out, too. I just needed all those folks to watch the video and share it with their friends. I worked up a massive list of email addresses and made plans to work social media sites and all the places I professionally networked including LinkedIn and Twitter. I wrote from the heart, spelling out what I wanted to do and how all these contacts could support my dream. I prayed, took a deep breath and hit send.

If you have ever had a moment where you wanted something so badly and knew it was out of your hands and you just had to let the universe do its “thing,” then you understand what this moment meant to me. I felt such peace and love from the emails that started pouring in, from places I had never visited and people I had never met.

A message from a soldier stationed in Germany said he received the video from his mom and he wanted to tell me that he was cheering for me. A 79-year-old woman sent the message to her entire church in a little town in Ohio. I got emails from Greece, Japan, Canada, Brazil and every state out there. An old boss of mine whose wife is a bigwig in a Fortune 500 company showed the video during a conference and then asked each person in attendance to send it to their teams— and for each of those people to pass it on.

Two days before the show was to shoot, the producer called me and asked if I would be willing to meeting in Sacramento and audition for the show again. I thought I had a chance of being selected. My two-minute pitch was running neck and neck with another video and I wanted this so much.

The audition was in a wine bar, so I did what anyone would do, I had a glass of wine to relax. It did not help. The cameras were on and Brian V, the host of the show, pelted me with questions. It was so intimidating, but after awhile they asked me to come back in and for a few more questions. Then he announced that I would be contestant No. 12 on season II of The Winemakers. That was Thursday August 13, 2009 and we started filming on August 16 at Conway Family Winery in San Luis Obispo.

I cannot tell you anymore about the results, but I am ready to go to France in October to shoot the last five episodes of The Winemakers. I can tell you that I have been able to take advantage of some amazing opportunities. In November 2009, I chose to leave the corporate world and take some time off to really prepare myself for the show and to, in the near future, launch my wine brand. After Christmas 2009, I started what I call an “adult Internship” — a concept I think should happen in every industry — in which you spend at least six months and up to a year doing nothing but meeting with people in your industry and making sure you really want to commit yourself this career path.

As part of my internship, I have volunteered hours in vineyards. I have pruned vines, tasted wines, tested for Brix, netted vines, mowed, and anything else they wanted me to do. I followed a cooper — barrel maker — for a week and learned all about wood, toasting and its effects on wine. I met with wine compliance people to understand regulations, state-to-state sales and shipping facts. I worked in a high-end wine retail shop and learned about the retail side of the biz. I blended wines, met with closure experts, worked with a wine label artist, marketing and branding experts, and I took every winery tour I could find. I met with many, many winemakers and listened to so many stories that I wish I’d had a film crew with me because this whole “internship” has been such a blessing and education.

I did all this travel and studying so I could compete with the other contestants, they all have awesome wine backgrounds and I am not formally educated in selling wines or tasting them or judging them, but I feel like I did one thing for myself most people never allow themselves to do: I totally immersed myself in the day-to-day tasks of a winemaker and prepared to apply all of that knowledge! One advantage I do have is marketing and social media savvy. That has already paid off, as I was just named winner of the Uncork your Passion for Lapostolle wines, a Twitter-focused contest judged by some big-time wine pros. For that prize, I will be heading to Chile in spring 2011.

In November, The Winemakers crew will leave for Rhone Valley in France. My French is somewhat lame but I will say this, what I lack in experience I will make up for in pure enthusiasm!