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Stephanie Sawyer
 
December 31, 2020 | Stephanie Sawyer

Interview with Winemaker Rene Calderon

Rene Calderon sat down with our DTC Manager, Stephanie Sawyer over a glass of wine recently (2017 Petite Sirah from the Todd Brothers Vineyard, one of Rene's favorites!). They talked about everything from his life transitioning from Mexico to Napa, California to building a career in winemaking. Toward the end of the bottle, they even started talking superpowers... enjoy the fruits of their hard work!

 

You have had quite an adventurous life! Starting in Mexico as a Philosopher and moving on to being a Winemaker in California. Can you tell me a little bit about your professional journey to get to this point, some of the steps that you've had on the way, and what inspired you to get into Winemaking?

Well sure, I landed in Napa from Mexico in 1996. It’s funny to me now that 1996 was the year that Dashe Cellars was founded and in that same year I arrived in Napa from Mexico. In Napa, there are two things that you do: you work in wine or you work with wine. I wanted to work with wine, in the production side of the business. I started working with Franciscan on the bottling line in the beginning of 1997. I worked on the bottling line for a couple of months and started moving up pretty quickly. In the nineties, there were a lot of production jobs available, so there was a lot of opportunity for growth. 1997 was my very first harvest working in the cellar; it was pretty easy work at the time. Digging out tanks, pumpovers, super-easy jobs, the very first jobs that they get you to do. You get a pump, you know how to use a pump, then do a pumpover and repeat it one hundred times. I loved the cellar, I loved the work and I still do. Once you learn how to do a lot of things, the work is very independent. I worked for Franciscan for about three years before moving on. Franciscan in a very large Winery, about half a million cases. At that point, I wanted to do more fancy, hands-on winemaking with a smaller producer. The winery that I moved to was Stags Leap Winery and they were making about 50,000 cases at that point.

I wanted to figure out if I really wanted to go back to school. In Mexico, I was studying to be a Philosopher, so I wanted to figure out if I was going to go back into this area of study and teach or if I wanted to do something else. Stags Leap was very small, the cellar crew was only five of us, plus the Winemaker and Enologist, I really liked working there. I really enjoyed working closely with the Winemaking staff, there was direct access to them. They oversaw all the work so I was able to see how they made decisions, how they worked with the wine, and they started to explain to me why things were important. This was a big influence on why I decided to go back to school and study Winemaking.

Spanish is my native language, so to dive deeper into the material I started with improving my confidence in English. My first ESL class was in 2003 at Napa Valley College and I transferred shortly to Oakland, I always wanted to live in Oakland. I love living in the city and I missed it when I was in Napa. I gained my transfer to UC Davis in 2008 and graduated 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Viticulture and Enology. I had worked in the cellar for ten years before taking time off to finish my degree full time, the only vintages that I missed were 2007, 2008, and 2009.

After graduation, I started with Wente Vineyards in Livermore for the 2010 vintage. I ended up working at Wente because I still was living in Oakland and wanted to stick around. Wente offered me a position in the laboratory, which was something I had never done before; it was winemaking by the numbers. I was out of the cellar and it was completely analytical, I enjoyed being able to bring my knowledge of the cellar into the lab without the context, with just the numbers. That helped me to put a lot of the theory that I had learned into practice. I was with them for three years and became the Assistant Winemaker for Dashe in 2013. My first vintage as Winemaker for Dashe was in 2018. When I was in Napa, I wanted to work with the best people in Napa. When I moved my career to Oakland, that’s what I applied myself to do, I wanted to find the best people to work for. By the time that this position with Dashe Cellars opened, I had already been trying to make myself the most qualified person for the job. I knew about Mike and his connection to Ridge, and I knew that if there would ever be a position working with him that I needed to be prepared for it. I don’t just want to make good wine, I want to make the best wine.

For me it’s never been about the romance of the industry, it’s about the labor of it. I LOVE wine, I really enjoy it. And drinking lots it of course, but that came after my love of making it.

As Winemaker, you are given more freedom to be able to influence the final wines. How would you best describe your styles of winemaking?

First, I would like to talk about the difference between being an Assistant Winemaker versus being a Winemaker. As the Assistant, you are learning the techniques through the Winemaker, through listening about what they are looking to produce and how the achieve it. You work on the given project throughout the year and you follow the instructions. Once you learn enough, your own experience leads you to knowing how to get to the end result. As Winemaker, I have the experience to be able to do that, and this comes with responsibility and the trust that you gain working directly with the Winemaker. I’m still learning, you never stop learning and every vintage is different.

With regards to my style of winemaking, I would say that I make clean wines. To me, clean means no defects, sparkle, bright colors that you are only able to get with a lot of labor. Prior to Dashe, I came from more industrial winemaking, so working in the cellar with Mike and Anne and learning their process of non-intervention winemaking was eye opening. What you do in the cellar is very important to the final result. The fruit gives you the aromas, and the process in the cellar gives you the bouquet. Everything from the fermentation, the barrel selection, to the rackings and more. The aromas that natural fermentation brings with the yeast from the vineyard work really well without manipulation. I enjoy bringing together my knowledge from both sides of the industry, the industrial side and the non-interventionist side, in order to make the best wine possible.

With Dashe, I’ve been able to work with the different vineyards and showcase these places that all create wines that taste very different. When you can taste the difference between one vineyard and another, that is the sense of place, the terroir. That is what the vineyard gives and with Dashe I’ve been able to work on this more, on how to respect the place. You can't learn about this stuff unless you work closely under a Winemaker for a couple of years.

What wines stand out in your memory as the most influential to your work?

I love California wines. I like to study California wines because I work to make sure that I have the tools to be able to improve what we have access to here. I like Monterey Pinot; I like Napa Cab; I love Merlot: it’s one of my favorite grapes. Working in Napa, I was able to taste some of the best Merlots. The best wine that I’ve ever had was 2003 Shafer Merlot. I was at Stags Leap at the time and since we were neighbors, I traded bottles with them and was able to taste it right off the line.

I always look forward to seeing what delicious things that you’ve brought for lunch, it seems like you have an eclectic palate. Is there a cuisine or a style of cooking that you are especially passionate about?

I like eating a lot. If I was to pick a specific type of restaurant, I would have to give it some thought. I like sauces as well as super spicy food with crunch. Szechuan and obviously Mexican food, especially when it comes to meats. One of the things that I enjoy so much about Szechuan cuisine is that it’s so alien to me. I didn’t grow up cooking it or with any of the spices around. Every time that I taste it, there is something different and I like the experience of it learning about these flavors. I am always adding something new to the flavor library that I am building in my head. When it comes to the wine, there is always a wine to pair with Szechuan as well. For something that is really spicy, I would probably pair it with a wine that is jammier, something with high pH. I like to pair overwhelming flavors in food with big flavors in wine, something spicy with a chewy wine. Every new Szechwan dish I taste is amazing. Mexican food is similar in that aspect, each region has a different style. But in all truth, I eat whatever is in front of me.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about different experiences of taste such as umami and spicy. When I say spicy, I mean the type of spice that you get in Mexican chilies. A secret of mine is that growing up, and even sometimes as an adult, I could drink an entire bottle of Valentina hot sauce. There is something about the acidity and spiciness of it, I will eat chips just to eat that salsa. I’m addicted to the sensation of it. It’s very similar to Szechuan mala, the scalding sensation that causes you to not be able to feel your mouth. I’m fascinated with the whole idea. The wasabi, mala, and chilis. These are all different forms of the experience of spice. It’s not about the aromatics or flavor, it’s about the physicality of taste. That’s what I really love about Petite Sirah, it’s the physicality of drinking. With this varietal and with other big wines, you really must tongue the wine, you have to slush your mouth around. I wish there were a wine that was really that profound in its aromatic profile, but for me it's all about the texture. 

Do you have any advice for those that are looking to get into the production side of the industry?

Production is tough. There is a place for everybody in production, but make sure that you can work for 12 hours in a row. You’ll be wet, cold, and shoveling tanks out, but if you enjoy the idea of it then go for it. Production is not fun, but it is very satisfying. I like what I do a lot because it is very physical, it’s not romantic work but it is very rewarding work. To someone looking to get into wine production, I would tell them not to become enamored with the romance of it, instead look at what is actually means to work in the cellar. You have to really like the physicality of it, that’s what I really enjoy about the cellar. (interviewers note: I’m starting to realize why Rene has denied me a harvest internship for the past 3 vintages.) For someone starting out, I would recommend to work one harvest and if you enjoy it then stick with it.

What do you do when you aren’t working?

A lot! I enjoy reading comics and I spend a lot of time listening to audiobooks while I’m working. I go through probably 10 audiobooks between January and May, simply because it’s quieter in the cellar during that time. I like stories and hearing what people have to say, specifically fiction and high fantasy. Right now, I’m listening to Frankenstein, next I’ll move on the newest short stories by Stephen King. I spend a lot of my time in the music scene too, I go to a lot of heavy rock and roll shows. The funny thing about me? I like eating, I don’t cook. I love comics, I don’t draw. I love music, I don’t play. But I enjoy things for what they are, I like the creation. That’s why I’m so passionate about the winemaking, because I want to make sure that I can provide that kind of experience to the people who like to drink wine.

If you were to choose one superpower, what would it be?

Oh, I know this one, I’ve known it for a while. I would like the power of telekinesis. I would grab stuff from far away. Beer, come! Wine, come! Remote control, come! TV, on! Volume, down! I would get so much more done if I had this power.

Comments

Abigail's Gravatar
 
Abigail
@ Jan 7, 2021 at 1:28 PM
Thank you for this! We've met Rene at the Paella Fiesta two years ago and had so much fun chatting about Petite Sirah with him. It's great to know more about his background! Rene, hi from Abigail!

Tony Mendicino's Gravatar
 
Tony Mendicino
@ Jan 7, 2021 at 3:39 PM
Wonderful interview and commentary from Rene! Very interesting to learn more about his background. I cherish his past advice in helping me improve my own home winemaking skills. Salute' Rene!

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