Thursday, December 15, 2016

He Called My Dog Fat!

I had the president of the Kiwanis Club over to my house for a meeting, not knowing he was the president.  While over at my house, he made a remark that got my attention, and not in a good way.  He called Dutchess “fat”.  Not suggesting she was fat, or overweight.  He just called her “fat”.  As it happened, this would be the first year that Dutcher Crossing Winery would be going to the Kiwanis Club to get a Christmas tree.  Dutchess decided to take a nap in the back of the car.  The president came out and greeted me, and I thought, “What’s he doing here?  That’s the son-of-a-gun that called Dutchie ‘fat’.” This was exciting, getting a tree for the winery and building a new relationship in the community, but I never knew a coincidence like this would happen.  I did not see this coming.  I mean, this is what I came out here for, odd moments and funny moments like this.  “He said what?” I still say to myself.  After seeing me pull up to the tree lot, his and all his co-workers’ tone changed.  They got me whatever tree I wanted, and did everything quicker than quick.  I held this over his head for years, and I got special treatment as a result.  I rarely get customer service as good as this.  That is, up until recently.
This year, 2016, I sent a couple of my guys to get a tree.  Everyone there was sad that we, Dutchess and I, didn’t come.  Come to find out, my guys left my credit card there.  So now, they make fun of me, and have the upper hand on me.  They joke with me…  “UGH!” I think, “I had the upper-hand for six years, and now it’s there turn.” I kick myself for letting the guys go.  “Ugh,” I say again to myself, “really?” But here I am, taking heat (friendly heat) after a six year reign.  I love this relationship because we can joke like this, the back-and-forth of it all.  This is part of the community that I love, and what I didn’t anticipate coming out here from Wisconsin.
        I’m trying to think of a way to get the upper-hand again.  Don’t have any ideas yet, but I’m open to suggestions.  Or, maybe I’ll just see how it goes.  That’s what the community is here in Dry Creek and Sonoma County.  Yes, we do business, but we have fun with each other as well.  I mean, calling my dog fat…  Some might say those are fightin’ words.  But not around here.  We make it fun.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Not Sure Dad Would Dig It

A lot of people don’t understated how my dad was, what kind of man he was.  He wasn’t one for excess attention.  Actually, he wasn’t one that liked attention at all.  He was all about family, community, communication, but he never wanted the spotlight on him.  So, it’s kind of a funny irony that the winery’s logo is the Penny-Farthing bike he gave to me, which to many of us symbolizes him and our family, the idea of family itself.  He wouldn’t want the connection to him.  He wouldn’t want any of this attention we give him.  I have to laugh, though…
And the Tribute label that we do, the wines that so many of our club members love and wait for, for about a year each time actually, he’d hate it.  He’d be mortified.  Again, he was a private guy.  Big philanthropist, people recognized him for the good work that he did for the community, everyone knew it was him but he did it anonymously.  He refused to have his name attached to anything.  So, now that it’s been ten years since his passing (can’t believe it), I thought I should let people know him a little better (which he would probably also not like), and I think it’s important people recognize what Dutcher entails, and where it really starts.
The newest release of the Tribute series, a ’15 Pinot Noir, has a cribbage board on front, as the label.  This is an embrace of what cribbage is to our family, how Dad would take us out regularly to play.  This is a way to not only further educate people on the Dutcher Crossing brand, but also to share our family’s traditions with club members and people visiting the winery.  Although Dad would love that we’re raising money for melanoma research, he definitely wouldn’t want the ‘tribute’ to him.  This latest release, with the cribbage board as the label, is my favorite so far.  The next Tribute project, for 2017, will be a collaborative effort between the Mathy family business and Dutcher Crossing winery.  And, that’s another thing Dad loved.  Bringing people together, everyone having an input and sharing in the story and what we do.  But, I laugh again…  If he found out it was all about him, and everything at the winery starts with him, he’d kill us.
Ten years since he’s passed.  The story starts with him, and keeps going with him.  That’s how we tell the DCW story.  The story’s about family, community.  He didn’t want attention, but he has everyone’s attention.  From him coming out here with me over and over looking for wineries, helping me fulfill my dream of owning a winery, all of it.  This is how I honor my father and share his story as well as mine.  Again, would he like it?  No.  He would hate the focus on him, but he would love everyone coming together and enjoying what we enjoy here at Dutcher.

Family and Help, Always Here

Again, I’m going to write on the note of having an amazing team to rely on.  Mom arrived one March, we picked her up from the airport, and we just bottled the Kupferschmid Red and were so eager to give Mom a bottle (since that is the wine we do for her).  Mom was staying at my house here on the property.  Well, she fell.  And it was a pretty nasty fall, with a rather big bruise on her head and knee.  I called Lorraine, our HR head, and said, “I broke my mom.” Nick and his wife Kelly, who was just finishing up nursing school at the time, came to the hospital for support.  Toward the end of Mom’s hospital visit, Kelly stayed behind while Nick and I got some food and prescriptions for Mom, while she waited to be discharged.  Another employee at the time watched over Duchess while all this was going down.  And to top it all off, it was raining cats and dogs.  Of course.
Nick reverses my car so close to the Emergency Room exit doors that they open.  See, they just left my mother in the room, just waiting there for us to get her out.  We got Mom home, had her all settled, only to find out the next day she had a broken kneecap.  I mean, it was just one thing after another.
Between all the guys here at the winery and Kelly, my mom had around-the-clock care.  Josh, our property operations and pretty much do-everything master, even built a ramp for Mom so she could get in and out of the house.  Mom was surround by people there for her, there to make her feel safe and comfortable, which made me feel safe and comfortable of course.  Mom was the priority.  Not just for me, but for Nick, Josh, Kelly, other employees at the time.  Everyone.  They all wanted her to recover from this horrible fall and be relaxed and in no pain just as much as I did.  My mom became their mom.  I couldn’t have felt more blessed.
Kelly insisted they clean her wounds at the hospital, I forgot to mention.  Kelly was intent on caring for Mom like she was on-duty, there at the hospital doing her job.  There is nothing like hearing your mother writhing in pain.  And I’ll tell you, I could not have done this on my own.  I mean, how lucky am I to have one of my winemaker’s wife just finishing up nursing school, there to help, and more than capable of helping.  It’s like Mom had her own private nurse.  Kept saying to myself, “Oh, thank goodness…  So lucky to have my team and others around me.”
        You’ll many times hear us at the winery joke around and say, “Oh that’s what happens when you’re family.” But it really is the case here.  I don’t know what I would have done with my mom so in pain if I didn’t have the people around me that I do.  I didn’t anticipate this coming out here and fulfilling my dream of owning a winery.  But here I am, and boy am I lucky.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Fortunate to Have My Team at Dutcher

It was St. Patrick’s Day a few years ago, and someone on the property said they saw a man sleeping by the house at the front of the property, by the barn.  When this was all unfolding, I was in the estate house enjoying a nice corn beef and cabbage dinner behind a gate.  So I’m thinking, “I’m safe, but who knows about everyone else and what this guy’s up to.” I call our assistant winemaker, Nick, and he went out to go see what was going on.  He didn’t like the idea of an intruder on the estate any more than I did.  So he went out there in the Prius we had at the time.  A joke rang in my head, “Huh, chasing down intruders in a Prius.  Of course, only in California.” Anyway, Nick went down to the house to see what was going.  He parked right by the house, off the side of the road.  It was pretty hot that day, so Nick looked all around the house, heard something moving around, and off to the left he found the man in the shade, laying down.  “What are you doing?” Nick asked.  
“Oh nothing, I’m just hiding from the cops,” he said. “I’m just laying here.”
“Well you can’t stay here. It’s private property.”
“Can I have a hundred dollars?”
“Sorry, man, you gotta go.” Nick finished.
So he left.  Nick stayed put, just to make sure he didn’t try to double-back, re-situate in the shade and have the whole thing happen again.
        Later, some of the crew saw him walking down Dry Creek Road, and we thought he might try to hide out on the property again.  We had an event that day with small bags of popcorn so naturally we all grabbed a bag, jumped in the Prius, and got back into pursuit mode.  We looked up and down Dry Creek Road.  Nothing… looked around a little more, still nothing.  We were in the clear.  What this shows me is that even though we spend so much time together here at work, and we count on each other in this professional context, I know, and we all know, that we can always call on each other for help with something not-so-related to work, and they’ll be there.  I can always say to someone at Dutcher, “I need help,” and they’ll be there.  Huh, I think now and find it funny this happened on St. Patty’s day, ‘cause I realized, yet again, how lucky I am to have the team I do.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Lots of Olive, Very Little Oil

We set out onto the property, the entire team.  It was Nick, our winemaker’s, idea.  So we decided as a whole crew that we’d pick them.  We ruled that a day in mid-October would be best.  It’s not easy work, picking olives.  We knew this.  I mean, you have to rake them off, you have to pick them off the ground, you have to get nets and you’re getting poked in the face by branches, and scratched everywhere…  Yeah, it’s a LOT of work.  But we were up for it.  There were a lot of olives to pick.  And I mean a lot.  Close to 900 pounds.  But we all went out there.  We wanted to make some olive oil from the Dutcher property and show it off, enjoy it ourselves at home, at the dinner table—something in addition to the beautiful wines our production team produces every vintage.

At the end of the mission, all of us launching into the vineyard’s outer borders for the sake of making olive oil, we wound up with about 3 cases of Dutcher Crossing olive oil.  Three cases!  It was fun watching everyone get competitive, watching the guys wanting to beat the girls, and vice versa.  It got intense, but not too serious.  This is one of the memories over my nearly ten years as owner that I’ll look back on and smile, laugh.  But what also makes me laugh is, as I said, THREE CASES.  “Three cases?  After all that work?  After all those scratches?  After all that time on the ground?”  Not too many talking about picking olives this year, I’ve noticed.  Not a problem, though.  We have those memories of the crew picking branch pieces and olives out of their hair, and off their clothes.. the battle wounds.  It was a great team bonding experience, at least in my mind, and reminded all of us how lucky we are not only to work here, but work with each other.  Seeing the girls in competition with the boys made me laugh more than a couple times.  It was fun, just plain old fun.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


        Just with the title, you might be thinking, “What?  What happened?” Well…  Let me tell you…..

        I broke the punchdown machine.  I’ve used it countless times before, during the past harvests, but somehow this time I managed to break it.  In the theme of safety, and how that’s a consistency here at Dutcher, I was safe elevated on the forklift, in a half-cage where the railing comes up to my waist.  So I knew I was safe.  Anyway, I was doing my punchdown, being a bit forceful with the cap of the cold-soaking wine, and the arm of the machine bucked hard to the left, nearly taking me with it.  Josh, our maintenance king, said there was a bit of metal fatigue, which makes me feel a little better, but either way it was a little funny that I, the owner of the winery, broke the puncher.  “It’s not your fault, Deb, it’s not your fault…” I keep telling myself.  They joke with me anyway, and I laugh with them.  Not that it could be helped, and certainly not expected, it just happened.  And I’m not the only one, mind you!  The machine has already been “broken”, I guess you could say, three times this harvest.  It’s been an interesting harvest, needless to say.  But, as I said when I restarted this blog, is that’s just what happens, and you have to laugh.  The machine’s working fine now, and everything is back to normal.  But it was a funny feeling telling my winemakers, “Uh, guys, I broke the punchdown machine.” Of course they gave me a joke and a jab, here and there.  And that’s expected, especially from Nick.  I think we found it funny as it happened so unexpectedly, and during harvest of all times.  Safety was in-place, but something happened.  “Oh well,” you have to say to yourself.  As a winery owner, this stuff’s gonna happen.  This may be my tenth harvest, but I’m still learning, and there’s still new experiences, some funny and some not.

Not Safe? Then No Movement.

One harvest, I was out there helping out.  But I had to be elevated up on a forklift, over 15 feet in the air.  No one wanted to move me.  In their desire to keep me safe and not risk having me fall, they kept me suspended up there, with bees and yellow jackets swarming around me.  For those that don’t know, when wine starts fermenting, or even right when the grapes arrive, those dang jackets and bees will absolutely wrap themselves around you.  Anyway, I was still up there, and no one had the guts to move me.  They were concerned I might fall.  No one moved me.  This battle went on for over two weeks, ‘Who’s going to be the one to move Debra when she’s doing punchdowns?’  It was a constant battle.  I appreciated it, but at the same time I was thinking, “Someone move me already!”

Now, either our Assistant Winemaker Nick, Cellar Master Cass, or our estate jack-of-all-trades Andres move me now when I’m up there punching down.  I value my life more than a ton of grapes, and these are the guys that do it without any hesitation.  And, I don’t hesitate allowing them to move me while I’m up on that thing.  Safety has to come first, that’s always been a staple and a consistency at Dutcher Crossing.  If it takes an hour longer to do something, and it’s safer, then that’s what you do.  Just like back home with my family’s construction business.  In the wine world, what I’m learning, is that time management is vastly different.  With these punchdowns that we do and that I was doing while up on that lift, you’re in your own little world.  I’m up there with my earphones in, listening to music.  Why can I do that, have my own moment up there punching down a cap of grapes?  Because I feel safe.  I know a safe reality is in place, for me and the everyone on the crush pad and around the winery.

During harvest, safety has to be the priority.  Not something you check on here and there, but a constantly maintained state here at the winery.  I don’t get up on that lift anymore, as the boys want to get things done quick, but I have been out there raking fruit out of the bins.  I still want to help, be out there with the boys and contribute where I can.  I’ll be helping out this harvest with punchdowns in the morning, with Nick’s crew.  Yes, I’m sure the bees and jackets’ll be buzzing around me, but it’s all part of the job.

Making wine is a long process, and in the process there needs to be an assurance that you’re safe.  It’s that simple.  Like I said, if it takes an hour longer and everyone’s going to be alright, then I’m fine with it.  Safety can never be overestimated.  Each department here at the winery depends on the other, and we constant are checking our procedures, making sure they’re safe.  Looking back now, I can see this is completely the reason for the boys not wanting to move me.  They just wanted me to be safe, which I appreciate.  Harvest to harvest, this is what I and anyone visiting Dutcher Crossing will see.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Kerry on Wheels, and the Wall

We had an all-terrain segway on property, shortly after I bought the winery, and all the employees wanted to ride it.  So, I had someone from the segway company come out and do some training courses for everyone.  Everyone took their turn with it, riding around the lawn just outside the tasting room.  Then comes Kerry, oh Kerry.  The tasting room staff suggested he take it for a spin.  “Hey, Kerry, why don’t you give it a go?”  You have to understand that our winemaker isn’t the most maneuverable guy in the world, and doesn’t have the best balance, which is a necessity for riding one of these things.  This is a device that could seriously hurt you if you’re not trained on it properly.  Kerry was not trained on it at all, much less “properly”.  He was being taunted and screamed at from all directions, and he couldn’t control the thing.  Riding it, he was like an untrained cowboy on a bucking bronco, being jerked back and forth quite violently.  What went through my head was something like, “Oh… my whole business is flashing right before my eyes.” Before too long, he rand into the wall just to the right of the main tasting room doors.  And not that far away from them.  He could have very easily gone through those doors, and that would have been it.

After the  collision hear ‘round the world, Kerry got up, white as a ghost, and thankfully walked unscathed.  But, he needed a full, full glass of wine.  One of the benefits of working at a winery, when something like this happens you have the juice to calm you down a bit.  Yes, looking back, he probably shouldn’t have been let on the segway without the training.  But, it happened how it happened, and it taught me don’t let Kerry do anything, really.  He later asked if he could take it through the vineyard, which as you may know is very uneven terrain and is quite risky to ride with a segway, even if you are trained.  I told him, “Absolutely not!” Explained that if you were to fall on one of those wired, or ram into one of those posts, you could be left headless.  This gave him a sense that, no, this was not something for him to do.

From time to time, I ride around the vineyard blocks, down the long paved stretch in between vineyard blocks and then in some of the blocks themselves (especially now at the start of harvest when the fruit tastes pretty darn good), but when no one’s around.  I don’t want anyone to be tempted, and I certainly don’t want to have the discussion with Kerry, should he ask to give it another go.  Yes, it’s was a little funny seeing the not-at-all athletic Kerry Damskey try to ride an all-terrrain segway, which requires a good amount of finesse and balance, into the wall, but it also made me realize the importance of my team’s safety and well-being.  So, just another funny memory in my time as the owner.  But a lesson as well, that my team’s safety ALWAYS comes first.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Mom, the Magic and the Cookies

An integral part of the winery’s story, obviously, but many don’t know why.  Of course, there’s the Kupferschmid Red that we occasionally pour in the tasting room, a popular red blend of Rhône varietals grown on the estate.  But, many of you don’t know about the cookies she makes for events around the holidays.  Mom brings the tradition and the flavor of the midwest to the winery, and in deliciously addictive form.

We hold a holiday release for one of our clubs during the holidays, and I didn’t want my 70 year-old mom on her feet pouring.  So, she offered to make cookies.  “How many do you need?” she asked.  “About 500,” I told her.  She wanted to make three or four kinds of cookies.  I said she could just make one.  But I told Mom the next year, after the club had grown quite a bit, we needed 2,000 cookies.  Mom looked at me, just trying to figure out how we’d find the space to make this large cache of cookies.  It took quite a bit of time, believe me.  I mean, we had to tie the little ribbons, make sure they were all presentable for the party.  Oh, and she made around 15 different kinds of cookies.  That’s Mom.

As the years went on, my brothers started to get quite angry with me, letting Mom make all these different types of cookies, prepping all year hunting for new recipes.  By this time, she’s around 75 or 76.  And the club had grown even larger.  So… more cookies.  “What do you mean you want Mom to make 4,000 cookies?” Steve blared at me.  “She wanted to, Steve, she wants to!” I shot back.  We agree to have my brothers’ wives help Mom our, cooking tireless in the house on the winery’s property.  The storage fridge was full.  And I mean FULL.

We couldn’t get the cookies the club members got.  The cookies had to be broken or not up to Mom’s standards, then would could get some.  So, when Mom wasn’t looking, we’d break one and say something like, “Whoop! This one broke!”, so we could get our own.  That was the only way we could enjoy Mom’s amazing cookie recipes.

Eventually, we would make bundt cakes for the members, as the cookie got to be too exhausting.  Mom still insists on taking care of the wine club family, bringing the midwest traditions to the winery.  Where I come from, when you have people over for dinner or any kind of gathering, you make the food yourself.  You don’t order in.

Mom still insists on helping, as I said.  For this holiday season coming up, we’ll be doing the Bundt cakes again, and we’ll continue to give out some of Mom’s favorite cookie recipes.  I won’t lie, I miss the cookies, but I don’t want her doing too much.  She’s done more than enough for me, and the winery.  Member, as well.  They depend on her magic at every holiday gathering.  Oh… and then there’s the peanut brittle and caramels she makes.  That’s another blog post, I promise.  But just know this: there’s nothing like Mom’s cookies and cakes, and her dedication to feeding the people that come over, treating everyone that comes over like family.  This is a family-owned winery, and no one reinforces that like my mother.  And her cookies.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

How Dutchess Got to Dutcher

A lot of people think Dutchess is the one and only dog of Dutcher Crossing.  Well, she is the one and only, but not the first.  In March of ’07, I had all the moving taken care of, and now I have a job where I can have a dog.  So I was excited.  One Sunday night, I was online looking for a dog.  Found a golden retriever, an old girl.  She turned out to be very laid back.  A rescue dog named Gwen.  But, the poor pooch had trouble even walking from the winery office building, or “cottage”, to the tasting room.  The foster mom who brought me to the dog, took back the dog the weekend of an event after saying she would take her to the vet, leaving the check on the doorstep.   The foster mom claimed the dog would be happier with the her.  Didn’t expect this to happen, at all.  I mean, I told the adoption agency, “She stole my dog.” But, for the better, I found.

Then we had two Blue Heelers my friend Tina Maple turned me on to, but they wouldn’t stop marking their territory.  One time on Tina Maple herself.  Their owner was handicapped, and constantly needed attention.  That was going to be a problem here at the winery, as everyone here is always, always moving. They didn’t eat that well, but never really caused any trouble.  But, they always needed attention.  Being an owner or anyone working at a winery you can’t give a dog constant attention.  It just doesn’t work.  I even had to sleep with my legs hanging off the bed so they could touch me.  Needless to say, I wasn’t sleeping, and I knew it wasn’t working.  I told Tina about everything going on with the Heelers and she recommended a dog therapist.  I’m thinking, “Of course, only in California.” The sister dog took on the alpha role, and it was all a mess.  I mean, it was one thing after the other with these pups.  Still nice dogs, but not a good fit, so I gave them back to the owner.  I still occasionally see them when I visit Tina, and they’re very loving and excited to see me, which feels nice.

Then Dutchess.  The sweetest dog I ever could have hoped for.  Some wine club members knew of some businessmen over in Taiwan that had a dog shelter.  There was a litter of abandoned puppies on a roof.  I said, “I’ll take the chubby one.” The wine club members went to go get Dutch, flying her into L.A. then up to the Bay Area.  Met them in Napa, and we’ve been together ever since.  It was destiny, it really was.  Little Dutchess I knew would have a great life with me, in my new life here in the wine country.  The timing couldn’t have been better, just as my new life in the wine country was taking off and I was starting my new life in California, I have this loving, adorable, social lab.  I don’t know what life would be like without my Dutchie, and I don’t want to know.  I don’t have to know.  She’s here with me, with all of us at the winery, and we couldn’t be happier.  If you come by the winery and see her, walk up and say ‘hi’!  She’d love to make another friend.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

I Don’t Know…

When we’re out on a winery cruise, I handle it a little differently than I think people expect a winery owner to.  Yes, I like to be prepared, but I don’t like to overdo it.  We have an incredible travel agent that handles all the logistics for us.  All we need to do is get the wine on the boat and make sure people have a good time.  The first cruise we hosted, wine club manager Kali Hoffert and I, and it was the first time for both of us ever being on a cruise.  We didn’t know what to expect, we only knew that we wanted cocktail parties every night, have fun at every place the boat docked, and that was about it.  People would ask me, “So what do we have planned today?”, and I would answer, “I don’t know,” it somewhat took them aback.  They’re used to seeing me running around the winery trying to put out fires and meet guests and club members, walk around with Dutchess before getting into something.  Just always moving.  On a cruise, it’s not like that.  At all. 

I truly didn’t know how they worked, cruises.  It was an adventure, that’s how I looked at it.  When the boat docked, there was no planned outing or van pickup, nothing like that.  We all shared in cab costs, and went out where we went out.  True vacation, why not?  One stop in particular, in Rome, we walked 19 miles in change.  Everyone went in their own directions and made the day their own adventure.  Dinner that night, our winemaker Kerry, Kali, and I were nearly the only ones standing that night at dinner.  I laughed a little, but people did what they wanted.  What vacation should be.  Freeing.

One thought I have is that I’m prepared everyday at the winery to talk about the wines, and prepared for tastings and appointment.  On this cruise, all I need to do is be prepared to talk about the wines and make sure everyone was having fun. We were in the Mediterranean, in the Baltic's, Italy as I mentioned, and a couple other places.  I’ll figure it out when I get there, that’s what I say, that’s what I’m thinking when I’m on the cruise.  Long as the wines are there, everything else will be handled.  It’ll all work out.

A cruise is supposed to be laid-back, and that’s what it is.  Some would say to a fault, but in my mind it’s just right.  All I need to do is make sure the wine is there, know where we start and where we finish, see everyone having fun, enjoying their vacation.  When I’m back at the winery, then I can be planned.  But, I will say that I’ve become more like I am on the cruise when I’m here at the winery than I was before.  What I mean is, just going with the flow sometimes.  You can only plan so much.  Just enjoy the moment and where you are.  Life is short, and if you plan too much then you spend a lot of life in planning mode.  Sometimes it’s better to just live, have the basics in place, and go from there.  That perspective is what I want guests and club members of Dutcher to appreciate.  And, what’s our next cruise’s itinerary?  I don’t know.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Hey, This is Easy

My first harvest was 2007.  Everything was beautiful, from the fruit to the pace of everything in production after the fruit came in.  Many of you know about the ’07 vintage.  It was, many would say, perfect.  I remember my brother calling me, asking “So how’s is going?” I answered back, “You know what, fine, this isn’t so hard.” But that was the last time I ever expressed anything like that when it came to harvest.  Why?  Because everything that followed introduced its own little stew of stress.  Everything from the reduced yields in ’08 through ’10 and 2011 of course, then the problem of having too much in ’12 and ’13.  Harvest is never really predictable.  Each one is different.  

Mother Nature will always remind you she’s in charge.  She offers her own set of challenges on top of what happens after you have the fruit on the crush pad.  I’ve learned that you keep learning, whether you’re a winery owner, or winemaker, or in the tasting room.  The lifelong learning aspect to this business and this life is real.  With each new harvest there’s not just a new lesson and new slew of experiences, but more growth for us all.  I’m still pleasantly surprised by what I see and experience each harvest, and more in love with this life that I’ve been a part of the last 10 years.  I didn’t anticipate this maybe as much as I should have, but the challenge and the education is incredible, especially to someone like me from Wisconsin who for years dreamt about this.

It’s challenging, harvest.  I realize that now.  Peaks and valleys, different stages… everything from bud break to bloom.  Over the past nine harvests and approaching my tenth, I see the vineyard and each vintage as the puzzle that we all put together and the ripples we all feel.  A lot of people don’t think about that.  What happens in a vintage affects everyone from the vineyard team, then the winemaking team, then the sales teams who have to sell through the vintage.  If there’s a big vintage that blesses us with amazing clusters and overall yield, that’s great for the winemaking team, but for the tasting room and other departments creates quite the challenge with having so much to sell so we can release the next vintage.  It’s all connected, everything at the winery, and it all stems from the vintage’s conditions.

Kerry reminds me that in the last ten years he’s experienced more weather variation and general challenges in the vineyards and winemaking than he has in his 40-year career.  Whatever you take away from that, you should appreciate that vintage is unpredictable, that Mother Nature is in control.  And when you have sales goals to meet and inventory to move through, it can get a little stressful.  The stress I’m talking about, I didn’t feel even a twinge of in ’07.  Oh but I learned over then next the next eight vintages (2008-2015), many times having too little and then in ’12 and ’13 having 40% over capacity.  Harvest is never the same.  No vintage is like another.  It’s stressful, it’s unpredictable, but we always rally and pull together.  We come out successful and satisfied in the end, and I love it.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

It’s Hot but I’m Not Moving

Our first ever Grower’s Party, I think in ’08, was held on the crush pad.  Kerry and I decided to take a backseat to the growers, which was really the point of the party— to showcase the growers and their family stories, and their passion for their vineyards and the fruit that comes from it, all for the club members to taste from the barrel right next to them.  It’s fair to say we didn’t think this thing through all the way, as it was in the high 90’s, and the heat radiating off the concrete registered at about 130 degrees.  I was in the back grilling food and members kept coming back and urging me to bring the growers inside.  I mean, it was hot out there over that concrete, and if we can get them away from it, we should.

I went out to the crush pad after a few more guests approached me.  Tina Maple and Eivor Taylor had bags of ice all around their bodies, and standing close to the tanks which were in full chiller mode (with the glycol jackets around the outside of the tanks).  Even still, they looked like they just got out of the lap pool.  Eventually, we had them seated in a shaded area.  But, I overheard someone say “I wish I would have gotten a taste.” So one grower, then another, then all of them went back to the pad.  So did all the club members, and my staff followed them trying to get them back in a shaded area.  I laugh now, like with many of these stories, but then I was genuinely concerned.  I mean, it was hot, and the weather was hard on the younger people let alone growers in their 50s, 60s, and 70s.  

They wouldn’t leave their barrels, they wanted to tell their stories.  The Grower’s Party is a whole day dedicated to them, ‘cause they are the stars of the show.  So it’s no wonder they didn’t want to leave the pad, standing their ground in that hotter-than-hot heat.  And they did NOT budge.  This is about relationships, I’ve said before about this business, and this pride in our work is one of the many things we have in common with our growers.  The intensity in representing their family vineyard is what kept them on that hot crush pad, that first year.

      Now, of course, we have the party on the lawn.  It’s still hot, yes, but a little bit more tolerable.  But it wouldn’t matter, they won’t leave their barrels’ sides, for anything.  I love seeing members of my staff bond with the growers, learn more about the wines they pour everyday and where the fruit came from.  The Grower’s Party truly is a day for the growers.  I’ve always felt it was like the rockstars entering the arena, and I think that we all should see it that way.  The same level of pride and joy we feel toward the Dutcher Crossing  wines is easily mirrored if not slightly eclipsed by these growers and what they feel for their vineyards, the fruit they provide for our wines.  There was just no convincing them to walk away from their barrels.  That kind of passion can’t be instilled, or taught.  It’s just who they are, and that can only be admired and studied by consumers and those of us in the business.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Nick: Way of Life, Not a Job

Nick Briggs, who is now our associate winemaker, was one of seven final candidates Kerry and I had selected to replace our last assistant winemaker.  Nick was on of the candidates that we were particularly interested in, and we wanted to meet him.  Kerry thought Nick was great for the position, but I was still a little on the fence.  Not that I had doubts, I just wasn’t as inspired by him as Kerry was.  But we met with him, and he was dressed to the 9’s with his pleated dress pants, looking all dapper, and he spoke to us about his background and skill-set, and that he was an assistant winemaker somewhere else.  Kerry voiced the concern that this is kind of a lateral move for him (Nick).  Kerry had in his head the fear that Nick wouldn’t be around too long as he’s already been an assistant winemaker.  What would the longevity be of a guy with this level of skill?  It’s not much of a step up.  The other guy we were interested in was this English bloke that was a cellar master somewhere else, so a job here would be a huge step for him.  But when Nick approached us and said, “I have my boots and gear in the truck, and if I’m not the guy for the job, fine, but I’m happy to help you out till you find the right person.” I asked Kerry if he heard what he said.  Kerry said ‘yeah’, but then I asked him again, “Did you HEAR what he said?” I knew, he was our guy.

It’s clear, it’s not just a job for him, it’s a way of life.  Nick brings everything to the table, to our winery; humor, really extensive wine knowledge, and an approachability that’s perfect for what we want guests to feel when they arrive.  In business, there needs to be a balance of all moving parts.  Nick brings an attitude and a personality that is all about passion.  In the wine life, you can have two attitudes:  1, you make it part of you so it’s not just a job, it’s a career and something you can build and grow with.  Or, 2, it’s just another job; you take no ownership and just go from day today, no that interested, no passion.  Nick is a winemaker who’s made this winery and the story my father and I started so many years ago a part of him.  He’s a part of this winery, in a serious way.  Kerry would agree.  He does agree.  I keep thinking about him saying “I have my boots and my work clothes in the car”, and how Kerry and I looked at each other and knew.  We just knew.  So why am I telling this story?  Because it’s important to see how you can have a plan but learn as you go.  I didn’t expect for Nick to say that, and for Kerry and I to agree in the end as strongly as we did.  At first, I wasn’t as sold on him, and then after that last interview Kerry wasn’t as taken by him.  But, it was him.  His actions, his approach to the wine life, to mentoring the staff (not intimidating them, inviting them to learn about wine rather than condescending to them), to telling the Dutcher story.  It’s a perfect fit.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Cabernet Split

It’s a kick as a winery owner to see what wines people gravitate toward.  There are so many that love that more classic California style of Chardonnay like Stuhlmuller or Costello, with the butter and oak suggestion the whole way through, then you have your more old-world Chard lover who’ll take the Winemakers’ Cellar Chardonnay out of the tasting room by the palate!  And Zinfandel, well, we make eight different Zinfandels year to year, and those preferences are all over the board.  The Zins are hard to keep track of, frankly, on where the trends are and who likes what— of course you have the Maple Vineyard loyalists who’ll take the vineyard designate and Bill’s block over anything, then I notice people who only love our Proprietor’s and Bernier, or the Pritchett Peaks® Zinfandel from Rockpile…  Again, it’s hard to keep track of.

One particular split that I’ve always found interesting is the fans of the flagship Taylor Vineyard Cabernet versus the Alexander Valley Cabernet from the Cooney Vineyard.  This friendly ‘rivalry’, I guess you could call it, has proven again and again to be the most opinionated and fierce.  People who like the Taylor seem to be those that like that big California Cabernet but with a little more swagger and finesse to its taste and overall palate.  People who prefer the Cooney seem to me to be the Cabernet drinkers who like that gritty, dark, chewy and chunky style of Cab.  It never fails, literally every time a group comes in and someone behind the bar pours the Taylor and Cooney side-by-side, the camps are split.  And, I’ve always found this fascinating.  It’s fun to see people split into smaller groups in their thoughts and opinions about the two Cabernets.  Of course there’s no right or wrong answer, it’s just fun, for them and for me.

Wine is about getting together, with family and friends, loved ones, and finding what you like.  The playful rivalries are fun, too.  Nothing brings a little antagonism out like Taylor and Cooney.  I mean, I see it again and again.  Between my employees, between myself and some of the tasting room staff…  The jokes start flying, we start laughing and having little debates on which is better, and we move on.  All in the life of someone living the wine life. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Don’t Drop My Babies

I know dropping fruit is part of the game.  I’ve always known that.  But that doesn’t mean I like it, or have to like it.  One of the first times I tasted Kerry’s wines, which was the 2005 Syrah, he asked me what I thought.  I said, “They’re okay.” I think he may have been a little offended.  Kerry being the devoted guy he is wanted to do it better the next vintage, so he called for a green drop of fruit, insisting the change needed to be made in the vineyard.  This means that while the fruit is on the vine, and still green (before veraison, or ripening), the crew goes through the vineyard blocks and drops fruit to facilitate concentration in the berries.  Well, I didn’t know how seriously Kerry was going to take my remarks.  I’d say he dropped anywhere from 50 to 55% of the fruit, between the “green drop” and an additional drop after ripening.

First time I saw all that fruit on the ground, a “green drop”, I about had a momentary meltdown—  Well, it was more than a meltdown, I think it lasted about a week.  I mean, my fruit, my babies, were just lying there.  On the ground!  All that kept going through my head was, “It costs money to drop the fruit, and all that fruit on the ground will never be made into wine to sell.” Look, I understand that this has to be done, but it was another hard lesson I had to not just learn but appreciate as a winery owner.  What a mean lesson, though.  A painful one.  It hurts to even talk about, I swear.  But I know, if I want the wine to have more structure, more character and persuasive power, then we need to drop fruit.  But just imagine, seeing a pile of fruit, about a foot tall, mounds all over the vineyard of fruit that was just cut off, just dropped.  Just sitting there.  Potential product, gone…  UGH!  See?  Just thinking about it bothers me…  My poor grapes!  My babies!  But, it needs to happen.  For the quality of the wine.

Walked the vineyards just this morning, and I enjoyed the peace, the in-tact picture I see.  I know it’ll change, and I know it has to change if Dutcher wines are to continue tasting as delicious as they are, as our winemaking team makes them.  It makes sense, it just hurts.  I mean, just imagine seeing all that fruit, just lying there…

Expect me to post a picture of the mounds later in the season.  Right now, the grapes are all there.  Together and so beautiful, untouched.  I know it’s coming, the green drop.  I know more or less when it’s going to happen.  Just don’t expect to see me around the winery.  And if you do see me on-property, I’ll be hiding in my office, so I don’t have to see those mini green mountains.  ‘Cause if I go out there, there’ll be a meltdown.  Ask my staff, no one wants that.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

They Taste like WHAT?

One harvest dinner, only a couple years into owning the winery, I had my oldest brother Steve come out from Wisconsin.  I was getting more and more familiar with the California Wine Country way of life, or so I thought.  Definitions of dinner and stuff you can eat is different out here, obviously.  This was made very apparent one year when one of the courses was barbecued quail.  My brother gave me a look.  He didn't know what to think.  Nor did I, especially after seeing one of our growers eat not just the quail, but the bones.  “The bones!” I thought.  My brother was, well, I don’t know which would be the better word— ‘disgusted’?  ‘Disturbed’?  It may sound like I’m being judgmental, but I’m not.  I was a little bit taken by the demonstration of the old school wine country farmer mentality.  Nothing goes to waste.  This same grower also told me that he used to eat robins and their bones growing up.  Now this was a bit hard to hear, but it’s the way out here.  That wine country farmer mentality, especially families that are 4th or 5th, or 6th generation, this is just what they do.

Once we started talking about it, the whole table knew what was going on.  And everyone was reacting.  This grower kept on eating quail, and the bones… crunch, crunch, CRUNCH.  Everyone was looking, but he just kept going.  Looking at my brother, he couldn’t wait to leave the table.  Again, I’m not judging, I’m just sharing how casually and freely he ate these bones.  When he was asked about how they tasted, he compared them to eating robin bones as a kid.  In my head, I was like, “HUH?” I still am, but this reminded me that this is where I’m supposed to be, here in wine country for experiences like this.  I still have dinner with this grower from time to time, but not when he’s fixing gamey meats, or any birds.

My brother hasn’t been out here for a harvest dinner since.  But I’m here, living the wine country way of life and this is just what you find at the table sometimes.  People eating quail, and their bones.  THEIR BONES.  I still have a hard time saying it, but it happens.  I can’t look at a quail now the same way, I’ll tell you.  I’ll get over it eventually.  That same grower now brings over abalone, meats from his hunting outings, among other things.  This was part of building the relationship.  In wine country, relationships are what sustain the community, what builds businesses and make life out here so enjoyable.

I’ve owned Dutcher Crossing for almost ten years now, and these instances keep coming up.  They’ll only happen here in Sonoma County, I’m convinced.  I can’t wait to post the other stories I have.  This is actually pretty mild in comparison.  I mean, eating robin bones isn’t something that happens every day, or really ever in the lives of most people.  But, just wait and see what other stories I have.  Just wait….

Oh, and Steve still won’t come out for harvest dinners.

All my best,


Thursday, June 30, 2016

Dutchess’ Reach

It’s known that Dutchess has a reputation.  She’s recognized.  She makes all moments at and outside the winery memorable.  People know her.  How known she is became apparent to me this one time I was over in Napa with some friends, doing some tasting and enjoying a rare day off.  We were at a tasting room on the main drag there on 29, finishing up a tasting and walking to our car.  Unexpectedly, we were approached by a couple, and they stopped right in front of us, saying, “Oh my god, that’s Dutchess from Dutcher Crossing!” The friends I was with couldn’t believe it.  They thought I staged the whole thing.  I mean, there we were in Napa and some people I’d never seen before come up to us, make a scene of seeing Dutchie.  I double-checked what I had on, and I was not logo’d.  No bicycle gear, no winery logos anywhere.  This was a real, genuine greeting.  They couldn’t help themselves, they had to say hi, and it warmed my heart.

We go to another winery, and the exact same thing happens.  “Come on, Deb,” my friends say, insinuating I put this in place, that I knew these people.  And, again, no I didn’t.  It was Dutchess they recognized.  It was Dutchess that go the reaction.  They know she’s the Dutcher Crossing dog, but have no idea who I am.  None.  For all they know I’m a dog-sitter or something.  But I think more about it, and that’s just the way I want it.  Dutchess puts off the exact vibe I want the winery to.  Laid-back, relax, inviting…  She’s the center of attention, always, and it’s easy to see why.  There’s nothing superficial about her, and she has that same attitude we do back home in Wisconsin—  ‘Welcome to our house, nice to meet you, enjoy yourself…’ I smile when people approach her like this, randomly, or at the winery when I’m brought out by one of the staff to say hello to new or longtime members.  I’m passed by, while Dutchie is given endless hugs and pets, love and attention.  This is just how I want it.  She deserves it.  She welcomes it.  Dutchess is the atmosphere of the winery— laid-back, inviting, loving.  The guests can’t enough of her, and I love it, just as I love her.

Her reputation always astounds me.  Yes, it happens around the Dry Creek AVA, but to see her fame stretch all the way over the hill to Napa, is somewhat surprising.  I would even say ‘humbling’.  She’s more known in Napa than I am in Dry Creek.  This would have to be one of the greatest lessons to be learned from Dutchess, to enjoy the moment, that nothing’s more important than now.  People that meet her notice this as well, that she’s all about the current moment, that she’s focused on you when you meet her.  Since moving out here to wine country, and having Dutch’ in my life, I’ve been motivated to further appreciate where I am and the journey on which Dad and I set out over ten years ago.  Every time she’s recognized outside Dry Creek, be it in Napa or somewhere else in Sonoma, I’m reminded how lucky I am to be out here, living this life, and sharing Dutchess’ positive energy with you when you visit. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Hot Tub

     When you live where you work, you have to be a bit more mindful of, well, everything.  It was May of ’07, right when I bought Dutcher Crossing, I was already smitten by the growing vines, and one morning I thought I’d start the day with a little dip.  I thought, “What a nice way to start the day, look at the beautiful vines that are growing…” So I got in.  Then all of a sudden, four or five vineyard crew members were just beyond the trees, walking toward the house.  And again, the trees weren’t as big as they are now.  So the protection and privacy was minimal.  I didn’t know they started that early, and by ‘that early” I’m talking just after 5 in the morning.

     Owning a winery is like a string of lessons.  And this one, well, was an interesting one.  I woke up that morning and thought casually that there would be nothing around me but these vines, and the maturing trees.  Enjoy my morning, like anyone else.  But when I saw those guys walking toward the vines just beyond the lawn, it was clear:  I own a winery, I live at that winery, and I can’t be in the tub at the day’s beginning. 

     I was still getting used to the routine, I thought I’d be in and out and not connect with anyone.  Well, no.  It was a shock, and a valuable realization, that I live where I work, and work always comes first.  So I threw a towel on and shot into my bedroom.  I think of this and laugh, it was a little embarrassing but like I’ve said with these other stories, I laugh now.  Whenever I’m at the estate house, which isn’t that often anymore, but when I am and I see that hot tub, this is what I think of.

     So, you only hot-tub when the moon’s out.  Got it.