I live in Santa Rosa, CA with my beautiful wife, two kids and my vineyard dog-Willie. I have been managing the vineyards for St. Francis Winery for about 5 years, managing about 500 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards in Sonoma County.
THE TERRELL STORY —
I sure wish I grew up in a farming family — sure would have made the early days of my career less painful. There are things you just inherently learn growing up on a farm — the real nuts and bolts — that you just don’t learn in the city life. My father was a nuclear engineer, so this apple fell far from that tree. Growing up I’d always loved science, so I went to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo to pursue entomology and ended up loving being in the vineyards. At the same time I worked at a great seafood restaurant and got introduced to some amazing white Burgundy’s. Who’d have known that this little restaurant in Morro Bay, CA would have an amazing list of aged Montrachet’s, Chablis’, and Meursault’s? Thus, started my love affair with vineyards and wine.
Right out of college I got a job managing the vineyards for Justin Winery in Paso Robles, CA and was wholly unqualified for that job. I knew the science but lacked the hands-on, boots-on-the-ground kind of knowledge that comes with experience. Many vines suffered the terrible fate of “tractor blight” — which is bad farmer humor for a vine being ran over by a tractor — at my hands. I did, however, learn a ton while at Justin. What to do, what not to do — and I had an enormous passion for wine, which is surprisingly unique amongst vineyards managers. That level passion is normally bestowed to winemakers in our industry — so that made me relatively unique I guess.
With that wine knowledge and the experience I gained at Justin I was given the opportunity to manage the famed Monte Rosso Vineyard above Sonoma Valley. Monte Rosso is a special place; home to the oldest cabernet sauvignon vines in the US, as well as one of the single largest plantings of old vine zinfandel — planted more than 130 years ago. I worked with 20+ wineries and 20+ winemakers– not always easy! It was truly an honor to shepherd that beautiful site for so many years. But all things come to an end, and when I was given the chance to manage all of the estate vineyards for St. Francis Winery I jumped at it.
Farming estate vineyards is different than farming for multiple wineries. At St. Francis all of our fruit goes to our wine. That consistency and a long term, holistic view of estate vineyard management is where my passion really lies. Being able to farm our own fruit and make the wine from it is really unique. We have 500 acres across multiple sites throughout Sonoma County. Farming the right grapes in the right places.
You wake up in the morning — what’s the driving passion?
Farming is inherently seasonal — which makes it so fun — so every day is different. But regardless if we are pruning, planting a new vineyard, or harvesting, my driving passion is wine quality above all else.
California fires are impacting different regions of the State — both Northern and Southern California. What impact did the fires have on Santa Rosa in 2018 and on the wine industry?
Luckily most vineyards in Sonoma County were harvested by the time the fire hit. Vineyards make a great fire break — so vineyards throughout Sonoma County helped slow down the fire spreading even farther.
What makes the Santa Rosa region standout for the wine produced here?
St. Francis Winery & Vineyards is in the Sonoma Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) of Sonoma County. There are 18 different AVA’s in Sonoma County alone. Sonoma Valley stands out by the sheer diversity of climates and soils. We are able to grow amazing Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Zinfandel — really every grape variety — due to the extreme diversity in climate. I can’t think of another wine region in the world where that is duplicated.
Given what you do — what is the defining elements that separates great wine from those considerably less so?
By far the greatest influence to quality is where the grapes are grown, otherwise known as “Terroir.” Some scoff at the notion of terroir: the natural environment of where a wine is grown directly influencing it’s quality. A great wine is never made from a mediocre site. Never. Vineyard managers and winemakers can only do so much. Mother nature makes up 95% of the quality…we can only influence the last 5% at best.
So many people are into wine today — what’s the most common mistake people make when buying wine?
Don’t let the wine labels or marketing and price influence you. Buy a bunch of similar wines — same vintage, region, varietal — with different price points and taste them blind with friends. You’ll probably be surprised at the results.
What’s the best way for people to learn about wine?
Taste — visit your favorite wine regions, read books — repeat.
A number of key golf facilities have opted to include a major wine element in their food and beverage presentations. What separates the most successful from those considerably less so?
Commitment to the process and confidence in one’s craft sets most of the prestigious wineries apart. We take it a step further by assuring that we can sustain this level of quality into the future by caring so deeply for our environment, and taking the steps to preserve it. A purity of people, product and place is what carries us down a clear path to success.
If you had one specific thing yet to do on your wine bucket list what would it be?
Visit France. I know. Any self-acclaimed wine nerd should have been to France by now. Hopefully in a couple years.
What’s the biggest challenge — short and long term — facing the wine industry?
Short term — labor. It is harder and harder to get qualified vineyard employees. We are having to adapt and mechanize where we can, but winegrowing is inherently labor intensive. Long term — climate / weather. With increasing temperatures we will have to adapt in the vineyards with new rootstock, trellising and canopy management to mitigate these challenges.
Best advice you ever received — what was it and who from?
Do what you love. I have the best job in the world. I still can’t believe I get paid for doing what I love each day.
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