We all love a good bottle of wine, but it’s not often we think about all the actual science that goes into making sure the blends and flavors are just right. Enter Laura Barrett, head winemaker at Napa Valley-based Clif Family Winery. With a background in chemistry and experiences across the globe, Laura has a unique approach to her winemaking that is a careful balance of science and art. We talked to Laura about learning from female mentors in a traditionally male-dominated field, focusing on organic efforts on the job and how professional winemakers have made wine fewer times than you think.
B+C: Where/when did you get your start in wine and when did you realize this could be a career?
LB: I first became interested in wine during my third year of college. I was studying Chemistry and quickly realized that I did not want to work in a laboratory for the rest of my life. I was too far along to switch majors, so I promised myself that I would finish, but then find an interesting application, one that balanced science with people and the outdoors. After graduating, I traveled to the southern hemisphere, where I worked the harvest season picking grapes at a small winery on Waiheke Island, New Zealand. I fell in love with the industry and became fascinated with fermentation science. It was here that I realized winemaking was the right career choice. I returned home after a year in New Zealand and moved to California to pursue a career in wine.
B+C: Tell us about your journey to head winemaker at Clif Family.
LB: When I moved to the Napa Valley, I began my graduate studies at the University of California, Davis in the Viticulture and Enology program. After graduating in 2003, I began working at Fisher Vineyards in Sonoma County. I managed the cellar at Fisher, so gained a lot of experience in cellar practices, winery equipment and bottling logistics. Because of its small size, I also had the opportunity to work alongside the winemaker, Whitney Fisher, and consulting winemaker, Mia Klein. So while getting my hands dirty in the cellar, I was also walking the vineyards with the team, sitting in on blending trials and participating in decisions along the way. After five years at Fisher, I took on my first independent winemaking position for a small brand called Casey Flat Ranch. Here, I gained a lot of experience with different varietals — Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Rose, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petite Sirah! For the red wines, we made blends rather than single varietal wines, so I spent a great deal of time fine tuning my blending skills. I made the wines at Casey Flat Ranch for eight years before landing at Clif Family Winery. I was drawn to Clif because of its high-quality Howell Mountain Estate vineyards, its broad range of varietals and its sustainable business practices. After two years on board now, it really feels like a final destination.
B+C: You made a list of 10 female winemakers you wanted to work with. Why was it important to seek out female winemakers specifically?
LB: When I finished my graduate degree and entered the workforce, I was determined to work under a female winemaker. So I made a list of 10 women that I admired in the industry and wrote them a hand-written letter asking for an internship. That was back in 2003, so at the time there were fewer females leading the industry. I was interested in seeking out this minority so I could learn from them and rise to the top. Today, I think there are more women in the industry, at least here in the Napa Valley.
B+C: Clif Family started as an energy bar company — how much of the company’s green/organic focus carries over into the winery?
LB: Clif Bar and Company’s sustainability efforts carry over 100 percent into what we do at Clif Family Winery. Both companies, though operating separately, have the same owners and are guided by the same principals, known as the Five Aspirations — sustaining our business, brands, people, communities and the planet. More specifically, our Estate vineyards are CCOF certified organic and we make all of our packaging decisions based on recyclability and environmental impact.
B+C: How have you used your background in science in your approach to winemaking?
LB: Science is the foundation of my approach to winemaking. It’s the backbone and where I always go to solve problems. For example, when a wine is not behaving as I might expect, I look at the chemistry and microbiology. But, when it comes to everyday decisions, those are based on flavor and my creative approach overrides.
B+C: How much of winemaking (and wine drinking) is science vs. art?
LB: The actual process of winemaking — turning grapes into wine — is a lot of science. It’s so cool. We use yeast to convert sugar to alcohol and that is, without a doubt, a scientific pathway. Then we use bacteria to convert malic acid into lactic acid. We understand all the difference acids in the wine and quantify them. We use sulfur as an antioxidant. We measure the tannin and pigment in the wine. We use oak barrels for the process of delicate oxidation. We stabilize the wine so that it ages appropriately in bottle. These are all scientific approaches. And many of these scientific approaches can change the flavor of the wine. For example, if I decided to stop the fermentation early, this leaves residual sugar in the wine and greatly impacts flavor.
How you use these scientific methods is the art of winemaking. What kind of product are you trying to create? How will you best express the place where the grapes are grown? How much new oak will you use? How will you extract color and tannin from the skins? This subjective input expresses the creativity and feeling of the winemaker.
Drinking wine, on the other hand, is an authentic experience created from the wine that you are drinking, the people you are sharing it with, the food you are pairing it with and the environment you are in, evoking an emotional response and creating a fond memory. So, I would argue that drinking wine is an artistic experience, kind of like a museum goer observing a beautiful painting.
B+C: What’s one thing about winemaking that most people don’t know?
LB: Harvest only happens once a year and every vintage is different. That’s a statement that most people do know. What’s interesting about this, and what most people do not consider, is that a winemaker with 25 years of experience has only made wine 25 times. It’s not a lot. So, we need to remember every move, every heat spell, every stuck fermentation and how we handled it in order to make good decisions on what’s happening today.
B+C: What advice would you give aspiring winemakers?
LB: Set a goal, figure out what you need to do to get there, find a mentor and get started — from the bottom!
B+C: Favorite type of wine to make and drink?
LB: I love to make Sauvignon Blanc. It’s like a puzzle, trying to balance acid, flavor, tannin and texture, oak and stainless steel. And when you get it right, the aromas just pop out of the glass. Also, it’s quick to bottle, so it’s fun to get more instant feedback. For sipping (especially as we are headed into winter), I love a cool climate Rhone Red, those that are dark, rich and peppery. At Clif Family, this would be the 2013 Bici Red Wine, which is a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.
What are your favorite wines? Share them with us @BritandCo!
(Photos via Clif Family Winery)