Photograph by Pete Saporito
Growth industry: Rachel Ormes' sure hand is behind the young vineyards of Vine Hill.
Women and Wine
From the vineyard to the tasting room, four women who are making their mark in the Santa Cruz wine industry.
Profiles by Christina Waters and Traci Hukill
The Vineyard ManagerRachel Ormes of Vine Hill Wines
2300 Jarvis Road, Santa Cruz. 831.427.0436;
Tanned, strong and devoted to the land, Rachel Ormes is the quintessential Santa Cruz Mountains grower, even though she was born in Bedfordshire, England. Walking the damp vineyards of Vine Hill with Ormes, I'm surrounded by her handiwork. Carefully pruned pinot noir clones are but weeks away from bud break, and the rows have been neatly weeded so that only a few yellow heads of mustard and oxalis show between the bare vines.
At the top of the estate's 7.5 acres--all but several blocks of syrah planted to pinot noir--an alfresco picnic site appears to dangle out over the Monterey Bay. Vines undulate up and down steep hills in every direction, all planted in 2006 and still a year or two away from their first harvest. "At bud break I'll pick the two I want to train along the wire cordons. The vine has to be as thick as a pencil before I can train it," she explains, pushing back long braids. "Next year we'll establish the shoots, ideally at intervals about a hand's width apart." She demonstrates with a calloused hand the strategic positioning of what will ultimately become the mature grape clusters. "That spacing allows for air, light and the balance of the vine. It gets set for its entire life, so it's crucial that the canes be positioned correctly."
The roots of this new vineyard are still establishing themselves, and for the first few years Ormes thought of her painstaking work as "harvesting roots." Through those roots the vines, and ultimately the grapes, catalyze the terroir of their specific place in time and space. That terroir has been explored on this hilltop site since an enterprising Scotsman named John Jarvis first covered it with vineyards over 150 years ago. More recently, its grapes were used by David Bruce Winery, and then Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards, until Nick Guerrero and his partners bought the estate, tore out the aging vines and revitalized it in 2005 as Wines of Vine Hill.
"We replanted the whole property," Ormes recalls, "with closer spacing that makes for more efficient cultivation."
With a degree in horticulture from Cabrillo and a BA in agroecology from UCSC, Ormes has been there since the beginning. After 10 years as a chef and landscape gardener, she was about to continue in viticulture at UC-Davis when her path crossed Guerrero's. "He was looking for a vineyard person," says Ormes, who took one look at the land and decided it could use her help. Planting the hillsides with varieties of herbs and flowers that would attract beneficial insects was the first work. "Then the vines went in. I started putting in the trellising, the cover crops, the drip system--it was a lot of work!"
Sensuous work at that. The vineyard we stand in is fragrant with aromas of sage and fresh pea, in addition to other companion plantings of dwarf barley, crimson clover, purple vetch and yarrow.
"Nick has always believed in me," Ormes says. "That's what allowed me the space to develop this relationship with the land. Organic is the only way to treat the earth."
Tanned from a recent--and rare--vacation to the Yucatan, Ormes admits that vineyard work never ends. "I always like to think things will slow down in the winter," she admits, gazing at the steep hillsides of vines. "But there's always a hundred more things to do. Pruning, weeding, clearing the canes." We eye the incredible view of the ocean down below. "But it isn't really work," she continues. "You can't really beat this--it's like paradise."
Ormes heads off to do some pruning, not bothering to put on gloves. "I like to feel what I'm doing," she says.
Photograph by Pete Saporito
Heard it through the grapevine: Poetic Cellars winemaker Katy Lovell says she learned from other women winemakers in the Livermore area.
The WinemakerKaty Lovell of Poetic Cellars
5000 N. Rodeo Gulch Road, Soquel; 831.462.3478,
Robert Louis Stevenson once described wine as "bottled poetry." And that sentiment has found 21st-century embodiment in the creations of Katy Lovell at Santa Cruz Mountains' newest winery, Poetic Cellars. Inspired by Lovell's romance with Santa Clara poet A.J. Naegle, the wines bear her sweetheart's poems on the back of every bottle.
Shameless romantic or no, Lovell is a hands-on winemaker who picks grapes, handles most of the crush and drives the fruit-laden truck back and forth from vineyard to winery. Lovell made wines on her Livermore estate for 15 years before a divorce brought her and her three children from the warm grape territory of the East Bay into the cooler climates near the summit of Highway 17. The new life partnership between Lovell and attorney/poet Naegle evolved into a winery partnership last year, and with the recent purchase of 36 choice acres in the Vine Hill district, Lovell is hard at work romancing the Santa Cruz appellation.
High above the fog bank that hugs the Branciforte highlands, Katy Lovell was painting one corner of her cavernous winery's 30-foot ceilings when I visited last week. A tiny Komatsu minilife shared space with tiers of oak barrels. With its premier wine-tasting event on Valentine's Day, Poetic Cellars is so new the paint isn't even dry.
"I'm making wine in two locations," Lovell explained, pointing to six short rows of 2008 wines slumbering in barrels. In the far corner her winemaking lab is crammed with unopened boxes, equipment and scientific glassware. A small tasting bar up front is framed by wooden cabinets like the ones she made in a former life as a contractor.
Lovell originally trained at Oberlin to be a concert flautist, but destiny had other plans. Oenology courses at Davis built her expertise, yet Lovell admits she learned winemaking "on the job" and by networking among other women winemakers in the Livermore area, where she still sources most of the grapes used in her current red wines. Pinot noir vines will soon join a small plot of chardonnay grapes on her mountain slopes. Once she begins working with local fruit, Lovell's current award-winning touch promises to expand into Burgundian proportions. As I sample her broad-shouldered 2005 Syrah, Lovell admits, "I make big wines." Of course, part of that is her transitional use of Livermore grapes--notorious for their huge, ripe profile. Lovell looks forward to the differences the same grapes will display grown here in the fog belt.
She also enjoys the relational aspects of her work. "Winemakers are very social," Lovell believes. "Everybody shares--that's also how I've learned a lot." The love of wine, the love of being creative, fuels what amounts to her third or fourth career. "I also do fiber arts," she grins. "All the women in my family do weaving and quilting. I used to dye fibers, spin and weave my own cloth." Expect Lovell's fiber work to be on display at an upcoming Passport Day tour.
Lovell, who plans to grow Poetic Cellars to a 5,000-case facility, scoffs at the idea that running this kind of operation is a huge amount of work. "Actually, it's easy to do it myself--I don't need a lot of staff." And besides, she has those love poems to inspire and distill into "bottled poetry."
Photograph by Pete Saporito
In the know : Judy Schultze knows exactly what's going on with every aspect of business at Windy Oaks Estate.
The MarketerJudy Schultze of Windy Oaks Estate Vineyard
550 Hazel Dell Road, Corralitos.
Vivacious, articulate, world-traveled--Judy Schultze has a passion for wine and a winemaker husband to prove it. The swift ascendence of Windy Oaks Estate Vineyards in the California pantheon has everything to do with Judy Schultze's savvy micromanagement. Which is why she often appears to bilocate even while multitasking.
"I handle all the winery's customer service," she tells me over espresso. "It's a very personal style of business. I pay special attention to our wine club members."
The wine club, I discover, is pivotal to success for a small facility that sells just under 2,000 cases of handmade pinot noirs each year. "Ninety percent of our wines are sold through our wine club. We have a distributor for wine shops and restaurant sales, but that's a very small portion of our business." And business has grown carefully and steadily since the vineyard's first release in 2002.
"We started with three acres," Schultze explains. "Jim and I trained and pruned and harvested it all. We did everything so that we would know how to do it." A combination of "luck and talent"--and a consistent product--has helped distinguish her husband's wines in a crowded market. "In the beginning we simply said 'yes' to every invitation we got--pourings, special events, markets," Schultze recalls. "And at every tasting we always had email sign-up sheets.
"The website came next," she continues. But to raise the new winery profile, Schultze insists, the in-person presence of the winemaker is required. "Usually small wineries are a husband-and-wife team, and usually the man is the winemaker." We lock eyes. "Women have to have a strong sense of themselves in order to survive. The man is always going to be the star attraction," she says, her blue eyes glinting. "Everybody wants to meet the winemaker."
The Schultzes met while both were corporate management consultants. After several careers that moved them from Australia to England and then Chicago, they settled on family property outside Corralitos, now planted to 14 acres of vines.
The care and cultivation of Windy Oaks wine club members engages most of Schultze's time. "I'm almost always at my desk in my home office. I dream up events, prepare FedEx shipments, do the paperwork that goes with it all, manage the wine club membership--yes, I am," she adds conspiratorially, "a control freak." Micromanagement is her middle name. She gives tours, micromassages her email list, sends out announcements or notices of new wine releases. "I couldn't have built the business without email," she laughs. "We did not know how big a job it was going to be."
But it's satisfying. "I enjoy the work because it's ours," Schultze says, using the entrepreneur of Mrs. Fields' cookies to illustrate. "She started by giving away samples of her cookies to people on the street. She gambled that if they just tasted it, they would love it."
Schultze pauses to finish her espresso. "That's how we feel. We're convinced that if they just taste the wine, they'll love it."
As grueling as a high-risk, hand-grown business can be, Schultze claims that she doesn't regret being involved. "It's how the adrenaline gets going. There's always new learning taking place." And of course a trip to France each year doesn't hurt, either.
Photograph by Pete Saporito
Western hospitality : Cindy Molchany runs the tasting room at Bonny Doon's Westside location.
The Tasting ExpertCindy Molchany of Bonny Doon Vineyard
328 Ingalls St., Santa Cruz. 831.425.3625;
Two years ago, on her second day of work at Bonny Doon Vineyard, Tasting Room manager Cindy Molchany boarded a bus with the other new employees and made the trip to the winery's Ca del Solo Vineyard, near Soledad. Once there, they were all handed shovels and told to dig. "It was spring equinox," Molchany recalls, "and I didn't know it, but that's an important time for biodynamic agriculture."
After unearthing a small mountain of cow horns that had been filled with manure and buried the previous fall, then allowed to compost all winter long, Molchany helped stir the contents into a vortex of churning water to create Preparation 500, a potent mixture to be sprayed over the vineyard to attract vital forces from the universe. Not your average new employee orientation.
"I was ready for it," says Molchany. "I was ready to get my feet dirty." She adds, laughing, "It's definitely fitting for my second day at Bonny Doon Vineyard: 'Here, go dig shit up!'"
Employment at the famously quirky winery, which went biodynamic four years ago, has afforded Molchany extraordinary opportunities for professional growth. Last year Bonny Doon built a spectacular new tasting room and cafe for which the 31-year-old former assistant general manager at Mountain Winery in Saratoga served as project manager. It was an exercise in coaxing substance from imagination.
"Randall [Grahm] had all these great ideas," she says of her boss. "My job was to bring a rational component to it. Functionally, how would this space work for the customers? For the servers?"
The result is a gorgeous space, spare but vibrating with creativity in details like Dali-esque melted wine bottles for light fixtures and a bar lined with wine-stained staves from a decommissioned barrel. Patrons can sit at one of several small tables or a second bar to sample exquisitely crafted dishes by chef Sean Baker, and though Baker is leaving Santa Cruz at the end of March, the cuisine promises to continue to complement Bonny Doon's unique biodynamic vintages.
And after all, the wine is what it's all about. For Molchany, learning more about wine--including coming to understand that there are no "rules" for pairing it with food--has been a fantastic gift. Right now her favorite Bonny Doon vintage is the 2005 Ca del Solo Nebbiolo, something of a cult favorite among staff members.
"I feel very blessed to be a part of this," Molchany says.
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