Interview with Sandra Oldfield

Wine Maker | Tinhorn Creek in British Columbia

How long have you been a wine maker?

I have made wine since Tinhorn Creek’s first vintage in 1994. Prior to that I was only making experimental wine at UC Davis’ Enology Department and working in the lab at Rodney Strong Vineyards.

Was making wine always your passion growing up?

I did not grow up with wine in my family.  My father was an auto mechanic in San Francisco and neither he nor my mother drink wine (one is Italian and one is Irish so go figure).  I discovered wine after I acquired my first degree in International Business merely by chance.  I answered an ad in the paper to work in the tasting room at Rodney Strong in Healdsburg, CA.  At the time I was selling dresses at Macy’s (!).  I didn’t even like wine at the time.  Over the next month I grew to like it very quickly and by the next year I was luckily asked to fill a position in the quality control lab at Rodney Strong.  After that wine was my passion.  I found myself showing up to work early and leaving late and loving it.  Something told me I had to pursue this as a career.

What is your favorite savoury food paired with your 2 Bench White wine?

Sautéed sea scallops in butter, garlic and lemon.  Get the outside of them seared and a bit caramelized.  Keep adding butter—that’s the key.  The acidity of that wine, which is quite high, cuts through the fat and the added lemon matches well with the 2Bench White as well.  It’s easy to do at home and great for an appetizer.

What is your favorite food paired with your Oldfield Syrah wine?

Chicken breasts marinated in a balsamic vinegar and Herb d’ Provence, grilled and toped with a reduction of some of the Syrah and some bleu cheese.  Sounds light with a heavy wine but it’s pretty savory and with the Syrah being spicy it matches really well.

What is the developmental process for creating a new wine at Tinhorn?

It takes forever!  Because we are 100% estate grapes, it always starts in the vineyard.  For example, with the 2Bench White I had an idea for the varieties and percentages I’d like to see in a dry white blend and then we went out to our 130 acres on both sides of the valley and choose what varietal would go best where.  That’s year one. The next year the vines arrive and we plant.  That’s year two.  Then in 2-3 more years we get a crop off of them.  That’s around year 5.  Then we make the wine and sell in year 6.  With a red wine you can add an additional 2 years to that timeline if it is to include new varieties because we age reds for 2 more years.  For example, our new 2Bench Red 2007, which will be released in October of this year, has been in the making since 2003.  7 years later we will sell our first vintage of just 355 cases.

How long have you been involved in the wine industry?

In BC, since our first vintage in 1994.  Prior to that in California since 1990 at Rodney Strong, Piper Sonoma and my Master’s thesis work at UC Davis which was done at the Robert Mondavi Winery.  20 years and I started when I was 24.  I’ve aged a hell of a lot since then—lots of gray hairs.  Outlasted most of the winemakers who were here in the Valley when I first arrived as well so although I was a whipper snapper when I arrived I am now seen as a fixture.  Not sure I like that, but it is what it is.

What do you most love about the wine industry?

I like the people (most of them!) and I love the diversity of the work I do.  I definitely do my share of deskwork (ughhh) but since I am not only winemaker at Tinhorn Creek but also Head of Operations I oversee the vineyards and hospitality and grounds as well.  My day can deal with winemaking, pouring our wines to the consumer in BC and Alberta, going to dinners, walking the rows of our vineyard blocks, tasting barrels, working our budgets, dealing with suppliers etc etc etc.  The list goes on forever and although I don’t like all the work I do, I do like the variety of work I do.  Yesterday for an example I started putting together the 2008 Syrah in our lab prior to bottling and I finished calculating our carbon footprint for 2009 that will now be sent for an audit by Offsetters.  That’s pretty varied.

I also really love the seasonal aspect of the industry.  Most people never get to turn a page on a new year in a real way if they don’t work in farming.  Sure there is New Year’s Eve, but it’s not a lot different from the day before or after.  Living in our vineyards I get to turn a new page every year that pruning begins.  The cyclical nature of the business is really rewarding and relaxing and naturally renewing.

Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?

Sharon Dougherty (now retired lab director from Matanzas Creek) was my first boss in the lab at Rodney Strong and she pushed me to apply to UC Davis even though I knew I would never get in.  She kept pushing me to do much more than I ever thought I was capable.  Chemistry?  Physics? Calculus?  Now way I am cut out for those subjects—but she told me to persevere and finally I was one of only 15 people accepted into the Master’s program in the year I applied.  She is one of my dear friends to this day, 20 years later.

Some of the professors at UC Davis are just gems.  Roger Boulton, who has conducted wine research at UCD for decades was and is inspirational to me and he always has time to answer silly winemaking questions I might have.  He really cares about all students who have gone through the program.  He doesn’t just forget about them when they graduate.  He has taught me that relationships are what you make of them, they don’t have to be surface deep.  Every relationship can be deeper if you listen and give of your time.

Lastly, Professor Ann Noble also at UCD taught me as a woman not to take crap from anyone in this industry. The inventory of the Wine Aroma Wheel, I did part of my thesis work in her lab and she is the strongest woman I have ever met.  Men call her harsh but I found her to be very fair and determined.  She opened so many doors for me and I can pick up the phone today and talk to her like we’ve been talking daily ever since I left. Truly inspirational.

Where do like to go for wine travel?  Why?

If I am on vacation I may find myself in a wine region but I have a strict rule not to tour any vineyards or wineries.  I know it sounds silly. I have been in the heart of Burgundy, Spain, Italy, Germany, but I will not tour wineries.  My personal life is more diverse than wine and a tour would always turn into work. A stack of barrels in Europe is not much different than the ones we stack here in the Okanagan.  I use the analogy that accountants traveling through France would probably not take a tour of an accounting office so why would I do the same when I’m on vacation?  When on vacation I love DRINKING local wines throughout a region I am touring, but that is it.  You get to know the industry best anyway if you drink the wines.

When I am on a working tour elsewhere it has generally been in the Pacific Northwest.  I love Walla Walla and still love my original home of the Russian River in Sonoma County.  I also love touring wineries in my backyard.  On twitter I have started tweeting other local Oliver wines I am drinking.  In past years I didn’t take the time to become familiar with the wines in my own backyard.  I love being a cheerleader for other wineries around me because I find our corner of the South Okanagan to be so unique world-wide that I want to explore it even more and I want others to come enjoy it as well.

What is your philosophy on food and wine?

My philosophy on wine is: If you can say whether you like a wine or don’t like a wine then you are an expert.  That is really all you need to know to be an expert. You don’t need a wine education or a certain income to know if you like a steak or not so why do wine people make others feel that if you can’t describe a wine you are not able to enjoy it?

As for food and wine pairings, if the food makes the wine taste worse than it was on its own then it is a bad pairing.  In this case, eat the food then drink the wine.  All is well.  Just don’t do it together.  If a food makes a wine taste better than it did on its own then it’s a good pairing.  In this case you are required by law to purchase a full case of that wine for future meals!

What is the future for your winery?

Well, we’re starting to build a restaurant for opening in Spring 2011.  That is one change that is most visible right now.  From a vineyard standpoint, we have brought into our team a new vineyard manager, Andrew Moon, from Australia a year ago and he is really shaking things up.  He is on board with making us as sustainable as we can be and crafting the flavours we want in our wines in the vineyard with as little manipulation as possible.  When the biggest change in your winery starts in the vineyard then it means that everything will change for the better downstream—winemaking, sales, touring etc.

Other than that we are boring in that we source our fruit from the same vineyards year after year, we strive for unique characteristics with vintages but we don’t radically change our styles from year to year.  We have no plans of expanding.  We have seen wineries take some radical growth paths and their quality has inevitably suffered with the increased production.  I love exploring what the same plot of dirt will give me with the same vines on it year after year.  It’s like weather in the glass—that’s the differences we see from one vintage of wines to the next.

What are the top wines we would find in your cellar?

In my home cellar?  Well I have a few magnums of Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa and a few old bottles of Heitz Martha’s Vineyard.  I even have my research wine from Mondavi that is from their To-kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.  But…my favourite old bottle is an 1845 bottle of Madiera.  My husband and I have a little sniggly (tiny taste) from it every year on our anniversary.  Only about 3 inches left in it sad to say.

Tell us about some creative events that you or Tinhorn have been involved with lately.

Our Social Media event in Vancouver is pretty unique in that we are trying to reach out to people who are just getting into wine and trying to make it less intimidating to them.  They are used to twittering and facebook, as we are, and are not wanting a formal experience.  Music, wine, food, friends—use it as a step off point for a longer evening out etc.  Don’t charge too much for it and keep it fun.

We are also doing a series of component tastings with our Crush Club members in Kelowna, Vancouver and Edmonton where we pour the individual components of our still-in-barrel 2008 2Bench red, then we pour the expected blend then we pour the finished and well-aged 2007 of the same wine.  It’s nice because people get to be led through a component tasting and get to hear some of what is in my head when I am putting a blend together.

One last thing I have been doing but I am not sure you’d call it an “event” is I am following the life of one vine and its clusters every week on Twitter.  It is called #ChardyTuesday and I think as the season continues people who follow Row 1, Vine 3 will see a pretty remarkable transformation of a vine from no leaves to a ripe crop for harvesting.  I see it every year and take it for granted but it really is a pretty nice process to share with others.

By: Richard Wolak


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