Well, now -- local girl makes good, indeed. Starting with the '06 harvest, Rosemary Cakebread has stepped, if not exactly down, then at least aside from her position as winemaker at Napa's Spottswoode Estate and handed the reins to one Jennifer Williams, late of Valley Center. Cakebread will stay on as consulting winemaker, and Williams will retain her old job as vineyard manager.
Williams came into the business through the vineyard, and into the vineyard through the garden. She was born in Chula Vista and spent time in North County, but, she says, "My parents wanted to live in a more rural area. That's why they moved out to Valley Center. My experience there is really what prompted me to go into agriculture. It's where I really got into flavor. We had just over an acre, and we had about every fruit you could grow in San Diego County. Tangelos, all the different citrus, almonds, persimmons, and pomegranates next door. As kids, we were able to just go out and graze, taste what things taste like when they're growing."
They also had apples -- and here is where the winemaker can perhaps look back and spot the first stirrings: "We had different varieties. The baking apples -- I think they called them 'banana' apples -- seemed higher in acidity, and the texture was a lot different from fresh apples that you would eat from a grocery store." Just sub in "wine grapes" and "grapes that you would eat from a grocery store."
But besides the produce, there were also critters -- "chickens and ducks and geese" -- and animals were what captured Williams's teenage interest. "I applied only to agricultural schools," eventually ending up at Cal Poly SLO. "I originally thought I would be a large-animal vet. When I got to Cal Poly, I started focusing on dairy, those sorts of things." A botany course began her shift toward the vegetative; a job at a winery finished it. "A friend of mine was from Napa Valley, and his family had connections with the wine industry, so I was able to get an internship. They gave me a truck and a refractometer and a map, and I went around and took grape samples. I tested the sugars and brought them to the lab for the acidity." After that, she found work in nearby Paso Robles. "I started in the vineyards, checking blocks and being a liaison between the growers and the winery. Then I moved into the lab and spent some time learning the winemaking process."
Williams is 30, which puts her among my peers. And among my peers who have tried to break into the wine business, there has been a similar experience: hearing from a potential employer, "Of course you don't have to go to UC Davis" -- home of California's most famous enology department -- "to get a job here. But everyone here went to UC Davis." Williams is an exception to that rule, and she says there are others."
There's definitely an extremely large UC Davis presence, but there are also a lot of people who come from philosophy or poetry or whatever -- they catch the wine bug. It's very much an art -- or a trade -- so it can be learned by doing. It can be taught."
Of course, you still need someone to teach you -- you still need someone willing to take you on. A year at Trefethen gave way to a harvest in Spain. Upon her return, Williams started looking for "a job that I could kind of grow into. It's a very small community, and I've been very fortunate. I had met Rosemary Cakebread's husband Bruce -- he has Cakebread Cellars -- on a trip to Nicaragua with a local group that was building a baseball field down there for a small community." Through Bruce, Williams met Rosemary. "After I came back, Rosemary said that they had an opening at Spottswoode." Not for a full-time intern, but for one who would split time between Spottswoode and Araujo -- Rosemary was friends with the owner there.
It was still intern work -- "getting up in the morning, going and leafing the bins while the pickers were picking, doing pumpovers" -- but it was intern work at two prestigious wineries, and with a veteran vineyard man: Jose Luis Lopez. She began to learn the vineyard. "We monitor the growth and weather and adjust our strategies accordingly. This year, we had a very cold, wet spring that delayed the growth of the vines out of dormancy. Traditionally, we till our cover crops into the soil in every row during the spring. This year, we decided to till every other row. The remaining cover crop was able to use up the water in the soil, which allowed the soil to dry out faster."
Most importantly for Williams, working in such an environment had the feel of a possible career. "I wanted to work for a family winery that was organically farmed, and they were one of the first wineries in Napa to become certified organic" in the vineyard. "We really work on making sure that the soil is active and healthy and living, so that the vine can draw on whatever it needs, whenever it needs. I do think it makes a difference to the flavor. And it allows us to farm for nuances, rather than farming in a uniform way."
After harvest, Spottswoode offered to hire her full-time. That was four harvests ago. After a year, "We stopped using a vineyard management company and started managing our vineyard ourselves. We wanted to have more control. We purchased equipment -- tractors, cultivators, weeders, sprayers." It seemed like the next step -- Spottswoode had moved into a winery of its own (after years of making wine in a custom crush facility) in '99. "There's always progression," says Williams.
Ah, progression -- progress. Change. Williams is one of the new guard and says she admires "the modern style of winemaking for two reasons -- the educational value gained from exploring outside of traditional winemaking boundaries and for making wine more accessible to customers." (One sign of the shift: the '98 Cab offered 13.5 percent alcohol; the '03, 14.1 percent.) But she grants that "the fluctuation in the market and winemaking style is tricky for established wine brands...I'd like to respect the tradition of finesse and ageability that characterizes Spottswoode" -- no mean feat when you're striving for accessibility, which often translates to soft, approachable tannins and ripe, up-front flavors.
And that's just what's in the bottle. Williams's ascent occurs just as Spottswoode is revamping one of the more august labels in the wine world, one fashioned by the celebrated Chuck House. The pen-and-ink drawing of the estate's Victorian home remains (albeit in reduced circumstances), and the "Spottswoode" typeface is not changed overmuch (a bit shinier, perhaps). But the linen texture around the drawing is gone, and the whole effect is bolder, cleaner. The press release praises "a greater sense of elegance and grace," a shift from the Victorian fussiness of the linen.
Whatever the timing, Williams says, "You can't blame it on the young folks. The family was looking to update the label. They want to be very present in the wine community well into the future. They thought an update on the label would be advantageous. It's the freshening of a classic."