The second in our two-part series to honor Women’s History Month, this episode of the Wine Enthusiast Podcast features some of the leading ladies of the California wine scene who are driving the industry forward today.
To kick things off, Contributing Editor Virginie Boone speaks with Amanda Wittstrom Higgins, president and founder of Dream Big Darling, cofounder of Wine Speak Paso Robles and VP of operations at Ancient Peaks Winery. An energetic and passionate player in California wine, Wittstrom Higgins talks about the importance of finding your tribe and building your support network, as well as mentoring and amplifying others’ voices.
We also speak with Ana Keller of Keller Estate, who centers her conversation around respecting the land and the community around you, and how organizations can champion change. Innovative and inspiring, Keller advocates attention to farming for the future and applying best and sustainable practices for the greater good of generations to come.
For more articles surrounding women’s history month, check out this piece on female empowerment in the drinks industry, how these entrepreneurs built digital communities with wine, what the “Wine Mom” phenomenon means, and the leaders behind some of Champagne’s premier houses.
Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.
Lauren Buzzeo 0:09
Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast your serving of drinks, culture and the people who drive it. I’m Lauren Buzzeo the managing editor at Wine Enthusiast and in this episode, the second in a two part series in honor of Women’s History Month, we’re talking with more leading ladies of the California wine scene. Contributing Editor Virginie Boone speaks with Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins, president and founder of Dream Big Darling, co-founder of Wine Speak Paso Robles and VP of Operations at Ancient Peaks Winery and Ana Keller of Keller Estate, about respecting the land and the community around you and how organizations can champion the change needed today. From finding your tribe to mentoring and farming for the future, these innovative and inspiring women are ready to move the wine world forward in only the best of ways. But first, today’s podcast is brought to you by Total Wine. Fling into spring at Total Wine and More where fresh flavors are in full bloom. We’re talking Rieslings and rain boots, bubbly and brunch or a Pinot on the porch, anyone? No matter what’s on your table we have the wine and the savings to go with your menu. Sauvignon Blanc plays nicely with smoked salmon, bacon practically begs for Chardonnay and which rose are you feeling today? We surely have a shade to match. Brighten up your glass with fresh cocktails. Rose prosecco makes a beautiful twist on the Mojito or mix up your Sangria with a spritz of berry seltzer. With over 8,000 wines, 4,000 spirits and 2,500 beers to choose from you can expect the unexpected always at the best prices in town with the best service in America. So what’ll it be today? Choose curbside pickup, in store pickup, shipping or delivery. Explore more in store or at totalwine.com.
Virginie Boone 2:02
Well hello, hello.
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 2:05
Hello, how are you today?
Virginie Boone 2:07
I’m good. I would love it if you could introduce yourself and just give us a quick sense of what you do.
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 2:16
Wonderful. Well I am Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins, fourth generation in the Paso Robles region and one of the families who own Ancient Peaks Winery in the Paso Robles AVA, the Santa Margarita Ranch AVA, I’m a mother of two and a wife with my beautiful husband and happy to be on the show with you today. And I’m also the president and founder of Dream Big Darling, a nonprofit aimed at mentoring and lifting the next generation of women in our wine and spirits industry.
Virginie Boone 2:49
Well i’m very happy to be speaking with you, of course, a fellow Californian, a fellow person in the wine world and so much more so this is going to be a fun conversation. I feel I actually want to take it back a couple years to the first time i actually met you in person and it was at a photoshoot in San Francisco for our top 40 Under 40 and you brought a rope. I don’t think other people had done before and you perfectly lassoed a glass of wine. Is that the right way to say it? You lassoed?
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 3:30
Yeah, that’s great. That was such an amazing day, it’s hard to imagine it was, gosh, was that a year and a half ago or something.
Virginie Boone 3:41
I think it was in 2018, so i feel like i was lucky to be there to see you do this so you legitimately ended up you know with with your rope your lasso on the glass of wine, which made the cover, which I was very happy to see. It was memorable of course but it also seems so much who you are and what I love most about it is that it’s a visual reminder that being in wine in California means being a farmer. Is that message more important than ever?
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 4:15
Oh my gosh Virginie. It’s so it’s funny you bring that up and that was such a wonderful day. So you can say you lassoed the last of the glass or if you are in the ranching community you roped it. So farming, ranching and agriculture is such a huge part of who I am, who the Paso Robles community is and really the wine industry altogether. It was a fun way to showcase our community and our family and some of our heritage by roping that wineglass. I was so blessed to have been chosen for the for the cover. It was it’s kind of a surreal moment but i’m just proud to represent agriculture and the wine industry in general is is has been incredible for me, for my family for my community. It’s really transformed the Paso Robles region. And I know so many other regions talking to a friend Laura Catena and how the wine industry has transformed. Her part of the world in Argentina is pretty incredible. So ,blessed and thankful. And that was certainly a fun day. But yeah, we ride horses and rope cattle for fun, if you can believe that.
Virginie Boone 5:29
I do believe it. I mean, you know, you’re in Paso and I’m up in Sonoma. And so the wine industry is just a part of these communities that really are kind of more broadly agricultural. And I think when you live within it, you do have a different kind of perspective on wine, because it’s just one of many crops, many things that have to be taken care of. So I feel like it’s a good moment and you were a good representative to sort of share that message of how important farming is to wine, that they’re interrelated.
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 6:09
One of the most beautiful things about our industry is that we are truly connected to the land and the people you meet work the work the land, and tend to the vines. And I think that spirit of camaraderie throughout the world, is something very unique to the wine industry. And it’s all because of being based in agriculture. I mean, if you need a tractor or a piece of equipment, people lend it to you. We are a community that we must work together for the greater good and I can’t think of another industry that works quite like that. You’re not really in competition with your neighbor, you’re truly hoping for the success of everyone within the region, and the industry worldwide. So that our segment of the business can continue to grow and thrive. And I think what’s also really important about our wine industry is that we believe that wine belongs on every dinner table. And that wine from every part of this planet is special and worth trying, no matter how expensive or inexpensive that might be and that it brings people together around food, which is, you know, in these times of everyone being home is really important.
Virginie Boone 7:26
Yeah, I completely agree with you. So, getting into a little bit more of the greater good, which is something that you’re so focused on. I want to talk about Dream Big Darling, which is a nonprofit that you started with the mission of helping women in the wine and spirits industry with mentorship, education and retreats—at least in the old days retreats. You’ve said it was inspired by your grandmother, can you tell us more about her?
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 7:56
Oh my gosh, she was amazing. Her name was Betty June Cass, and, you know, I need to figure out the exact year she was born, but it was probably in the ’20s. And she was just an incredible woman who loved to have fun. But what was really special about her was, she just had the kindest heart. And she made time for everyone around her. And it always stuck with me because when I went to her funeral, she died when she was in her ’80s, so she wasn’t young. There were so many people there and she she was a mother of two and mostly a housewife. But she had this burger stand at our local fair. And if you’ve ever been to Paso Robles, the fair is like a huge thing for us. It’s the midstate fair, there’s concerts, there’s FFA, there’s a rodeo, I mean, it’s a big deal. And she had a hamburger stand there. And so she because of that hamburger stand, she was always working with a lot of younger people within the community because it was high school age workers and different things. And she kept in contact with a lot of them. And at her funeral, there were so many people that attended and I just remember sitting there thinking, the greatest gift and the biggest impact you can make in this world is being kind. And by you know, just giving love which is so easy to give, and kindness. It doesn’t cost you anything but, you know, people will never forget the way that you made them feel and she always had a way of making people feel special. And then, you know, transitioning into Ancient Peaks and our family company and having just under 1,000 acres of vines planted and being nationally distributed and working within the, you know, the national and global landscape, I’ve been able to learn from people who really dream big. They dream bigger than almost anyone can imagine. And I realized that in order to accomplish things that are larger than yourself, sometimes you have to think it in a different level. And so dreaming big is something that we really need more of in this world. But my grandmother always called me darling. And she called everyone around her darling, which to her was a word of endearment. And so, you know, Dream Big Darling is the reason for the name. And I’ve just been so grateful for her kindness, but also the ability to watch others in business and in our industry be able to accomplish some really incredible things that most people wouldn’t think of on their own, or imagine where possible,
Virginie Boone 10:50
Right, so, I mean, you’re but you’re basically turning the spirit of kindness into a functioning organization. And you’re living by the mantra of paying it forward, making a difference. How do you keep inspired and motivated to keep on mission? And how do you have things kind of organized and structured?
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 11:12
Let me tell you what happened just today, Virginie. I spoke to two women of color who attended our one attended our retreat last year, and one that attended this year. One of them was just featured in LA Times for one of one of the things that she’s doing, which is a natural wine club. She was featured in the LA Times that just hit a couple of days ago. And then the other woman started a wine club down in South LA. And she’s going to be on the Kelly Clarkson show later today. Like, are you kidding me?
Virginie Boone 11:52
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 11:53
So I can’t, you know, and I cannot be more excited to see the success of other people. And they’re now connecting with other people who were inspired and driven. And it’s just the snowball and the multiplier effect is, it’s absolutely incredible, from a simple seed of an idea that hopefully inspires people to dream a little bit bigger than they think they ever could have. And what I found was, there’s people like me and others, other executives and mothers, and, you know, wives, sisters, whatever. And they want to give back right where they’re at. And they felt the exact same way as I did. And when you ask someone to share a little bit of their time and a little bit of their wisdom, it’s very easy to say yes. And so we’ve been blessed to have a number of incredible people, as well as our board of directors and leadership team that have generously volunteered their time, or they’ve volunteered or donated things that make it easy for them. So it’s just, I mean, there’s no better feeling in the world truthfully than to see the success of other people. And it helps our industry grow. It makes everything stronger. And I’m, I’m thankful to be talking with you today. I’m thankful to have been featured on the magazine and to learn from Susan and the Strum family. It’s been a dream come true.
Virginie Boone 13:31
Well, it’s interesting that, you know, you talk about these people that are are going on to really big and great and visible things. And I mean, do you sense that a lot of the people that find Dream Big Darling and come into the fold, do you find that they just need to be told they can do it? I mean, is that sort of what’s missing?
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 13:53
It’s hard to say for certain, but I think that there’s a part of it. When you’re a really driven individual, and perhaps a female, that coming from a small community, like I like I’m from the Paso Robles area… There’s, you know, 40,000 people in the town of Paso Robles. It’s a pretty small community. And so finding others that are like you with across several disciplines within their industry, not necessarily a winemaker or working in the vineyards, we include everyone in the industry, whether you’re in distribution or on premise restaurants sommelier. Perhaps you are a CPA that specializes in winery accounting. I mean, those are all women and individuals that should be looking at our program. And so I think that connecting like minded people and creating a culture of thinking bigger and then surrounding yourselves with others that are like minded is really powerful.
Virginie Boone 15:07
Well, I totally agree with you. And I think that’s why it’s so interesting to talk about Dream Big Darling and sort of your, the way that you’ve put it together. I mean, within that I’m kind of curious, you know, how do you build a tribe. You’ve sort of called it, you know, your tribe to some extent, and that having a tribe makes you feel safe in a changing world. And that Dream Big Darling is a lot about that. How do you how do you build a tribe? How have you done it?
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 15:37
Well, I think we look for people who truly want to give back who have something to say, and something to offer, and from an advisory perspective and a networking perspective. So at the kind of at the top level, our tribe is people who genuinely aren’t looking to be part of our organization to sell something or to personally advance, although that does happen, of course. But it’s truly people who are passionate about helping the next generation and that they realize that their path perhaps was more difficult than they would have liked it to bend for the next generation. And so offering others a hand up and caring as you climb is really important. So we found a group of people who believe in that. And, then they utilize their network of people who also think that way, and we target and look for those up and coming professionals who have that mindset. And I think that our retreats, although we’ve done one in person and one virtual, you know, they’re aimed at fostering community and really being kind and real with one another, and somewhat vulnerable. So that I guess that I hadn’t really thought about how you create it, other than we work with the people we like, you know, it’s not a paid project. We don’t accept money, there’s no memberships, which kind of helps, I think weed out some of the people who perhaps aren’t interested in, in our mission for as pure reasons that we are.
Virginie Boone 17:25
Right. Well, and it’s sort of evergreen at that point. I mean, if you, you bring people in, and they find success over their career, then they hopefully give back and you bring new people in, and it’s kind of like a, it’s a very sustainable system, ideally.
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 17:43
Absolutely. It’s one of the biggest takeaways that our retreats are, you know, remember that you’re here because of the kindness of someone that you don’t know, and you’ll never meet. And your responsibility is to pay it forward, when you have the opportunity to.
Virginie Boone 17:58
Right, right. Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, because you talk about that sense of community and connection and here we are a year into a pandemic that has really stripped so much of that away. But you’ve transitioned from live events to virtual events, and you’ve been hosting sessions on blind tasting, things like company culture, and you’ve even held a virtual auction and leadership retreat, as you mentioned. How did you manage this transition? And I mean, I think you’ve spoken to why it was important, but I’m interested more in like the how and how has it been received?
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 18:39
Well, it’s interesting, because going into this year, obviously, a lot of you know, a lot of people were… lives had changed dramatically. And at first, we thought, ‘Gosh, is this the right year to continue doing a retreat and an auction?’ And as we started to talk with our tribe, it was evident that now more than ever, you need to do something. So and even if it’s not perfect, and even if it’s not to plan, you’re gonna learn from it and grow. And that’s kind of the whole mantra of failure is part of success. So we need we need to continue forward and even if it’s not perfect, where we’re going to, you know, keep moving forward. And this year, the feedback from one of our speakers who was actually up for Wine Educator of the Year with Wine Enthusiast, Regine Rousseau, who is the founder of Shall We Wine, she spoke this year at the retreat and attended and she told me earlier this week that she felt like it was even more powerful virtually this year, just because of the situation that we were dealing with. So we put together really thoughtful care packages to make every aspect of the retreat really mean Fall, which included a blind tasting event with the first female master sommelier, Madeline Triffon, who’s an absolute gem of a person. And it was a wonderful experience, but it was, you know, really thoughtfully created. And I think people got a lot out of it. And we, you know, we transition to zoom, but we tried to use technology as much as we could. So we had breakout sessions with small groups, it was totally interactive. And then for our virtual auction, we utilized a great software system called Give Smart with, you know, a handful of items. And our expectations weren’t really to generate a tremendous amount of money, like in years past, but to just really stay present. For those who are looking to support organizations like we have, and still are in a position where they’re able to give back. So, you know, overall, for as tough as the year has been, it felt like a real win. And I’m so thankful for our advisory board and our leadership team for rallying and helping create content, and all of the speakers that we had. It was a pretty moving experience.
Virginie Boone 21:18
Oh, I bet. I think definitely finding, again, it’s like kind of going back to your tribe. It’s like being able to connect with your tribe, even when you can’t do it in person is still important, and maybe even more important. And people going through, you know, certainly in our world going through some probably job changes, job losses, trying to figure out what they might want to do next, learning online, all of that. So I’m sure you were a very crucial piece of survival at this point, right?
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 21:52
Well, I’m hoping it was at least a bright spot, you know? Life has been hard for a lot of people. And just being being able to be there and support and connect others is just one of the greatest gifts I think I’ve ever been given in life is to have this opportunity to make an impact. So I feel so blessed and grateful.
Virginie Boone 22:15
Well, we’re grateful for the work that you do. I do want to switch a little bit to a different organization that you have been a cofounder of called Wine Speak Paso Robles.
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 22:28
Virginie Boone 22:28
it is a sommelier focused event. In the past. It’s been a live event, sort of focused on with sommeliers and education. But yeah, what do you make from your vantage points of Dream Big Darling, and a lot of the women that you interact with? What do you make of some of the bad behavior that has come out of the Master sommelier community this year? And how do you feel organizations, both Dream Big Darling, but also Wine Speak, how can they make it better?
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 22:59
That’s a great question. And certainly bad behavior should not be tolerated. Period. And in a way what happened this year was, was a blessing because it’s good to shine light in dark corners. So that change is possible. And, you know, having higher accountability within their organization is something I think that that’s a movement that the Court of Master Sommeliers is deeply vested in. And, you know, it’s disappointing. But I also think it’s very important and following that information and those stories that were dropped, we actually held a session with a HR company to talk about bad behavior. And if this happens within your organization, what do you do? And for those ladies out there, realizing there’s another way. You don’t ever have to—it may feel like it, but you we have the power, in most cases, to say no. And making sure we put ourselves in a position where we never have to be the victim of that type of behavior is really important. And my heart goes out to anyone who’s had to deal with that. And, you know, I’m a huge advocate for change in that respect. And I’m just I’m glad that those stories were made public so that we had the opportunity to become more aware of what’s happening and to move forward.
Virginie Boone 24:49
Yeah, I agree with you. I think you’re right, you can’t you can’t really address it or change anything until that light has been shone on the problem and Then you find allies and you build, you know, a different type of tribe, or maybe you bring in your existing tribes to sort of create real change. And it seems like maybe that’s the path that we’re on now.
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 25:13
I certainly hope so. You know, I certainly hope so. And, yeah, and move forward.
Virginie Boone 25:21
Right. Okay. Well, we I wanted to talk about that briefly. But what I really want to talk about now is Ancient Peaks, this beautiful property that you have. It’s both a vineyard and a cattle ranch, which goes back to your expert roping abilities. But beyond you know, the lifestyle that you and your family have, you offer a range of adventure activities beyond the usual wine tasting, including vineyard ziplining, wildlife tours. And, you know, I love that because I sense and hope that more wineries are going to look beyond traditional tasting room for ways to engage with their guests. How has that worked out for you? I mean, you know, back when people could visit a lot, but what have you found has worked and not worked in that scenario?
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 26:15
Well, bringing agriculture to the forefront is something that’s really important to all three of the families that own the vineyard, the winery and the ranch that it’s on. And we’re blessed to be living and working on a 14,000 acre cattle ranch. So we have cow calf operation that is angus beef. And so right now there’s a bunch of baby calves running all over the place. And the majority of the ranch is open space, aside from the just over 900 acres planted vineyards. We have 18 different varietals planted within a span of about six miles on our ranch. And what’s really neat is there’s a lot of wildlife corridors on the property. And there are very distinct soil profiles. And the terrain is unique. And it’s up against this beautiful mountain range, which is the reason for the name Ancient Peaks. We’re about 14 miles from the ocean. And for those of you that don’t know where Paso Robles is, we’re halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. But it’s a ranching community. It’s a rural community, especially at its roots. The AVA was only created in 1983. And our vineyard was planted in the late 1990s. And so being able to offer experiences other than simply wine tasting has been really important. We actually developed a culinary aspect to our visitor center and we’re offering food, which is a great enhancement to the wine tasting experience. But agrotourism, ziplines and wildlife adventures have just made this property and I think our industry more exciting and more accessible to people who perhaps aren’t interested in learning about the percent of new oak or the phenols that are, you know, in the wine and TA and PH because most most people just want to enjoy wine with the company they’re with and around a great meal. And so I think it’s been wonderful to be able to connect visitors with the land, which is so important.
Virginie Boone 28:35
Yeah, I think we’ve kind of lost a little bit of that. I mean, going to lots of wineries just for my job, but but also just because people come and visit me and want to see wine country, I think we lost our way for a little while. And we did make wine about the phenols and the oak program and the dark cellar, and I’m constantly telling winery people that I meet with, it’s like, can we can we just go out to the vineyard? Or do you take people out into your vineyard? Or if you have other types of farming operations, do you let people experience that and because I think that that is what ultimately people remember and really are yearning for maybe especially now.
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 29:24
Right? And farming in California, there’s a lot of farming in California, but there’s not a lot of people who are exposed to it. If you look at the urban environments and communities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, you know, there’s not a lot of open space. There’s not a lot of wildlife and I think it’s really important as a society to learn about how other industries and communities live and there’s something magical about being on our ranch in particular, where you look around, you can’t see another house. It’s silence at night you know and most people don’t have an opportunity to experience that and so my one of my biggest joys is sharing that with people who’ve never seen anything quite like it
Virginie Boone 30:15
Yeah mine too. And I do think it again brings wine back to its unique place as being so tied to the land and that it is something that has to be grown and looked after and pruned and harvested and everything around it has to be taken care of for all of that to work perfectly. I applaud what you’re doing because I just think it is more and more what people need and want and what the wine industry hopefully is waking up to as well. So beyond the kick the dirt type of experiences you have, you’ve also built a very thorough website presence. You’ve got great maps, you’ve got great videos, you’ve got really good up to date information on on the Ancient Peaks site, which you know a lot of wineries have struggled with sort of that piece of their business. And COVID, the pandemic, kind of this time that we’ve had has added to the pressure of moving beyond direct to consumer just through in person visits. So i’m curious how do you at Ancient Peaks, how do you master and juggle the authentic and you know the farming part of your business with kind of a slicker outward ecommerce piece?
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 31:37
well i’m so thankful that you like it because it’s been a huge project. The wine and vineyard industry is is based in agriculture and sometimes I think people forget that the first experience a customer has with your product is when they pull it off the shelf. And to many farmers and winemakers the experience ends when they put it in the bottle because that’s when their work is done, but I know that that’s when our work really starts. Being able to showcase this place through imagery and video is tremendously impactful and the world and many consumers want to know where their food comes from they want to know who it supports. So we’ve tried to recreate the story of who we are and the special place digitally and virtually. And i’m glad to hear you say that that’s shining through because it has been something that’s very important to all of us and I think that that aside from the winery and the vineyard having a sense of place, I think that you’re capturing the essence of the people and it’s important.
Virginie Boone 33:04
Yeah, it is important and I think that there are a lot of wineries that are going to have to evolve to that point, maybe have not had the means or the resources or the vision yet. But I would encourage anybody who needs some inspiration to look at your site because I do think it very effectively communicates who you are and what you do and and ultimately can sell more of your wine, get your wine to more people because it’s hard to do that other ways sometimes.
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 33:44
My hope is that everyone everyone in our industry works to accomplish what you’re saying because i think if more people knew how wonderful the creation of wine is and the people behind it, it would grow the segment for for all of us, so i’m hopeful that transition happens soon. And I’m thankful for COVID and in one respect because it’s forced the hand of of a lot of people to think differently and when you think differently and stretch is when you grow.
Virginie Boone 34:17
Well i could talk to you for so much longer about all of these things but I would love for you to just close things out by maybe telling people how they can find out more about both Dream Big Darling and Ancient Peaks.
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 34:30
Oh absolutely. Well you can find us on Instagram with Ancient Peaks at @AncientPeaks and Dream Big Darling at DreamBigDarling.org or just search our name and it’ll take you right to our website. The Ancient Peaks wines are available nationwide. Please look for them. We are very grateful if you take them home. You can also buy directly from our website and if you were inspired by the work that we’re doing with Dream Big Darling there’s a way to donate and if you’d like to connect because you think you’d be interested in being part of our community, please follow us on Instagram and learn about all the things that we’re doing and next available opportunity.
Virginie Boone 35:16
Well, thank you so much Amanda for speaking with us today and I really look forward to seeing you again in person, roping, not roping, certainly with a glass of wine.
Amanda Wittstom-Higgins 35:26
Absolutely, thank you so much Virginie. It was a pleasure to be with you today and I look forward to seeing you sometime soon.
Virginie Boone 36:31
Hello, I am here with Ana Keller of Keller Estate in Petaluma. It is a winery estate in the Petaluma Gap AVA, which Ana actually helped start, and we’re going to talk about all sorts of things having to do with the wine industry, growing up, the global perspective on wine and a whole lot more. So welcome, Ana.
Ana Keller 36:52
Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Virginie Boone 36:55
So the global perspective. You grew up with one foot in Mexico one foot in California, growing up much of the time, my understanding is, in Mexico City and going to college in Mexico City and then after college you spent some time pursuing more of your education in London where, I’ve heard you talk about, that’s where you learned a lot about wine. How has your global experience helped you in the wine industry?
Ana Keller 37:19
Well I think that my experience in London, it opened my eyes. It was a wine tasting class back in the early ’90s, so before there was a lot of internet exposure. And at that time and place, London was a great place to taste wines from all over the world. So it taught me two things. One is that growing up in a wine drinking country and family I just was used to the wines that you would put in front of me. But then there was also this world where you could go out and learn about wine on your own, so for me that was kind of a big eye opening moment. And that empowered me to go choose a bottle of wine the following time I went to the store so I think that that combination really showed me that there’s a lot of wine drinkers in the world that come from very different backgrounds so that was one of the things that i really enjoyed about my experience in London and wine.
Virginie Boone 38:12
Well and growing up though you said your family enjoyed wine. Were they drinking predominantly California wine at that time or were they fairly international as well?
Ana Keller 38:22
Well I was drinking mainly wine in Mexico and I always say that back then Mexico drank French white and red Spanish wine, that was the tradition back then. And I drank the wines that were at the table and i didn’t have much say into what what you drank you just enjoyed the wine and really didn’t bother learning about the wine you just had it with the meal if that makes sense.
Virginie Boone 38:44
Yeah no of course i mean it sounds very much like some of these other old world cultures where where wine is just part of the table and you you don’t really overthink it it’s part of the culture.
Ana Keller 38:55
yeah i think so and then finally when I started in the business, I really still think I have that global perspective, not only in the wine industry but also with different cultures and bringing them into what we do and being open to see something that you do in France may or may not work in California. Just having that, coming from a small country, it always gives you a perspective. The US is so big. No matter where you come from, the US will always be bigger and so growing up in Mexico we always knew what the US was doing and the trends that they were setting, so I think that gives you a grassroots perspective on life.
Virginie Boone 39:42
Yeah I agree with you and I think it’s also probably very helpful as, one the california wine industry matures and becomes more global and reaches more places in the world, but also as we sort of look to ways of adapting whether that has to do with vineyard practices or grapes that we grow or how we sell wine and how we interact. So I think all of that has value.
Ana Keller 40:08
Definitely, I think it’s been part of what, even now kind of moving forward, we export wine to Mexico, and we do a private label for the peninsula hotels worldwide. So we now export to China, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Europe. And so I continue to bring that ,I’m not afraid of export, I’m used to always understanding what, what new regulation each country is going to have.
Virginie Boone 40:38
Right, right. And presenting your wine in a way that makes sense in that type of marketplace.
Ana Keller 40:45
Sure, I think it kind of teaches you to every time check yourself and make sure you know, where the wine, you know, knowledge level is, what they’re interested in. If they’re interested in the story, if they want to understand more about wine. And you just have to learn how to adapt and meet people where they are.
Virginie Boone 41:06
Yeah, absolutely. Well, I want to get back to sort of your beginnings, because I think if you talk about adaptation. You were the youngest of four children, and you were in your 20s when your dad asked you to take on the running of Keller Estate, which at the time, I understand, was about 650 acres in Petaluma. Now as I had mentioned, part of the Petaluma Gap AVA. But you know, here you are, and you’re probably have other plans for your life where you’re still trying to figure out what your other plans are. And here, you’re presented with a pretty interesting opportunity, which you took. So I’d love to hear more about kind of how that all happened, but I know also that you’ve mentioned Ted Lemon was an early mentor. So how did Ted help you and how else did you kind of get to this place of running Keller Estate?
Ana Keller 41:59
Well, I studied biopharmaceutical chemistry, which was interesting. And then I started a master’s degree in London, and it was about pharmaceutical development. I really wanted to work with medicinal plants, but they didn’t have any openings at that time. But it was still within the the pharmacy department in King’s College in London. And one of the things that that allowed me was really to understand how to, you know, process and produce and continue furthering my education regarding chemistry and plants, which has helped a lot in terms of understanding viticulture. When I came back, and I was finishing my written thesis, my dad had kept a ton of grapes. And asked Rombauer, which at that time was the winery buying our grapes, if they would ferment one ton for our family, and that we would bottle that. We had a stuck fermentation. And my dad took that opportunity to say, ‘Well, I guess you understand what a fermentation is.’ I went to Rombauer. And it was just, it was love at first fermentation. I think that it brought the combination of plants, chemistry. At that point, I have to say my strength wasn’t in the overall picture, and I slowly learned how to taste wine and really focus. We decided to really turn our vineyard into a winery. And I was really fortunate. Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time, and I was at Unified in Sacramento, and I was pointed to David Ramey, and they told me you know, you grow Chardonnay, if you want to consultant for Chardonnay, you should talk to Dave Ramey. I approached him and he actually right at that time was starting Ramey Wine Cellars. So he tasted the wine and said, look, I think you’ve got great fruit here, but I don’t have time to consult anymore. But here are a few people that I think would be rock stellar. And all of these people have experienced in Pinot Noir too. And that’s how I met Ted.
Virginie Boone 44:01
Those are two two pretty important people that and it just goes to show how connected the wine industry and Sonoma can be.
Ana Keller 44:10
Yes, it is funny because, you know, 20 odd years later, Dave is still supporting the Petaluma Gap with his Syrah, and I still get a chance to see him often. And so it’s been very nice to keep in touch with somebody who just—sometimes a mentor is just somebody who points you in the right direction. And I don’t think Dave knows he was a mentor. But there you go. Yeah. Then I started working with Ted and with Ted, it was a very insightful, Ted is definitely one of the most insightful persons that I know. And we both also shared young children at the time, and we would you know, we would spend a lot of hours talking about the decisions that have to be made. For example, one of the biggest lessons he told me was the pillar of Keller Estate is truly the vineyard. It’s the Estate, you’re only making wines from that particular site so you got to really put all of the energy into the vineyard,. Winemakers may come and go until the family actually has a winemaker. And so just make sure that you have a great vineyard to come back. You’ll make mistakes along the way. But if you’ve got a solid vineyard, you’ll be able to redirect.
Virginie Boone 45:23
Right. Well, and you’ve said you’ve studied biochemistry, because you’ve always loved plants. But is there something particularly interesting about grape vines?
Ana Keller 45:32
Well, you know, it’s funny, in a sense, I love the medicinal aspect of plants. And so I’ve always loved the healing properties, not quite sure if grape vines have such a healing property to themselves. But I think after this COVID, we’ve learned that wine definitely has an interesting healing aspect to it. But I think, what what has marveled me is the sole purpose of growing grapes for making wine is to produce great fruit. So the message and everything that you’re doing in the vineyard has that intention, you’re sending that message to the plant through the different things you give it, or the things you don’t give it, whether it’s water, whether it’s fertilizers. So I think that’s for me has been particularly interesting to understand that relationship between focusing the plant on fruit and what you expect in return.
Virginie Boone 46:31
Yeah, that’s such a long term learning experience, too.
Ana Keller 46:36
Yes, you know, for example, we were farming in a conventional way. And when I tried to to change and started looking for alternatives and wanted to go down the organic route, the first thing that I realized was that our team had their conventional farming toolbox. And every time they had a problem in the vineyard, whether it was a pest or something, that’s the toolbox they had. So our first goal was really to change the toolbox. So that when we were faced with a situation, we didn’t gravitate to Roundup, or we didn’t gravitate to fertile to chemical fertilizers. So I think that was the first most drastic aspect that, you know, convincing humans on how to go about it was the biggest challenge.
Virginie Boone 47:26
Well, and I was really struck by that, because I do I do think that I read somewhere or heard you say somewhere that you eliminated Roundup, and you’ve gone more to having sheep who can graze and fertilize and mow and you’ve talked a little bit about what went into that decision. But are there are there other things that you’re doing to kind of keep that ability to stay away from chemicals possible?
Unknown Speaker 47:51
The first one was definitely tolerating some weeds, you know. When it starts with Roundup, you can you can eliminate them 100%. And so you’re used to seeing the vineyard in a particular way. Little by little, you just kind of understand that we have a purpose and they’re okay. And I think that’s the first thing that we got comfortable with them, you know, someone unruly weeds here and there. The sheep have been great they they have produced and they turned out to be a livelihood for a sheep herder. So they also went back into giving kind of a new beginning to another person. But in terms of other things that we’re doing, we’re doing in vine cultivation. We compost everything we have on the property, putting that compost back into the ground. So I decided that the best way for us to approach a transformation to organic sustainable farming was from the ground up. So that’s why I first worked on improving the soils. We here at the Petaluma Gap have heavy clay soils, we have Diablo clays, and anybody who’s walked this area knows that these are heavy, dry, or wet clay soils, which are a challenge to farm. And so we’ve had to really learn what works and what doesn’t work for us. Sometimes when I hear people give blank statements about dry farming or certain things, I always feel like well, it doesn’t everything doesn’t apply to everyone.
Virginie Boone 49:22
Well, that is definitely true. And I think you’re just thinking about Sonoma alone and all the differences in microclimates and aspects and elevations and then you get into the soils and what’s around the different vineyards. It’s really hard to just say that one thing is right for every property. It seems like it’s so individual.
Unknown Speaker 49:45
It is so individual but i think that we like to simplify things and sometimes we simplify things for the consumer and the consumer hears certain catchphrases and assumes that should work for everybody. I think there’s things like eliminating Roundup definitely works for everybody. But some of the more detailed farming practices need to be adapted to each site.
Virginie Boone 50:11
Yeah, of course. But it’s something like eliminating Roundup is not only good for your grapes and for your soils, but But obviously, for anybody who’s living on the property and for your vineyard crews as well. And that’s an important part of your decision making I would think.
Ana Keller 50:26
Definitely. I can’t say more about that.
Virginie Boone 50:33
So I want to talk a little bit more about the medicinal plants, because it’s something that’s always interested me too, especially the traditional side of medicinal plants in different parts of the world. I mean, it seems to me that your sustainability is going to be even more important when you think about the potential loss of medicinal plants to so many cultures is that is that something that you stay on top of that you still have an interest in?
Ana Keller 50:57
I do have an interest. And you know, funny enough, when you study something as scientific driven as pharmaceutical chemistry, sometimes you wander away from the holistic aspect of the plant itself, and how traditional cultures use it. The focus of my studies for a long time was finding that active compound within the plant that made so you know, a particular effect or desired effect. So it always seemed like it was dissecting things a little too much. Now, I like to go back and understand better the plant as a whole and whether it’s a cultural aspect also involved in the way communities use a particular plant, or ceremonial or a combination of that and also to reduce ailments. I think that it still fascinates me. I think right now I’m more into grape growing them into medicinal plants, sadly, but this just might rekindle some love.
Virginie Boone 52:00
Yeah, well, I do find it fascinating. And I think there’s there’s probably things within Sonoma County that we just don’t even think about because we see grapevines so much and it is such a focus for us. But I want to switch gears a little bit and just talk to you about you know, the fact that you grew up speaking Spanish, of course, and immersed in Mexican culture. I know your winemaker is German background. And I think you’ve joked a little bit about the different approaches you sometimes take in terms of describing wine. From your perspective, how do we find a common language around wine? And how do we expand our vocabulary and cultural references?
Ana Keller 52:44
Well, I think there’s different ways to go about it. Julian, as you pointed out, is German. And he has a, you know, he was brought up in a very particular way of doing things. And my family also has German background. So we really find each other looking for ways to do things right the first way efficiently, not cutting corners. And so there is a cultural aspect that sometimes you find that another culture has, and maybe you don’t have it as a culture, but you have it as an individual. And that is kind of a great way to take on some of the great aspects of other cultures or other people. And so that’s one way that we find a common language around working together. When it comes to describing wines, it’s funny. A few years ago, one of our vineyard workers walked into the winery and immediately said, ‘This winery smells like tamarind.’ And Julian had absolutely no idea what we were talking about. Tamarind was not part of his repertoire. So I went out got some tamarind, got all of these candies and water and aromas and true enough he really had to sit down and develop that aroma in his mind and learn and integrate it and now it’s it has become part of our—and it is very typical of the Chardonnay at Keller Estate because it combines that spiciness and that earthiness and fruit at the same time. So I think sometimes it is, especially with aromas, how that takes you back to a time in your life when you really didn’t associate smells. You archive them into the mind without knowing you were doing it.
Virginie Boone 54:33
Yeah, absolutely. And I think the more access we all have to different types of cuisine and different types of cultural references, the more we can expand that vocabulary and really sort of make that tie to the aromas that we’re really getting from a wine. It makes it makes wine just endlessly fascinating.
Ana Keller 54:52
I think so. It also makes it endlessly complicated because gone are the days when wine pairing was obvious, right? All of a sudden you’re you’re pairing in a more broader terms with spicy food or non spicy food or you know sweetness or depth and I think it is part of the way you also have to learn to detach yourself from being too specific when you’re trying to be multicultural.
Virginie Boone 55:20
yeah yeah and it’ll be really cool to see things evolve in our lifetime and younger consumers come in and have their own references. I always think about that, is there anybody under the age of let’s say 30, do they know what pencil shaving is? Have they ever used a pencil? Have they had anybody in their family that smoked a pipe? I mean I think their references might be quite different than ours were.
Ana Keller 55:46
I think so and it just shows you that well you know that you have to adapt and there’s no right way about that. I’m trying to figure out if there’s new smells that didn’t exist before, I don’t know what the the smell of internet is but i’m sure there’s new aromas that are popping up. On the other hand I see my nieces who are in their early 30s cooking from absolutely every cuisine around the world. And they are familiar just picking up Thai spices or Mexican spices, so I do think that it really they may have lost access to some old you know specific aromas but they’ll find a new vocabulary for pencil shavings, it just may not be what we’re used to.
Virginie Boone 56:33
Well I think it’s great. I’m all in favor of it because I think some of those get repetitive and you’re like ah all right. And I use them, I have to admit I do use some of those because that is what I get. But it is so specific to what your reference points are and what your education was and your experience with wine so i think before we close things out i just love for you to tell us what’s new at Keller Estate, what you have going on. It’s spring, I imagine pruning might be starting or started.
Ana Keller 57:05
Yes we’ve almost finished pruning and we are looking at a very dry year around here which is probably at top of mind what is concerning me. We are on the southern tip of Sonoma County and it’s interesting but we always get less rain than Santa Rosa or Healdsburg so if it’s a dry year for everybody in Santa Rosa, it’s even drier down here in the Petaluma Gap. So that right now is one of my concerns and I’m actively working at finishing a pipeline to be able to get recycled water to our property, which will culminate like a seven year project it almost feels just as monumental as the Petaluma Gap AVA because this really affects our property for the next generation.
Virginie Boone 57:53
Are you are you finding that you know given the time that you’ve had that property, is it just drier every year are we just in a particularly dry spot yet again?
Ana Keller 58:05
I think I would say we’ve had more dry years and wet years, so all in all I do think we’re tending towards a dry situation which is something that we have to adapt and there’s just no substitute… I think we can all adapt to changing climate but there’s no substitute for water. You do need water to grow grapes, so I think that for me is right now one of the things that I’m working more heavily on is just making sure that we get that in the right place so that we can continue. In 2019 we celebrated our 30th anniversary growing grapes and so 2020 is our 20th anniversary making wine. So I kind of you know I’m at that point where the vineyard is mature, the winery is is almost an adult and I’m looking at the next 2030 years and how we can better set up for what we’re doing.
Virginie Boone 59:08
Such an important topic and I think a lot of wineries in both Napa and Sonoma are kind of at that same point in time. You’ve learned a lot of lessons, you’ve done a lot, you’ve made a lot of different vintages in dry and wet years and small and robust years and fire years and whatever else, and now is kind of the time to think again like what’s the next 20, 30 years with the the current challenges.
Ana Keller 59:38
One of the things that we’re doing is we are replanting our original planting original le cru Chardonnay. We are in the middle of a replant which has also brought me back to viticulture and kind of going back to understanding our soils with a lot of experience and that’s really neat. The first time I think I was just trying to walk and do at the same time. And now I have a little bit more the luxury of knowledge and introspection and there’s so many people in the area that have so much experience and they really bring a lot of, you know, experience to how to better farm. We have vineyard plantings, that original Chardonnay was very wide spacing, the orientation was not the best. So we had to always be, you know, finding ways to make it work. And I feel like it’s such a luxury to be able to replant, reconfigure the vineyard, choose the perfect rootstock, the right orientation, the ideal spacing for the vines. And so that’s what we’re up to right now. We’re kind of getting ready to do that. And, definitely, it felt like 2020 was the right year to start a new project. It kind of felt like it is the time for the Phoenix to be reborn.
Virginie Boone 1:00:57
Yeah, I think you’re right, it was a good time to be sort of introspective and really think about what you have and what you can do better, do differently. Nice to almost have a little bit of brain space that you might not have otherwise had if you had had the usual demands of getting the Keller Estate wines out there.
Ana Keller 1:01:18
Exactly, I think staying at home was what allowed me to do that part of the project.
Virginie Boone 1:01:24
Well, I do want to encourage people to look for Keller Estate wines, and when possible to come and visit the Keller Estate in the Petaluma Gap, one of the few wineries that can actually be visited. It gives you a great sense of what that appellation is all about. And thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ana Keller 1:01:42
I was delighted to be here. Thank you, Virginie.
Lauren Buzzeo 1:01:47
And that closes out the second episode in our two part series on women in California Wine, from respect for the land to building your community and amplifying voices around you for a better future for all, there’s a lot of great thought and consideration to be given to these forward thinking women and their initiatives. Check out winemag.com/podcasts for more information about today’s episode, as well as additional articles surrounding Women’s History Month. Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on iTunes, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you like today’s episode, we’d love to read your review and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine loving friends to check us out too. You can also drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more wine reviews, recipes guides, deep dives and stories, visit Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com and connect with us on Instagram Facebook and Twitter @WineEnthusiast. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers.
Last Updated: June 5, 2023