Profiles in wine: Alma de Cattleya winemaker passionate about ‘unforgettable’ wine
Bibiana González Rave grew up in Medellin, Colombia, during the 1990s. Sonoma County, where she’s now a vintner, feels light years away.
“We lived with the daily devastation of the drug cartel, attacks, bombings and kidnappings,” González Rave said about that turbulent period of Colombia’s history. “Every city throughout Colombia endured aggression from the cartels. I lost one of my closet girl friends in a car bombing in 2000.”
Here in California, she has thrived. The winemaker founded her own brand — Alma de Cattleya — in Rohnert Park in 2014. Her sauvignon blanc bottling ranked No. 28 on the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 List for 2023.
Making wine in California is a dream, she said.
“The technology and industry investment here is remarkable,” González Rave said. “Many other countries simply don’t have this. We have a lot of freedom in vineyard development, as well as (in) our winemaking practices.”
Her interest in wine began when she was 14, and it took her from Colombia to France before she landed in California.
“I was fascinated that by our own hands, we could transform grapes into wine and that wine has been a fundamental drink in human civilization and history,” González Rave said. “I had never had a winery or vineyard experience before my departure to France, nor a specific bottle of wine, since I was too young to understand the nuances of terroir and regions and obviously not of age to buy and drink wine legally. However, after I continued to talk about my desire to pursue a wine career, my father would offer a few sips here and there from his wine glass on special occasions.”
In France, she studied enology and viticulture at the University of Bordeaux and Lycée Agricole de L’Oisellerie. In the United States, she discovered her favorite winegrowing region — Sonoma County
“It’s the appellation where 90% of my wines are made,” she said. “I love what the proximity of the ocean does to our wines, as well as the diversity of wines and varietals we can make. I fell in love with California in 2004 and I still love its beauty, despite the challenges we have faced over the last few years.”
Her “happy place” is in her vineyard, she said. She loves to walk through and examine the nuances of each particular block or clone.
“It’s amazing to me how much care is involved in making a specific vineyard a Grand Cru, or how to grow grapes that can produce those perfect wines that can age for decades,” she said. “My biggest joy is to harvest grapes that I believe will produce an unforgettable wine. ... I’ve always dreamed, since my first day of studying in France, about making a wine that would leave you speechless when asked to describe it.”
Alma de Catteya (cattleya is the Spanish word for orchids) produces about 12,000 cases yearly, of varietals sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot from Sonoma County and Napa Valley. González Rave also collaborates with her husband, Jeff Pisoni, on the brand Shared Notes, which they founded in 2012, soon after they were married. The brand produces two wines, a sauvignon blanc and a sauvignon blanc and semillon blend.
“For me, making wine is a transformational process, just like art or music,” González Rave said. “Each year, you get to transform a fruit, in this case grapes, into wine, then bottle it with a cork and preserve it for decades. Isn’t that something remarkable?”
González Rave also talked about learning French, her favorite wine book and what people would find most surprising about her winemaking.
Question: How difficult was it to learn French and study enology in France?
Answer: I didn’t speak any French before going to France. I was actually not accepted at any of the viticulture and enology schools in France, but I was determined. So I flew to France and visited all of them until one would take me! After waiting eight hours in the office at Angouleme, I finally met the principal. He spoke French and I spoke Spanish. Somehow, we both understood each other. I think he got the message from the light in my eyes that I really wanted it, so he took me in. After a month of being sick to my stomach, 20 hours of class, learning vocabulary, grammar and the (technical terms) of my degree — all from my room — I was pretty fluent in French and able to take notes in all my lessons.
Q: What’s your favorite wine book and why?
A: “The Atlas of Wine.” It was the first book I read, trying to understand the concept of terroir and how wine was made. I’ve read that book many times starting at age 14, but it took me a trip to France to fully understand how wine was made.
Q: What would people find most surprising about your winemaking?
A: I’m often told that my wines are very intense in their aromatics, very pretty with no bitterness and very pure. I think people are surprised that we spend a lot of time and investment in our very manual, hands-on winemaking process. In addition, my wines are dry, which allows customers to focus on the beauty of each individual site, the specific characteristics of each varietal and the power that high-quality tannins can have on a glass of pinot noir, for example, while still being elegant and beautiful.
You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-5310.
Wine, The Press Democrat
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