Profiles in wine: Ashley Holland, winemaker at Read Holland

“I just liked to dance by myself and do my own thing,” said Ashley Holland, co-founder and winemaker at Read Holland Wines in Santa Rosa.|

Ashley Holland fell in love with horses. Then she discovered wine.

At age 6, Ashley Holland got kicked out of ballet.

While the other little girls were happy to pointe and plié, Holland preferred dancing to her own beat — replacing the teacher’s choreography with dance moves of her own.

“I just liked to dance by myself and do my own thing,” said Holland, co-founder and winemaker at Read Holland Wines in Santa Rosa. “Fortunately, my parents were very supportive. They didn’t want to break my spirit. I’m very appreciative of that.”

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Holland, now 41, developed a deep passion for horses long before wine, attending Oklahoma State University to pursue a career in equine veterinary medicine.

But after she spent time at the veterinary hospital, the reality of a career in animal medicine was an emotional hardship she didn’t want to bear. A few credits shy of what she needed to graduate, she took a course in international beverage education, which turned out to be a course in wine tasting.

“During class, we tasted this pinot noir, and I remember thinking, ‘How can something smell like perfume and taste like raspberries?’” Holland said. “I felt like the wine encompassed so much. I know this is cliché to say, but winemaking really is where science and art meet.”

With a background in science, Holland began to wonder whether there was a role for her in the wine industry. After researching further, she took a wine sales job at Gallo in Colorado, then transferred to Sonoma County to work in wine education for MacMurray Estate Vineyards and Frei Brothers Ranch.

But that didn’t ring her chimes for long. Ready for a change, she decided to work a harvest. That’s when she met Carol Shelton, a widely admired veteran winemaker in Sonoma County.

“Carol opened the door for me by inviting me to work harvest,” Holland said. “I liked her right away; her energy is contagious. Even though she’s been making wine for a long time, you can tell just how much she loves it.”

At the time, Holland said, she wasn’t sure she wanted to pursue a career in wine production. She was just going with the flow. But when Gallo asked her whether she’d like to work a harvest in Australia, she jumped at the chance.

“That internship turned out to be my ‘hell, yes’ moment. After that, I knew there was nothing in life I would rather do than make wine,” Holland said. “Walking into the winery gave me the same feeling I used to get walking into the horse barn. I felt at home.”

Over the next four vintages, Holland worked for Two Rivers winery in Marlborough, New Zealand. That experience was “like going to sauvignon blanc university,” she said, given the varietal’s prevalence in the region.

During a visit back to the U.S. in 2015, Holland met celebrated winemaker Bob Cabral, who had just left Williams Selyem to make wine for the newly launched Three Sticks in Sonoma. Cabral talked her into staying on for harvest, which — unbeknown to her — turned out to be an audition for a permanent position at Three Sticks.

“When Bob Cabral asks you to make wine with him, you don’t say no, because he’s such an industry titan,” Holland said. “Bob became not just a mentor but also a friend. He pushed me really hard because he knew I could do it, and he shares knowledge so willingly. Bob is responsible for so much of my growth as a winemaker.”

During her time at Three Sticks, Holland began doing some work as a wine consultant on the side. When she learned a friend’s family was interested in making wine in Anderson Valley, her interest was piqued.

“The Read family told me about this vineyard in the deep end of Anderson Valley and asked me to go take a look,” Holland said. “I really love that area, so I was very excited. In the back of my mind, I knew it would be like going to the (dog) pound: You don’t go just to look. You know you’re going to come home with something.”

But Holland didn’t come home with a new pet. Instead, she’d adopted a new path as winemaker for Read Holland, where she is now majority owner.

Today, Holland is a busy woman, splitting her time between her wine consultancy and Read Holland, where she produces about 500 cases of wine per year. At this stage of her career, Holland said, she’s in the “refine-and-tune phase,” working hard to dial in quality and style. But she sees winemaking as a long series of lessons and said she’s only “a piece of the process.

“As a winemaker, my goal is to be the salt in the vineyard — amplifying the natural characters of the grapes while not trying to turn them into something they’re not,” Holland said. “Like my parents said, I don’t want to break their spirit.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or On Twitter @whiskymuse.

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