Three young Sonoma County winemakers turning heads
“God made only water, but man made wine.”
They were just kids when they first crossed paths with wine grapes and their mysterious powers. But the experience planted a seed in them, a dormant yearning that eventually became a calling for Erica Stancliff, Alison Crowe and Morgan Twain-Peterson. Today they're turning heads with their wines and showing the world what can be done in a short window of time.
Early sign of vintner talent
Erica Stancliff was 10-years-old when she first swirled a glass of merlot, took a sniff and then rattled off descriptors – “vanilla, cinnamon, blueberry, pie crust … It kind of took a hold of me.”
Vintner Paul Hobbs, a family friend, was at the house for dinner and he had uncorked the bottle.
“He just looked at me, then looked at my parents and said ‘she needs to be a winemaker.'”
Stancliff, 29, now makes wine for Sonoma County's Trombetta Cellars and Furthermore Wines. But the horse-lover, wearing dusty brown leather riding boots, thought she wanted to be a veterinarian when she was in high school; she wasn't as certain as Hobbs of her fate.
“I shadowed my horse vet for a day,” Stancliff said, laughing, “and I came to the startling realization that I'm terrified of needles and horse needles are massive, so that was off the table.”
Next Stancliff gave political science a go, joining the speech and debate team at Sebastopol's Analy High School.
“I thought maybe I'd go into campaign management, but at a debate I realized some people could make an argument out of anything without believing in it,” she said. “That's when I decided I could never work in politics.”
Then came that life-changing walk in the vineyards.
“I was walking through a chardonnay vineyard right before harvest with Paul Hobbs and he started talking about the passion behind winemaking, making something with your hands that's a labor of love every year and it's different every year,” Stancliff said. “When I took a winery tour at Fresno State, that's when it all kind of clicked and came into focus for me.”
As for Stancliff's best accolade, she received 94 points from Virginie Boone of the Wine Enthusiast on her first commercial chardonnay, the Trombetta, 2014 Gaps Crown.
Stancliff credits her mom – Rickey Trombetta – for shaping her palate by growing up in a house filled with authentic Italian dishes.
“My grandfather was fresh off the boat from southern Italy,” she said.
Being raised in a food-centric family, Stancliff said, is what makes her winemaking unique; she sees wine through a food-lover's lens. Her mother always had a garden ripe with herbs, vegetables and flowers, as well as orchards and blackberry bushes; she would harvest the garden to make dinner.
Italian fare included Calabrian risotto and pasta carbonara, and then there were the irresistible desserts, freshly picked blackberries and apples in cobblers and pies.
“In my winemaking I'm always thinking about what would go well with food,” Stancliff said. “How would wine present itself at a table with friends and family?”
To that end, the winemaker is always searching for vineyard sites that maintain acid because it's one of the backbones of wine.
“I like finding that marriage of ripe fruit and acid – finding that match is what creates balance for me,” she said. “Wine and food are meant to accentuate each other, but also draw a contrast.”
Stancliff's favorite wine pairing to date is her Trombetta pinot noir coupled with salmon, drizzled lightly with a chipotle sauce.
The winemaker is excited to expand her food-savvy brands with new varietals, but she's also content with her progress.
“I've already gone much further than I thought I would pre-30-years old,” Stancliff said. “I'm a winemaker for two amazing wineries, and I work with some of the best fruit this county has to offer.”
A nose for grapes
Alison Crowe was 5-years-old when she was first fascinated by a grape, puzzled by its range in aromas and flavors. Her parents had taken her to Firestone Vineyard in Los Olivos.
“I knew a grape was a grape, but how does a grape get to smell like pineapple juice?” Crowe asked. “It was a watershed moment for me.”
Today Crowe, 41, is the director of winemaking and partner for Napa-based Plata Wine Partners, a company that offers services that include accounting, sales and winemaking. She's the winemaker for Garnet in the $30-range, and Picket Fence which sells for roughly $10 a bottle.
Crowe looks like an urban farmer, clad in blue jeans, a shirt with a black vest and shoes with a 2 inch heel.
The winemaker grew up in Carpinteria, near Santa Barbara, with agriculture in her blood. One side of her family were cattle ranchers while the other grew avocados and citrus.