Sonoma County’s mother-daughter wine teams bring love and collaboration to the bottle

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Erica Stancliff was the kind of kindergartener who had a rat in her pocket and a garden snake in her hands while she was chasing a rabbit.

The fertile schoolyard was a familiar habitat for the blonde in braids. Stancliff grew up on a two-acre spread in Forestville, one she refers to today as the “animal sanctuary.” It’s still teaming with life – quail, hummingbirds, robins, 18 chickens and an angry Cotton Ball Rooster.

Stancliff and her mother, Rickey Trombetta, sit at the kitchen table, looking out into the “sanctuary,” and talk about how they first became fascinated with grape growing and winemaking. They never expected to be business partners crafting a family brand — Trombetta.

In Celebration of Mother’s Day, we talked with four sets of mother/daughter winemaking teams — Trombetta and Stancliff, Nancy Cline and daughters Megan Cline and Hilary Cline, Heidi Barrett and Chelsea Barrett and Diane Wilson and Victoria Wilson. Their stories, while unique, have a common theme. The bond between these mothers and daughters is the shared fascination with growing and creating something from the earth — bottling Mother Nature.

Trombetta

The kitchen is filled with enticing aromas from a pork tenderloin in the oven, a commingling of flavors – cumin, chili powder and garlic.

Erica Stancliff says her mother used to have huge stacks of magazines with recipes until the family revolted and made her come up with a less cumbersome system of archiving recipes.

And yet it’s her mother’s Italian cooking – the delectable Calabrian risotto and pasta carbonara – that Stancliff credits for shaping her palate.

Stancliff was 10-years-old when her tasting prowess revealed itself. After sniffing a glass of merlot, she rattled off descriptors – vanilla, cinnamon, blackberry, pie crust.” Vintner Paul Hobbs was at the house for dinner, looked at Stancliff’s parents and said “she needs to be a winemaker.”

Stancliff and Trombetta, it seems, were on a path destined to converge. Trombetta and her husband, Roger Stancliff, were home winemakers and once their daughter decided to study winemaking in 2006 at Fresno State, they started talking about possibilities. Trombetta had worked for Paul Hobbs in 1998 and later for Kendall-Jackson in 2008, so she was well-versed in everything from organizing picks to public relations and marketing.

“We figured out our sandboxes very early on,” Trombetta says, with a laugh.

After a tiff over the timing of a pick, Stancliff says “my parents understood that if they wanted me to be winemaker, I had to have complete control over the fruit and winemaking.”

Trombetta, 68, says she had to look at her daughter, now 31, differently.

“I had to move from a mother/daughter and an older/younger relationship to a level playing field,” Trombetta explains.

Stancliff is no longer the kindergartener in the schoolyard, even though she still has one long blonde braid in the back.

“My mother and I are very similar people,” Stancliff says. “We’re both opinionated and strong women so there are always going to be some clashes. But at the end of the day, we both want the same thing. We want this business to succeed and we’re family.”

Cline

The big gold van, the Ford 14-seater is where Megan and Hilary Cline, along with their five siblings, got their first lesson in wine.

“On the way to school my dad would quiz us on all the grape varietals,” Megan says. “He wanted to make sure we’d know all these random, obscure varietals like Alicante and Palomino.”

Megan was eight years old and her sister Hilary was nine when these early bird lessons began and they apparently made an impression on the girls. Both found their way back to Sonoma’s Cline Cellars, the winery their father — Fred Cline — founded in 1982 by putting money on a credit card.

The call to winemaking came for Megan, now 27, after she graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 2014. That’s when she decided to join some friends going for their sommelier credential.

“I fell in love with wine and the wine world,” she says. “When you grow up in it, it’s not that romantic. But when you study it, wine has so much more to do with culture. It’s food, history and people.”

Hilary, meanwhile, made her way back to the winery by way of Siberia. After graduating from Lewis & Clark in 2012, she taught English in Siberia as a Fulbright Scholar. After a few other adventures, including working harvests elsewhere, Hilary, now 28, is now back at Cline full time.

The sisters taste and weigh in on the final blends before they’re bottled, but what they’re most excited about is what’s happening in the vineyard.

As their mother Nancy puts it: “I see Megan at her happiest in the vineyard with her dog Willa sampling grapes.”

The vineyards, Hilary says, hold so much promise.

“I get excited about farming because I believe the greatest influence you can have on the outcome of a wine happens in the vineyard.” Hilary explains.

In 2000 Fred and Nancy decided to stop using all herbicides and pesticides so their vineyards could be a place their children could roam without worry,

“For the lifestyle of the ranch, we said we cannot raise children and have chemicals,” Nancy says. “We couldn’t have chemicals in our products for our children, our workers and our consumers. There are some things in life you’re so happy you’ve done and this is one of them.”

Nancy, 61, points out that farming organic in 2000 was not commonplace.

“I’m in awe of my mother’s preservationist bent and what she has been able to accomplish because of it,” Hilary says. “Also motherhood is something I inherently respect, and she did it seven times.”

Barrett

Chelsea Barrett took up baking when she was five-years-old and decided to tackle popovers at eight. When she wasn’t baking, she was knitting or sewing.

“From early on I’d have to drive Chelsea to the fabric store — right now,” her mother Heidi Barrett explains. “She was irritating but lovable.”

Chelsea laughs. “On the downside I’m not very patient, but I’m incredibly productive.”

The two are sitting side by side at the Calistoga Roastery, with Chelsea’s newborn Violet beside her.

The winemakers seem to share the same face – but Chelsea has brown eyes and Heidi, hazel. And yet their eyes light up with the same excitement when they talk about growing vegetables and making wine.

“I like the creative nature of taking something from the earth,” Heidi says, “and making something more complex.”

Heidi, 61, grew up in a winemaking family with her father – Richard Peterson – one of Napa Valley’s most revered winemakers. Heidi also married into a winemaking family, with her husband – Bo Barrett — the high profile winemaker at Calistoga’s Chateau Montelena.

But Heidi has championed them both; she’s also a Wine Country icon, after producing the 6-liter bottle of Screaming Eagle that sold for $500,000 at Auction Napa Valley in 2000.

Chelsea, now 31, decided to follow the family lineage and become a winemaker, graduating from U.C. Davis in 2010. Today she works at Napa Valley’s Joel Gott, and in 2017 she began working with her mother on a trio of brands: Amuse Bouche, Au Sommet and Aviatrix.

Tenacity — that’s what Heidi says is Chelsea’s most endearing quality. And when you hear Heidi is a helicopter pilot who tools through Wine Country during harvest to check the grapes from Amador to El Dorado County, you realize tenacity is clearly in Chelsea’s DNA.

“A lot of those attributes she loves about me, I got from her,” Chelsea says.

“I love my mom’s creativity and how resourceful she is. My mom is not a believer in obstacles.”

Wilson

The view from the patio frames Dry Creek Valley, an expanse of vineyards ribbed with vines.

Diane Wilson and her daughter Victoria Wilson are sitting under an umbrella and beneath the wrought iron table their feet meet. Diane is wearing gray tennis shoes, just back from a run, while Victoria is wearing fashionable red pumps.

The two are most expressive, almost giddy, when they talk about taking the pulse of wine.

“In the beginning we only made a couple of wines, but I would get so excited to see what had happened, what had evolved,” Diane says. “Wine is such a living organism.”

Victoria grinned, giving her mother a knowing look.

“So much can happen in 24 hours of fermenting,” she says. “It can change from strawberry to peach and apricot in the tank.”

Victoria, 31, earned a degree from UCLA in environmental science in 2010 and Diane, 59, was a biochemistry major at San Diego State in 1985. Neither studied enology, but they say their science background sees them through. This winemaking team oversees the brands at Wilson, DeLorimier and Matrix, three wineries within Wilson’s empire of 10.

“I love (my mom’s) work ethic and her follow through, her passion and how she is with the work,” Victoria says. “Because there’s a lot to pay attention to. There are hundreds of decisions to make along the way.”

Diane looks at her daughter and smiles broadly.

It’s clear that all mother/daughter winemaking teams are doing something infinitely harder yet more gratifying than passing the baton; they’re each holding it at the same time, and always looking for ways to collaborate.

“Victoria has come in with new eyes,” Diane says. “She found some new technology and brought in a new approach to some of the winemaking aspects. I really appreciate her bringing a new energy into the winemaking process.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

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