A Destiny of Dirty Boots

If the saying “wine made in the vineyard is true” then Twin Cities native Jessica Miller is poised to make true wine. Jess has spent time in vineyards all over the world learning different viticultural techniques used to produce great grapes. After several years of traveling and learning the industry, Jess has settled in Oregon where she just finished bottling part of her very first vintage. Jess’s story is a great example of an unexpected passion developing into a fruitful career. She has worked with highly reputed winemakers and viticulturalists in Europe, the US and New Zealand. Her diverse experiences are a unique portrait of trends in contemporary winemaking and the slow, circuitous road to producing wine. 

With the requirements for her international relations degree completed, Jess had the flexibility to take half credit courses during her final year at Boston University. Their school of hospitality offered several courses in wine history and Jess enjoyed the first course so thoroughly that she ultimately completed the entire curriculum offered at her school. She was taken by the interdisciplinary nature of wine, the importance of culture, history, geology, science, and travel, “So it was always kind of in the back of my mind after that,” said Jess during our recent conversation. 

After graduating, she spent several months working at The Wine Shop in Minnetonka before heading to Orvieto, Italy in the southwest of Umbria in 2010. She lived and worked at Tenuta Pietre Parlanti, a small family farm owned and operated by Dr. Robert Hasinger and his wife Gala. They primarily grow traditional Chianti grapes, Sangiovese and Canaiolo, along with a small plot of Merlot. While she was there, Jess realized she wanted to pursue winemaking; California seemed like the natural next step. 

Upon arrival, Jess set up an informational interview with Steve Waters, the head of retail at Kermit Lynch, one of the best-known wine importers in the country. His suggestion to an aspiring winemaker? Work in retail and taste, taste, taste. She says it is the best industry advice she received. She spent two years in the Bay Area working in retail, learning how buying decisions are made and developing her palate. Once she found her footing there she felt it was time to return to making wine and working the land.  

She returned to production in 2014 to work for Richard Ward and David Graves at Saintsbury in Sonoma County, a small production winery in Carneros. Jess was more interested in working in the vineyard than in the cellar but when she expressed this to the cellarmaster, who had worked his way up from vineyards since he came over from Mexico, he thought she was crazy. “That’s the worst job; that’s the job that no one wants,” she was told. 

At the ground level in the US, she found there is a stigma with vineyard labor. It is typically seen and paid as an entry-level position given to immigrant laborers with low-English skills. From there, workers will move on to better positions and leave the vineyard if they can. Nonetheless Jess felt learning vineyard work was essential. This belief would be reinforced by her future experiences.

"The causes of the different vineyard labor perspectives are largely systemic, in my experience," says Jess. "The US wine industry is, for the most part, built on the model of Big Ag, which has been maintained by a very large, cheap and effective source of labor. The system in Northern France, which is the other one I know, benefits from cheaper land prices and social support systems, but also a culture that has been small and local for a long time, and is built on single farmers farming around 20-35 acres by themselves. You hear a lot of winemakers there talk about pruning their vines as a point of pride and quality, but the fact is that they don't have the cheap, expendable labor force at their fingertips. It’s important to recognize the small people I worked with are also drastically in the minority there [in France]. Also, I think when people value vineyards in the New World, it comes more in the form of  dialing-in terroir and hyper-monitoring vigor and irrigation, not working with and being around the plants. Dirty-boot farming is not a white-collar job, but you can also legitimately argue that apart from the stigma, it's much less cost-effective here."

When her job at Saintsbury ended late in October due to a short growing season, Jess became anxious about imminent unemployment and finding work. A friend suggested that she apply to work the harvest in the southern hemisphere, which starts the earliest in January.  It is common in the industry to support yourself by following harvests. “Vintage-hopping is how people can make ends meet, by working the next vintage in another hemisphere." 

She had been thoroughly impressed by the wines she tasted from Burn Cottage in New Zealand so she e-mailed asking if they had a viticulture internship. Typically, aspiring winemakers want to be in the cellar but Jess was determined to continue developing her viticulture knowledge. It was lucky timing and two weeks later Jess was headed to New Zealand. 

The family that owns and operates Burn Cottage is originally from Kansas where they farmed cotton. Their New Zealand vineyards are biodynamic (for a brief overview on biodynamic farming see our summary here) and they have invested in the best tools and equipment that money can buy. It was Jess’s first direct experience with biodynamic farming. “I was into good farming and not using glyphosate (and other herbicides and pesticides) but I was not converted to biodynamics.” But during her 8-month tenure on the farm Jess observed the impact biodynamic farming had on the health of the ecosystem, the employees, and the vines. The question leaving Burn Cottage became “how do I do this on a budget?" a conundrum that plagues many winemakers who see the benefits of organic farming. 

Leaving New Zealand, Jess found an internship at Inglenook in Napa Valley where Philippe Bascaules of Chateau Margeaux, the world-famous Bordeaux winery, had recently been hired to take charge of wine production. The winery was heavily invested in research; Jess had the responsibility of following and gathering data for all their trials. Much to her chagrin, she got back to California just in time for bloom. “The time period from budbreak to bloom, for me it really helps you gauge the growth rate of the vines and basically gauge the season…by bloom you kind of know what the season is like,” others reassured her that she was plenty early. But Jess’s work in the vines has made her sensitive to the minutia of viticulture and the effect on wines. Observing the grapes from the beginning of their development is a tool she uses for understanding the trajectory of the season. 

While in New Zealand, this belief had been reinforced through conversations about pruning. Many of the workers and vignerons passing through discussed the importance of pruning. “[Pruning] so influences not only your yield but also the health of the vines." It determines how successful your grapes will be during the season and the coming years. So she decided that the next step on her journey needed to focus on this aspect of vineyard work. 

During her lunch break at Inglenook one afternoon, Jess called Catherine Roussel of Clos Roche Blanche. Catherine and her business partner Didier Barouillet converted their Loire estate to organic farming in the mid-90s and gained a reputation for making complex, terroir driven wines. In a 2011 interview, Didier pointed out that his work as a vigneron began with a focus on the cellar, which then moved to the vines, which then moved to the soil. Alas! Catherine informed Jess that they had produced their last vintage in 2014. However, Julien Pineau and his partner Laurent Saillard had taken over the vineyards. Jess was able to secure a position working the former Clos Roche Vineyard with Julien, who had worked closely with Catherine and Didier before taking over the estate. 

She worked with Julien one-on-one, learning the basics of pruning. Afterwards she worked with his friend Julien Prevel in Montlouis-sur-Loire, who farms 4 hectares of his own as well as assisting Frantz Saumon with his organic vineyards. She finally found herself working under the tutelage of Alice and Olivier De Moor in Chablis. The couple gave her a pruning manual based on the work of researchers in Sancerre. “Learn this; this is how we prune,” they told her. The couple had pruned conventionally for 25 years and watched vines die from trunk disease. The research from Sancerre dramatically altered their techniques and eliminated trunk disease. The manual on pruning, though used in France, is unknown elsewhere. Jess is one of the few fieldworkers in the US discussing this valuable information and using it in her vineyard work. 

In March of 2016, Jess left for Oregon where she got hired as the assistant viticulturist for a vineyard management company. “It hadn’t been my goal. I wanted to just be a little farmer and help farm smaller properties.” However, this gave Jess an opportunity to become better oriented with climates and best practices in Oregon. She also started independently farming a small property for an absentee couple in Eola-Amity. When the season was over, they allowed her to keep the fruit.  The grapes were all Pinot Noir.  Eager to experiment, Jess vinified a Pétillant Naturel, a Pinot noir rosé and a 100% Pinot noir red wine. 

Jess still lives in Oregon where she is currently finishing pruning in preparation for spring. Check back next week for more on preparations for spring and the impact of pruning. 

Gretchen Skedsvold