Let’s raise a glass of bubbles and celebrate women, wisdom and wine! There are many bright female threads woven through the evolution of Amista Vineyards - women who have made a profound difference in our journey. Yes, there are men who have had an important impact as well, but that’s a story for another time.
Sometimes I am amazed that we have gone from making wine in our garage to becoming the first grower sparkling wine house in Healdsburg with a thriving tasting room and a vibrant wine club. I am deeply grateful for all the friends who have supported and guided us along the way.
This is Women’s History Month and today is National Women in Wine Day, a perfect time to say thank you to seven women who have touched our lives, especially mine. Here are the stories of how they shared their wisdom, made a lasting difference and the lessons I learned from each of them.
When the idea to start Amista was still in its infancy – we had our first wines in the barrel but nothing yet in the bottle – we decided to sign up to host a vineyard tour at Passport to Dry Creek Valley, the premiere wine and food event in Sonoma County.
My friend Meg and her husband Dale flew out from Colorado to attend Passport with us and help us with the vineyard tour. Meg helped me make cookies and quiche to serve for the morning tour but that wasn’t the small step that had such a lasting effect on Amista.
Meg proposed that we have everyone who attended the tour sign up for our mailing list. Mailing list? We didn’t have one. It hadn’t occurred to me.
At the time, my husband Mike was the one with a passion for making wine. I was busy doing executive coaching and consulting and hadn’t given much thought to building a wine business.
Meg’s simple idea led to ongoing friendships with a whole gang of people and their friends who showed up at that first vineyard tour and signed up for our brand new mailing list.
They’ve truly become part of the family – having barbecues at our home and brunches at the winery, joining our wine club, celebrating their marathons, their birthdays, and their family reunions either at Amista or with Amista wines in their glasses. We’ve watched their kids grow up and some of their moms and grown children join our wine club.
In retrospect, it is astonishing and a good reminder that sometimes a seemingly simple act can lead to such a huge impact. You can read the whole story about the gang of friends we met at Passport in another post, “The Best Wines are Those Shared with Friends.”
I’ll never forget the day we bottled our “Garage Syrah”. My mom, Lori, and her husband Don drove from their home in Arizona to help. We had a dozen people gather in our garage one overcast, rainy day in December where we made quick work of bottling three barrels of 2002 Syrah, the very first wine Mike made from our new vineyards in Healdsburg, California.
We let everyone take home several cases of wine to thank them for their help. Most couples took two to six cases. My mom sheepishly asked if she could take ten. At that time, she and Don weren’t that much into wine, so I was surprised but secretly pleased. They had so much wine in their trunk that their luggage had to go in the back seat!
About five weeks later I was talking with my mom on the phone, and she was raving about how much they liked the “Garage Syrah” and sharing it with their friends. “The only problem,” she admitted, once again somewhat sheepishly, “is that we ran out.” I couldn’t believe they had already gone through 10 cases. She explained that there were a lot of gatherings in their neighborhood, and our wine was a big hit.
I know, I know, you’re probably thinking the fact that it was free is what made it so popular. There is some truth to that, but what I’ve learned over the years is that much more important than the price of the wine is the genuine enthusiasm of the person who is offering it. For the rest of her life, my mom remained our biggest fan and cheerleader.
Winemaker Ashley Herzberg joined us in 2011, although she had worked with us and our wines for nearly four years as assistant winemaker at a custom crush facility where we make our wines. She had already gotten to know us when she approached us with the idea of becoming our winemaker.
Ashley had decided to strike out on her own as a consulting winemaker, in part for a new challenge and in part because she wanted the flexibility to be a mom. We were thrilled! Secretly we hoped she already had an idea of what it would be like to work with owners who are husband and wife and still learning the wine business.
Her first act was rescuing a problem Zinfandel that we had all but given up on. It started with a stuck fermentation (meaning the wine would not go dry and remained at about 6% residual sugar). We tried suggestions from anyone who knew anything about winemaking, but nothing worked. We then decided to blend it with Syrah, which didn’t fix the problem, it just doubled it!
Ashley proposed making a dessert wine from the sweet red blend – “if you can’t fix it, feature it” – by adding a dose of brandy. We decided to call it Ilusión, the Spanish word for illusion, because it took a bit of Ashley’s magic to transform a mistake into a delightful wine.
What she might not have known before she joined us is that Mike and I don’t agree on much of anything, at least initially. In fact, the more difficult the situation, the more vociferously we disagree on the path forward. Ashley was often caught in the middle, but her calm demeanor and confidence have been among her greatest gifts to us.
Her typical response after patiently listening to our opposing points of view is, “You’re both right.” Then she proceeds to craft a solution that considers both of our perspectives…or is it just the path she envisioned all along?
There have been so many challenging situations where she has helped us navigate a solution - finding a way to reinvigorate our vineyards that were slowly failing, figuring out what to do after a middle-of-the-night theft of 2 tons of our Mourvedre crop and scrambling to pick as much fruit as we could before the smoke from the 2020 fires affected the grapes.
She is a talented, hard-working, creative winemaker and we are grateful every day for her abilities. I’ve learned a lot about winemaking from Ashley, but not enough to be one, even on TV. What I have learned from her is that patience, creative problem-solving and the attitude of “Yes, and” rather than “Yes, but…” are the secrets to success.
"Goals - we don't need no stinkin' goals." That was us when we first started. We didn’t even have a goal to get into the wine business; it just unfurled.
Thankfully, I met Tammy Boatright, the woman who taught me the value of setting goals, measuring results, and monitoring key metrics (Key Performance Indicators) on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis.
I knew how to do this in my corporate and later my consulting life, but the wine business felt so different to me, and I was in so far over my head in the early days, it didn’t occur to me to use the tools I already had in my toolkit.
It was my good fortune to meet Tammy as part of a roundtable for women in the wine business. She was my informal sounding board on the business side of wine for several years before she started her own firm helping wineries with a DTC focus (DTC or Direct to Consumer is selling directly to customers rather than selling through distributors). I may have used Key Performance Indicators in my past lives, but I had no idea of how or what to measure in a wine business. Tammy did!
One of the tools her company offered was a simple dashboard with the five key metrics that are most critical to a successful tasting room. The dashboard drew directly from our systems, so there was nothing required on our part except we had to set goals for the dashboard to work.
Setting goals was a game changer for me and my team. Now we had something to shoot for. We could celebrate when we met our goals and figure out what changes to make when we didn’t.
Tammy isn’t all about Yang (strategy, focus, drive, and ambition). She is equally good at the Yin of business (creativity, intuition, compassion, and empathy). She helped me develop creative solutions and innovative ideas for wine clubs, unique offers, staff incentives and even merchandise.
Her intuition is remarkable. She could walk into my tasting room and tell if the energy was positive or if something was off. Typically, she saw it first in the numbers, for example our sales were down, and then she would “feel” it when she walked through the door.
Running a business is lonely and Tammy has been a valuable and trusted advisor. She tells it like it is and when she senses something is wrong, she lets me know. Then she helps me figure out what to do. The lasting and most precious gift Tammy gave me is the consistent practice of setting goals, measuring results and at the same time tuning into the “feel” and the energy of our business.
One day in June of 2004, we invited our club members for a Barrel Tasting party. In the Fall of 2003, we had harvested our first grapes for Amista Vineyards. We brought in Syrah from our estate vineyards and Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon from neighbors in Dry Creek Valley. We were excited to share our new creations with our founding wine club members. We all went to the winery where we were making our wines and tasted the young wines from the barrels.
Then we came back to our house – our winery building was only an application on paper at the time – for a barbecue lunch. As we were sitting around after lunch, two of my friends and club members, Janice and Cheryl, gazed out over our acres of Chardonnay vines and asked, “Why don’t you make Chardonnay?”
I answered, “Because we don’t like Chardonnay!” Their retort, “But we do!” So I asked them, “If we make it, will you drink it?” and they answered with a resounding yes. I was just barely starting to get the hang of the wine business at this point, but at least had the sense to ask, “Will you buy it?” Once again, I was met with a resounding yes. The next year we harvested Chardonnay from the blocks right outside our bedroom windows and have been making it ever since.
To be honest, the reason we didn’t care for Chardonnay is because we had only tried the heavily oaked, buttery Chardonnays that were popular in California at the time. We agreed to make it if we could find a style we liked. That led to several months of trying various Chardonnays and discovering that we didn’t have to ferment in new oak barrels. We could ferment in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels – those that had been used for several years – thus imparting no oak flavor to the wine.
We decided to make a more Burgundian style Chardonnay and ferment in neutral oak barrels. Mike had great fun using four distinctive yeasts, each offering a slightly different flavor component to the wine and then blending them all together. The result was a bright Chardonnay that let the fruit – rather than the oak – shine through and offered layers of complexity from the different yeasts.
I am quite certain that without the prompting from Janice and Cheryl, we would have never made a Chardonnay. My lesson learned was to listen to our customers and at the same time, be true to ourselves.
We had just released our first wine in the late summer of 2005, when I was invited to pour at a reception in Oakland at a conference for women in business. I had only one wine to pour, our 2004 Chardonnay since our red wines were still in barrel.
I had never poured wine at an event in my life, but I was the logical choice because it was a women’s event. The Chardonnay was a big hit, and I collected a whole bunch of business cards from the women who tasted.
Best of all, I met a women named Hallie, who has touched Amista in countless ways since that fortuitous reception. Her first act was born of her passion for good food and her gift of making splendid combinations. As we talked and she tasted, she wrote out a recipe for “Hallie's Roasted Garlic & Onion Jam Crostini.” She thought it would pair well with our Chardonnay. It does!
Her next act was introducing us to her friends and colleagues who came to our Amista launch parties, joined our founders wine club, came to our events, and bought our wines. She is always full of creative ideas and connections. She even found a fabulous private chef, Cindy, who catered some of our first tasting parties and founders’ event.
Later Hallie and the Cindy cooked up a fashion and wine pairing show with Susan, another of her friends who did trunk shows. Susan chose five outfits each for a different occasion like a Girlfriends Holiday Luncheon. Cindy created a menu for each occasion, and I paired each menu with an Amista wine. As the models showed off each outfit, we described the occasion and the menu while the guests sipped on the wine.
One of my favorites was a casual outfit for a Game Day Tailgate Party. Here is the menu, which I last looked at in 2006. It still sounds delicious!
And speaking of delicious, Hallie and my husband Mike once did a wine club event we called Battle Pizza. Hallie taught everyone how she makes pizza dough and then created an artisanal pizza. Mike made a more traditional pie and they baked up both in our wood fired oven. Then everyone got to enjoy the results. It was great fun.
What I’ve learned from Hallie is the art of creative connections. Her imagination shines through in bringing together combinations that wouldn’t occur to everyone – foods, wine, projects, and people.
Amista, roughly translated, means making friends in Spanish. That is how our Hospitality Manager, Tammy Toth came to Amista, through one of her daughter’s friends who saw our ad and said, “This is the perfect job for your mom.”
Tammy embodies everything that Amista stands for – friendly, bubbly, engaging, and approachable. She joined us in April 2017 and has turned out to be the heart and soul of Amista. She is genuinely curious and interested in everyone who comes through the door – guests, club members, team members and partners, (even owners!) – and makes everyone feel welcome. She also has a great sense of humor. Tammy is on the right in the photo below, beneath our 200-year-old oak.
She has an astute business focus and drive to succeed. She is always first to check the numbers and see how we are doing against our goals and the benchmarks. She is constantly looking for ways to improve results, helping her team achieve their goals and celebrating their successes.
She puts their success ahead of her own and cares deeply about each person, encouraging them to constantly push themselves, not only to be more successful but to be more fulfilled (even when that means watching them leave Amista for their next adventure).
It's rare to find the combination of a great hospitality person who also has a fierce focus on business success. It’s even more rare to find a leader who also has the courage to stand up for what’s right – for the business and her people. Tammy is someone I can count on to have the most difficult conversations with me about things I honestly wish I didn’t have to hear but need to know.
Tammy embodies the combination of what each of the characters in the Wizard of Oz was searching for. She has heart, she has brains, and she has courage. This combination is what results in her attitude of finding the good, the positive and the hope in every situation.
I’d like to say that I’ve learned these lessons from Tammy. The truth is that remaining positive and confident in the face of adversity is sometimes a struggle. What I know is that I have a lot of wonderful women around me who will help if I have the courage to ask for their advice and support.
Thank you to these seven wonderful women and all the others in my life who’ve had an impact on me and Amista Vineyards.
And cheers to all the women in wine on this second annual Women in Wine Day - click the link and scroll down to see Ashley and me stomping grapes!
This is a story about Ashley Herzberg, our amazing winemaker and how she persuaded us to make our newest sparkling wine. We debuted Sparkling Tres, the sixth wine in our collection of sparkling gems, last month, February 2022, so it’s a fitting time to reflect on the journey.
Ashley is a fantastic winemaker, but this story isn’t about her talent as a winemaker. It’s about her leadership and influence skills. They make her an even better winemaker and a joy to have on our team.
The story of how we came to make Sparkling Tres is a good way to illustrate her leadership abilities. As a former executive coach and student of leadership, I have a deep fascination and appreciation for what makes a great leader. I love to watch leaders in action and distill the things they do that make them successful. Here are my picks for the top five things Ashley did to help us become the 1st sparkling wine house in Healdsburg and add the sixth wine to our collection of bubbles.
When Ashley joined us as winemaker in 2011, she enthusiastically embraced the wines we had been making since we started Amista in 2004. We made Syrah and Chardonnay from our own estate grapes and Cabernet and Zinfandel from the vineyards of our Dry Creek neighbors. We also made two rosés from our Syrah – one still and one sparkling.
She didn’t come blazing in with plans to plant new varieties, introduce new wines or buy more fruit. With her quiet confidence and winemaking talent, she took what we had and made everything better each year.
There was just one new project the first year Ashley joined us that she and I cooked up together. A few months after she arrived, I asked her if she thought we could make a Blanc de Blanc from our chardonnay grapes. She had yet to make a sparkling wine, but she too loves bubbles and said, “Absolutely”.
During her first harvest at Amista, she picked some of our Chardonnay early to make Blanc de Blanc. The inaugural release of our Amista Blanc de Blanc in 2013 scored 91 points and won a gold medal in the Press Democrat’s “Best of the Best” North Coast Wine Challenge.
Every wine we made during our early years was from a single variety (except Ilusión, a port-style dessert wine, but that’s a story for another time). Although making single varietal wines requires skill and has its own set of challenges due to the vagaries of weather and water with each vintage, winemakers love to do blends.
I’m not a winemaker, but my impression is that making a wonderful wine from a single varietal is like grilling a perfect steak. You start with a great piece of meat, season it with just the right amount of salt and pepper, get the grill blazing hot, put the steak on, turn it after it browns on one side and take it off immediately when it reaches the right temperature. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t as easy as it sounds without practice. It takes skill and experience to do it perfectly.
But making a blended wine must be more like a chef creating and preparing a complex dish that brings together several ingredients, requires many steps and techniques and results in a tapestry of flavors and textures. Think of cassoulet with confit of duck or a chocolate souffle with crème anglaise. It’s more challenging than grilling a steak and tests the creativity, the palate, and the experience of the chef.
So, I totally understand why Ashley would want to make a blend. She loves to learn, and she greets every challenge as a chance to learn something new. But my husband Mike and I had never made a blend and it seemed daunting to us. So, she planted a seed.
We had budded over some of our Syrah vines in 2011 creating about an acre each of Grenache and Mourvèdre, thinking it would be fun to make a couple more Rhône style varieties. Apparently, she had another idea.
One day she said casually, “We’ll have some new Grenache and Mourvèdre fruit coming on next year. What do you think about making a GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) blend from our three Rhône varieties?” We gave our usual answer, something like “Hmmm. We were planning to make a standalone Grenache and Mourvedre. We’ll have to think about it.”
She gently raised the idea on several more occasions, sharing her excitement and confidence that she could make a beautiful blend. She had us try a few GSM blends so we could see if we liked them.
It didn’t take long before we agreed. During the 2012 harvest, which was only her second at Amista, she picked those three varieties to make Tres (three in Spanish). We released it in 2014 and it quickly became Mike’s new favorite wine.
Part of the reason we agreed is because Ashley was so excited about the prospect of making our first blend. One of the things I most admire about Ashley is that she loves what she does, and she shows it. She bubbles with enthusiasm as she talks about her work. And she loves to share what she has learned.
One of the favorite parts of our annual winemaker dinner in the vineyards is Ashley’s vineyard walk. Our guests ask her endless questions, and she not only has thoughtful, easy to understand answers about the most technical aspects of grape growing and winemaking, but her joy in sharing it is palpable. People who truly enjoy their life’s work are inspiring and the excitement is contagious.
The next step in the journey was to make a rosé from the same three grapes. Ashley wanted to try doing a saignée when she crushed each of the varieties for Tres. A saignée involves draining off a portion of the juice from a tank of crushed red grapes. This technique increases the ratio of skins relative to juice in the tank and typically results in a more concentrated red wine that is richer, deeper in color and has more tannins.
Often the juice that is bled off is flushed down the drain. Ashley thought it would make a delicious rosé. It sounded like a great deal to me – harvest grapes for a red wine and get a rosé as a bonus. We debuted our first Rosé de Tres in 2018, and it turned out to be a beautiful wine, from the bright rose color to the crisp acidity.
Ashley seized many opportunities to add new winemaking techniques and new wines to our portfolio over the next several years. A huge focus has been on making a collection of sparkling wines. She continues to make Sparkling Syrah, the only sparkling wine we were making when she joined us, and the Blanc de Blanc from our Chardonnay that she made in her first year.
She was especially keen to make a Sparkling Grenache, a delicate sparkler that has become a crowd favorite and earned Amista the honor of being selected as one of 10 Hot Brands from across the US in 2017.
As you might guess, she wanted to make a sparkling blend and crafted a wine we call Fusión, made from Chardonnay with a kiss of Grenache and a bit of either Syrah or Mourvèdre.
Her next experiment was to make a sparkling wine from our Mourvèdre, which we call by the Catalan name, Mataró. It turned out to be a brilliant addition to our line-up for its glittering cherry color in the glass and flavors of juicy summer strawberries. From the description, it might sound like a sweet wine, but all our sparkling wines are quite dry, typically Brut, Extra Brut or Brut Nature.
Ashley continues to build on her successes and find ways to experiment with blends. So, the creation of a Sparkling Tres was probably inevitable. The only reason it didn’t happen sooner is because we didn’t have enough Grenache for all the wines we wanted to make. Once our new Grenache block was producing fruit, her dream of making a Sparkling Tres became a reality and we have Ashley’s artistry as a winemaker and her talent as a leader to thank for it.
Read more about Winemaker Ashley Herzberg.
Winemakers love to make blends, so it’s no surprise that our local Sonoma women winemakers have crafted their unique blend of having a family, being a mom and making wines.
“Blending wine and kids, these winemakers work hard to create a healthy work-life balance in an industry still dominated by men,” writes Jean Saylor Doppenberg in NorthBay Biz.
Amista winemaker Ashley Herzberg shares her story along with other woman winemakers in Sonoma County, revealing how she makes it all work.
“When you are the primary caregiver to two kids and have a full-time job and clients who need you, it’s a giant jigsaw puzzle of many pieces. You can’t always get to all the things you want to do in one day, so you lean in and embrace it,” says Ashley.
“As a bit of a perfectionist, it’s a hard lesson for me to learn, but perfection isn’t the goal. It’s a huge difference now that the kids are older and are able to help me. They can be very useful at the winery.”
Ashley has been bringing her kids to work with her since she started at Amista Vineyards in 2011. In the early years she could be seen walking the vineyard rows, inspecting the vines with her son in a baby sling and her daughter toddling beside her.
As they grew older, her children made a habit of tasting the grapes just before harvest and giving her their opinion on whether they were ready to pick or not. Now they help with the harvest, arriving at dawn to climb up on the bins behind the tractor and remove the leaves and the grape clusters that aren’t perfect.
When her daughter was only 2 years old, Ashley started taking her to the winery as she sampled the wines fermenting in the barrel, sipping and spitting the wine in the floor drain as is the routine for winemakers. Her daughter “…was a very observant 2-year-old and had seen me do that countless times,” Ashley explains.
“One day I picked her up from preschool and the teacher said my daughter took sips of juice from her sippy cup that day and then spit them out on the floor. She wasn’t able to talk much then, so she couldn’t explain why she was doing it. But she had watched me spit out wine over and over.”
Winemaking is not always a predictable role. It involves Mother Nature which provides different challenges every year. “So, you can’t just walk away from it, and I can’t ask anyone else to take care of it for me. There can be long hours, and that’s a lot of hours away from home,” explains Ashley.
“On the flip side, I get to bring my children with me to work frequently, and we get some bonding time, enjoying how beautiful it is to be in the vineyards, and watching the ebb and flow of farming. It’s good for my kids to see that I’m working and that I can provide for us. I work really hard.”
Read the stories of four Sonoma winemakers in Winemaker Moms by Jean Saylor Doppenberg in NorthBay Biz.
Want to taste discover the wines Ashley makes with a little help from her kids? Come Taste with Us at Amista Vineyards!
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