The Winemakers Hailing from Strong Southern Rootstock

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The vines in Napa
Photo by Carole Topalian

When you ask folks in the local wine world where they are from, only occasionally is their answer “California.” The wine industry attracts a multitude of personalities and talents from across the United States and abroad, all contributing to its vibrancy and success.

For this special fifth anniversary summer issue of Edible Marin & Wine Country, we are pleased to showcase a group of our winemaker friends who hail from the South—from Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and Texas—all having converged in Northern California, bringing with them enormous talent and passion for their craft.

Both of us hail from the Midwest, and know from personal experience that in many parts of the United States cocktails—and brews—still reign supreme. So we were very curious to find out when and under what circumstances Nicole Abiouness, Thomas Rivers Brown, Randy Hester, Pax Mahle, Jason Moore, Jessica Tarpy Shaheen, Sarah Vandendriessche and Jamey Whetstone first experienced wine, and if it was love at first sip.

Read on to hear their answers to these questions, as well as what each of them has to say about their Southern roots, how they made their way to the Wine Country, how their Southern upbringing influences their craft—and what wines they pair with their favorite Southern foods.

We hope y’all enjoy reading their responses. We sure did!

Winemaker Nicole Abiouness


Abiouness Wines

At Abiouness Wines, we make single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, Sangiovese, a dry rose of Pinot Noir, Amrita white blend and Ten Rows Pinot blend.

I first tasted wine at home, in Virginia, from the glass jugs of Carlo Rossi Chablis my parents used to have (then in college it was Boone’s Farm!!).

I moved to London after college and worked for a caterer and wine merchant. We taught wine appreciation courses to two different colleges, so I got to not only research all the wines but to taste them as we taught class.

I drove across the country from Virginia to California in 1995, to attend the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone.

I got into wine by working at Swanson Vineyards between classes.

I would say my upbringing was not strictly Southern, since my grandparents were Lebanese. So I had more of a Mediterranean influence mingled in with the Southern side from my mother’s family. For them, it was all about fresh ingredients, homemade dishes and big family gatherings where food and wine were always part of the meals and they were enjoyed slowly around a big table or outdoors. All these aspects are tied into my craft in the sense that I focus a great deal on the vineyards and sourcing the highest quality fruit, I handpick and punch down by hand and I always love to celebrate and enjoy the wines with food outdoors if possible and surrounded by friends and family.

One of my favorite Southern dishes is an old recipe I have for bourbon shrimp and grits accompanied by braised greens. Very simple, but with great texture, spice, and flavor. I love it paired with our Abiouness Amrita white blend.

I would say that the easygoing, laid back, gregarious nature of Southerners has stayed with me the most. I am very outgoing, approachable, friendly, warm-hearted, bubbly, full of smiles and always looking for fun!!

Winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown


Rivers-Marie, Schrader Cellars, Outpost Wines, Chiarello Family Vineyards and Maybach Family Vineyards (among others)

I make wine for several different projects: Schrader, Outpost, Chiarello and Maybach being some of the longest standing. I’ve been making my own wine under the Rivers-Marie label since 2002.

It is hard for me to exactly pinpoint my first experience with wine. I assume it was at the University of Virginia, and it probably came from Kroger [grocery store]. My girlfriend at the time wasn’t a big beer drinker, so it was always moderately priced white wines and almost always French. The one constant I can remember was the Louis Latour Ardeche bottling.

My true appreciation for wine didn’t start until after college, when I began working in restaurants around the Richmond, Virginia, area. One restaurant in particular had a wine list that was put together by a single distributor. It felt grossly in need of updating, so slowly I was able to add a few wines I had been reading about. We drank through what was lingering and began adding some of the newer, hotter California wines that were available in the Virginia market. I remember reading the Wine Spectator Chardonnay issue and seeing an intriguing note on the 1992 Kistler Cuvee Cathleen bottling. I assumed it would be long gone, given that kind of press, but I found it in a distributor’s book and it became the first great California wine I ever tasted. I still have a fondness for the ‘95 and prior Kistler Chardonnays. Not all of them are still alive but when I find one that’s intact it brings back great memories.

With some of these new-found California wine tasting experiences in mind, I decided to leave Virginia and head to California in January of 1996. I had a bunch of college friends living in a house in a very sketchy part of Oakland and I rented a closet from one of them for $50 a month (plus a full share of utilities). I landed in California on January 21 of that year, after digging out of a foot of snow and driving cross-country solo. I remember waking up in Oakland that first morning and realizing I’d never leave California.

There were really two significant jobs for me in the beginning of my time in California: All Seasons Wine Shop and Turley Wine Cellars. It was a magical combination of learning about wine as I learned to make wine. All Seasons may not have been at its zenith at the time but it was still relevant on the California cult scene. Turley was already famous and becoming even bigger as production crept a bit and the wines reached more people’s cellars. Not sure we will ever see that brand of chaos in the California wine scene again. It was one of those times where you recognize the greatness of the period you’re experiencing but only in hindsight do you really have the proper amount of appreciation for what you were a part of. That explosive growth in the market led to tons of experience and opportunity.

With Southern food, everything is about flavor. Not just an abundance of flavor, but flavor in perfect balance. That’s basically what we strive for in our wines. The simplicity of the food is also reflected in our winemaking technique: Use the best possible ingredients to make the best possible dish, but otherwise get out of the way.

It feels like an obvious answer, but I still miss Carolina-style BBQ. For Thanksgiving, we never had turkey. My grandmother had a pig pit at her house and we cooked a hog for 18+ hours that was the main course the next day. I’ve never experienced those flavors outside of the South. That meat, in addition to hash and rice, hush puppies and cole slaw, is the first thing I eat every time I go home. Another nice thing about it, too, is no wine with BBQ for me—either cheap domestic beer or sweet tea.

Winemaker Randy Hester


Lightning Wines

My personal brand, Lightning Wines, is my occupation and my life. I make Rhone varietals, focusing predominantly on single-vineyard Grenache, showcasing different growing regions around California. So far that includes El Dorado, Mendocino, San Luis Obispo and Sonoma counties.

When I was a kid in Texas, my mom drank Jack [Daniel’s] and Coke and Schlitz beer ponies, so I didn’t grow up with wine. If wine coolers count, we could say my first wine experience was in 1985. I started experimenting with wines resembling what I might drink today in about 1990, when I was in college.

Have I ever drunk wine from a box? Ha! I have had very little wine from a box. I remember that smell from when I was a kid. For some reason a wine called “Rhine” comes to mind. To this day, when I smell anything like that, I think “old lady wine.”

I would have to say the first time I appreciated wine was in about 1992. I drove down to a little club in Galveston with some friends to go see Toy Caldwell, one of the founders of the Marshall Tucker Band. I pulled into the Kroger’s and bought a magnum of 1989 Mouton Cadet red Bordeaux. I might have spent $12 on it. Everyone loved it and I ended up drinking my fair share of that wine during those formative years. There have been several “aha!” moments through the years, but that night in Galveston was the first big one.

In 2006, I left Houston and moved to Napa Valley. At 35 years old, I left my friends and my family and everything that was comfortable and familiar to me so I could learn to make wine. My wife is from way out in West Texas—and a certified public accountant and frugal by nature. We had been married about a year when I finally convinced her that this would be a good idea. I had been selling fine wines for Glazer’s Distributors in Houston and meeting people from all over the world as they came to our market in support of their wines. Selling was gratifying in that I was helping people find something they really enjoyed, but I came to realize that I wanted to create. I decided I wanted to make beautiful wines with my own hands that would be enjoyed all over the country by friends, families, colleagues and even strangers.

I will always be thankful that I had the opportunity to start my winemaking career at Cakebread Cellars. Those folks were kind enough to take me on as an intern in 2006. I had the wine knowledge equivalent of an infant, but they took me in and set me on a path to success in this valley. They taught me how to do things the right way. As that harvest came to an end, they offered me a full-time position in their cellar, and I was thrilled. The Cakebreads are also committed to food and wine and they make their wines to that end. To this day, I aspire to make highquality small lots that can be enjoyed standing and talking, or sitting at the nicest dinner table, just like the Cakebreads do.

Without a doubt I am influenced by my Texas upbringing. My goal is to enhance the times being had by friends and family, whether on the front porch telling lies or sitting down to a nice meal made with loving hands. I think folks in the South are typically raised with a certain foundation, and a big part of that happens around the dinner table. The way that I want people to embrace my wines and use them in their lives is very Southern in nature when you think in terms of hospitality, friendliness and community.

My favorite Southern food? That’s an easy one. It’s chicken fried steak. As I started learning how to cook, I made the foods that I grew up with—a combination of Texas comfort and Louisiana spice. In turn, I have always gravitated towards wines that pair with the foods that I like to cook, which tend to be Rhones and Burgundies. So I have to say that my Lightning Sonoma County Grenache would pair very well with chicken fried steak. If you throw in a little bayou spice, the meal will pair better with my Grenache Blanc blend from Paso, Lightning CdP Blanc. It has the fruit and the weight to meld perfectly with that meal. Southern trait that has stayed with me? Well, in this format, with no way for anyone to dispute or prove otherwise, I’ll say I’m still a gentleman.

Winemaker Pax Mahle


Pax Wines, Wind Gap Wines and Agharta

I first tasted wine at my mother’s birthday party in Florida when I was 15—it was a Sutter Home White Zinfandel. My first red wine was a Merlot-based Bordeaux; I was immediately intrigued by a beverage that you drank at room temperature that provided so many interesting flavors and feelings. I was instantly hooked.

I first left the South when I moved to Nantucket Island in 1989.

I started Pax Wines in 2000 with my wife and a partner. My job was to be the face of the brand, selecting the vineyards, steering the ship and selling the wine. We hired a winemaker and, when the first grapes came into the winery, he added yeast and all sorts of other products that are used in modern winemaking, to improve flavor, intensify color, reduce alcohol and who knows what else. I asked if we could do it the old-fashioned way, not adding yeasts and crushing the grapes by foot. He laughed me out of the winery. After that, I called the picks on our other vineyards and I never told him that I had picked. I jumped into the grapes, crushed them by foot and let them ferment naturally . . . I have made my own wines ever since, but I still grapple with the word “winemaker.”

The resurgence of the use of local ingredients, resurrecting heirloom varieties of vegetables, grains and livestock and the preservation of historic techniques, recipes and varieties that the South is currently embracing is inspiring to me and reminds me of the parallels of California’s wine history and the importance of diversity and technique and the preservation of tradition. I would like to believe that I am a steward of these traditions and my job is to ensure that the diversity and traditions are upheld and preserved for the next generation.

Favorite Southern foods and what wine I pair with them? Pimento cheese and fried chicken, with Champagne.

Southern trait that has stayed with me and influences my craft today? My manners.

Winemaker Jason Moore


Modus Operandi, Vicarious, Montagu, Cielo Malibu Estate Wines, RHEO Cellars and Balius Wines (among others)

I make Modus Operandi and Vicarious wines for myself, and I am also the winemaker for Montagu, Cielo Malibu Estate Wines, RHEO Cellars, Balius Wines, and a few others, with a few more on the way.

My first experience with wine was at Mediterraneo restaurant in Dallas, Texas, where I worked when I was 17. My manager at the time, Kyle Smith, invited me to have a taste. We are still friends.

Wine from a box? Nope! From a bottle. I’m a proper guy. Cheap Chardonnay hurt me when I was 21, though (two bottles consumed = bad night), so it took a while before I was able to even smell the stuff again. Aside from that, I always gravitated towards the bigger reds like Cabernet and Syrah. Bob Foley’s wines always did it for me.

In 2002, I pursued my lofty aspiration of becoming a winemaker, sold everything I had in a three-week-long garage sale, and moved to California. When I arrived, I kind of created my own job by just starting my company in 2004. I did work at Viader on Howell Mountain in 2005, and did little one- or two-day internships at several places around Napa and Sonoma.

Favorite Southern food and what I pair with it? I’m going to have to say beef. Nothing is better than a thick, juicy steak with good fat content and a classic Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Texans are hardworking, proud people with integrity. I try to bring all of those virtues to my processes in winemaking. Texans are also known for their Southern hospitality. When I host people at the winery, there is no pretense. Just a humble Texas boy who shares his knowledge of the process and passion for his craft. Also, we can be pretty bold and flashy people, so my wines can mirror that from time to time, too.

Winemaker Jessica Tarpy Sheehan


Gather, Favia, Leviathan and Dancing Hares Winery

My first taste of wine was at age 7, on a family vacation in France. I was served Champagne from a large bottle that was passed around the restaurant and measured with a ruler to determine the charge per table. I remember feeling very “grown-up!” Later, at age 15, back at home in Louisiana, we would water ski in the Atchafalaya Basin in the summer and, afterwards, we went to dinner, still damp, at Robin’s, a local restaurant. We ate delicately fried oysters and drank white Burgundy. I remember thinking the two made a sublime pair.

I left the South after high school, to attend college at UCLA.

My entry into the wine business was as a cellar worker at the Fresno State Winery, with an incredibly patient boss surrounded by enthusiastic students, with varying skill levels, myself included!

Does my Southern upbringing influence my craft today? Yes! Growing up in Louisiana, I learned from an early age that the best things in life are simple: rain pounding on the roof, Gulf shrimp direct from the fryer, a verdant landscape and the wail of the accordion. I take the same approach in the winery: appreciating and honoring the simplicity of the process. When you start with amazing vineyards and work alongside conscientious people, the wine is a direct reflection of that.

Favorite Southern food? Chicken and andouille [sausage] gumbo, paired with an old Rioja.

Southern traits that I still retain? Smiling at strangers, and, of course, the use of my favorite contraction: y’all.

Winemaker Sarah (Ellsworth Adkins) Vandendriessche


Elizabeth Spencer Wines

The wine that changed my life was a Kalin Cellars Pinot Noir, on my 21st birthday in New Orleans. Everything that came before is just a blur. I drank it out of a coffee mug. Kidding. Mark Hollar, who I had met while we were working at the same bistro, introduced me to the wine. He had been taken to Orleans Parish lockup once for “borrowing” a New Orleans water meter cover (they are quite pretty), so naturally we were fast friends.

Later that night, at the fabulous Magnolia Grill in North Carolina, I had a 1990 Guigal Hermitage. I was with my dad and he wanted to show me what the fuss was all about.

I headed to California in August 2005, venturing to Napa to do an internship with Abe Schoener at the Scholium Project. Then Hurricane Katrina hit. It became clear that I wasn’t getting back to New Orleans anytime soon. In order to keep my mind off the news, I threw myself into the Project, which happened to be gaining a lot of traction that year. Abe was an incredible mentor, and involved me in all aspects of winegrowing and cellar work, keeping me busy into the wee hours every day. I was in total awe of the winemaking process and, having come from the restaurant business, the intensity of the work. From the beginning, I was working within a community of thoughtful, talented growers and winemakers who came to deeply influence how I view winemaking. It didn’t hurt that in those first months I also fell in love with one of the brilliant winemakers I met, Christopher Vandendriessche.

In the South, I don’t think people intellectualize food and wine quite so much. You wouldn’t create a meal to impress so much as to please. So when someone tells me they like the wine I make, I really savor the feeling that I have given someone a simple, tangible pleasure. I want to make wine that is delicious in the context of a lovingly prepared meal.

I am very proud of the Elizabeth Spencer Rose of Pinot Noir, and it is the perfect foil for Gulf shrimp, grilled or boiled. Skip the sauce! Louisiana Gulf shrimp needs nothing but the most subtle seasoning. Softshell shrimp is excellent if you can find it.

Winemaker Jamey Whetstone


Whetstone Wine Cellars and Manifesto!

I make Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley Viognier, Napa Valley Syrah and Carneros Chardonnay for Whetstone, primarily single-vineyard wines. I make North Coast Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Zinfandel for Manifesto!

My first taste of wine was Boone’s Farm Strawberry, in probably ninth or 10th grade. It was in the back of a Pontiac station wagon, with a pretty girl named Renee who was older. I was more into liquor that was readily available during the holidays in my grandfather’s home bar. Vodka and Coke in the sixth grade was where it all came together for me.

I began drinking it in earnest while working a summer waiting tables in Pawleys Island, South Carolina. Harvey Poole was the wine director [at the restaurant where I worked] and he turned me on to stuff like Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, Fetzer Sundial Chardonnay, among others. Once I figured out how much extra money I could make by selling higher-end bottles, I started drinking Caymus Special Select, Dominus, Dunn, Diamond Creek, Kistler Chardonnays. Cakebread Chard and Duckhorn Merlot were “go to” wines on the floor before moving in for the kill with more expensive wines.

When did I leave the South for good? I split in August of ‘96.

Mustards Grill was what got me to Napa. I worked there as a “middle manager.” I met great folks and truly got the wine education of a lifetime. Rieslings, Gruner, Tempranillo, CdP, older Bordeaux, white and red Burgundy, and Turley. I went to work dragging hoses and driving a tractor for Larry Turley in August of ‘98. The winery was just taking off and was I very lucky to be there when it did.

I grew up paying attention to tides, crabs, flounder, pigs, vegetables, church socials and girls. For me, the smell of pig roasting over an open pit, oysters steaming on a metal grate under a burlap sack on the beach, my grandmother humming at 3:30am while cooking breakfast for me before duck hunting—it all led to where I am today. Seasons, changes in the weather that affect surf conditions just as it does the vineyard, smells that elicit stoke or disgust, all the cool stuff that winemaking can be.

My favorite Southern food? Depends on the season. I worship the pig, love great fried chicken, silver dollar buttermilk biscuits, collards cooked with ham hock and Tabasco, fried flounder stuffed with lump crab. I generally will have single-batch bourbon over a few cubes of ice with all these things.

Southern traits that have stuck with me? Standing up when a lady comes to or leaves the table, and always getting their chair. My wife (a Napa girl) loves that part.

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