The Dream Job
Updated: May 28
In the Napa Valley today there are 475 physical wineries and more than 1,000 wine brands (from napavintners website)--So how do we set ourselves apart? How have we successfully existed as McKenzie-Mueller for over 30 years? We've seen drought, pesky insects, both identified and unidentified vineyard disease. We've seen Parkerization, Cabernet Sauvignon become king, and Merlot lose it's prestige. We've see the world turn slower on September 11th, and the economy fall out in 2008. We've seen a new fault line discovered in 2014, and the glow of fire on our Napa hillsides in 2017. Today we are all sludging through a global health crisis... So again, what is it here at 2530 Las Amigas Rd that is so special that we are able to continue making delicious wine ever year for 30 vintages...
My answer: Quiet Confidence.
It comes from a sturdy winegrowing foundation laid by Bob Mueller's years as an independent grower and member of the Mondavi winemaking team. Now, my dad has always found it important to create a wine that speaks for itself--Riding coattails was never something he was interested in--so he never spoke too much about those years on the Mondavi team. It is our goal in this 3rd blog post (first about the Mondavi days) to convey our gratitude. In a way, this is our love letter to the Mondavi's for the foundation they have given the Napa Valley, and specifically us here at McKenzie-Mueller. As the lessons he learned from that time are passed down to myself and the McK-Mue team, we have a whole new set of reasons to be thankful...
SAM: So last time we left off, we had chatted a bit abut your time at the CoOp in the Napa Valley. I'd like to start in on the next part of your career. Could you chat a little about the transition and next phase? BOB: Sure. To start, I was laid off from the CoOp, had made some homemade wine, and I got the bug, or the idea, that I wanted to [make wine] for a living. And I thought the best way to learn how to make wine was getting into a laboratory and seeing the science. Because the practical side—I had experience in the vineyard so I knew—roughly—how to grow grapes. So I tried and tried to get on at a winery. I think I applied at half a dozen. Maybe Beringer. I think I applied at Krug...and of course Mondavi. And I wasn’t really qualified for a lab job...
SAM: what qualifications were they looking for? A degree in—? BOB: PhDs
SAM: ah, PhDs. ok.. and you had a degree from UC Davis in History..."
BOB: Yes, and they were looking for Masters and PhDs. So they were very…That’s back when Zelma was there [at Mondavi] and she was a good boss and went for the highest qualified applicants. And for her--what she wanted was more science based. She didn’t necessarily have a wine background—she had food science. So I think she was—the industry was short of really technically qualified winemakers at one point. There just weren’t that many people interested in enology. So the people coming into the industry—there just weren’t enough. So people in associated fields were interested of course and the wine boom started. So a lot of people in those other industries came on board. But it made everybody look to getting a technical background.
SAM: Technical background--higher education background that was very science based... [winemaking is a science and an art. Science at this time was critical to evolve the Napa Valley industry--lots of unknowns early on]
BOB: A lot of the things we were doing back then were pretty raw, basic… and technology wasn’t necessarily there. So now for example, when you have a wine that has volatile acidity, too high a level, it can be reduced. Back then it wasn’t known how to do that. So a lot of the wines would have to be degraded, and blended out in something else because they couldn’t be used. So a lot of it came about based on need and desire to learn as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. So yes, I wasn't really what they were looking for as far as qualifications. But I wanted to get into the lab for the technical understanding of winemaking.
SAM: I see. but you didn't really let that get in your way.
BOB: Well, I went around and applied at all these wineries and was told basically that they had higher qualified applicants--I explained my desire and that I can make up for that and they said,
“well, why do you want to be in the lab, anyhow?”
So you know, lab techs made one of the lowest wages. I mean if you were in production in the cellar, you made more money than a lab rat. So, basically they were asking...why do you want a job in something that you’re not qualified for and it’s such a reduced wage?!
So um, anyways… I tried and tired. I got refused a few times and then one of the last times I applied at Mondavi, they asked me if I was interested in a cellar job/production job. And at that point…I was married and the twins (Kerry & Lissa) came along. And so I figured I’d better get a real job I can’t just hold out for what I really wanted—I had to be practical. So I took a job in the cellar—and that was actually beneficial because I learned a lot of things in the cellar that helped me as a winemaker. So, it all ended up working out good, just a circuitous route.
SAM: Yeah, what's that line? You can't always get what you want...but if you try sometime... BOB: Yes, So because I had experience from the CoOp, I could handle overseeing—or taking care of wines at an off site location which was down in Livermore at Cresta Blanca. So that winery was defunct—it was not producing wine but it had tanks and storage. So as Mondavi grew, and it went a short time into the bulk realm, it found storage at Crest Blanca in Livermore. So I was sent down there—they’d put me up in Holiday Inns—and I stayed down there during the week. This was only for a couple weeks. And the Cresta Blanca winery was kind of like the CoOp in that it had old tanks and casts, and some of the same things that I had seen during my time at the CoOP. This was back in 74 & 75. So as a side light—the wine world was growing rapidly.
SAM: Yes, growing rapidly new wine brands, more jobs, probably more vineyards...So eventually, after working at Crest Blanca for a while, how did your position start changing or morphing?” BOB: Well, I guess having a little bit more experience, they put me on more and more things at Mondavi when I came back. First—working with barrels. Filling and emptying barrels. Washing barrels in stacks—this was before they had racks so they were in pyramid stacks. So it was learning about pumps and all. And as I got more experience they put me on different tasks and it was just being observant of the wines and observing the different varieties and how they smelled and tasted and react.
You know, when you’re emptying a tank, and you get the liquid and contentsdown from the racking valve to the bottom valve you open the gate and you have to look in there to make production calls as it comes down the floor (as you’re taking the clear wine off) and when you open that gate it’s like a gush of aroma of that wine. This is like a 6,000 or 10,000 gallon tank, and that aroma is like—woah. So, again, that just reinforced my interest in it going forward.
SAM: Evolving your palate by being an active participant in any and all tasks that they would give you.. BOB: Yes, and barrels were a big thing at Mondavi, and we basically, unstacked the barrels from the pyramids. Each of those barrels had to be checked to make sure it was free of mold, free of acetic acid—aromatic volatile acidity. As they got thousands of barrels, someone was sniffing them and checking them before they were filled and before they were emptied. And because I had a fairly good nose, I did a lot of that. And uh, I had my little check mark that I put with chalk on each of the barrels. It’s almost very similar to the check you see on Nike.......
SAM: haha what you're hinting at is that you originated the nike swoosh…
BOB: (Laughs) yeah, I think they came through and got it from me!
SAM: So how often did you come across off barrels? BOB: Well, it was occasional. As you store barrels empty—back then you kept sulfuring them—or putting some gas in them. And no matter how on top of it you were, and how frequently you did it they’d still go volatile. It wasn’t until we found out later that the thing to do was to sulfur them and make sure they get a good amount of sulfur. Then, after four or six weeks, you take the bung out and let the air circulate. They don’t turn volatile when you do that.
SAM: Where were the barrels coming from then?
BOB: They were coming from France, but there was also American oak. I noticed in smelling the barrels, and the wine as it aged in them—how different the wines could be from them. And back then, we were doing all sorts of things with varieties and barrels types. We knew barrels were important, but it was not as clear exactly what barrels offered to different wines. So, in part of what Mondavi wanted to do then was, clean winemaking, so they went to the coopers—and because they were buying so many barrels—they asked them to not Cooper them in the normal way where they put them over a fire to bend the staves—they wanted them steamed instead. But we discovered the wine after it went in there wasn’t nearly as good as the wine from fire toasted barrels. So I noticed that—we got in a whole thing about toasted levels on barrels. Nadalie was involved in it—they were opening a place up in Calistoga. You know, there are still a lot of things about toasting a barrel that I don’t understand—how much smoke there is in there (so put a lid on it), Leaving it open. How hot the fire is. how long it’s over the fire... SAM: It's another art part of winemaking. Really.
BOB: Very much so...
SAM: So these experiments that were happening with the barrels—you know, steamed vs fire and what toasting levels to use etc.. was someone one actively in charge with coming up with new experiments? Or was it something that happened organically in trying to make the best wine possible?
BOB: It was always trying to make the best wine possible. And it was a collaborative approach. Trying the different barrels...Trying American oak or Spanish oak vs French oak. There were just so many choices that you could do. Everybody was looking at the wines and throwing out ideas. We had an experimental program that took and captured small amount of wine aged in those different barrels. I was fortunate enough to be involved in those experimental tastings. And besides French and American oak—we also tried brandy barrels, used barrels, shave and toast barrels… SAM: Oh yes, is that like the recouped method?
BOB: yeah, but not re-toasted. You know some people liked it. SAM: Of all the experiments, was there maybe one of two that you can really vividly really remember being impressed by, or maybe thought it was very silly—the outcome that is…? BOB: Well you know we looked at a lot of planned and unplanned experiments. And you have to be careful going off on the outcome of one experiment because no two barrels are the same. There are so many variables—you’re looking at 100s or 1000s of barrels on a monthly basis. You have to see how consistent it is—same barrel age, same oak, etc. You know, it’s more like a Seurat painting where you have so many dots and finally you see the picture—it’s not like a light bulb goes on and that’s it.
SAM: I see.
BOB: I do recall—we were asking the coopers to steam the barrels—and this was Demptos—they were to us on the forefront, they had a traditional cooperage and were willing to trying things and had a good relationship with Mondavi. So they steamed the barrels, and all of a sudden the wood didn’t tase as smooth and interesting. It tasted more cardboard-y. More raw wood. And then we had some barrels that came from another Cooper and they didn’t steam the barrel and they were heavily toasted. And I looked in and I was like “woah, [Yikes] that’s sure is toasted,” and I leaned in to smell, and was like, “wow, I like that!”, so sometimes it’s counterintuitive. Sometimes it’s not what you think. You have to try things and observe along the way. But I learned from that toasting is an essential part—how little or how much is to each persons like. One toast level doesn’t work for everyone.
SAM: It sounds like you really evolved you palate and understanding of the expansiveness of winemaking. BOB: Yes, it was really the start to an education. [...to be continued...]