What’s the perfect career for someone with a thirst for both the logical exactitude of science and the nuanced sensory experiences of art? In the case of Melissa Gulker Stackhouse ’88: wine making.
At Calvin she studied psychology (“not scientific enough”) and nursing (“for me, not creative enough”). After college she tried, among other things, working for a newspaper in Washington, organic farming in New Zealand and driving a tour bus in Alaska. Then, at the age of 28, came the aha moment: Attending a wine tasting, she “discovered that you could go to school to learn to make wine,” Stackhouse said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
While her degree from the University of California-Davis in viticulture and enology—grape growing and wine making—set a necessary foundation, Stackhouse said it was hands-on work in the vineyard, the cellar and the lab under a skilled mentor that made her confident in her craft. And it was more than knowledge that she gained.
“An apprenticeship is also about gaining a certain level of composure. Harvesting decisions are dependent on the weather and can be pretty stressful.”
In fact, Stackhouse describes her first year as winemaker at La Crema—one of the Kendall Jackson family’s wineries in California’s Sonoma coastal region—as “a trial by fire.”
“The ’04 vintage was a harvest when we had two weeks of 105-degree temperatures. The fruit was shriveling on the vines. It’s the only vintage where I actually cried. I tell people there’s a tear in every bottle of our ’04 Pinot Noirs.”
Stackhouse said she stays “pasted to the weather forecast” in order to harvest the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes in La Crema’s estate vineyards when their sugar content is nicely balanced between sweetness and acidity. After 15 days, when the juice is fermented, it’s put in barrels. Six months later her next challenge begins.
She and her team blind taste through 250 lots (a “lot” being wine made from grapes in one section of a vineyard), each of which tastes different. Individual team members blend wine from different lots, and the group then blind tastes through these trial blends, taking two months to fine tune a “style direction” for each of La Crema’s blends. Stackhouse explained:
“We always want to make a balanced blend, but we ask ourselves, ‘Do we want one with a little more structure, or should we go with one that’s more fruit-forward, more plush in the mid-palate?’”
Though her own palate has been refined by 16 years of making wine, Stackhouse “hates the idea that wine seems mysterious and unapproachable. Taste descriptors are just a way to talk about wine with people. There are no wrong answers. Taste buds are all different. I wish people would just relax and have fun exploring wine together.”
In fact, that’s how Stackhouse got started. No alcohol of any kind was served in her family’s home.
The 2010 vintage will be Stackhouse’s last as the winemaker for La Crema. She’s been promoted to Pinot Noir wine master, overseeing six of the Kendall Jackson brands that produce Pinot Noir.
“I love making a product that acknowledges the quality dimension of life,” she said. “When you’re having a glass of wine and really enjoying that moment, you leave behind life’s quantity dimension—all the things you stress about. Wine contributes to those moments in life that are really special. I want to make wine for the rest of my life.”
Learn more about La Crema wines at www.lacrema.com.