Cheers from California

CAFNR alumni find success in the West Coast wine industry

In 2015 alone, California produced more than 600 million gallons of wine, accounting for 83 percent of the wine produced in the United States. Two alumni of the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources played a role in those massive numbers as they have each found success while working in the industry.

Moberly native Kristina Werner, who earned her bachelor’s in biochemistry from Mizzou in 2008, currently works as a winemaker for Arrowood Winery in Sonoma County, California. The 29 year old crafts cabernets, California’s best known wine, and follows the process from the vine to the bottle.

Rachel Coe, who received her bachelor’s in hospitality management from MU in 2014, assumes a role on the hospitality side of the wine industry. The 24-year-old sommelier works at the Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel in Menlo Park, California. The hotel’s restaurant, Madera, has a 96-page wine list with varieties from around the world. Rachel aids customers with navigating through the vast wine selection.

Through studying abroad and international internships, working at locally-owned Columbia businesses and continuing their education, both women have established careers doing what they love.

From bud to bottle

Kristina poses with a glass of wine. After working in wine internationally, she has settled in California where she crafts cabernets. Photo courtesy of Kristina Werner.Kristina poses with a glass of wine.
After working in the wine field internationally, she has settled in California where she crafts cabernets. Photo courtesy of Kristina Werner.

Kristina started laying the groundwork for her career while studying biochemistry and international agriculture at CAFNR. As a student, she also ran for the MU track and cross country teams but decided to quit the team her senior year to focus more on the harvesting season at Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport, where she interned.

“It was a fantastic experience because they really started me from the ground up,” Kristina says. “My first summer I didn’t even touch wine. After proving myself in the vineyard and on the bottling line, I started doing lab work, cellar work and even participated in blending. I pretty much learned all the basics with that experience.”

At the time, Les Bourgeois had not hired interns before, so after talking with her mother’s friend at the winery, Kristina became their first intern. The experience taught her the manual labor side of winemaking, but what she said she liked most was the winery’s laid-back environment.

Jacob Holman, winemaker at Les Bourgeois, says it is important for interns to get a feel for all aspects of the wine business, from doing shifts in the tasting room to working in the vineyards. This makes one a better winemaker for two reasons: It gives you contact with the customer and makes you familiar with the hard labor tasks so you are empathetic to those doing those jobs for you.

Jacob says Les Bourgeois was lucky to have Kristina as their first intern.

“Kristina fit in well and was extremely dedicated to learning the work,” Jacob says. “We had a lot of fun together. She even came back for part of another harvest, and I saw her out in California when she had first taken the job at Arrowood. I am very happy for her.”

After completing her degree at CAFNR, Kristina received her master’s degree in viticulture and enology from the University of California-Davis. She also worked with wine internationally through internships in New Zealand, Portugal and Argentina.

“After Les Bourgeois, I knew I needed different experiences,” Kristina says. “There are so many different styles of wine — so many different varieties — and I really wanted to learn internationally … You start to develop the travel bug. You don’t just learn about one country when you travel. You learn about several countries, especially in the wine industry because you’re usually working with international people.”

Now working for Jackson Family Wines at Arrowood Winery, Kristina says the seasonality of the job is what she likes most about it. Every part of the year has its own process and every vineyard has its own challenges. Especially when it comes to the California climate.“After Les Bourgeois, I knew I needed different experiences. There are so many different styles of wine, so many different varieties, and I really wanted to learn internationally … You start to develop the travel bug.”
―Kristina Werner

“It’s been challenging, but almost in a good way because there is a lot of awareness about the drought,” Kristina says. “We’ve had to become smarter about how we use water. It’s crucial to stay current with technology and research and I find myself constantly building on my understanding of how vines use water from studies and what I learned about in school.”

But despite the challenging aspects of her job, Kristina cannot help but stop once in a while when she’s working in the vineyards to soak in their beauty. She works a lot with high-elevation cabernet vineyards like Monte Rosso, an 80-year-old dry vineyard, meaning it has never been watered.

“There are definitely a few times during harvest where you just have to pause during the busy-ness of it all and think about how incredible it is to be out in the field with all this fruit that took so many years of labor and care,” Kristina says. “I work with some pretty outstanding vineyard sites, and not only in terms of soil, climate and plant material, but also the view. There are some amazing views in California, and the best wines seem to come from these vineyards.”

The art of taste

Rachel originally grew up in the Bay Area of California at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains, a range well-known for the vineyards and wines it produces. She remembers her father printing off the Wine Spectator report and quizzing her at the dinner table.

“It became this kind of game where he’d ask, ‘What do you smell on the wine?’ I’d answer, ‘Black currant and cherry,’” Rachel says. “At that point I didn’t know what I was talking about. It was just a game. But I always knew what a sommelier was because my parents were into wine.”

As an MU student, Rachel Coe sets up wine for serving at the 2014 Hospitality Management Scholarship Banquet. As an MU student, Rachel Coe sets up wine for serving at the 2014 Hospitality Management Scholarship Banquet.

For college Rachel wanted to go to school out-of-state, so she chose to attend Mizzou where her grandfather, Elmer Kiehl, had been dean of the College of Agriculture (as it was known as at the time). She chose to pursue a degree in hospitality management, a program founded while Kiehl was dean of CAFNR. Coe’s original aspiration was to become a chef.

While in school, Rachel went on a two-month-long study abroad trip to Italy and worked in a restaurant.The head chef there invited her to cook with him at the James Beard House in New York. During her senior year of college she took off a week to cook all over New York, including two final high-end dinners at the James Beard House.

“When I was in Italy I started to lean toward wanting to work front of house,” Rachel says. “I love cooking, and I love back-of-the-house life in restaurants. Back in Columbia, I actually worked in the kitchen at Coley’s American Bistro and was a bartender at Günter Hans. Bartending was my shift to front of the house.”

While working at Günter Hans, Rachel was also able to apply her back-of-the-house knowledge when designing the restaurant’s wine list and cheese plate. Through this experience, Rachel gained the respect of Lydia Melton, owner of the local restaurant, who became her mentor and taught her what it was like to run a local business.

“Selecting cheeses is definitely not something we let anyone do,” Lydia says. “It takes a really refined palate to balance the cheeses for both beer and wine drinkers. Rachel’s passion for food pairing is something I will always remember about her. Beyond this, she could explain that knowledge to guests. Sometimes, when you get really advanced in the wine world, it’s easy to get lost in the technical. Rachel was always well rounded and able to connect with customers.”

After graduating from Mizzou, Rachel returned to California and decided to pursue her sommelier certification from the International Culinary Center in Campbell, California. After much practice and studying, she passed her first- and second-level certifications at the top of her class, earning her a scholarship.

After becoming certified, Rachel took a job as a sommelier at the Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel, located in Menlo Park, California. The area is well-known for prominent firms that have funded nearly every Silicon Valley startup. Madera, the hotel’s restaurant, has a clientele consisting of tech executives, businessmen and even celebrities.

Rachel started as a lounge sommelier before making her way to the restaurant floor. Her primary tasks involve managing the 17,000-bottle wine cellar and suggesting wine pairings and different types of wine to guests. She works with three other sommeliers who often keep her on her toes with blind tastings.

“I am very lucky to have the job that I have at my age, and I don’t really know how it happened,” Rachel says. “Everything just fell into place.”

Along with working full-time at Madera, Rachel serves as beverage director for The Creek Eatery, a wood fire pizza, wine and beer bar that recently opened in east San Jose, California. She recently became a certified Italian wine professional.

“I’m really, really going to try to be a master sommelier,” Rachel says, adding that out of 250 master sommeliers, only 23 are female. “It is definitely a male-dominated industry. People are always so shocked when I come up to their table because I’m so young and a woman and am the sommelier.”

Rachel recently met winery owners from Chile while working at Madera, and she plans to work the Chile harvest next March. Beyond that, she hopes her wine expertise will allow her to travel to vineyards around the world.

“I absolutely love to travel,” Rachel says. “That’s why I chose the industry that I’m in. Wine is grown in beautiful places. That’s what it comes down to. It’s grown on beautiful countrysides in France, Chile, Italy, and California, and I want to travel to those places.”

Words of wisdom

Rachel says that young wine connoisseurs ought to start practicing their tasting skills as soon as possible. She offers words of advice to those within CAFNR who may want to follow a similar career path: taste with tact.

“Taste as much wine as you can, but taste it smartly,” Rachel says. “For instance, I always write down what I taste. I have a little notebook that I carry everywhere with me, and in it I write down everything I taste so I can remember if it was a good wine and I can learn about it.”

Another tip is to look at the wine with consideration of the process beyond the bottle.

“Think more about where the wine comes from and which vineyard the grapes were grown in. It’s a long process to get wine from the vineyards to the bottle,” Rachel says.

Kristina encourages those interested in the winery industry to seize any opportunities available to them. The vast industry offers opportunities from customer service to business management to crafting wine.

“There are so many facets of the wine industry,” Kristina says. “Yes, there’s winemaking, but there’s also managing a lab, cellar or warehouse, vineyard management, etc.”

For Kristina, a conversation with a winemaker at Top Ten Wines in downtown Columbia evolved into going to New Zealand to work on a vineyard. From there, Kristina traveled to Portugal because a coworker convinced her to check out the opportunities there. Without the knowledge she gained through these experiences, she would not have the job she loves today.

“Go after whatever gives you the most experience,” Kristina says. “It’s one of those industries where doors kind of just open, so if you hear about someone or a place, go after that experience. Big or small, you never know what it’s going to turn into.”