Harvest is essentially a dance—swaying and weaving, making sure not to tangle with another body, moving your feet quickly around snakes, spiders, and other vineyard creatures. Winemakers play music to get the group hyped for a backbreaking day, catch a quick harvest family meal together, and they work odd hours in the vineyard, leaving their significant others and children at home.
Shalini Sekhar knows this dance well as a former musician and now the owner and winemaker of Ottavino Wines based in Northern California. She is also the winemaker for numerous other small boutique wineries, including Neely Wine and Waits-Mast Family Cellars. Shalini was the cellar master at Punchdown Cellars (formerly Copain Custom Crush) and has also worked at Furthermore Wines, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and William Selyem, just to name a few. Even when making wines for other labels, she is simultaneously creating her own wine for Ottavino—a Grüner Veltliner that will be available Spring 2021.
Sharneen Smiley: You have a master’s degree in Flute and Piccolo Performance (Ottavino means piccolo in Italian). How did you decide to leap from a music degree to a degree in Enology and Viticulture?
Shalini Sekhar: Honestly, it was not a direct path. I had my “aha” moment with wine toward the end of undergrad, but I didn’t have any clue that winemaking was an actual career. I’m from New Jersey and that certainly wasn’t a thing there! I truly believed my calling was teaching and performing and that’s the path I pursued. When I finished my master’s degree, I was teaching band at a grade school, music theory at a junior college, and private flute lessons on the weekend. My husband and I were looking to move to Europe; in the middle of that process, he got an offer to move to California. It was an exciting opportunity, but unfortunately, I left behind my jobs. I thought I’d get into teaching in California but I didn’t realize the state of the arts in schools. It was also too close to the beginning of the school year to find a position anyway.
On one of our many trips to Napa, a winemaker clued me into winejobs.com. On the drive home, my husband encouraged me to find a tasting room job to kill time and make some friends. I ended up being a tasting room manager for two years while continuing to prepare for symphony auditions. At some point, my curiosity about winemaking took over, and I dug out a tank during harvest. I was all in after that. I left my position and joined the harvest team the following year and subsequently applied to Fresno State for the post-baccalaureate program. I worked full-time in the cellar while going to school at night for my science prerequisites for a year. Then, I attended Fresno State for another year. Admittedly, my soul was a bit torn in two when I decided to leave music as a career, but I still find similarity in the marriage of art and science in both fields. And I still play my flute and piccolo on the side!
Smiley: You were included in the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2019 Winemaker to Watch and were also awarded the 2015 Winemaker of the Year at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. With these and many other accolades/degrees, why do you feel the need to further your wine education?
Sekhar: I joke that I’m a perpetual student. While external accolades are gratifying, that’s not the motivation to do the work. The farming, the creativity, the science, the people—this is the magic. I love making wine. I love tasting it, sharing it, and talking about it with friends. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I still don’t know. You can never know it all. My journey with the WSET Diploma has informed my palate, which is critical as a winemaker. While I’m purely making California wines, having a reference for where my wines sit amongst wines of the world is also an important context. Plus, I’m a nerd. If not wine, I’m sure I’d be studying something else.
Smiley: What’s one thing you wished people knew about winemaking?
Sekhar: That it’s 99 percent cleaning. I tell my husband it’s probably why I hate cleaning so much when I get home.
Smiley: Harvest is already challenging for winemakers and vineyard workers. How is harvest going during a pandemic and now the current wildfires? How are you ensuring the safety of yourself and your team?
Sekhar: I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it is stressful on top of the already normal intensity of harvest. We’ve spent months rethinking how we keep each other safe while still making wine during a pandemic. We’ve changed protocols covering everything from wearing a mask while tasting and doing sensory analysis to what surfaces get touched (a LOT during harvest) and how to occupy the same space while maintaining social distance. Now we’ve thrown wildfires on top of it all. Everything for ensuring safety for COVID is totally contraindicated for wildfire smoke. Do we keep the doors open or closed?
There’s also dealing with the decision-making for how to craft great wines under these conditions, accepting losses on fruit, ensuring worker safety while picking with poor air quality, and, for the truly unfortunate, the loss of their homes or wineries and vineyards. I could go on and on. We are doing our best; we provide masks for everyone, monitor air quality, and limit our work outdoors as much as possible. We encourage rest and hydration, and we choose to care for our workers before the grapes. Ultimately we may make fewer wines, but we will be at peace knowing we took care of people first and foremost.
Smiley: I attended the 2020 virtual Bâtonnage session, “Stirring it Up: Color, Wine, and Feminism.” It was such a teachable moment for all that attended. As a panelist, what was one thing you were surprised to learn during the session?
Sekhar: As a brown person, I’m excited that the term BIPOC or People of Color exists and includes me. I’ve been an “other” for so long, and so these terms acknowledge discrimination and the struggles I’ve faced despite the Indian diaspora being part of the “model minority” myth. So when Julia Coney shared that she did not like to be included in that term, I was surprised at first. But I truly understand why everyone would choose their own terms for how they identify based on their individual identity and life experiences. The truth is that all of us brown folk owe a debt of gratitude to the Black community. We wouldn’t have any of the rights or opportunities that we do without the community’s suffering, struggles, and achievements.
Smiley: How will you help amplify the voices of BIPOC in the wine community? If you had a crystal ball, what does the future of wine look like for you and them?
Sekhar: I hope younger folks will look to me as someone who can openly share my experiences and help them figure out their path in this business. I would love to mentor folks directly through a winemaking internship or in any way I can. I try to shout from the rooftops (and social media) about every friend and colleague’s achievements, but I feel a special pride for my BIPOC friends.
I can already feel the change personally being celebrated for the quality of my wines and for being a brown woman/mother/winemaker. I’m also feeling grateful to be able to have open conversations with my clients about diversity and inclusion in the wine business, whether it’s by celebrating colleagues’ achievements or thinking about our own hiring practices or missions to create spaces within our communities. I think a lot of these smaller and quieter things are an important piece to move the needle. There is still so much work to be done, but the momentum is there. Our white allies are doing the work too, and I’m proud of the next generation of this business who won’t be told “no” or that there isn’t room at the table. They are creating their own tables, and I’m happy to support that work in every way.
Smiley: Alright, let’s lighten it up a bit. Do you remember your first wine crush?
Sekhar: Absolutely! 1998 Château La Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It was also one of the first places we ever visited for wine tasting a couple of years [after I had drunk it]!
Smiley: What non-alcoholic or alcoholic beverage do you reach for after a hard day of work?
Sekhar: I have to pick one?! A cold lager if it has been a long, sweaty harvest day. Otherwise, a crisp white like Fiano or Grüner (which I’ll be making for my new label this vintage), and of course, a cool-climate Pinot, which is my bread and butter.
Pinot Noir can be a difficult grape to grow and work with but Shalini does it with finesse. She has crafted a few for Waits-Mast Family Cellars. Waits-Mast, owned by Jennifer Waits and Brian Mast, is a small-lot boutique winery in California that produces 50 to 100 case lots each year. Others are purchased from Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, and Mendocino Ridge.
2019 Waits-Mast Rose of Pinot Noir, Mendocino County
The grapes for this wine are sourced from Mendocino County and the skins and the juice “were left in contact to macerate for two hours.” This wine is salmon in color with notes of watermelon, strawberry, cantaloupe, and floral. The texture is silky and creamy. Drink now.
2015 Waits-Mast Pinot Noir, Mariah Vineyard Mendocino Ridge
These grapes are sourced from Dan and Vicki Dooling, owners of Mariah Vineyard. This wine has notes of black cherry and is earthy and spicy reminiscent of the smells of autumn. It is youthful with a long and silky finish.
2016 Waits-Mast Pinot Noir, Wentzel Vineyard, Anderson Valley
These grapes are sourced from Wentzel Vineyards, and this wine is a pale ruby color with note aromas and flavors of cherry, nutmeg, and vanilla.
2017 Waits-Mast Pinot Noir, Mendocino County
The grapes for this wine are a blend from two different vineyards (Anderson Valley and Oppenlander Vineyard). This wine has notes of cherry fruit and spice.