She Rocks! A Wine Career Paved With Intention

How a geologist combined her love of wine into a unique and much needed career path

Brenna Quigley on top of the heap | Photo Credit: Michael Joly

“I have a vivid memory of a group of geology students sitting in the winery tasting room, smelling and sipping in an extended quiet moment, when in a flash one shouted out, “There has to be something in the geology!” Brenna Quigley tells me, reflecting on her wine “a-ha” moment which launched her career in terroir geology almost a decade ago. “I love geology, and I love wine, and in that comment I saw a way to combine the two.”

A wine friend suggested I reach out to Quigley to learn more about her work and how it forms part of the larger wine story. Quigley, a geologist based in Santa Barbara, California, is a unicorn of sorts, blending right and left brain talents into a job few in the world are doing: helping winemakers harness their unique terroir and understand its potential and limitations. In other words, she rocks. 

“The rocks are just one part of it,” Quigley laughs. “I also look at roots, soil, temperature swings, cover crops.  My work is iterative and collaborative; it’s different from the traditional consulting role.”

So, what is her work, exactly? Her company, Roadside Terroir, provides technical vineyard consulting in the form of terroir geology, an unofficial subset of the broader discipline. Terroir geology is an analytical method to study the land mosaic where grapevines grow. The goal is to provide winemakers a framework to help them understand why their wine tastes the way it does. “The questions usually start with the wines,” Quigley explains. “Winemakers want to reflect the place where they source their grapes (terroir). If wine could perform at a higher level, what does that mean with what the winemaker already has? That’s where I come in. I share what I know with my clients.” 

Brenna Quigley with her tools of the trade | Photo Credit: Summer Staeb

Since there is little research surrounding the work Quigley does, she approaches each project as a collaborator rather than a deified expert. And she is not afraid to get dirty.  “Here’s an example: A winemaker wants the grapes to reflect more taste complexity. I go to the vineyard and dig holes to look at roots on old vines. I study the roots.  Why are the roots high and not deep? Is there something chemically odd in the bedrock? How can we get the roots to go down deeper?” The solutions Quigley suggests require multiple people.  “Adding new or different cover crops may be a solution, so the vineyard manager comes in. Irrigation may encourage roots to dig deeper, so we look for appropriate water sources. I take samples but I am not a soil specialist, so that person steps in. My husband is a data scientist, so I rely on him to help improve the quality of the data analysis.”

Quigley is humble and soft-spoken, but her passion for both geology and wine started early. I was surprised to learn that she was born and grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, the city where I currently live, but now lives in California, the state from which I moved. Her father, a geologist, instilled in her and her brothers a love of exploring, and an appreciation of the outdoors, the earth, and the planet. “We had a family rule: we always ate dinner together and my parents always had to have a glass of wine. Through those dinners I learned that meals take time, they were something to sit and linger over. Gathering was important.”  The early grounding in the sciences led to an intended biology degree at UC Santa Barbara, but Quigley couldn’t stay in the hyper-focused world. “Biology was small. It was hard to see the big picture. So I started taking more geology courses. Geology was fun! It was big! You see geology in front of you.  You can imagine what things looked like.”

During graduate school, she worked in the tasting room at Kunin Wines, the same tasting room where she had that revelatory moment.  “I fell in love with the wine industry, the interactions between winemakers and customers. It was personally so important for me.” She then ran shipping, even taking the time to write little notes to each customer. “I loved how someone across the country wanted this wine from Santa Barbara.” She read wine books, got a chance to meet one of her wine heroes, Rajat Parr, (“One of the greatest wine minds!”), participated in tasting groups, and started talking about geology as it relates to wine. “There was a moment I thought that I didn’t need geology. But when I talked about geology in wine and noticed people were interested in it, I found what I love about academia. It wasn’t in college, but in wine.” 

Quigley started exchanging geology lessons for wine tasting lessons, eventually traveling to vineyards to provide geological summaries of plots. “I worked at a wine shop, reading wine books while waiting for customers. I was always with people who knew so much and I felt I was behind playing catch-up.” 

The experiences coalesced into what would become Roadside Terroir. In addition to the technical work, Roadside Terroir provides education, including a fascinating podcast, the most recent season a deep dive into Burgundy. “Burgundy is the benchmark for terroir. I have a lot of educational projects in France, also some work in Italy, especially Barolo where we have ongoing projects.” She also draws dreamy, ethereal vineyard and appellation maps, but understates her artistic abilities. “I am not a trained artist. The original intention was to draw maps, then hand the project off to a real artist. I still draw on a limited basis, for friends and people I love.” 

Brenna Quigley working in the vineyard | Photo Credit: Summer Staeb

Quigley talks about the struggles of starting her own business in relatively uncharted enological territory. “I was so young when I started doing this. I struggled with confidence and really didn’t want to work for myself, but I couldn’t find someone to work under.” She mentions two other wine heroes, Pedro Parra, Chilean winemaker and terroir specialist, and geologist Françoise Vannier, who has spent decades studying and mapping the vineyards of Burgundy. “I would have dropped everything to work with Pedro or Françoise.”

These days her calendar is booked, but she is careful not to overcommit. “I dive into projects more than I should, so I don’t have more than a dozen projects a year. But I have little things going on in various places. However I can get myself to new regions, I do it.”

The metrics are changing, and there are subtle shifts in geology, but Quigley’s goal is to make geology more accessible and less frightening to the layperson. She and her husband are working on a terroir database, listing hundreds of different variables, and searching for the next project. “Mt. Etna is at the top of my list. I want to see vines growing on an active volcano!” 

On the cusp of a new decade in the wine-meets-geology space, Quigley looks at the industry differently than when she worked at the Kunin tasting room. “I don’t drink very much, but I am thoughtful about what I drink. There needs to be intention behind it. I drink my friends’ wine – Rajat’s are incredible.  People are mistaken about California wine. It’s not only big Cabernets and buttery Chardonnay. It is also expressive, joyful, beautiful, intentional.” 

Intention led Quigley to a career of her own making. Ever the educator, she challenges us by posing a question on her website: “What can you learn about the history of our planet from a glass of wine?” Quite a lot, it turns out, and opening a bottle of the good stuff seems like the very best place to start.