Behind the Vine Interview: Katie Cotterill of Conn Creek Winery
This month we interviewed Katie Cotterill, the Enologist at Conn Creek Winery in Napa Valley, CA. We talked to her about growing up in Kentucky, making wine in two of the United States' best wine regions, and how she's rocking one of the top positions at a premium winery in Napa Valley. Here's what she had to say:
Kentucky’s famous for bourbon, not wine…how and when did you first get into wine? I first got into wine after finishing my undergraduate degree back in 2005. I had studied animal science but knew that I didn’t want to go to vet school so I was looking for a field where I could use my science background. One day while at a wine tasting, I met a winery owner who suggested I think about doing a harvest internship to see what I think about the industry. Long story short, I found an internship, moved to Washington State, loved it and decided to stay. And even though don’t live in KY anymore I do occasionally still enjoy my home state’s finest drink!
What the heck is an Enologist and what do you do? There are many job descriptions for Enologist depending on the size of the winery and location. In some regions the Enologist is the winemaker, in others we are the “assistant” and some wineries the Enologist doesn’t leave the lab. I spend my days in the cellar and warehouse tasting barrels, putting blends together, overseeing the lab and monitoring all of the chemical analysis and quality control. We have a very small staff at Conn Creek, so I can also be found out in the vineyards checking fruit maturity or in the market hosting events for consumers.
Being a young woman in a field dominated by men, what are the most important things you’ve learned and how have you been so successful? This may sound cliché but I think I have been successful due to my work ethic and determination. I have taken Enology and Viticulture courses to supplement my hands on knowledge, I attend seminars, and in August I will finish my Master’s Degree. Constantly learning and finding ways to improve along with taking on increased responsibility shows that I want to be a part of the brand. There has to be some level of pride of ownership and in the end your talent and abilities will speak for themselves.
What is your favorite part of the job? I love to see a blend come together and realize that we have an amazing wine on our hands. This is certainly the most rewarding part of the job. In my spare time I love to hike and spend time in the mountains, so as for my favorite duty, I love walking the vineyards in late summer tasting berries for ripeness. There is something serene about watching the sun come up and the fog roll out of the valley while walking around some of the most amazing vineyards in the world.
So now that we know what you do, tell us about Conn Creek. Conn Creek is an ultra-premium Bordeaux House in Napa. We produce four single appellation (AVA – American Viticultural Area) Cabernet Sauvignons each year, as well as a Napa Valley Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and our flagship wine 'Anthology'. Each year the 'Anthology' blend varies due to quality and availability of fruit, but it always consists of Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot.
For the non-winemakers (or even winemakers) of the world, we have a barrel-blending experience at Conn Creek where people can come to the winery and taste wines from all of the sub-AVAs in Napa Valley and create their own Anthology-like blend to take home. This gives people a chance to see what it takes to create a wine and watch how the different barrels and varietals affect the blend.
Being so intimately involved with the winemaking process, you’re arguably the winery’s toughest critic. Which wine is your overall favorite? This is never an easy question to answer but at the moment I am loving our 2007 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. It is an elegant, balanced wine that really represents the AVA which I think is important.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the winemaking and science side of the industry? First off, you don’t necessarily need an enology or fermentation science degree to get into winemaking. I know many winemakers who are like myself and have science based backgrounds and they are very successful. Second, I would say be flexible. Nearly everyone in the world wants to work in Napa, Bordeaux or Burgundy and there are simply not enough opportunities available so employment is very competitive. Look at up and coming wine regions, and don’t forget to think about leaving your home country for an adventure abroad. The connections you make during internships will be very valuable when you decide to settle somewhere and look for permanent employment. Finally, network! Ask for informational interviews and get out there and meet people in the industry; this is a great way to get your resume moved to the top of the pile.
What are the three best wineries in Napa to find high quality wine without blowing your budget?
- Salvestrin Winery’s Rettagio – It is $36/bottle and a blend of 50% Sangiovese, 30% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc. This wine is great with pizza or on its own.
- Hall Winery’s Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc – The Cab is $48/bottle and the Sauv Blanc is $22. Both are fantastic wines especially for the price. Hall also makes some killer single vineyard wines if you are in the mood to splurge a little.
- Domaine Carneros’s Brut Cuvee – This Napa sparkling wine is $26/bottle and always a crowd favorite. Slightly more expensive (but not much) is the Blanc de Noir they release each fall. If you can get your hands on some I highly recommend you do, it is probably my favorite domestic sparkling wine.
And now, What's your favorite wine quote? "Men are like wine - some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age."
~ Pope John XXIII