California celebrates its annual grape harvest from August to October, including during California Wine Month each September. The state is the largest producer of wine in the United States, and it is home to several stunning vineyards like the Robert Mondavi Winery in the heart of Napa Valley.
As the newly appointed Director of Winemaking, Sally Blum Johnson is deeply involved in the process of winemaking, viticulture and other facets of carrying on the legacy of California wines. With a science-filled family background, Sally brings a creative edge to new innovations and sustainable practices at the vineyard.
We spoke to Sally about her busy harvest season, innovative approaches at Robert Mondavi Winery, and why there is no such thing as a typical day in winemaking.
What does a typical day look like as Director of Winemaking at the Robert Mondavi Winery?
One of the best things about making wine is that there really is no typical day. What I do is very seasonal, so there is an annual rhythm, but also a unique personality to each vintage. In the fall, harvest is all-consuming, with the entire team here at Robert Mondavi Winery working around the clock to craft the year’s wines.
A typical day would involve walking vineyard blocks to make picking decisions, tasting fermenting tanks and adjusting the winemaking to get the flavors we want, deciding when our tanks are ready to press, selecting barrels for each wine lot, communicating with other departments including vineyards, operations and quality control, and if I’m lucky, driving the forklift for a bit!
In the winter, I work with our winemakers and consultants to craft our blends (yes, I do get paid to taste wine all day!). Spring is typically busy with bottling and lots of time spent in the vineyards, and summer is a bit of a calm before the storm. It’s never boring!
How would you describe the wines of Robert Mondavi to someone who hasn't yet experienced them?
Robert Mondavi Winery wines are gorgeous expressions of the vineyards that produce them. Our To Kalon Reserve wines really showcase To Kalon Vineyard, which is situated on some of the finest soil in the Napa Valley. Its formidable tannins, vibrant fruit, freshness and lively character work in synergy to create wines that can age almost indefinitely.
Our Estates tier of wines allows us to showcase the unique personality of some of Napa Valley’s special AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas – small parcels that have been identified as having particularly interesting soils and microclimate) including Oakville and the Stags Leap District.
Our Napa Valley wines express the terroir of this amazing region, expressing luxurious ripeness as well as elegance and balance.
What strides is the winery taking toward sustainable farming?
It’s a very exciting time, as we are moving towards organic farming in our To Kalon and Stags Leap District vineyards. Transitioning from conventional farming to organic is a tricky process, requiring three years of farming organically before a vineyard can be certified “organic.”
This is the last year of the transition at To Kalon vineyard, so beginning with vintage 2023, our To Kalon Reserve wines will be produced from organically grown grapes. We will begin the certification process in Stags Leap District next spring, with the goal of organic certification there by 2026.
What might people be surprised to know about your career journey?
I grew up in a family of scientists. I was encouraged to study whatever I wanted in college, as long as it ended in “-ology.” I was heading towards a career in Biotech when I decided to study abroad at the spur of the moment. Living in France for six months changed my entire life, and when I got back to the US, I chose to do a double major in French literature as well as my “-ology” (Biology). After I completed my undergraduate degree, I applied to UC Davis to study winemaking, and the rest is history.
What advice would you give to a woman pursuing a career in the wine industry?
First and foremost, believe in yourself. Many of us suffer from imposter syndrome and we are our own worst enemies. Trust me, I have been there. After jumping that minor hurdle, I would say, work hard, treat people with respect, listen, learn, and be open-minded. Don’t take a job if you don’t love the wines. Make sure to learn how to do cellar work. Develop a community of friends and peers to lean on in difficult moments. And go for it!
What is your go-to wine?
My go-to wine is our Robert Mondavi Winery To Kalon Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon - because I’m worth it and that’s how I roll!