Winemaker interview with Alan Baker of Cartograph Wines – We at Bacchus and Beery, are always on the lookout for stories of people who left successful careers (not millionaire investors) to start over in the wine industry. When asking around northern Sonoma, the name Alan Baker of Cartograph Wines came up over and over again. Alan walked away from career in Public Broadcasting with few prospects, a little wine knowledge and a lot of wine passion. We have now had the pleasure of getting to know Alan and his partner (in life and wine), Serena Lourie . Together they have recently opened a lovely new tasting room right off the square in Healdsburg. Being hands-on owners and winemakers, you are more likely than not, to be greeted by Alan, Serena or both, when you stop by for a visit and a glass of wine.
B&B Wine Blog: Who do you see when you look in the mirror?
AB: A guy who has more tasks on his list than he has time to complete them. I think the days are long gone when a winemaker could just focus on making great wine. If the world doesn’t know about your wines, it won’t matter how good they are. So I’m almost always in the tasting room, online, or on the road interacting with our customers.
Hopefully there will come a time when we will have some help with the more time-consuming tasks like compliance or packing orders, etc., but for now it’s just me and Serena. That said, its great waking up every day and diving into work you love.
B&B Wine Blog: You left a successful career in public radio to make wine. Tell us about the risks and rewards of making such a drastic life change?
AB: I will admit it was scary to leave a world where I was accomplished and had skills that ensured I’d keep a job. And it was especially tough because I was jumping into a world where I knew almost nothing about the business in which I was hoping to find my way. However, I’ve never really been someone to second-guess life choices. I try to focus on how things can go right and improvise solutions when I’m faced with challenges (and there are always challenges). That’s not always easy to do when you are hovering near zero in the bank, but you do get motivated to make some ambitious bets when your other option is to retreat with your tail between your legs.
I guess there is always the risk that you might fail at whatever you initially set your sights on, but you have to keep your eyes open for other opportunities. I failed to turn my wine podcast into a viable business; I never got fast enough or good enough at writing about wine to make a buck there; we didn’t build Crushpad into the revolutionary business we hoped to . . . but I did stay in the game long enough to give this wine venture a shot.
The rewards are plentiful. When you are on this sort of journey, there’s a huge amount of satisfaction in building something that is your own creation. Even if the project fails to succeed wildly, if I’m proud of the product of that effort, I get great satisfaction out of that. Not to be too altruistic about this—I definitely want Cartograph to be a successful brand. That doesn’t mean we need to get rich. We just need to have the brand support us and our future employees. That would be a great success in my mind.
B&B Wine Blog: What motivated you to move to Healdsburg in Sonoma to focus on Pinot Noir?
AB: After my first visit to Healdsburg I was convinced that if I were ever to try and do any projects in California, this is where I would start. The atmosphere is warm and people are supportive of all sorts of crazy ideas. Winemakers were accessible and open about what they were doing, so I felt like I could learn more here than in other regions.
I love Pinot because it has to impress with grace and subtlety rather than brawn. Being trained as a musician, I love the idea that the skill in the winemaking is evident in every wine, in the same way that skill is evident in a singer’s performance on stage. And I like that Pinot is all about the grapes and how you bring them to the winery and honor the place they come from. I can take myself out of the equation if I do my job right. I want to show the place, not my hand in the winemaking
B&B Wine Blog: What winemakers either influenced your style or mentored you.
AB: My first crush was in Dry Creek Valley in 2005. I worked with Sebastian Pochon at Unti, and made my first wine with Fred and Jamie Peterson at Peterson Winery. I’m pretty sure they thought I was nuts starting over at age 40 in a business that requires time and a lot of money to get established.
I worked fairly closely with Leslie Sisneros for a couple years when she was with Arista. We produced our first Cartograph wines in the same facility as Arista and I was her assistant for one crush. I specifically sought her out because I had been so impressed with the consistency of Arista wines.
B&B Wine Blog: How would you describe your winemaking philosophy and why is it important to you?
AB: The Cartograph wines show a lot of diversity across each year’s releases. And I think this shows that I’m having some success keeping my influence on the wines in check. If a winery’s wines all taste very similar I wonder if the winemaker is working with the vineyard, or if all the grapes are being forced into the same set of clothes. (You can see why I was never going to make money writing about wine. Metaphors are not my thing.)
B&B Wine Blog: Tell us a bit about the techniques you use to coax the best wine from each harvest.
AB: I’m very focused on what is going on in the vineyards. We work with great growers and wonderful properties and that’s a benefit I don’t want to squander. We are buying all our grapes, so I have to work with growers who will let me share in making decisions in the vineyard. I am out in the vineyard as much as I can be without driving them nuts.
We pick less ripe than some of the established Pinot houses, many of whom gained their fame at a time when the “bigger-is-better” trend was being established. I find that after a point in the ripening curve the wines made from very ripe grapes start to taste very similar to each other. So it’s not about having some religious devotion to low alcohol but rather trying to preserve the unique characteristics of these great vineyard sites.
B&B Wine Blog: You recently opened a beautiful tasting room off the town square in Healdsburg. Give our readers an idea of the experience they can expect at Cartograph?
AB: We wanted our tasting room to reflect our winemaking approach: Keep it clean, make the wine the focus and give it every chance to shine. There are usually five wines on the list for our standard tasting. I’m often behind the bar and if I’m not there Serena, my partner and co-owner of the winery, is usually around. The whites are on tap from keg to lower our carbon footprint for wines we’re pouring. This also keeps them at their maximum freshness so we’re never tempted to pour wine from a bottle that should be retired for that night’s dinner.
I’m just starting a fun tasting that I call “Pinot A–Z.” As I started sugar sampling last fall I froze my juice samples and kept this up all the way through the fermentation process. Now that I have a freezer full of samples, I can pull a set of samples to give a guided tour with video and images that takes a guest through every step of making Pinot noir, all while tasting the juice from every stage it goes through while becoming wine. It’s incredibly geeky but we always have a blast. It’s $50 and lasts for 90 minutes to two hours depending on how nerdy we get.
B&B Wine Blog: What does the future hold for Cartograph Wines?
AB: We’re adding Riesling this season. It was my “aha!” wine, and I’m having fun with it. Even though we’re only at about 1,300 cases, I need to hit the road to widen our footprint a bit. When you’re doing everything from making the wines to mopping the tasting room floor it can be tough to get away, but we need to grow our distribution channels. At a minimum we’ll be doing a few events for our wine club members in cities where we have a strong following.
B&B Wine Blog: Tell us about your life (hobbies, etc.) away from the winery?
AB: We (Alan and Serena) are avid gardeners. We grow as much of our own food as time will allow. It’s a very rewarding pursuit but does take a big bite out of the day when things are moving. I have a soft spot for vintage scooters but a lack of time to keep them running, so I have a newish Stella scooter that looks very vintage but actually stops when you hit the brakes.
B&B Wine Blog: Other than your own, what wines do your enjoy drinking?
AB: What would the wine word for “omnivore” be? I love Riesling but don’t have an outlet around here that carries great stuff so that is a deficit I’d like to fix. I love exploring Burgundy but without a trusted guide you can drop a lot of money on wines that are just okay. I love Rhone and Italian wines as well.
Locally, I always have a stash of Peterson wines in the closet and there is a great group of winemakers who are doing incredible work with fun grapes. Brands whose wines I would pretty much buy without tasting: Two Shepherds, Arnot Roberts, Idlewild, Brulium, Baxter…I could go on, so I’ll stop, but I’m very excited about the number of elegant wines coming out these days.
B&B Wine Blog: Any advice for someone dreaming of following your lead, leaving their career/life behind and getting into the wine business?
AB: Use whatever tools you have and start moving in a direction that takes you closer to your passion. I started my move into wine as an exploration of where I might fit into the wine world and it just so happened I got bitten by the winemaking bug. You don’t have to have a vision for exactly where you will land. Actually, it might be too small a dream if you can see the target when you start the journey.
Becoming a winemaker was way outside my perceived realm of possibilities when I packed up the Volvo and headed west. You have to have a persistence of vision. Keep moving in the direction that gets you closer to the things you want. Do the work that fills in gaps where you feel you need skills or need to build support networks. And always give freely to those you are working with. If it weren’t for the friendship of one of the people mentioned above, we would have never been able to secure such a great location for our tasting room, which could very well make our brand.