Wednesdays with Winemakers – Mike Sullivan
Mike Sullivan grew up in Sonoma County and earned a degree in fermentation science from Fresno State. For nearly a decade, Sullivan was a winemaker at Hartford Family Winery where he made top-scoring wines that earned numerous accolades from a bevy of industry publications such as Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator.
He joined Benovia in 2005 in a partnership as well as winemaking role. Mike built the winery and the brand from the ground up, planting and managing some of the Russian River Valley’s most coveted vineyards. Today, Benovia is one of the most well-known producers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California. The wines are remarkably consistent, beautifully balanced, each carries part of Mike’s magnificent, yet infinitely humble spirit.
Why did you become a winemaker?
I grew up in Sonoma County where my parents were growers on Sonoma Mountain. I started working in the vineyards when I was 17 and got my first winery job when I was 18 years old. I worked at Chateau St. Jean working 3rd shift on the bottling line. I love Sonoma County and never wanted to live anywhere else and fell in love with the land and wine through working in the vineyard.
If you weren’t a winemaker what would you be and why?
That is hard as I have only ever worked in the wine industry since I was in my teens. I love to cook and probably would have gone somewhere like the CIA or another cooking school, hopefully I would have been a great chef working in New York or Chicago or France.
What is your greatest strength as a winemaker?
Not ever losing a passion for wine as a consumer or as a producer. Always being inquisitive and not falling into a fad or dogma about how wine should be made. I like to think of myself as a student of winemaking even though I have done it for more than half of my life.
What is your biggest weakness as a winemaker?
My biggest weakness is sometimes overthinking my decisions – usually my first reaction to a problem is the best action.
What’s the one mistake you made in the cellar you would never repeat?
I remember when I was young I listened to intently to the opinions of others and I sometimes valued other people’s opinions over my own. Now I always follow my own voice but may sound my ideas off of others that I trust.
What is your proudest achievement?
Building a winery and vineyards from scratch at Benovia, is my most proud achievement.
What was your scariest vintage to date?
My most challenging vintage was the 1998 vintage because of the terrible frost conditions in the spring and the uneven set at flowering. I made some pretty challenging wines in that vintage and I hope I have redeemed myself since then.
What is your favorite word? Saying?
We can do better than this.
What is your most prized possession?
My two boys Colin and Ryan are my most prized possessions and I can’t imagine a day without either of them – they bring love and humility to my life.
What’s the oddest thing about you?
I tend to take wine related vacations, I like to travel to unique and exciting wine destinations like the Casa Blanca Valley in Chile or the Douro Valley in Portugal. Maybe it is not that odd…but I don’t think it is normal.
What song best sums you up?
I want to Rock and Roll all Night – KISS.
What is your favorite memory?
Christmas morning as a child with my parents, grandparents and brothers. Christmas is a very special time, to appreciate what you have and to look forward to the next year.
Which of the 5 senses is your strongest?
My strongest sense is the sense of touch.
What is your biggest motivation?
My biggest motivation is to always make better wine year over year. Winemaking is about the journey and I don’t think that a perfect wine can ever be achieved – my hope is to make my best wine in my last vintage of winemaking – years from now.
Which bottle of wine would choose to be stranded with on the deserted island?
Riesling is my desert island wine, probably a single vineyard bottling from Dönnhoff. Riesling goes well with sushi and tropical fruits – hopefully I have a refrigerator.
What is the difference between a good and great wine?
The memory of a good wine will stay with you until the next day or week. The memory of a great wine will stay with you always.
Name 3 individuals you would like to have dinner with?
Winston Churchill, Mark Twain & Abraham Lincoln.
Who is your winemaking hero?
Aubert de Villiane – for his vision at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
What does the concept of “balance” mean to you?
Balance can be a difficult concept to explain in words, but you know it when you see it.
What is the one thing you want people to remember about your wine?
Best comment made about your wine? Was it by a consumer, trade or press?
A consumer once said that my Pinot Noir remind him of Chambolle Musigny (a burgundy village that I love).