Wednesdays with Winemakers – Molly Hill
Molly Hill’s winemaking career is most impressive. She studied viticulture and enology at U.C. Davis and quickly secured apprenticeships at Beringer Wine Estates and Domaine Carneros. Upon graduation, she trained under Kris Curran at the cult winery Sea Smoke Cellars, crafting Central Coast Pinot Noir. She then traveled to Chile, and made a variety of wines at Viña Isidro.
Next came Sequoia Grove, where at a young age of 24 the winemaking protégé was hand-picked by Michael Trujillo. Five years later, she became a winemaker of record.
Molly oversees all winemaking and production operations, advises on grower relations and has input in the vineyards. She is fiercely driven to produce world-class wines with no compromises. Sequoia Grove’s customers agree. Her wines are highly sought after by both trade and consumers nationwide.
Why did you become a winemaker?
I was fortunate to start my undergraduate education at UC Davis. Looking back on it now, the agricultural vibe of the school was probably the reason why I chose that university. I thought I wanted to study veterinary medicine at the time, but my first internship involved being in the office when several dogs were put down. I quickly looked into other options. After reading ‘The Heartbreak Grape’ by Marq De Villiers about Josh Jensen starting Calera winery, I immediately connected with the passion and difficulty and knew that that, too, was the path for me. Luckily, I found equally passionate professors at UC Davis and was introduced to many passionate winemakers throughout my studies.
If you weren’t a winemaker what would you be and why?
An architect. There are very few professions that encompass experiences or ideas and turn them into something tangible and tactile. Architecture also has a long career arch, like winemaking. You learn with each building built, much like learning from each vintage, but the opportunities to learn take time to unfold.
What is your greatest strength as a winemaker?
I am a good listener. I can intuit what is going on in a wine or vineyard. I am tuned-in to the flavor expression in a wine. I learn from our viticulturist and our growers by listening.
What is your biggest weakness as a winemaker?
The times when I fail to remember the things I cannot change.
What’s the one mistake you made in the cellar you would never repeat?
Most mistakes I’ve made in the cellar I would not repeat, but something good has always come from them. I like to experiment and learn at every opportunity. Often those wines give way to even more amazing wines in the future. But to answer the question, I’d say I would never like to repeat the times I haven’t listened to my gut when faced with a decision. My gut has 17 harvests under its belt! It should be obeyed!
What is your proudest achievement?
Making wines that give pleasure to so many people, wines that are present for the big events in many people’s lives, wines that are flavorful, alive, and have a sense of place, yet not so expensive and unattainable that they cannot be enjoyed by many.
What was your scariest vintage to date?
2005. I was given the winemaking reins very early on at Sequoia Grove. The 2005 vintage was only my third at the winery. We are a small, little winery, and the large crop of 2005 really made us feel our small size. I am extremely proud of that vintage, however. Our demanding selection of the grapes and the work ethic of our employees really made some incredible wines that year.
What is your favorite saying?
“Si dios nos da licencia.” I am privileged to work with many Latinos and they teach me a lot about work ethic, family, and Spanish! The saying means ‘if God gives us permission.’ It is great for farming, as mother nature has the final say in much that we do in winemaking. So one might say “We’ll pick the estate grapes on Thursday, si dios nos da licencia.”
What is your most prized possession?
Owning the land on which our house sits. In farming, you really learn the value of land. How it encompasses potential and opportunity. How much it gives back. How everything could fall on top of it, but you would still have the land in which to start again.
What’s the oddest thing about you?
I don’t drink much wine at home! My standards for wine are very high. I taste a lot of wine, but when I am actually going to enjoy a glass, it had better be good. It had better over deliver quality to price point. It had better be something I would buy or search out again. It had better not leave me saying, ‘well, maybe I opened it too early.”
What song best sums you up?
I can’t pick just one song, but the music I most connect with is acoustical rock/folk. Music with texture and nuance. Music that you can listen to again and again and enjoy it each time you hear it.
What is your favorite memory?
Visiting vineyards with my children, asking ‘should we pick yet?’
Which of the five senses is your strongest?
Won’t all winemakers answers to same? Smell! I love wines that smell amazing and that is what first drew me into wine.
What is your biggest motivation?
Being true to myself.
Which bottle of wine would choose to be stranded with on the deserted island?
I’d love to be stranded on a dessert island with any bottle of wine as long as the winemaker of said wine was also present. We could talk wine philosophy the entire time!
What is the difference between a good and a great wine?
A great wine gives a sense of the time and place where the grapes were grown and is balanced.
Name three individuals you would like to have dinner with?
My deceased grandmother, the pope, Doris Lessing.
Who is your winemaking hero?
My husband (also a winemaker). He encourages me to go for more. He encourages me to have fun and to realize it is just wine at the end of the day.
What does the concept of “balance” mean to you?
Balance means having nothing stand out in the wine as the dominant character. Not oak, not fruit, not acid, not tannin, not alcohol. All those components, if I do my job correctly, will intertwine indistinguishably. The sensation of the wine on the palate will also be a perfect bell curve, with no edges, no valleys, no bumps.
What is the one thing you want people to remember about your wine?
It was authentic.
Best comment made about your wine? Was it by a consumer, trade or press?
I’m very lucky that I hear lots of lovely comments, but I’m also proud that many people mention our wines should be double the price.