Wednesdays with Winemakers – Sally Johnson 6 min read
Sally Johnson, winemaker at the prestigious Pride Mountain Vineyards, has an impressive résumé. Originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Sally fell in love with the concept of winemaking during her European travels. She earned a Master’s degree from UC Davis and became an enologist at St Francis Winery. She subsequently traveled to Australia to work a harvest in Barossa Valley. After her return to the US, she crafted wines under her own label. In 2007 she joined Pride Vineyards, where she manages forty-six individual vineyard blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Syrah and Chardonnay. Founded in 1990, the winery soon became the reference point for mountain fruit wines. Johnson’s unwavering dedication to consistently producing some of the most exceptional, age-worthy and wildly delicious wines earns her a prominent spot on Napa Valley’s most notable winemakers list. Sally also consults for such notable brands as Curvature, Schoolhouse and Sequum.
Why did you become a winemaker?
One factor was my parents’ love of gardening and the experience of growing nearly all of our own fruits and vegetables, which we then canned, dried and even fermented. The direct path towards becoming a winemaker was my experience at the University of Michigan. I come from a family of scientists and was encouraged to study whatever I wanted: “chemistry, physics, biology – pick whatever you like!” I didn’t like chemistry or physics, so I picked biology. I ended up doing a study abroad program in France as part of my language requirement and fell in love with winemaking while visiting wineries in Champagne, the Rhone Valley and Bordeaux. I decided to double-major in French literature and biology, which gave me a good foundation in microbiology, botany and chemistry, as well as the ability to pronounce the names of the grape varieties. I then got a master’s degree in winemaking at UC Davis and the rest is history.
If you weren’t a winemaker what would you be and why?
Probably a yogini or maybe I would lead cycling tours in Napa and Sonoma. I love to be outside and to be active.
What is your greatest strength as a winemaker?
I am a control freak and am obsessed with details. I am extremely focused on every step of the process from grape growing through harvest, fermentation, elevage and bottling.
What is your biggest weakness as a winemaker?
It’s always hard to find the time to do it all.
What’s the one mistake you made in the cellar you would never repeat?
I was filling barrels at St. Hallett Winery in Australia when the owner, Stuart Blackwell, walked by. I got so nervous that I looked away from the barrel wand just as the barrel filled. A geyser of wine shot up into the air, splashing the ceiling and spraying both me and Mr. Blackwell. It was quite embarrassing!
What is your proudest achievement?
Hmm, maybe being the first woman to be featured on Palate Exposure’s “Wednesdays with Winemakers.”
What was your scariest vintage to date?
My scariest vintage was 2007. It was my first year at Pride, taking over for a legendary winemaker, Bob Foley, whose wines I had admired for many years. The entire growing season was perfect until we got two weeks of straight rain in September. I remember parking my car at the winery one day and looking out at our Rock Arch vineyard, the source of our Reserve Cabernet. Every leaf on the vines was yellow or had already fallen off and the fruit was not ripe. I thought my time at Pride was going to be pretty short! Finally in October the clouds lifted and we had a gorgeous month of warm, sunny weather. In the end we were able to make some lovely wines. It was a big relief!
What is your favorite saying?
“A hopeful person sees three answers where others see one… to hope is to operate with the logic of water, not the logic of rock.” – Gershon Gorenberg
What is your most prized possession?
Drawings done by my kids, aged 5 and 3.
What’s the oddest thing about you?
I am a quirky person. There are probably too many odd things to count!
What song best sums you up?
Though I don’t know that it sums me up as a person, I listened to Jose Gonzalez’s “Stay Alive” on repeat pretty much every morning driving in to work in the dark last harvest. It’s a song about the ephemeral nature of life and love, and about embracing the unknown, which I think is what harvest is all about. It’s such an exciting time of the year, when the personality of the new vintage is just beginning to emerge and there is so much possibility.
What is your favorite memory?
Which of the five senses is your strongest?
Being a winemaker develops a strong connection to all of the senses. I think that spending 18 years focused on the sensory experience of making wine has changed my brain development to allow me to perceive my sensory world more deeply than if I had chosen some other profession.
What is your biggest motivation?
The desire to live a useful and ethical life, raise happy children, and hopefully leave the world a better place.
Which bottle(s) of wine would choose to be stranded with on a deserted island?
Moi Wines Viognier from Gisborne, New Zealand, Orison “Pipa” from Alentejano, Portugal, and St Francis Sonoma County Chardonnay are three beautiful white wines made by women who interned with me and are now amazing winemakers in their own right. All of those wines would all be great with seafood and young coconut.
What is the difference between a good and great wine?
Name three individuals you would like to have dinner with.
With as crazy as my life is as a full-time winemaker and mom, I would simply like to have dinner with my best friends.
Who is your winemaking hero?
I really respect the amazing women winemakers who proved that girls can do more than just lab work, that we are willing to get dirty and that we can make beautiful wines. People like Mia Klein, Heidi Barrett, Pam Starr, etc. There are too many powerhouse women winemakers to list.
What does the concept of “balance” mean to you?
It’s definitely true that you can’t make a great wine from mediocre grapes, but balance is key in making the best wine from any given site. For example, here at 2,100′ elevation on Spring Mountain our wines have huge tannins. To try to subdue the tannins would be to rob the wine of what makes it reflect this estate, so instead, I focus my energy on building up the mid-palate to support the size.
What is the one thing you want people to remember about your wine?
If people enjoy it, I’m happy.
Best comment made about your wine? Was it by a consumer, trade or press?
I love meeting visitors to Pride who tell me about the special moments of their life that my wines have been a part of. That’s the most fulfilling part of producing wine for me.