IMP. NOTE: I only ever accept hospitality from wine producers on the basis that I will offer them equally generous hospitality at some point in return. I stayed with Julia Hoyle from June 20th thru July 16th and the most valuable thing she gave me during this time was her thoughts. This was definitely a piece of Gonzo research during which I got much closer to her than I do to the winemakers I only sit across the table from for a couple of hours, and without that the following wouldn’t have been possible.
THIS STORY is about a woman winemaker called Julia Hoyle of Geneva, FLX, but it is and is also not a story about women winemakers. Julia was in full agreement what I did when a couple of years back I turned down a well paid commission to write a story about women winemakers in Germany, saying to the editor of the magazine, “it’s not a story any more.” “Yes,” she said, “that’s how it should be. I’m a winemaker who happens to be a woman.” I’d written my first story on that subject almost 20 years earlier and after I’d done a handful of them I realized that a seriously large number of the best winemakers in Germany were women, and the situation was moving steadily in the direction of female/male parity.
It was a shock for me to discover that in the FLX and the US of Wine the position of women winemakers isn’t nearly as positive as in Europe, and I have quite often experienced openly sexist attitudes towards them that shocked me. However, while I as in the FLX this time I slowly realized how many women winemakers there were. The most notable of them is Nancy Irelan who founded Red Tail Ridge together with her husband Mike, but she is solely responsible for the winemaking. The across the board excellence of her wines certainly puts her in the first league of American winemakers. Slowly, the wine scene outside the region is waking up to the scale of her achievements and that she did all this from scratch in just 10 years. During that time there’s been a big change for women winemakers in the FLX and Julia is part of that. The remarkable thing about this is that she is a native of Philadelphia, PA and comes from a family who had nothing to do with wine. She didn’t study winemaking and only got into it “accidentally”.
We were heading to a wine tasting in her car when she tole me that she graduated from William Smith College in Geneva with a BA in Women’s Studies and French & Francophone Studies in 2011. “By that time I was already really interested in winemaking.” That radical change of course began with working part-time in the tasting room of Fox Run winery on the west bank of Seneca Lake from the fall of 2009. This situation lead to contact with Fox Run winemaker Peter Bell and his assistants, including Kelby Russell who she married in June 2014. Through talking and tasting with them wine got a hold of her on many levels.
“I just gently slid into it. My first harvest was 2012 at Fox Run. I’d just got back from my second long stay in Senegal in Western Africa and a few weeks in France on the way back. I worked a solid half of that harvest. Then in 2013 I worked the entire harvest at Atwater on the other side of Seneca Lake, and from December 2013 I began working some days for Dave Breeden, the winemaker at Sheldrake Point. That slowly turned into my current position as assistant winemaker there.”
Senegal might seem like an incidental aspect of this story, but her two long stays there made a deep impression on Julia and she talked at length about how very different the Senegalese culture is to mainstream America – “the spirits of the dead are so much more present there than they are here” – and the way French became her second language often and at length. My gut doesn’t lie, though it may sometimes accords certain things an exaggerated importance, but I don’t think that’s happening when I say that these experiences of another culture made it easier for her to step into the special society of winemakers and grape growers that is now a kind of home for her.
Dave Breeden has the reputation of being a complex guy, and it was no surprise the other day that when he told me about a tasting of the FLX winemakers group at which his tasting note for a particularly ugly Riesling read, “die, die, die!” It reminded me of how a quarter of century ago at a wine show I described another ugly wine as, “Rocky Horror Riesling Show!” Julia seems to take this side of his character in her stride, as few people do, the two of them have clearly become a really creative team and the wines of Sheldrake Point were never better than they are now as a result. Julia made the winery’s 2014 Pinot Noir Reserve alone and the result is a rather daring reinvention of one of the FLX’s few cult Pinots. I love the bold, but not aggressive dry tannins in this wine and the combination of ripe cherry fruit and earthy notes. Sure, the dry 2014 Muscat she made is a bit less exciting, but that wine is 100% Muscat Ottonel, and that is seriously challenging grape to make a varietal wine from due to it’s full muscat type aromas, but lowish acidity. I don’t know any exciting varietal wines from this grape either in FLX or on Planet Wine!
“The things that interest me are inherently challenging. I was really interested in figuring out how to describe wine. I’m also really interested in hands-on work, and love the fact that it’s never the same.” Without any evidence to support it some people in the FLX wine industry have suggested to me that Julia has ridden on her husband’s coattails, but all I heard and saw suggested this is people jumping to the old bullshit chauvinistic assumptions. That also makes me feel angry, because the fundamental issues of equality – regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, creed, etc – should all have been dealt with long ago. How did America fall back after the great progress achieved in those struggles during the 1960s and ’70s? There’s no time now to delve into that mire though.
“Every time we open a bottle of wine Kelby and I bounce ideas off each other. It doesn’t feel like work,” she told me and that’s also how it was when I watched her tasting wines with colleagues or she was tasting wine with me. She never hesitate to adopt a position that was contrary to mine or anyone, everyone else in the room. Or would you call describing the aromas of a sweet Riesling as being, “curry and chocolate” conventional? Even more importantly, she argues her case lucidly and confidently, but always has her antenna out to pick up things she didn’t spot or understand fully from colleagues.
For someone who never studied winemaking formally and came to it from right out of field left that’s quite something. Considering the fact that she’s only been in the FLX wine industry a few short years this is more remarkable. No wonder her talents are beginning to be recognized by the bright people in the region even though she is “only” an assistant winemaker. This all convinces me you will be hearing a lot more about Julia Hoyle during the coming years, and this will make hers an example that others will follow: other women, other young people with a non-wine background and non-wine education. It is they, no less than the locally born and formally trained winemakers, who will shape the Future FLX!
PS: The first photograph of Julia accompanying this posting was her own choice.