Fast forward to today, and Brent is now the Winemaker at Gary Farrell Winery, having been promoted from Associate Winemaker. His journey in winemaking began as a harvest intern at Robert Mondavi Winery, and he has since dedicated his life to perfecting the winemaking process, from grape to bottle.
Brent's philosophy on winemaking revolves around respecting the unique nature of each vineyard, and allowing the grapes to express themselves in their own unique way. He believes in the importance of being hands-on in the winery, paying attention to small details, and working together as a team to create something truly special.
We sat down with Brent to learn more about his journey and his winemaking philosophy.
Q: Brent, can you tell us about your first interaction with wine? What was going through your mind at that moment?
Brent: Well, it was a magical experience, I must say. I was 28 years old, and living in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the time. I was working with an arborist, and we talked a lot about the land as it was a part of our daily work. This led to discussions about agriculture and what grew well in different parts of the country. We ended up working in some fairly remote areas out in the high desert, and would often end up cooking over an open fire at the end of a long day, sometimes camping out and staying the night so we could finish our work the next morning. One particular evening, he pulled out a bottle of something – it was a Merlot of some sort if I remember correctly. We had the wine outside under the stars, and I remember being in awe of how well it tasted with the food – there was something special about the fire, the outdoors, the moment – and at that point I realized how special a bottle of wine can be.
Q: That sounds like a truly magical experience. When did you realize that you wanted to become a winemaker?
Brent: I never really set out to become a winemaker, but it was always at the back of my mind. I was mostly interested in the actual process and everything that went into it. I had always worked with my hands in previous jobs, and was interested in learning and being a part of everything that went into taking grapes and creating wine. And then I had my aha moment at Robert Mondavi Winery when I was working as a harvest intern.
Q: That’s amazing. What was your first job in the industry like?
Brent: My first job in the industry was as a harvest intern at Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville. I came to Napa Valley looking for work after becoming interested in wine in New Mexico. The person I was working with at the time encouraged me to travel to California and start knocking on doors to try and find a seasonal position. After the first vintage there, I knew that it was something I wanted to do long term. There was a lot of technical work with machines, processes in the lab, and general hands-on labor that everyone was a part of. At this time I realized the importance of teamwork, and loved getting to know and work with people from different parts of the country and the world. It was an exceptionally immersive experience, and I’ll always be grateful for what I learned during my first experience there. It was a lot of hard work, but it was also incredibly rewarding to see the fruit of our labor and to know that we were a part of creating something special.
Q: It sounds like that experience was really formative for you. How did you come about working for Gary Farrell, and what was it like working alongside him?
Brent: After working at Mondavi for a few years, I worked for a few smaller wineries in Napa Valley to broaden my experience. During that time, one of my former supervisors at Mondavi reached out to tell me about an opportunity at Gary Farrell Winery. I was known to be thorough, precise, and clean with cellar operations, and he believed that Gary and I would work well together. I hadn’t spent much time at all in Sonoma County and didn’t really know anything about the winery. I came to interview, and Gary and I hit it off right away, as we shared a lot of the same values and style of work. Gary was very hands on in the cellar, and was equally as happy scrubbing floors, driving the forklift, or making winemaking decisions. He would never ask anyone to do anything that he wouldn’t have done, and I had a great amount of respect for him. He had an incredible capacity to stay focused and work at an amazingly efficient speed without ever seeming flustered or rushed. He really believed in the importance of being involved in every step of the process, and this is the one thing that I’ve held onto all these years.
Q: It sounds like you really admire Gary and learned a lot from him. Can you explain your position and critical duties and roles and their impact and importance to the final product?
Brent: As the Winemaker at Gary Farrell, I manage all of the daily operations that shift around throughout the year. I’m responsible for everything that happens in the winery from grape to bottle. This may involve work during harvest out on the crush pad or in the cellar, sourcing all of the packaging materials we need for bottling, and creating all of our blends with the winemaking team through lots of tasting, planning, and trial and error. All of us that work in wineries say that we “wear a lot of hats,” and I certainly have run out of room to store all of mine! (laughs) But, I love my job and all the people that I work with, and am continually inspired and challenged by what it takes to make our wines that are enjoyed by so many people.
Q: It sounds like your job requires a lot of skill, attention to detail, and hard work. What do you like to do to relax? Any hobbies or music genres, favorite games, do you play chess, etc.?
Brent: At this point in my life, I really value time with family. My kids are starting to get a little older and my wife and I are trying to enjoy the days with them as much as we can while they’re still at home with us. We love travelling and go camping as much as we can in the summer, and in the winter at times too. Anything by a lake or a river works well for us – it’s always great to unplug and just enjoy each other and the outdoors. We also travel back to NC every summer for a couple of weeks to be with our families, and to spend time by the ocean. My hometown is gorgeous, and we love getting out on the boat, spending time at the beach, and enjoying the sun.
Q: That sounds like a great way to unwind and spend quality time with loved ones. Finally, what does working at Gary Farrell mean to you, and what is your philosophy of winemaking?
Brent: Working at Gary Farrell has been an absolute pleasure and honor for me. The winery is part of Russian River Valley winemaking history, and it’s incredible to be a part of continuing its legacy. I have been involved in the day-to-day operations here since 2005, and I’ve never lacked inspiration for a single day. The people I’ve had the opportunity to work with over the years have been brilliant, and I’m proud to be a part of this iconic brand’s evolution.
As for my philosophy of winemaking, it revolves around respecting the unique nature of each of our vineyard sites and letting the grapes express the nuances of where they come from. We work with some of the best vineyards in California and, arguably, the world. I believe in being hands-on in the winery as much as possible, paying attention to small details, and steering the winemaking into a place where we’d all like to go. Togetherness is also critical to what we accomplish each year as a winemaking team at Gary Farrell.
Q: It’s clear that teamwork is essential to creating great wine. Before we wrap up, are there any additional favorites you’d like to share, or any additional information you’d like to include?
Brent: I’d like to give a shout-out to all of my co-workers at the winery. We wouldn’t have the opportunity to make the delicious wines that we do without support from everyone in the offices, folks out on the road, and our amazing Salon staff. I’d also like to recognize our Enologist, Meaghan Hodge, and Cellar Master, Peter Treleaven. Both of them are critical to the process in the cellar, and we simply wouldn’t be able to do it without the commitment and care that they bring to work every day. Lastly, I’d like to thank our Director of Winemaking, Theresa Heredia, for all of her guidance and support over the years. We’ve worked together for over 10 years now, and I wouldn’t be the winemaker that I am today without her knowledge, mentoring, and belief in my abilities. Vintage 2023 is on the way, let’s do it again!