Winemaker Kelly Woods marks five years as winemaker at Burgess Cellars, and reflects on her impact on this historic family owned mountain property.
In her career Kelly Woods has worked with some of the best fruit in Napa, from valley floor vines to beautiful hillside vineyards. Her first drive up Howell Mountain to Burgess Cellars in January 2013, however, was no normal ascent. She’d find a family run wine estate steeped in history, and fill the shoes of Burgess Cellars’ first and only winemaker, who was retiring after 41 vintages. A renaissance best describes what Kelly ushered in since day one. She’s brought innovations to harvest, fermentation and aging protocols, with the support of a vineyard and cellar team willing to take a chance on her vision. Kelly celebrates her five year anniversary as winemaker of Burgess Cellars this month.
What was your experience with mountain fruit prior to Burgess Cellars, and what have you learned about mountain fruit and wines in the last five years?
The very first winery I worked for was Seavey Vineyard, which is incredibly similar to Burgess Cellars. It’s been family owned and operated for decades producing incredible hillside Cabernet Sauvignon from the 40 acre estate vineyard. That’s where I really fell in love with mountain fruit and the complexities that come with the terroir. The nuances that change from vineyard block to vineyard block always excite me! Whether it’s a difference in tannin level from the block at higher elevation to the block at lower elevation, or a subtle violet aroma coming from the Cabernet in block 4 versus the cassis aromas from block 7, there’s always something unique in mountain fruit that I didn’t experience when I was working with valley floor fruit.
What were your greatest challenges when you first arrived at Burgess Cellars?
One of the biggest challenges that I faced when I first started at Burgess Cellars was trying to figure out what had been done in the past 40 years and how things were done, in order for me to fully understand the wines and winery operations. I didn’t have a chance to work with the previous winemaker, but luckily, I had a great cellar crew that was able to answer most of my questions and they were willing to take a chance on my newer, more modern techniques to winemaking. Another big challenge was learning the vineyards and individual blocks and working closely with the vineyard manager to plan out changes and improvements that would could do in order to further increase the quality of our beautiful mountain fruit.
What are biggest changes you brought to the wine program at Burgess Cellars?
I am on a constant quest to continue to improve quality while maintaining the classic style that is Burgess. In my 5 years here, we’ve already made some small changes that have had a big impact on the wine, such as changing from picking into 2-ton gondolas to picking into half-ton macro bins, but there’s still more I would like to see accomplished. We are currently working on bringing in some smaller fermentation tanks so that I can do more fine-tuning when it comes to picking the larger vineyard blocks. This would allow me to treat fruit from the same block slightly different in order to bring out specific characteristics during the fermentation, such as a warmer fermentation to bring out more tannins, or a cooler fermentation to get more aromatic expression. I also strive to constantly be learning from peers and industry leaders so that I can do my best to continue the legacy of Burgess Cellars.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
My greatest accomplishment in my 5 years at Burgess Cellars has to be the creation of the Mountaineer Red Blend. We are known for our Cabernet, but we also grow other varietals that shine up here on the hillsides. I really wanted to create a blend that showcased and embraced those other varietals in a wine that is food friendly and also great to drink on its own!
How do you situate the Mountaineer amongst the wine portfolio of Burgess Cellars, and what do you envision for the future of the Mountaineer?
The Mountaineer is such a special wine to me! Not only is it a brand new wine for the Burgess Cellars portfolio, but it has allowed me to be creative and really show my craft in producing a balanced, expressive wine. It’s a unique, reserve quality wine that will continue to evolve over the years. We have a few new vineyard blocks that I will be able to use the fruit from in a few years that will help develop the Mountaineer blend, including some Zinfandel, which Burgess hasn’t made in decades!
Who have you relied on for advice and education?
I have had some incredible mentors in this industry that I owe a lot of my winemaking aptitude to! From my professors at UC Davis (who I can still contact today and ask for advice), to all the winemakers I’ve worked with, each person has provided me with useful knowledge and advice that has helped shape my career as a winemaker. My family is also a huge source of advice and support. Even though no one in my family is in the wine industry, the amounts of life experiences they have collectively have been very insightful!
What are changes in winemaking technology, attitudes, the business you’ve observed even in five short years?
Winemaking is always evolving and changing and I think it’s very important as a winemaker to continue to learn and evolve with the industry! Over the past 5-10 years I’ve noticed a shift from over-manipulation of wines to fit a certain type of palate to making wines that are true to the site and characteristics of the varietals being grown. There has also been a lot more collaboration and sharing of information between winemakers, suppliers, and wine labs. Any time an industry professional can share results of an experiment or a barrel trial or use of a new product, it really benefits everyone.
What have you learned about mountain wines through your career?
I think one of the biggest misconceptions about mountain Cabernet is that it’s going to be a big, tannic wine regardless of the producer. And I have to admit, when I first started my journey into wine I was a believer of that philosophy! But having worked with such incredible mountain vineyards, I’ve come to realize that while there is definitely a more pronounced measure of tannin, the structure of it ranges from vineyard site to vineyard site. Here at Burgess I like to characterize our tannins as “velvety” and “plush”.
How does it feel to work for such a historic winery?
Burgess Cellars has such a rich history in Napa Valley spanning 45 years, and it has certainly lived up to my expectations. The wine style is ingrained in the site and the brand is recognized nationally and respected locally! It has truly been an honor to work for this historic winery.
What is your favorite thing about working on the Howell Mountain hillside everyday?
One of my favorite things about working on a hillside, mountain vineyard is the early morning vineyard walks during harvest just as the sun is rising. The peacefulness of being in the vines at that time of day is something special. But with that being said, there have been a few surprises while I’ve been checking vineyards. I’ve come across many wildlife tracks from turkey and raccoons to deer and mountain lions. But my favorite has been seeing one of our resident coyotes crossing the vineyard 20 yards ahead of me. I’m not sure who saw who first, but we both stopped in our tracks, made eye contact, and then he carried on down the vine row with his big, bushy red-grey tail waving goodbye to me!
How have you grown as a winemaker in your career and in the last five years at Burgess Cellars?
I love being able to look back and reflect on my career as a winemaker from being an intern fresh out of college thinking I knew what I was doing because I read it in a book (that first harvest was a great wake-up call!), to traveling abroad to learn wine making in New Zealand, to the different winemakers and mentors that I’ve worked with who have shaped me to be the winemaker that I am today. Becoming the second winemaker that Burgess Cellars has ever had was a huge accomplishment for me that I am thankful for every day! I’ve learned to be confident in my decisions and be a better leader that I have ever been.
If you could characterize yourself, what is your winemaker personality?
As a winemaker, I always want to make a wine that is true to character and represents the terroir that it comes from. I never want to manipulate the wines to fit into a certain box. I want my wines to reflect the growing season and the different vintages rather than each vintage tasting exactly the same. The best wines are truly made in the vineyard and it’s my job as the winemaker to allow them to shine with as little intervention as possible.