Meet a Winemaker: Sandy Walheim of Virginia Dare Winery
Some folks start their day with a cup of coffee. But for winemakers, they may be starting the morning off with a wine tasting. That’s sometimes the case for winemaker Sandy Walheim, whose interest in science led her to the wine industry years ago. As the winemaker for Francis Ford Coppola’s Virginia Dare Winery, tasting wine, answering emails, implementing sustainability measures and dealing with Mother Nature’s curveballs are all in a day’s work.
CA GROWN: What are you doing today?
Sandy: Well it is 9 a.m. and I’ve already spent an hour tasting wine with a spit cup. This is a medium tasting day and I’ll spend an hour a little bit later doing some routine samples. What we’re tasting this morning are wines we are considering bottling in a few weeks. I’m tasting with our three winemaking colleagues; we taste, discuss, make a decision, put a work order in, and the work begins.
The other wines I’ll be tasting today are little bit of routine tasting of wines that come through our lab on a regular basis.
I’ll spend an hour on email. I’ve been away a day so there are things to catch up on. Then I’ll spend about 4 hours on planning for things that need to happen in the next few weeks.
CA GROWN: What is your favorite thing about winemaking?
Sandy: Making a product. I didn’t realize this when I got into winemaking, but I really like making stuff. A lot of people make informational types things for a living. But we make actual bottles of wine for people to enjoy. It’s very satisfying to see the thing you’ve been working on for a year or more, be a physical entity.
I also like that every day is a new day, there’s not a routine script to our days. The vintages change, the weather changes. This is a business tied to the seasons and tied to the land. You make use of your experience when winemaking, but mother nature, or a vintage can throw a curve ball and you have to adjust.
CA GROWN: How does your winery give back to the community?
Sandy: We do a number of things; we support a lot of different functions that are very close to the community. The Coppola’s are very big in supporting events and fundraisers that benefit kids. This week our restaurant, Rustic, is having an event that gives back to schools and another that offers discounts to teachers. Our team specifically has been involved in assembling school backpacks to give to kids in northern Sonoma county. We also volunteer at the Redwood Empire Food Bank.
On a personal basis, I give back through our local humane society shelter. In addition, for the past two years I’ve been an AARP volunteer doing tax preparations and filing for seniors at no charge to them.
CA GROWN: What drew you into the winemaking profession?
Sandy: Winemaking is really an applied science. I started out in college in pure science, and figured out that I wasn’t going to be happy doing that. A friend told me about the applied sciences at UC Davis so I made the change. Winemaking is something that you learn by doing but the science is a good security blanket to fall back on. My first job out of college was at a very small winery where I got to experience everything involved in the winemaking process.
CA GROWN: What are your hobbies or past times when you are not making wine?
Sandy: Well, I work a lot, but when I’m not working, I love to garden. One day I’d like to be a master gardener. I have a real passion for gardening and I have a passion for being outside. I also enjoy spending time with my husband and three cats and knitting in my spare time.
CA GROWN: What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into winemaking?
Sandy: Be prepared to do some dirty work. Learn from the ground up, do some internships or do some southern hemisphere vintages. Be prepared for long hours. Accept and embrace long hours and the seasonality of the business. The harvest is a day by day situation. The balance of the year once harvest is complete involves a lot of planning. You need to be flexible and creative with your program solving.
CA GROWN: What are one or two things you do on the winery to be sustainable?
Sandy: In a winery our size, we can have a real impact if we implement changes to conserve electricity, gas, heat, and water. Those are all big-ticket items in terms of conservation and saving money. Our sustainability program involves a lot of energy saving techniques. Automatic programs cycle our lighting, energy, and water sources to help us to conserve.
We also run power during off peak hours. Fixing leaks and using spray nozzles on hoses, and recycling water helps to conserve our water usage and protect the aquifer. There are a lot of positive things going on. We work to educate and inform our staff so they can see how all the small things they do on a daily bases help to conserve our resources.