When it comes to making wine there are those that make wine...and then there are those that make wine! The name Heidi Barrett may or may not ring a bell with you but it should. Heidi is considered the Babe Ruth of the wine making industry. Heidi began attracting praise at the age of 25, when she helped turn around Buehler Vineyards. She then went on to "cult" status when she created "Maya" a California Cab blend for Dalla Valle which received consecutive 100 point scores from Robert Parker. She then became a superstar with her work at Screaming Eagle, which became the biggest cult cab in the world. Her first vintage was 1992 and became a 100 point wine from Mr Parker. A single bottle of Screaming Eagle fetched $500,000 at the Napa Valley Wine Auction in 2000. Heidi now makes incredible wines under her own label, La Sirena.
Heidi was kind enough to spend some time with Joseph & Curtis Custom Wine Cellars. Please enjoy getting to know this wine making legend.
J&C: most kids dream about being a doctor, a fireman, a New York Yankee, etc...was there ever a doubt you would become a winemaker?
Heidi: Sure, I almost became an oceanographer or a marine biologist. I still love all things ocean but get my "fix" with regular scuba trips where I can fish ID my heart out. Plus it's so darn beautiful under there, maybe the most beautiful part of the planet that very few people get to see. La Sirena means "the mermaid" in both italian and spanish so it was a way for me to combine my two passions into the winery name and also reflect the magic element of both.
J&C: being a parent of 2 myself... please tell us about growing up with your parents and how they helped shape your career and passions.
Heidi: Well, with a scientist/winemaker dad and an artist mother it's no wonder I was attracted to winemaking. I spent a lot of time visiting my dad at work in various wineries as a kid. My sister and I both loved being there and we thought it was normal. "Doesn't everyone's dad do this?" We also did a lot of art as kids, something I still do today. My Dad never pushed me into the wine world which I'm thankful for, allowing me to come to it on my own, but we started tasting wine very young, learning flavors and even a bit of chemistry. Winery work became my summer job in high school since who else will hire you when you're a kid except your family? Davis was the obvious choice for college once I had been working in the business and knew I liked it.
J&C: At what age did you find yourself passionate about wine and wine making?
Heidi: Really senior year in High school when I had to buckle down and pick a college was the start but doing internships in both Germany and Australia where I learned so much was very exciting and inspiring. Passion for it builds over time. The more you learn, the better you get, the more fun it is.
J&C: Have you ever worked anywhere else but in/on vineyards?
Heidi: Not really. I was a waitress for a few months doubling up with my cellar crew day job when I first graduated from UCDavis in 1980 and had zero money. We worked 10 hour shifts starting at 6:30AM til 5, then I'd go work at the restaurant til 11.
J&C: Who are your biggest influences?
Heidi: My Dad for sure. I have learned so much from him. I used to talk his ear off to and from work with so many questions when I was working in the cellar. Also Justin Meyer (first hired me out of Davis at Franciscan and Silver Oak), Jerry Luper ( I was his assistant winemaker), and Alfred Hoffmann (Germany-taught me about balance in wine). Also Gustav Dalla Valle- became a close personal friend and a bit of a mentor. I got to help him create his dream and put his brand on the map at the time.
J&C: I happen to know you graduated from UC Davis...memories of that experience?
Heidi: It was a great time of life. Some pretty amazing winemakers came out of my class. I remember Randall Graham always asking a ton of questions. We all made wine in 5 gallon demi-johns in the basement of the wine dept. At that time there was no pilot winery like what they have now. Working in Ann Noble's sensory lab was fun. We all loved Ralph Kunkee for microbiology.
J&C: Do you think its more important (for wine making) school experience or real world hands on experience?
Heidi: I think it's about 50/50. You need the foundation of education but there's nothing like working hands on to get the picture.
J&C: Please tell us about some of the vineyards you have worked for?
Heidi: There have been so many over the years and some interesting winery owners in the mix too. One of my favorite jobs was working with Gustav Dalla Valla, a larger than life character with an amazing zest for life. I'd be at the winery doing routine labwork and he'd stand over my shoulder telling me all these incredible stories of his life. He started the company Scuba Pro, and was a contemporary and competitor of Jaques Cousteau. He had so many adventures , I can't even begin to list them all here. He died in 1995 and I sure miss him. Screaming Eagle was another interesting chapter for me. I was fortunate to be winemaker there from day one in 1992 until it was sold 14 years later in 2006. It was a wild ride to create something like that that was so successful right out of the chute. The hard part was that I set my own bar so high and created the expectation of greatness each year. To keep that quality year after year no matter what the vintage dished out was alot of pressure and certainly a challenge. One of those things where you rise to the challenge being pushed like that with everyone watching for the slightest bobble. When you are at the top, you find out who your true friends are. The sale came as a complete shock to me. So many changes have occured there, it's just not the same little jewel it once was. There are so many stories to share , not sure how much space you have!
J&C: Is there one special quality one needs to be a world class wine maker?
Heidi: Versalility, patience, experience, and attention to detail.
J&C: Since your cult wine "Maya" received 2 100 point scores from robert parker (the 92 and 93) as well record breaking bids at the Napa Valley Wine Auction...as well as a bottle of your 6 liter 92 screaming eagle which sold for $500,000 how do you top that?!
Heidi: I've actually had 5 100's so far and made a number of other wines that I thought had
the potential for that score. It's really one man's opinion on any given day so not something we can control or expect as winemakers. I really try not to focus on the scores, it's certainly nice when you get a good one, but it can also be a big distraction from the task at hand- making the best wine you can, every year. Now I'm working on that same quality with my own La Sirena and a similar blend for the Cab that I used to make for SE.
J&C: Please tell us about La Sirena.
Heidi: La Sirena is my own little winery where I make just the wines that I personally love, Cabernet Sauvignon, of course, Syrah, a fun red blend of 7 varieties called Pirate TreasuRed, and a dry Muscat Canelli called Moscato Azul. I work hard at making the best wines I can each year in small quantities. These are all wines of great depth, purity, personality, and balance made with finesse and alot of experience. We grow some of our own grapes, Cabernet and Syrah and contract the Muscat Canelli from our neighbors vineyard. We work with a few other growers as well who farm specifically for La Sirena to our standards. The winery was founded in 1994
with 200 cases produced the first year. We now make about 2000 a year divided between all the wines, usually making no more than 400-500 cases of each. So, small production wines with a winemaker with a 30 year proven track record equals the real deal, wines of pedigree.
J&C: What does La Sirena mean?
Heidi: The mermaid in Italiian and Spanish.
J&C: Please tell our readers what the average day for Heidi Barrett is like.
Heidi: My days really vary and usually involve many different things all in the same day. Of course it depends on the time of year but right now I do alot of tasting going winery to winery, troubleshooting, working on blends, sometimes doing local wine deliveries, and warehouse which usually involves driving the forklift. Other days are office related, selling wine, working with distribution and setting up wine events, ordering bottling supplies, doing cork sensory trials, my tasting group, bottling, meetings with clients, etc. And this is supposed to be the slow season!
During crush there are almost daily vineyard visits between all my clients, tasting alot of grapes and juices, tasting all fermentors and making adjustments daily, crushing, pressing, filling barrels, some labwork, records, you name it and it's seven days a week then. With each season there are different things going on in the winery so it really varies week to week what I work on. Plus I try to fit in a bit of exercise and my other interests when I can. I haven't watched television in years! I don't think I could fit it in although I do love watching the Olympics so will go to a neighbors house to watch some of that.
J&C: Any passions outside of the wine and vineyard?
Heidi: Many- skiing, scuba diving, art- painting, making jewelry, ceramics, gardening,
flying helicopters (I'm close to getting my license) kayaking, fly fishing, travel.
J&C: Favorite places to travel?
Heidi: Anywhere tropical.
J&C: What is the most pressing issue facing the wine industry?
Heidi: Protecting our appellations. So when it says Napa Valley it IS Napa Valley. And now
we can say Calistoga on the label which is very exciting with the new Callistoga AVA
J&C: Favorite foods?
Heidi: Wild blackberry pie, watermelon, salmon, chocolate (naturally), fresh blueberries,
and roast wild duck with pomegranate sauce.
J&C: You have seen some amazing changes in Napa...what do you feel is the biggest
change in the last 25 years?
Heidi: There have been so many changes I've seen since living here in the late sixties. My
sister and I used to ride our horses to the vet when there were no fences between the vineyards. We've seen so many new wineries spring up and huge changes in viticultural practices, vine spacing and land use rules. We have alot more upscale restaurants and fancy shops in the towns now. It all used to be pretty casual around here. Land prices have gone through the roof for a good acre of vineyard property in the last 25 years. All in all, it has kept it's amazing beauty and is still a great place to call home.
J&C: What's on the horizon for La Sirena and Heidi Barrett?
Heidi: Hopefully, continuing to make even better wines and bringing more notoriety to La
Sirena as some of the best wine in the world. I love it to become the new Screaming Eagle! The wines are just as good, it's just not as famous yet so it's still affordable.
We hope you enjoyed getting to know Heidi Barrett, a wine making legend. Please check out La Sirena's website for more information about Heidi and her latest wine creations.