Q&A: Napa’s dentist winemaker
When Steve Reynolds was a boy, the notion of selling wine for a living was just not done.
“Back then, being a doctor or a lawyer was considered a suitable profession. People who sold booze were kind of considered losers,” says Reynolds, proprietor of Reynolds Family Winery of Napa Valley. “So, I went to dental school, and opened a practice.”
In the course of navigating his professional path, he and his wife Suzie purchased an old chicken farm in Napa Valley and decided his dreams of becoming a gentleman farmer would take root on the land dotted with boarded-up structures and home to a scattering of goats, chickens, pigs and horses.
But it wasn’t long afterwards, while drinking unlabeled wine and smoking cigars with friends, that Reynolds (pictured above with wife Suzie and their children) came up with a daring plan: “I decided to sell my practice and go into winemaking,” says Reynolds, who notes that the odyssey that began in the late 1990s has “born fruit;” both literally and figuratively.
Now the proud overseer of a family business that produces some 8,000 cases a year, Reynolds took a moment to discuss his path in a Q&A with Recipe for Success @ Boxerbrand.
Q: Though you didn’t set out to become a vintner, you are the son of a wine aficionado.
My Dad was a big wine collector when I was growing up in Europe. I was the only boy in the family, so I bonded with my Dad. Though I didn’t get into winemaking because of my Dad, my father was so fanatical about good wines that most of our family outings centered around wine and wineries. And we never had a meal where there wasn’t a bottle of wine on the table. So, I think this gave me an appreciation for it, even while I was studying dentistry.
Q: How did you transition from dentistry to wine making?
Once I made the decision to sell the practice, that part of the journey was pretty easy. I called a dental-practice broker and literally within 24 hours had a buyer lined up willing to pay full price.
As far as the winemaking and planting grapes on an old farm, that part was harder. For the physical renovation of our small farm, I did that work by hand. I drove the tractor; I built the building; I laid the tile. Everything we’ve done has been through sweat, hard work, and boots on the ground.
As for the science of winemaking, I did have a good background with chemistry from my medical career, and augmented it with courses at Davis University, which is the number one school in the United States for wine research and development.
Q: How did you differentiate your label from all the others?
The first wine Suzie and I produced, we thought, why would they buy our bottle over any other? So, we hand glued hand-picked mustard flowers onto our label to symbolize our small property. We started doing cabernets, and started growing from there. Now we do a full lineup, from white, lighter red, heavier red, a chardonnay and a pinot noir.
A major factor that differentiates the wines we make today is the attention to detail and the depth of our flavor pallet. We make our wines complicated. We ferment every wine three different ways, because we’re small and capable of handcrafting.
Another difference in our approach is that we pick two or three times, rather than all at once, because all the grapes don’t ripen at once. A large corporation might do one harvest and roll all the grapes, ripe and less ripe, into a batch. But we harvest from the sunny side, ensuring that every grape is at its peak.
The result is the layers of texture and flavor. There’s more richness and depth. We actually try to pay attention to every layer with the same fanaticism as a high-end automaker who hand stitches the leather interior. I think this is what we’re known for.
Q: What advice do you have for an aspiring wine maker?
We did a movie called Decanted on Netflix about winemaking. It filmed seven wine makers and went into detail. I suggest people learn what they’re getting into first. Because it’s not easy. If they’re looking in California for property, they’re looking at a minimum of two years to get all the permits and approvals and another seven years after that before the first grapes come in. And two years after that before you can bottle. There’s a very long lead time, and if you come out after nine years and your first bottle gets a low rating by judges, you’ll want to put a bullet to your head!
There’ve been many times when I’ve been up against it. But I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I’ve called on my friends and neighbors over the years to pitch in and help, and today the Reynolds Family Winery grows around 7,000 to 8,000 cases. And we love it. Once that tick got under my skin for winemaking, there was no going back! — The Reynolds Family Winery uses Boxerbrand menu covers. Thank you!