• Sarah O'Kelley

Winemaker Q & A: Hirsch Vineyards


Photo Courtesy of Hirsch Vineyards

In 1980 David Hirsch carved one of the world’s best Pinot Noir sites out of an old sheep ranch overlooking the Pacific Ocean in a wine region known as the Sonoma Coast. For years he focused on growing outstanding Pinot Noir and simply sold his fruit to some of the most acclaimed wineries in Sonoma -- Littoria, Kistler, and more. In 2002 he finally decided to hire a winemaker to make Hirsch wines so that he could better understand his land. Hirsch Vineyards was home to a slew of talented winemakers over the past decade and a half, and just this past year David’s daughter Jasmine decided to take on full-time winemaking  herself. The Hirsch lineup includes five different Pinot Noirs and one estate Chardonnay.


I was able to catch up with Jasmine this past week in preparation for our virtual tasting together on Thursday, January 13. We discussed her evolution in the family business, the stress of the pandemic for a small winery, and  just what Jasmine has been sipping on to deal with that stress. Please email me sarah@edmundsoast.com if you are interested in joining our virtual tasting/tour of Hirsch Vineyards. 


Photo Courtesy of Hirsch Vineyards

Did you always plan on joining the family business? 

Actually no, I never wanted to. When I was young my dad was the classic pioneer personality. My strong impressions were of my dad getting up from the dinner table to turn irrigation on or off. He was always a workaholic.


But my father was a passionate diner. Watching how he enjoyed dining fostered my love of food and wine.


Also, growing up on the ranch I had so much freedom in the natural world. I feel so much connection to the place as our family ranch. 


The first vintage we made our own wine was 2002, and he offered me a job. I said no!

Then in 2008 I was living in NY and working in private banking and I was miserable. He offered me a job again at a much reduced salary!  I didn't take it for any positive reasons. I took it because I hated my job. 


But my dad and I have had this decades long dance that has gone through many phases. There was some sort of karmic need to go work with him to work through some stuff. So in august 2008 I became responsible for sales and marketing.


We experienced a four fold increase in production, and then the recession. So it was a crazy crash course in building a mailing list and distribution network. 


And to clarify, your father was always pretty much entirely focused on growing the grapes rather than the winemaking.

Yes, my father is a farmer; he is not interested in winemaking. 


He built the winery because of the nature of our vineyard. It’s basically a jigsaw puzzle of fragmented parcels. He realized that in order to understand the vineyard we needed to make wines.


And to further clarify another pivotal point in the business came in the way of tragedy when your father was hurt in a tractor accident in 2014?

Yes, in 2012 he wanted me to take over running the winery [from a business standpoint], and he wanted to get back to just doing vineyards. But he couldn’t entirely let go of control. He was really starting to hand things over when his accident happened. And then he had to let go. 


Then our winemaker quit after the 2018 vintage. My boyfriend Michael Cruse [also a winemaker]  said, “You should take over the winemaking. I will help you; I won't’ let you fail.”


Last year [2019] was our first vintage working together; Michael is formally our winemaking consultant.


How has it felt to be a winery owner/winemaker during the COVID pandemic? 

It’s a great reassurance being with the wines and vines because they are not involved in the human world in regards to the pandemic.


It’s also been wonderful not traveling for all of spring and summer. I've never been home for such a long stretch of time.


The cons from the business point of view are enormous. For wineries it’s not quite as bad as restaurants. But we sell about 50% of our wines to restaurants. 

We could be talking about five years to get back to the way things were with restaurants. But we might see something completely different.


When will Le Bernardin [a fine dining restaurant in New York] start selling Hirsch half bottles again? Will those kinds of restaurants exist?


We are definitely cutting our own winery production; we are selling more fruit this year.


The pandemic is huge; it’s existential. It’s such a massive dislocation; it’s hard to get our heads around.


People are stressed the fuck out.


What has been your own therapy during this crazy time -- Wine? Food? Exercise? 

Wine and honestly being in the vines. It’s such a privilege to go outside and have space. I know so many people in cities don’t have this.


Vineyards are a different kind of work. It’s very soothing.


Have there been any especially memorable bottles or meals during this time? I know I have certainly tried to find reasons to celebrate and open special bottles. There has also been that “smoke em if you got em” feeling to this whole thing! 

Early on especially, we were like sure let’s drink whatever we want!

We definitely opened some crazy stuff. We have been drinking some of our old Barolos we buy from Chambers [a New York wine shop] and lots of Ultramarine [her boyfriend Michael Cruse’s most sought after sparkling wine].


Also the 2017 Thibaud Boudignon Anjou Blanc. I keep buying 2 bottles at a time. I have probably bought eight bottles in three separate purchases!

We really are more tapped into wines that make us happy.


A lot of wines people drink for status or because they are intellectually interesting...these days if the wine is not making me happy then I open up something else.

Also, consumers are so afraid of opening special bottles at the wrong time, worrying, “Is tonight special enough?”

I say, “Are you with someone you love, do you want to just stop everything, and drop into the moment?” That’s what a great bottle of wine and a great dinner does: drops us into the moment. So freeing!

How does 2020 harvest look to you? From a perspective of quality? But also from the perspective of staffing? Is that any different from “normal” non-pandemic years?

For the 2020 vintage, everything depends on the next two to three weeks. The crop is light; it was a difficult spring. And when the crop is light everything can move faster. Like if it gets hot, things can get ripe really fast.

The difference between a two week pick and a three week pick decreases your time to dial things in. If harvest is a lot more compact then you don't have the time to do the work you want to do.


From a practical standpoint it’s very easy to social distance. Our winery is open air -- no walls!


On a personal level what lessons do you hope to take away from this tumultuous year and what is your vision for moving forward as a country and as a global citizen?

I think that it’s even more apparent how much work I have to do on myself in regards to the social justice movement.


You think of yourself as a California liberal, but then you think, “Am I actively working to dismantle white supremacy?”


We are all so interconnected in ways we didn't realize, and we have to connect more with our common humanity and realize our passivity can be a form of injustice.

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