March 2021 May I Quote You? Wine

A Conversation with Elizabeth Kester

Promoted to Wente's head winemaker, Kester will also oversee alignment of viticulture, marketing and sales. But not to worry. "I am not alone", she reassures.

Anyone who has ever earned a prized promotion can relate to what Elizabeth Kester felt in mid-February. After more than 10 years with the company, she was elevated to head of winemaking at Wente, the venerable – and venerated – Livermore, CA, family producer whose wine roots go back to 1883.  When such a big promotion occurs, there’s that OMG sensation of pride and tremendous responsibility, but, as much as anything, there is also that surge of energy that says, “Let’s get to work!”

Kester was already in charge of all wine production at Wente, which also has auxiliary brands such as Ravel & Stitch and Angels Ink, and had helped garner many 90+ ratings with her wines. But the announcement of her elevation noted that she would now “extend her responsibilities to include more strategic alignment between viticulture, marketing and sales,” thus moving up to a more-visionary post.

Of course, any discussion about the importance of “the team” in most businesses can be a bit of a boring cliché.  But in winemaking at the Wente level, most decisions are not made until they have been well-studied with many people providing input. Thus, in her new job, Kester will be testing her team leadership abilities more than ever.  I spoke with her by phone just after she had returned from one such planning meeting with Aly Wente, a fifth generation wine family member who herself has recently been promoted to director of marketing.

When I noted the magnitude of her new job, Kester joked, “I am not alone! We frequently have meetings to share what we think and to see what ideas everyone has.” Coordinating the business of producing and selling wines is complex, beginning, in Wente’s case, with vast vineyards in the home base in Livermore Valley as well as a couple of hours south in Arroyo Seco. “Last year, we not only had to deal with Covid but also with fires at harvest time”, Kester says.

Beginning early each year, the vineyards team begins estimating the anticipated production – the expected tonnage of the various varieties – that will come in during the fall. These projections, which are regularly updated during the season, not only affect the winery team, but they also trigger the marketing people to decide what wines to promote and the sales team to figure out how best to empty the warehouses. “We’re 100% estate grown,” Kester says, “and the biggest challenge each year, and the most-exciting one, is you don’t know exactly what you’re going to see until harvest.  It makes you almost giddy,” she says. 

In addition to logistics, Kester will continue to work on a winemaking project that has spanned most of the years she has been at Wente – how to make better use of phenolics in winegrowing. “It’s a journey we started in 2011 when we partnered with an outside lab that told us we were getting great phenolics” – the chemical compounds that affect the taste, feel, and color of wine – “that we needed to better implement at the winery.”

That has resulted in the adoption of such measures as applying heat during fermentation, beyond the natural high temperatures of that process, and automating pumpovers. “It’s a combination of science, looking at the numbers, but also of tasting the wines” – again, a team process. The work on phenolics “has been a fun journey,” she says, “and I think our red wines are beginning to reach their potential. Now, we want to implement some new measures in the vineyard.”

Kester’s education has similarly been one of scientific study and hands-on experience, a common process in most California wineries these days. After graduating in 2009 from Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo with a degree in wine and viticulture, she worked her first harvest as an intern at Edna Valley Vineyards. “It was eye-opening,” Kester says. “Although we had made our own wine at Cal Poly, this was learning by doing. It was so much fun. The thing about winemaking I learned is that it’s unique in that people love their jobs and love to share their jobs.”

That first harvest was followed by eight months as a wine specialist for BevMo, the giant California-based retail chain. “It was such a great job. I was able to really develop my palate,” she says. “I was able to taste different kinds of wine from all over the globe.” After that, Kester was hired as an enologist – a lab position – at Wente where she worked four years before starting to climb the jobs ladder.

But even now, does Kester also want to make her own wine after overseeing dozens of wines at Wente? “I don’t necessarily want to make my own,” she says carefully, noting that most people who set out on that path often don’t fully understand the challenges involved beyond simply making wine –marketing, selling and distributing thousands of bottles – and doing it well enough to pay the bills.

Plus, being a one-woman brand startup can be a lonely job. Kester might miss working with “the team.”

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