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2017 has officially begun and, to ring in the New Year, I’m going to help you get to know the folks at Vino Noceto. My name is Ginger Budrick and I’ll be interviewing multiple staff members at Vino Noceto over the coming months. Then, I’ll write about the interviews, so that you can read them and get to know the people behind your favorite wines.
I wanted to start with a bang, so I interviewed Lindy Gullett. I should be honest and tell you a few important things about Lindy up front: she is the only daughter of the winery’s owners, Jim and Suzy Gullett; this interview series was her idea; and, I know her pretty well. In fact, a lot of people who are reading this might know her pretty well, or at least know of her. However, I still thought that she was the most fitting person to interview to launch the series. Why? Because she is a force to be reckoned with. She is geared up to do big things for Vino Noceto in the next few years, and her passion for wine and her family’s winery can be felt in every single conversation she has.
Even though I have dinner with Lindy a couple of times a week, I treated this the same as I would any interview. I scheduled a time to meet with her; I drove out to the Vino Noceto estate; and we sat down in the sun and had a legit interview. I learned things about her that I didn’t know, and I hope you do, too.
During the interview, Lindy told me a lot of wonderful stories — stories of the winery at the beginning, stories about Sacramento connoisseur Darrell Corti convincing her parents to plant Sangiovese grapes; about Scott Harvey being their first winemaker; about how the tasting room used to be open only when her parents happened to be in town and they’d pour wine on a bar made of a piece of wood placed on top of two barrels. There also were stories of her and her brothers playing on the property and of her parents figuring it all out. With every story she told, I imagined the little girl version of Lindy, with her big blue eyes, intently listening to her parents tell the stories over dinner and hanging on every detail. She obviously cares immensely for her parents and their wine. She re-tells these stories beautifully. I will share as many of her stories as I can in one interview, but I also want to save some for when I have the opportunity to interview Jim and Suzy.
For now, let’s start at the beginning (of Lindy’s life, that is). Lindy was born in Lafayette, California, in 1987 and would visit Amador almost every weekend, because her family had purchased the property that would become Vino Noceto in 1984. “In 1987, when they first started planting, they took pictures of my mom planting the grapes and we know that I helped plant them, because she was pregnant with me. So, I was there for our very first planting,” says Lindy.
When I asked Lindy what her first memory of Vino Noceto was, she said, “There used to be two oak trees on Dos Oakies, the first plot we planted. My first memory here is swinging on a tire hanging off one of the oak trees. I was probably 6 or 7 and I remember the tire swing spinning around with me and my brothers on it.”
In 1995, the Gulletts moved to Amador full-time and Lindy started going to Plymouth Elementary. Lindy recalled, “I loved coming up here for the weekends, but when we moved here, I threw a hissy fit. I cried every night for two years, really loudly, just to put on a show. I’m talking about the dramatic crying, where you’re not actually crying, but you’re crying to be heard.”
Lindy eventually recovered from the childhood pain of moving and learned to love Amador County. “So many people in Amador work in the hospitality industry that you learn to socialize and get along with anyone growing up here. It really teaches you social skills, teaches you customer service. It teaches you how to think about what other people are thinking and what they really want,” says Lindy.
At this point in the interview, the subject of cancer came up. I knew that Lindy’s mom had battled cancer in the past, so I asked her if she would be comfortable talking about that experience for a bit. She told me that her mom was first diagnosed with cancer when Lindy was eight years old, right around the time that they moved to Amador. That first bout of cancer was stage one breast cancer and Suzy only had to do radiation. Lindy says to her eight-year-old brain, it just seemed like a really prolonged flu.
Unfortunately, a few years after that, when Lindy was 13, her mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “That was a much bigger deal. She was told that she had a life expectancy of about two years. We had to come to grips with the idea of living without my mom. I’ve always been really, really close to my mom, so it was like, ‘Oh, my God, this person who I’m so close to suddenly might not be around.’ It felt so young to not have my mom around,” says Lindy.
Luckily, Suzy lived much longer than two years after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “She was on a really heavy cocktail of chemo and sometimes it would knock her out and there would be a week of lost time. She got really lucky. She has a body that responds really well to chemo. She was on chemo probably 75% of the time for 15 years. Sometimes she would get a 6-month break. But, now she hasn’t had to do chemo for two-and-a-half years. She feels great now! This is the happiest and healthiest and most mentally aware I’ve seen my mom since I was 12 years old,” says Lindy.
Lindy spoke a bit more about her mom’s cancer struggle by saying, “Not only did she get pulled away from us, she also got pulled away from all the things she loved. She couldn’t come to work every day like she had before. She couldn’t do all the things she was doing before. Up until then, she had been so involved. It’s crazy thinking what Vino Noceto would be today if my mom hadn’t been sick. For 15 years, she was only half of herself. It’s not even all of her. She’s a marketing genius. She’s never let anything that wasn’t up to really high standards come out; she’s always held our wine up to really high standards; she always made sure our labels were printed well, that our printed materials were really high quality; she made sure that everything that came out was something that she was proud of. The fact that she was able to do that even when she was so sick is just amazing to me. She never let the fear of death control her life.”
Lindy and I talked at length about the early days of the winery. “My parents first bought this parcel in 1984, so I wasn’t even born yet. Then, they took my brothers to Italy because they thought, ‘the weather here has that sunshine of Italy,’ and they thought Italian grapes would do really well here. They spent three weeks traveling around Italy, tasting different wines and trying to decide exactly what to plant. They did it in the direction that I think you’re actually supposed to. They got their land and then thought, ‘What varietal should be planted here?’ instead of deciding what varietal they wanted to do and then finding land for it. They said, ‘What is perfectly suited for this spot we have? What would grow the best here? Oh, and they had wine every night with dinner for a year. So, they really tried to pick something that went with food.”
In 2005, Lindy graduated from Amador High School and went to Pomona College, where her father, aunt and brother had gone before her. After college, Lindy worked in Burlingame for a year and then moved to New York to work toward a Ph.D in Social Psychology at NYU. “I loved my undergrad degree in psychology, even when I got my job in Burlingame I knew that I was going to go back and get a grad degree in psychology. I love research; I love science; I love designing and experimenting; I love analyzing data,” says Lindy of her schooling.
When I asked Lindy how she chose New York, she said, “The things that excited me about New York were the people and the food. There was just so much going on. People wanted to talk about things and people were excited about things. Almost every social situation was a lot like being in the tasting room, where you get a variety of really interesting people who are excited to see you and excited to talk to you. New York is really unique for having that social atmosphere. I don’t feel like I’ve found that anywhere else I’ve lived.”
As you’ve probably gathered, Lindy didn’t stay in New York forever. When I asked her why she wanted to leave New York and move back to California, she said, “I was just so burnt out. I missed the outdoors. I missed having land, and having a farm, and being able to see the sky. It was nature. It’s so beautiful here. You have rolling hills and the colors are changing throughout the year. You have actual plants living and growing. That’s what I missed. As much as I loved about New York, I couldn’t keep living without having an outdoor space to connect to.”
In January of 2016, Lindy and her shiny new Ph.D moved back to Amador and became the tasting room manager of Vino Noceto, with the long-term plan being for Lindy to take over the winery and let her parents retire. I asked Lindy how her parents took the news and she said, “They were thrilled! Me coming back meant that they get to keep the business. Having someone else run your business isn’t the same as having a family member run the business, they don’t have the same feelings, the same connection, the same values.”
At this point, I asked Lindy what was behind her decision to come home and eventually take over her family’s business and she said, “I just missed everything about it. I missed talking to people. I missed caring about the earth. I missed seeing how things grow and watching the cycle as a grape grows on a vine and then is crushed and turned into wine. I missed my family. To me, this winery and this tasting room are my family. The tasting room is more my home than my parents’ house is.”
As of now, Lindy is the Director of Sales for Vino Noceto and is fully aware that her title could change at any moment. I get the impression that she’s up for any change her parents might throw her way. “It feels like I’m back home in a really great way and I feel like my skills and my experiences let me do something that other people can’t do. It feels really right,” says Lindy.
I asked Lindy what was in store for the future. “The thing that people don’t talk about enough, in my opinion, is that grapes are grown. Growing the grapes is 90% of winemaking — what earth they are on, how they’re taken care of, how they’re pruned, how many canes you leave on a vine … taking care of the grapes is 90% of what makes a good wine. My vision is to have a Tasting Room that demonstrates that 90% in depth, getting visitors excited about and invested in the creation process. My vision is also to turn Vino Noceto into a community hub, a place where people can come hang out and connect and meet all kinds of people. I want to make it somewhere that hums with vitality and creativity.”
In closing, Lindy had nothing but good things to say about Amador County wine country. “There’s so much variety and openness to experimentation here. I think that’s a lot of what we’re about. We like innovating and experimenting and trying new things and making new wines that we’ve never made before. That’s kinda the fun,” says Lindy. “I think Amador is about to explode in a really great way that is still true to who Amador is. It’s still like you’re going into someone’s home when you go into a tasting room here, and I don’t think that’s going to change. Everyone’s welcome over for dinner here!”
I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know Lindy Gullett a little better than you did before. Do you have an idea of who I should interview next? Please send your suggestions of staff members or long-time wine club members to email@example.com.
It’s time to get to know another one of the awesome staff members at Vino Noceto. My name is Ginger Budrick and I’m here to help you get to know the folks behind your favorite wines. If you missed the last couple of interviews I’ve written, please check them out on the Vino Noceto website under the “News” tab. This time around, I had the opportunity to interview the Vino Noceto’s weekday Tasting Room Hostess, Tamara Richards. If you’ve ever been in the tasting room on a weekday, she was probably the one pouring you wine, with a smile on her face. I hope you’ll enjoy getting to know her a little better.
Tamara was born in Santa Rosa, California and grew up on the San Francisco Peninsula, but has called the Sierra Foothills home for more than 15 years. Tamara has tons of experience in customer service; she was a retail manager at the age of 18, worked for 10 years in retail management at Nordstrom, and spent many years in the hospitality industry, doing catering and food/beverage management in hotels. In 2000, when Tamara was expecting baby boy number three, she and her then-husband decided to move to Somerset, in El Dorado County. “When we moved, it was like, do I want to keep doing retail and hospitality work and not be with my kids? I was lucky enough to be able to stay home for a little while, which was really good because then we found out that I was expecting baby boy number four!” says Tamara. She now has five kids (one girl and four boys) and still lives in Somerset.
Tamara told me how she began working at Vino Noceto. “I’ll tell you a funny story about how I ended up here.” I told her I love funny stories and now I’m going to share that funny story with all of you. Here’s the story, exactly as Tamara told it to me: “When my youngest boys were little —they were 3, 4, and 5 — Bev Folena, our winemaker’s wife, was their pre-school teacher. I was taking a full load of classes at Folsom Lake College, because I wanted to teach pre-school. Bev came to me one day and said, ‘We need to talk’ and my first response was, ‘Oh god, what did they do now?’ and she said, ‘No, you need to get out more’ and I’m looking at her and said, ‘I take a full load of classes at the college and I’m pretty much a single parent 6-9 months out of the year (because my husband was doing pipelines and traveling) and I don’t have time to get out more.’ Bev says to me, ‘No, you need to talk to grown-ups! Go in the tasting room at Vino Noceto and talk to Tracy, see how you like it. They’re always looking for people that are really energized and excited about stuff. You have this great personality and all this retail background, you would have fun in the tasting room.’ So I did, and Tracy said to come in on a Saturday to see how I liked it. I came in on a Saturday and worked for a little bit, but then Jim (Gullett) came over on the Gator and said, “Hey! Hop in the Gator, I’m going to drive you around and tell you about the vineyard.’ So, we get on the Gator, and we’re driving around, and Jim is talking and talking, telling me about the soil and the vines and this and that. And, I’m just looking around going, wow this is really pretty, I’m enjoying this. And then all of the sudden I’m like, ‘Hey, wait a minute, the soil here is red (we were up on Hillside and Misto), but I remember it being really different down there?’ and Jim tells me, ‘I’ve been talking to you about soil for ten minutes now.’ I was so amazed at how beautiful the vineyards were I don't think I was even listening. At the end of the day, Tracy asked me how I liked it and I’m told her, ‘I love it! This was so much fun!’ She asked me if maybe I’d like to be put on the schedule, and I said that would be awesome. I started out working one day a month, and then two days a month and then two weekends a month. So, I’ve been here for a really long time. I think that was 2006 or 2007. I just loved it. I made a connection with Jim and Suzy and I learned everything I know about wine here and I’ve had a great time doing it.”
About four years ago, Tamara decided to take a break to work closer to home and focus on family. Then she found herself at the 2015 Noceto Christmas party where Suzy and Lindy asked her if she would consider coming back to work for them. “I agreed to come back and work two club events last March, and I had a really good time doing it,” she said. “I could see that the transitions that were coming about were really innovative and really fresh, but also the history and the story of what made Vino Noceto what it is was coming back into the picture. It was perfect timing, and I started back full-time last May.”
Now, I should mention, when Tamara returned to Vino Noceto, she had been teaching pre-school at Pioneer Elementary School in Somerset. "The decision to leave that job for full-time work at Vino Noceto was a tough one, but the preschool had lost funding, and I needed to make a decision that would be best for my kids and I. Even after I was back at Noceto, I kept going to board meetings and talking to our little school board and everything else. They agreed that they needed a pre-school.” Then in the summer after Tamara had returned full-time to Vino Noceto, a couple of school board members came in to talk to Tamara. Tamara retells it, "They said, 'So, we’re looking for funding, are you on board to be our teacher?’ and I said, ‘Here’s the deal. I already have a full-time job with benefits and I’m really happy and successful here, so I need to give this some serious consideration.’”
Tamara ended up going to Lindy and telling her that she had an opportunity to teach pre-school, which the Gullett family knows is Tamara’s passion, and Tamara asked if she could do both. “I said, I don’t want to quit, but I really want to do this, too,” Tamara said. “And it’s worked out great! I teach pre-school from 8 to 11 every morning and then get to Vino Noceto around 11:15 and take care of all the guests. I kinda have the best of both worlds.”
To say it worked out great is a bit of an understatement, because Tamara seems very happy with the situation and had a grin on her face the whole time she was talking about it. “I’m just a girl who loves people, who loves to talk and loves wine,” she said. “I get to talk to people about wine all day long, and I love it. And, I have this passion for little kids and getting them started in a way to where they learn to love school, and I get to do that in the morning, so I have the two best jobs in the whole entire world.”
As you’ve probably noticed, Tamara is very family-oriented. In fact, her nickname in the tasting room is “Momma T.” Luckily, Vino Noceto understands the importance of family just as much as Tamara does, so she isn’t the only one in her family that works there. Two of her sons work at Vino Noceto as well. Dawson, 18, and Drew, 17, work in the winery and sometimes work during special events. “Dawson tells me he’s been here longer than me because his hire date was before my re-hire date, but I have to remind him that I’ve been here way longer than he has,” says Tamara.
It’s obvious that Tamara loves being part of the Noceto family and it shows in the way she talks about working here. “This family has been through so much with me. They’ve seen my kids grow up and they’ve seen me go through troubles, hard times, divorce. I really do feel like I’m part of this family because I’ve been here, and they’ve been through so much with me,” says Tamara.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Tamara yet, stop by the tasting room on a weekday after 11 a.m. and let her talk to you about wine … or kids … or both. You might even end up getting a hand-written card from her in the mail afterwards!
If you missed last month’s interview, let me fill you in. My name is Ginger Budrick and, over the course of several months, I am interviewing various staff members at Vino Noceto, so you can get to know the folks behind your favorite wines. Last month I interviewed Lindy Gullett. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, you can find her interview under the News tab on the Vino Noceto website.
This month, I had the opportunity to interview Rusty Folena, Vino Noceto’s winemaker. I met Rusty and his dog, Heidi, at the winery, on a beautiful Tuesday after a storm. We sat in his office, chatting about his life and how he got to be where he is today. I must say, I felt intimidated meeting a winemaker, but Rusty was very down-to-earth and humble. His energy was instantly welcoming and all the nervousness I had about meeting him immediately disappeared when I sat down. I hope you enjoy getting to know him.
Rusty Folena is an El Dorado County native who moved to Amador County in 1980 when he was a freshman in high school. He graduated from Amador High School in 1984. Now, Rusty lives in Plymouth with his high-school-sweetheart-turned-wife, Beverly, and their son, Colton.
In 1983, when Rusty was a junior in high school, he got his first winery job, at Santino Wines, working for Scott Harvey. When I asked him what he did there his answer was, “Anything!” Rusty went on to explain, “My first introduction to the wine business was through my friend, Sheldon Potter, at Potter/Cowan vineyards. We went to high school together and his dad used to put us to work in his vineyard, and I ended up delivering grapes to wineries, including Santino. That’s how I got to know Scott.”
You may be wondering how a high school kid who worked in the vineyard on weekends got to be the winemaker at one of the most prominent wineries in Amador? The answer is — through old-fashioned hard work and dedication. I asked Rusty what his role was when he first started at Santino and his answer was, “Grunt. I was a general winery worker. I did anything from mechanics to wine work to anything they asked me to do.”
Rusty’s hard work and do-anything attitude paid off. He ended up working at Santino for 15 years and eventually became the cellar foreman. “That’s when it really turned into a career,” says Rusty. He told me that every time he would try to leave the wine business to pursue another career path, the job would get a little bit better.
“I used to do vineyard work for Scott, and with that I learned a lot about vineyards. And through Don Potter, too. Pruning, planting, taking care of the vines … a lot of those teachings go directly into winemaking. Scott was a great teacher. He’d show you anything; he didn’t keep anything hidden,” says Rusty.
Rusty went on to say, “I’m still learning. Not a day goes by that you don’t learn something. And, once you think you have it mastered, it will come up and bite you, big time. If you think you know it all and you’ve been there/done that, Mother Nature has a way of throwing you a curve ball. And it really humbles you.”
Now, I was pretty taken aback by the above statement coming out of Rusty’s mouth. This is a man who has made some pretty incredible wines. I’ve tasted them. You’ve probably tasted them. It would’ve been easy for him to say he was an expert and take all the credit for the delicious wines he’s been turning out all these years, but he didn’t. Instead, he was sitting there telling me that Mother Nature and learning had played a big role in everything he’d made over the years. And I found that to be quite refreshing, inspiring even.
In addition to all the hands-on learning in the wine business over the years, Rusty has taken courses at UC Davis and worked as a dirt contractor and a sideline worker for a plumbing/sheet metal/heat and air company. “To be valuable in a small county like this, the more you can do or at least be able to say ‘I know a guy you can call for this,’ you make yourself more valuable for the people you work for,” says Rusty.
In 1999, Rusty left Santino/Renwood winery and, later that year, started working at Vino Noceto. “I’m lucky that I could come out of high school and find a job within the county that I like living in. I didn’t have to go abroad, didn’t have to go anywhere, sometimes it does work like that. I’m lucky. My job turned into a career and my career turned into what we’re doing here now.”
I asked Rusty what he thought about the Amador wine region and he said, “When I started, there were eight wineries in the county. Now, there are over 40 wineries. A lot of the same players are still in play and I think it’s an emerging region. At one point in time, it was called ‘Amateur County.’ We were kind of forgotten up here for the longest time. We have some very good wineries, lots of different wine styles, and lots of different personalities up here. I think this is a quiet little area that is growing pretty quick. As people and wineries identify themselves as to what style they’re doing, it’s going to get better and better. Jeff Runquist is very distinctive. Bill Easton is very distinctive, and we’re the only ones doing Italian wine. I think as these younger wineries figure out their plan, there’s only good to come for this area.”
When I asked Rusty what it was like working for Jim and Suzy Gullett, he told me that he loved it and thought they were very down-to-earth people. “What made it easy about Jim and Suzy is they had a definite plan in place. They knew the direction they wanted to go in and we just fit. That’s the direction I came from, with the European-style winemaking techniques. That’s how I was trained. It’s a well-suited match,” says Rusty.
Of course, I had to ask Rusty what kind of wines he likes to drink. His response was, “Call me old-fashioned, but I like aged wines. I like Italian wines and I like older French wines.”
When I asked Rusty if he had a favorite of the wines he makes, he said, “That’s a tough one; everybody asks me that. I like every wine I make. If you’re gonna pin me down, the one thing I’m most proud of is our Originale. To have that wine consistent all these years is a pretty big thing to do.”
Before Rusty and I parted ways, he had one last thing to say and that was that the most important part of winemaking is done out in the vineyard, long before the grapes are made into wine. “Most of my work is done out in the vineyard. If we don’t grow it right, there’s no way we can make good wine. Our year starts in March, when we prune for the first time, and then our pruning decisions lead into harvest decisions, which lead into wine-making decisions,” says Rusty.
Before I left the winery, Rusty gave me a bottle of wine to pair with the dinner I was cooking that night and allowed me to take a picture of him in front of the grape vines. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Rusty and hearing him talk about the relationship between his wines and the Earth. I hope you enjoyed this interview, and I look forward to telling you more about the people of Vino Noceto.