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What am I doing here and who is Michael Caputo? PART II

Updated: Jun 21, 2022

If you have not already read Part I, click here.

It was the middle of harvest 2016, we showed up to work and found a room full of people in suits waiting to speak with us. Little did I know at the time, but my future in the wine industry was about to change. But before we get to that, let’s take a step back to understand how we got here.

Bernard Lacroute, a Frenchman who moved to the US years earlier, founded WillaKenzie Estate in 1992. His original intention was to retire on a gorgeous property, make a small amount of wine, and get away from the hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley. Fast forward 24 years and WillaKenzie Estate was a well-respected name in the Oregon wine industry producing nearly 40,000 cases and distributing wine throughout the United States. It wasn’t the relaxing retirement that the aging Lacroute envisioned. Over the years, he had been approached to sell his winery, but the timing and buyer had never been right. While I do not know the whole story of how it happened, Bernard eventually found the right suitor for his land, brand, and people.

Jackson Family Wines, known for their Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay amongst a myriad of other brands, had just made an entrance into the Oregon wine industry with their purchases of the Solena Estate property, Penner-Ash winery and brand, and vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. WillaKenzie Estate, with its focus on unique, vineyard specific wines and sustainability, fit perfectly with Jackson Family’s philosophies of lands, brands, and people. Bernard did not want to pass up the opportunity to hand over the stewardship of the WillaKenzie Estate and made the deal.

Harvest is the most stressful, time sensitive, and important part of the year. The decisions made during these weeks to months strongly impact the quality of wine. Needless to say, having a bunch of people in suits derail our plans for the day, was less than welcomed. We quickly learned that Jackson Family had purchased the winery, however, they would be staying out of the winemaking team’s way until after harvest. My day had started with annoyance, but I remember feeling relieved and excited with my impending foray into “corporate” winemaking. Thibaud did not share my same level of excitement and made it clear to the Jackson Family team that he would be leaving at the end of harvest.

As harvest wrapped up and Thibaud moved on to start his own winery, Clos Griotte, I knew that I had the opportunity to show my intensions of stepping into the winemaker role. Over the next sixth months, I led the winery through the transition, bottled the 2015 vintage, and began preparing for the 2017 harvest. In February of 2017, it was announced that Jackson Family had hired a new winemaker for WillaKenzie Estate. Erik Kramer joined the team from Domaine Serene and was a very well respected and accomplished winemaker. At the time, I was crushed by missing out on the head winemaker position and I refocused all my energy on the business side of winemaking. Looking back, how I treated my relationship with Erik was unfair. He had the intentions of making the best wines possible and I was an assistant winemaker who was remiss in my duties and only focused on operational efficiency.

Even with this butting of heads, Erik pushed for me to represent the winery on sales trips, winemaking events, and a 10-day cruise through the Mediterranean with the wine club. In hindsight, it was a blessing because it gave me the opportunity to see other areas of the business that often eluded the people who grew the grapes and made the wines. The cruise also gave me my first opportunity to visit wineries in Europe.

Harvest 2017 came and went, resulting in some beautiful wines and efficient winemaking practices. I knew that my time at WillaKenzie Estate was coming to an end, but I did not know where to go next. Jackson Family connected me with a mentor, Zak Dankbar, who was a general manager at a large winery near Santa Rosa, California. This relationship brought some job opportunities in California, but I couldn’t see myself moving there. I was lost, disheartened, and unsure of my future.

In June of 2018, I found a new home at Jackson Family’s brand-new winemaking facility in McMinnville, Oregon. I took on the role of production manager and was responsible for hiring, personnel, daily operations, and the 5 wine brands being made in the facility. This was the largest facility I ever worked in, producing over 125,000 cases of wine annually, and something that should have gotten me very excited.

I was burnt out and still struggling with what I wanted to do with my life. Making wine was the only job that I had known professionally. I remember staying up at night wondering if it would be my forever career. When it came down to it, I wasn’t in love with wine anymore. I knew that if I was going to make a career change, it needed to be something big. Three days before Christmas in 2018, I got a call from US Foods that I got the job as a continuous improvement manager. My time in the wine industry was over, I put in my notice, packed up my bags, and moved to Las Vegas, Nevada.

As I look at this now, four years later, I believe that I made the right decision. However, I have rekindled my love for wine but from the side of the consumer. In 2020, US Foods relocated me to Florida and I have been lucky to find some small wine shops and tasting bars that have allowed me to continue to explore the diverse world of wine. As I reembark on my wine journey, I take with it the perspective of the grape grower, the winemaker, the manufacturer, and the consumer. I cannot wait to share what the future has in store for Tazzelenghe.

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