Farmer’s Daughter

For winemaker Janet Myers, the journey from family orchard to high-end vineyard has been a ferment of scientific study, world travel and unexpected opportunities. And, of course, the joy of wine itself.

Winemaker Janet Myers (Photo by Anne Dowie)
For winemaker Janet Myers, the journey from family orchard to high-end vineyard has been a ferment of scientific study, world travel and unexpected opportunities. And, of course, the joy of wine itself.

Shortly after 10 a.m. on Labor Day, traditionally the last day of summer’s indolence, already the sun is high and harsh. But along Highway 29, the great wine way bisecting California’s Napa Valley, stretch limos cruise, their occupants eager to visit the fancy tasting temples now throwing open their doors. At the same moment, Janet Myers ’87 LAS prowls the valley floor, a diminutive figure striding along rows of uniformly cropped, 6-foot vines occupying a 200-acre vineyard, the leaves luminous and robust, the fruit dark and beginning to turn heavy. Every few steps she thrusts a hand into the fruit zone, midway up the vines, finding a cluster and plucking a single grape. Popping it into her mouth, she chews, spits the seed into her hand, examines it for color, chews again and spits. “This is what I do: walk, pluck, chew and spit,” she says. “When I chew, and chew, and don’t spit, that means we’re getting close.”

Tons of Grapes, Thousands of Gallons of Wine
“Close” could be as far as a month away, when Myers, director of winemaking and general manager of Franciscan Estate and Mount Veeder Winery, will begin picking up hints of jam and chocolate/cocoa in the skins of the grapes, a signature flavor of cabernet sauvignon, Napa’s favorite varietal. In her joint duties, which she’s held since 2005, she is responsible for annual production of 400,000 cases of premium cabernet, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. She oversees an $8 million annual operating budget and 28 full-time production employees whose ranks double during the two-month harvest season. That’s when more than 6,000 tons of grapes will be crushed, then fermented-—skins, seeds and all—in 160 stainless steel tanks of various sizes. This is the “must,” subsequently destined to be filtered, then aged in 27,000 60-gallon barrels made from French and American oak. The process takes place within Franciscan Estate’s 118,000-square-foot facility, which also includes a handsome tasting room and is surrounded by lavish lawns and olive shade trees.

Myers’ brands regularly win recognition from industry arbiters such as The Tasting Panel and Wine Enthusiast magazines, the esteemed San Francisco Chronicle annual California wine competition and Sunset magazine’s yearly wine contest.

“Janet is one of the unsung people in the fine wine industry,” says Jim Wolpert. A professor emeritus of viticulture at the University of California Davis, Wolpert served as a thesis adviser to Myers when she earned her master’s degree in the prestigious UC Davis enology program. “In an industry of horn-tooters, she quietly goes about her job in one of the toughest segments—where winemakers are asked to make large amounts of high-quality wine. And because winemakers deal with Mother Nature, they get a different product every year as the starting point from which they are asked to create a year-on-year winery style. This is where the art of winemaking intersects with the science. Janet has mastered both.”

It’s all a matter of work, passion and family history.

Apples and Peaches at the Start
Turning from the vines, Myers unlocks a sturdy wooden gate and mounts neatly crafted wooden steps, ascending to a broad, canopied platform set on a berm of rushes overlooking a circular reservoir approximately 200 feet across. The temperature suddenly seems to have dropped 10 degrees. This is Franciscan’s Oakville reservoir, and it serves as a source for spraying water to protect the vines against early spring frosts. This spot, studded with 200-year-old California oaks and 18-year-old vines, is the epicenter of the Napa Valley, midway between the town of Calistoga to the north and the Carneros growing region 15 miles to the south, where the valley basks in the cooling breezes of San Pablo Bay. To the east runs the volcanic, 1,400-foot Vaca range, home to the famous Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak viticulture areas. To the west, immediately behind Myers, rises the Mayacamas range, another famous growing area, separating Napa from Sonoma County. She stands transfixed, rapt in her surroundings, as the reservoir’s surface ripples in a cooling breeze up from the Carneros. She cranes her neck and tilts her face toward the water, inhaling long and deep, reading, decoding, searching. “This reminds me of home,” she exclaims, exhaling.

More than 2,000 miles to the east lies the 200-acre Myers family farm, just outside Centralia, Ill., two hours south of Urbana. Here, in the 1920s, Myers’ paternal grandfather, Alson Myers, first planted 80 acres of apple and peach orchards, surrounding a Victorian farmhouse protected by shade trees. “He was a practical man, self-reliant and self-assured. He could build and fix anything, particularly tractors,” Myers recalls.

These traits apparently rubbed off on her father, Allen.

A graduate of Southern Illinois University and a naval communications officer, he married Lena Pantaleo, the daughter of Sicilian immigrants with winemaking heritage, and resumed production on the family farm in the ’50s. Janet was born in 1964. “We all worked on the farm,” she recalls, including her brothers Chris ’78 ENG, MS ’82 ENG, and Brian ’80 BUS. “Visitors would come from all over the state to pick our peaches and buy apples. When I was about 12, one of my jobs was to teach them how to properly pick. It was a big responsibility.”

The 1970s brought changes to the fruit-growing business. People were doing less canning and storage. “They were visiting but not buying large amounts of fruit as often,” Myers says. “So Dad decided to diversify. He bought a cider press, and the fresh juice brought people in from all over.” She pauses, staring out over the reservoir waters. “I can still smell the sweet cider being pressed, and it’s a beautiful association, along with the sound of the sorting table buzzing with workers. And, now, here, I get the same sensations—the smell of the wine cellar during the crush, the smell of fermenting must.” Her expression morphs into pure pleasure. “I’m blessed to have a job where I can smell and touch and feel nature,” she confides. “In the end, I am a farmer’s daughter.”

England, Sicily and Beyond
Yet Myers’ journey from fruit-growing to winemaking has taken her far afield. “We should all remember, especially in college, we discover our calling sometimes from the process of exploration,” she observes. Having started at the University of Illinois as a chemical engineering major, she switched to biology. “I like science—life science,” she says. After graduation and “a great year” in a graduate program in biological anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, wanderlust drew her back to England, where she had gone for her junior year abroad.

She spent four years in London, working in restaurants and living above a wine shop where the proprietors were oenophiles who generously shared their knowledge. “It was so convivial, discussing wines from the different regions,” Myers says. “This is where I got my first wine education.” After studying in Italy and a pilgrimage to visit her mother’s family in Sicily, she returned to England amped with inspiration. “I thought, ‘This is really what I need to do.’’’ In the fall of 1992 she returned to the U.S. and enrolled at UC Davis.

Eugene Giles, a UI professor emeritus of anthropology who mentored the nascent winemaker while she was a student at Illinois, recalls how Myers corresponded with him during her time at Davis: “In her enology classes, she said, the best part was the lab discussions, which went like this: ‘When you say grass, do you mean fresh-cut grass or dried grass or grass in a field?’ Ditto with apples. She enjoyed finding out about naturally occurring or microbiologically produced aroma constituents in grapes and wines. She told me that linalool, a terpene volatile [compound] found in Muscat grapes, is a primary aroma additive of Fruit Loops.”

Graduating with a master’s in food science, fermentation science and enology, Myers emerged, she says, with a new understanding of wine “as an applied craft rather than art—taking raw materials, shaping them into something, sculpting the varietals, but honoring their essence.” She had also added new problem-solving skills to her managerial quiver and learned an immense amount about food and wine chemistry.

The years followed with a succession of apprenticeships and promotions, positions in which, Myers says, “I was happy to be able to apply everything I had learned from the farm in Illinois to the classrooms at the U of I, to the labs, to my travels in Europe.” When she arrived at Franciscan as an associate winemaker in 2003, her stellar vita included stints in Tuscany at the Antinori family estates, in western Australia’s Margaret River winegrowing region, and at some of Napa’s most venerated cellars, including Robert Mondavi, Beaulieu, Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars and Louis Martini. Also the huge operation at Beringer, where “I learned about wine finance and business, costs and projections,” says Myers. “That was a great education.”

Greg Fowler, senior vice president of operations for Constellation Brands, the giant international parent company of Franciscan Estate and Mount Veeder Winery, describes Myers as “curious and not afraid to ask questions” and “serious about both the top and bottom lines.” Fowler is a respected winemaker who, like Myers, graduated from UC Davis. He says that in August 2005, just two years after she had joined the company, he called her into his office and said, “You are now wine director for both Mount Veeder and Franciscan.

“And by the way, I’m also naming you general manager.”

Thanks to this promotion, Myers now inhabits a highly select circle. Of the 3,750 bonded wineries in California, less than 10 percent are managed by women.

It was—and is—the perfect circle for her.

Taste and Terroir
Following three weeks of warm days and cool nights, as September moves toward October, the fortunes of Mount Veeder and Franciscan ride on Janet Myers’ skill. Her diverse gifts in farming, science and instinct come together as she stewards the precious fruit through harvesting, crushing and fermentation. This is when the 12-hour days become constant, and the monitoring never ceases. She and her winemaking team walk through the cellar smelling, amid the routine scent of fermentation, for off-aromas that may, as she puts it, “signal unhappy yeast” that threaten the quality of the wine.

As Myers roams the cellar, the routine background cacophony—the beeps of a forklift laden with barrel racks as it moves in reverse, the hiss of steam as oak barrels are readied, the slap of water from high-pressure hoses cleaning stainless-steel tanks—reminds a visitor that huge volumes of grapes and juice must move from point “A” (the vineyard) to point “B” (the fermentation tanks) to point “C” (the oak aging barrels). And as the fruit progresses through the various stages whereby its sugars ferment into alcohol, it also acquires, with the guidance of the winemaker, its own characteristics. This end result depends squarely on Janet Myers’ sense of smell and taste and on her unwavering, passionate quest for a product that personifies the very essence of its origins—the vineyards of Franciscan Estate, Mount Veeder and the Napa Valley. “This is what we call terroir,” she says, explaining how a growing area’s terrain, soil, geography, weather and surrounding ambience contribute to a wine’s characteristics.

If there is a human component of this phenomenon, Janet Myers is herself a product of the terroir of downstate Illinois. As she has ever since leaving Centralia, she faithfully calls home once a week. Both parents get on the phone, but it is her father who probes. He wants to know about the weather, the crop loads, the expected time and tonnage of harvest.

“They’ve been out here and visited the cellar,” Myers says. “My dad always has his hand on something. A piece of equipment. A vine. Or just something close to the ground.

“No matter what I do, I know I’ll always be the same way.” Farmer’s daughter forever.

And maker of wines par excellence.