Recently appointed Director of Winemaking at Mendocino Wine Company, Virginia Usher is the backbone that supports the winery in making sustainable, organic wines that are true to the roots of the county’s legacy. She oversees all aspects of production and winemaking for the company’s portfolio of seven in-house brands and custom crush operations.
A self-proclaimed boots-on-the-ground orchestrator between the winery’s owners, the cellar team, and the winemaking team, Virginia brings an exceptional blend of talents to her role.
With a distinguished career marked by her hands-on approach and unwavering commitment to both the craft and its people, Virginia stands out as a true leader in the field. She puts people first, creating opportunities for their growth, which ultimately contributes to the winery’s growth.
Tastry recently sat down with Virginia to delve into her journey, from her early days studying chemistry to leading winemaking at Mendocino, and explore her perspectives on winemaking, sustainability, and the different teams that come together to make exceptional wines.
What did your journey into winemaking look like?
I graduated from high school in Southern California. Since I didn’t fully know what I wanted to do yet, I worked in a restaurant and also spent time in a nonprofit after-school program, working with kids. At my community college, I took general science classes. I worked on a research project related to wastewater, but I was still uncertain how I wanted to apply what I was learning. It was my mom who suggested I contact a nearby winery for an internship. She had heard about this Italian family-owned winery, and they were open to having me join as an intern.
I had previous chemistry-based research experience, which allowed me to assist in their lab. I just started helping in the lab, then was hired full-time just before harvest. Eventually, I became a regular member of their team, doing various tasks, not just lab work. I enjoyed the work, the team, and the people there. After my second harvest there, I decided to pursue a formal education in winemaking and transferred to Oregon State University.
During my time at Oregon State, I studied winemaking, participated in harvests, conducted research projects related to yeast and winemaking, and even worked in vineyards. I joined winemaking and fermentation science-related clubs to stay connected with what was happening in the industry, especially in the Willamette Valley.
After graduating, my significant other and I returned to California, and that’s how I ended up at Mendocino Wine Company (formerly known as Parducci).
What’s been one of your favorite projects since you started your career?
When I became the assistant winemaker, I started a project that would help create opportunities for the people working on the cellar team. I gave them a skills matrix, evaluated each of their skills, and gave them job titles and descriptions.
I wanted to give everyone a scope of work they could be doing around the winery and make that incentivized by a pay scale, reflecting those skills. This helped our winery become competitive with other wineries in our area so that we could attract good people and keep them here. It helped us have more cohesion and just make things black and white for the cellar team.
The projects that I like most have to do with optimizing resources, including people, because we can see and feel the effects of it in our workflow day-to-day.
What is the hardest thing about winemaking?
Getting out of your head and staying out of your own way.
What has helped you address these challenges?Experience. Seeing the ebbs and flows of year after year helps a lot.
In our company, there’s a bit of a gap between the marketing and business side of things and us, the winemakers. Sometimes, we don’t quite speak the same language, which can make communication a challenge. While we’re not a super bureaucratic company, sharing our big-picture ideas and visions can still be tricky.
Tastry has been a helpful tool for us. One time when I was working on a project with Tastry, Bruce connected me with Alex, a seasoned winemaker who knew Tastry’s software really well. Alex broke down all the technical stuff from the Tastry analysis into winemaking language, which helped things click for me.
Our company owner is all about numbers and data, and he understood right away when he looked at the analysis and feedback from Tastry. But, for someone like me, talking to a winemaker like Alex helped me grasp things better. Tastry is a great tool for companies like ours to get everyone on the same page about where our brand is headed, especially when we’re coming from different angles.
Tastry was interesting to me because there’s a dichotomy between the people who work in marketing and sales for the product and the people who physically make the product. They’re not always speaking the same language, which is a big barrier. Even though we are a small company and have that direct connection with the owner, we still have challenges in communicating ideas and big-picture strategies.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
It’s a way to connect a lot of different parts of myself in one job. I get to work on a team of people that I like and we have good cohesion and camaraderie. Though it takes work, it’s very rewarding.
I appreciate the anonymity that comes with my role. It allows me to engage with consumers from a bit of a distance. I can dip my toes into interacting with them, saying something like, “Hi, I made this, and I hope you like it,” and then step back. I don’t need to be in the public eye constantly. Still, I receive valuable feedback that people like what I do through seeing scores and reactions.
What sets your winery apart from other wineries?
Our winery strikes a unique balance; we’re not a massive corporate entity where you’d feel detached from the mission, reach, and company owners. But we’re also not so small that we lack access to essentials like fair wages, financial stability, and healthcare benefits. It’s like getting the best of both worlds, at least from my perspective.
The winery has been a constant presence, with its original signage and even 100+ year-old Redwood tanks. Despite changes in ownership, the signs out front still have the original name “Parducci” on them and the winery maintains its deep connection to Mendocino County’s history. The new family that owns the winery is involved and that keeps the family-run business feel, as it was.
What makes your wine unique?
Our wine is sustainably made, and in fact, Mendocino is California’s oldest certified sustainable winery. A lot of our operations also follow organic practices, even if we don’t always label it as such. Our estate is entirely organic, and we collaborate with many vineyards that share our commitment to organic practices. This sustainable ethos is deeply intertwined with the rich history of Mendocino County.
Some wineries might aim for mass appeal by crafting wines that detach from their origins and stories. As they strive for a broader audience, the sense of place and history can fade into the background. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a different approach. Take, for example, a large producer which caters to a national market. When someone picks up a bottle of that wine, they might not associate it with a specific place because it’s widely distributed and produced at multiple facilities.
How has your winemaking process changed over the years?
Not too much has changed over the years. Our winemaking facility isn’t very high-tech. We’re not using our feet to squish grapes, but we’re far from being highly technologically advanced. We stay true to our historical roots. We do have some essentials like temperature control and pumps to ensure the wine doesn’t go bad in the tanks, but beyond that, not much has changed.
As an example, we used a data management system dating back to the MS-DOS era. The winery acquired it in 1995, and remarkably, it remained nearly unchanged until just a couple of years ago. We’ve since upgraded to a new information management system, which has significantly improved our ability to perform our tasks efficiently. However, winemaking itself, while you can buy really expensive equipment, I find it remains fundamentally the same.
Have you incorporated modern technology into your winemaking practices? If so, what results have you seen?
Other than software upgrades like the new information management system, I recently started using Tastry.
For example, I had a situation where I needed to determine if a batch of grapes contained any unusual compounds that shouldn’t be there. Ordinarily, this would involve sending samples to a specialized lab, likely out of state, for a comprehensive GC Mass Spec analysis, which would provide an exhaustive list of compounds in the juice.
However, I didn’t need to know all of that information. What I really needed to know was which compounds were abnormal and how much of them were there. When I shared this problem with Bruce, he suggested that the system could be tailored to address precisely that. It was a moment when I realized how the platform could genuinely help people. It bridged a communication gap and addressed a specific void in our process. I genuinely appreciate how Tastry is actively working to identify and fill these gaps, which makes it a valuable resource.
I’m not sure if it’s just my somewhat cynical perspective, but I’ve noticed a bit of an “us versus them” mentality in wineries. On one side, you have the “numbers people,” and on the other, you’ve got the “artists,” those deeply involved in the winemaking process.
Occasionally, the “numbers people” may provide insights that seem to encroach upon our creative freedom and what we believe is right for our wine.
At first, I was a little bit suspicious. I saw it as just another product that was trying to tell me how to make wine by numbers. But when I had my first conversation with Bruce and Katerina, they broke it down to show it can be many different things and help with whatever specific situation you want it to.
What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from winemaking?
What’s a question on your mind that you have about today’s wine consumer?Do people prefer oak-aged wines or not? Are millennials drinking wine or not? There are a lot of conflicting reports and it leaves you questioning the credibility of the sources providing these insights. It makes you wonder who has the most accurate perspective and reliable information.
What is one piece of advice you would like to pass on to newer winemakers and wineries who are just entering the field?
Try to be a sponge. Learn from as many different experiences as you can. Everything is applicable. Whether it was making pizzas in college, working at a boutique winery, or making 7 million gallons of Sauvignon Blanc, you’ll always be able to look back and see you’ve learned something from that experience.
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