It’s amazing how many people are involved in one bottle of wine.
Winemaker, Alma Rosa Winery
My life was pretty crazy, what I’ve been through as a kid and now where I am in beautiful Santa Barbara. I’m from Sarajevo; as a kid I survived a war, I ran through the streets with the snipers with my best friend to go to school… and after school, run through again. Grenades shooting every day, living four years without water, electricity, or heat. That was in the 90s. When the war started, it was April and I turned 7 in August that year and I started first grade in September. I lost a lot of family members. After the war I was 11 or 12. You’re like, “Ok the war is over,” but you don’t think, “Where is life going to take me? What is my future?”
Later on, when I finished high school, I was thinking about what to study. My dad is a professor of agriculture at the same college where I studied, the University of Sarajevo, faculty for the College of Agriculture and Food Sciences. Growing up with a dad in agriculture, I learned a lot about the plants and stuff like that. So when I was deciding what to study, my mom was like, “Hey, why don’t you just study something where your dad is, it’s pretty interesting.” It was brewing and chocolate… so I was like, “This is interesting; ok, I’m going to do this.”
When I studied for my bachelor’s I wanted to be a brewmaster. And at the end of my bachelor’s, I did a thesis in fermentation and how it affects cold and warmer fermentation. My practice was to go to the brewery for a month and do the research and write a thesis about it. Then when I did my internship in a brewery, I’m so tired of beer smell! And it gets to be really microbiological. For my masters at the food science college, I started taking more classes in winemaking and worked a lot with my professor of oenology and I fell in love with it. It’s a lot of chemistry, and I love chemistry. I was fascinated with the wine aging… it’s a bunch of different things that affect the wine in a bottle, and I thought, “I want to do this.”
During my studies, I met my husband. My husband is American and he’s in the military; he was stationed in Sarajevo for a year. We’d been dating and had a long-distance relationship while I was in college, because I wanted to finish my college. When I finished college, we decided to get married and I was like, “Oh… I’m going somewhere, I don’t know where I’m going and I might have to give up my dream of being a winemaker.” I spoke with him and I was like, “You know it’s really hard,” and he’s like, “But Travis [Air Force Base] is like 30 minutes away from Napa.” I was the luckiest person! If I had planned, I don’t think it would have been like that.
I moved after college, in 2012, to the United States. It’s a different country, the language, I don’t know anybody, I don’t know how things work, it’s a lot of things that you have to deal with. I was like, I’m just going to start working in a tasting room, meet people, see how things work. And that’s how I met our general manager Debra Eagle – she’s the first person who gave me a job in America. It’s part of a vineyard and small winery in Hestan, and that’s how I met the winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown, who was the winemaker for Hestan. During working in the tasting room, I also decided to take an internship in a vineyard in St. Supéry, so I would go two days a week to the vineyards to learn how to prune by myself and do all the different things. In 2014, when I met Thomas while working at Hestan, I asked him to do the harvest, so he gave me the opportunity. I did three harvests with him and then I worked with the Mondavi family for a little over a year.
My first harvest, the winemaker Tim that I worked with noticed that I’m passionate about it so he gave me a lot of opportunities to play and taste all these wines and do a lot of work that includes winemaking. I learned a lot, starting with the first year of harvest. It was the opportunity to taste all these different Cabs and learning my palate and what I want and what I was expecting. You’re doing a bunch of different things: cleaning, testing, pulling samples, so it includes everything except you’re not making decisions. You’re doing the hard work! I loved the pump-overs. It’s the most important step when you’re fermenting reds. You want them to aerate and open up and ferment. You’re connecting the bottom of your tank to the top and mixing your juice with the grapes to get more extraction to ferment. You have this heavy pump that you’re carrying and the hoses and you have to connect the bottom and you have a big irrigator that you put on the top so it’s an intense process and a lot of people dislike it, but I loved it. It was my favorite. They called me The Pump-over Queen.
I learned a lot from all jobs, but I think my biggest influence working for Thomas and his assistant Tim, they most influenced how I wanted to be as a winemaker, where my style is going. I learned a lot about how Tim is with his cellar crew and I would always be impressed. Like, “Oh my god, he’s running this place and he’s making all these decisions and he can fix all the machines – this is pretty cool! I want to be like him one day.” After that I went to Free Flow, and Free Flow is the company that put wine in kegs and cans. I was working in a lab there, and ended up being the QC manager for the whole facility. So when you see those cans in the market, I needed to approve them. I learned actually a lot about cans, and I think now bottling is one part in the winemaking that is stressful, but now after cans and how sensitive cans are and you can damage them really easily and how detailed they are, bottling is so easy! Also, wine reacts differently in a can.
Working at Free Flow, I was talking to Debra; we always kept in touch and she wanted to know where I am, how I’m progressing, how I’m growing. This opportunity comes and she phoned me and said, “Come visit the region, visit our vineyard,” so I came here and I was really in love. I went to our vineyard and I was fascinated with the vineyard. I was like, “Yeah, I would love to do it.” And you’re making Pinot. For every winemaker, I think making Pinot is… it’s the most sensitive grape and it’s super delicate so it’s the hardest wine to make, it’s more challenging. I think with me growing as a winemaker, I learned to appreciate Pinot. My first year, I remember the first day of my harvest, my winemaker Tim was doing punch-downs on a tank of the Pinot, and I was like, “What is this?” He’s like, “Pinot.” And I’m like, “Ugh, it’s like water!” I was a Cab girl – I just wanted this big, robust, lush Cabernet Sauvignon… I don’t want Pinot to drink! So when I asked him for an opinion: should I move to a new region? He’s like, “But you don’t make Pinot.” I was like, “Tim, I’ve changed, I love Pinot now!” It was exciting to make Pinot, Chardonnay, and then Rhône varietals, so I thought it was a great opportunity for me to learn and grow and enjoy this area.
It was exciting, but at the same time, it was like, “Oh shoot, I have to make the decisions.” I took over from the previous winemaker here at Alma Rosa, so I didn’t have too much time to think and stress. I knew with my knowledge and my palette and how hard I’ve worked that I can do it. When the previous winemaker left, our owner gave me an opportunity and I was like, “I know I can do it, I know I can make good wine.” I didn’t overthink. This is my opportunity. I work with a consultant; being a young winemaker, it’s a lot of pressure. It’s all the responsibility is on you, you have to make these business decisions that you’ve never made before, so he’s there to support me. It’s very exciting, when I put my wine in a bottle, it was the most exciting moment in my entire life. This is my wine, this is what I did, it was actually me.
Every year is different. Sometimes, mid-August I start testing my grapes. You’re always in the vineyard. Once it hits May or June, you’re more and more engaged in the vineyard, seeing how the vines are developing, how the grapes are developing. You start analysis mid-August, seeing how your grapes are going, how the weather is coming, and then slowly getting ready for the days of harvest. That’s the most stressful. It can depend on so many factors: like, the weather can always change. Whatever you plan, it can completely change. It’s a lot of planning, a lot of tasting. I look at my chemistry, but I rely on my palate, I make a lot of decisions on my palate. If I have the flavors there that I want, then I think, “Ok, this is it.” And then if I have my chemistry there, then ok, I’m ready to pick. It’s the most stressful but the most exciting time of the year for every winemaker when you’re bringing grapes into the winery, they’re coming in bins, your heart is pumping, it’s exciting because you’re actually making wine.
I work with five vineyards and I want to represent the terroir of each of the vineyards so it’s very important to me that when you taste my wine form a particular vineyard that you’re tasting the soil and the beauty of that vineyard. That’s my goal to my customers and people drinking my wine, and there’s a story behind it. They have different soils, they have different exposure to the sun. We have worked with a few different vineyards, it’s a little bit different climate for those vineyards – microclimates – so they always give you something new. All of that influences how your wine will be and how unique each vineyard and varietal is.
When I did my vineyard internship I remember we were doing something in the vineyard and I had to do one row and all the vineyard workers were doing it so fast… I did one row and I was so tired. I always had respect for vineyard workers but this was much more, like, “Oh my god, this is such hard work.” These people are amazing, how much hard work they put in. We work long hours; we work 12 to 16 hours a day every day for two to three months. It’s a lot of sanitizing, sanitizing, sanitizing, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. When you get this beautiful wine bottle, I always think about how much hard work went into this and how much sweat to create one bottle of wine. It’s amazing how many people are involved in one bottle of wine, when you think about it. All the vineyard people and the cellar crew and the people in marketing and everybody. It’s really impressive and it’s really beautiful. And that makes you love your job even more.
We bring grapes to the winery and put the grapes on a sorting table where you have a team sorting, getting rid of leaves, rocks, or anything that you find in the grapes, or just a bad cluster. You’re really picking and making sure to get the best clusters into your tank. Then you have a little elevator that goes to the top and then you have a machine called the stemmer, and when the grapes fall into it, it oscillates and shakes and separates the berries from the stems. The stems go one way into the trash and the berries fall into the sub bin and then going with the hose and the pump into the tank. In the tank, you can soak your grapes for… it depends on your winemaking style. You soak for a few days and then you are warming up your tanks and fermenting the grapes. After the fermentation, for the red wines, you take the juice out of the tank, put it in a different tank, and then you are pressing your grapes and getting your pressed wine. That’s for the reds. White wines are much different. When you receive white wine grapes, they go straight into the press, you’re pressing and getting juice out, you’re not leaving on the skins or mixing it. You’re getting juice straight into the tank, it settles for 24 hours and then into the barrels. I do barrel fermentation for the white wines, in a colder temperature, so I have a separate room for the white wines and for the reds. There’s so many steps that we as humans can do, but there’s so many steps that we can’t – that’s the beauty of winemaking: how long it wants to ferment.
There’s so many things as a winemaker that make you a winemaker. One of the things is your palate and your tasting. It’s very important how much you can taste in a wine, and how your palate is developed. Then, you have to be a really hard worker and lift all the heavy equipment and clean all the heavy equipment and sometimes you have to be an electrician… machines break during harvest. Scheduling, and being a multitasker is one of the biggest things that you have to be as a winemaker, especially during harvest because there’s 10, 15 things going at the same time and you have to make decisions. It’s the wine fermenting, it’s picking, it’s the barrels coming, so it’s all these things, multitasking. Then there’s the part where you have to write notes and I think that’s the hardest part for me because I’m foreign and this is not my first language, so I have to learn how to write notes and be expressive about it. Then you have the part where you’re meeting with customers and that’s fun for me. I always love to hear their opinion about our wines. I love to meet them and talk with them and make it really personal. And meeting with journalists, too, that’s another part.
I would say, one of the things as a winemaker, you have to be an artist also. Besides your hard work and long hours, it’s how you want to ferment the grapes. Yes, they ferment by themselves, but what are your pre-steps for fermentation, what do you want your product to be, how long you want it to soak, how much intensity, how much extraction you want in a red, how do you want your white wines, which barrels you’re choosing to age. It can be so many different things, that you as a winemaker can be artistic and create your own wine. That depends what your passion is and what you expect when your people taste it and how you want it to be. That part is definitely super fun for me. It makes you be very creative. The other thing is the blending, where you taste all the barrels and you decide your blends. You’re spending days and days and days blending: what are you expecting from each vineyard, what are you expecting from each label. 1% of something can change your whole wine. I’ll do different blends and taste, and it’s like, “This is missing something, but this barrel I remember is tasting like this so let me add a little bit – ok, that’s it.”
I use French oak and I don’t use a lot of new oak. Especially for Pinot Noir. For Syrah, I like a little bit more new oak because it’s a little bit bigger wine so it can handle more oak; Pinot I use only 30% new oak. New oak is brand new and has more flavor. It’s more oak than a neutral barrel where you already had a few years of wine in it. It’s a little bit more harsh when it’s marrying with the wine. Cabernet, you can add more oak, it depends on your winemaking style. But a brand new barrel that’s never been used and smells delicious, it’s all these different notes that you’re getting from the oak and then you put some in neutral barrels and then you’re blending them together. I have preference for a few barrels that I love, and then when the lots come in to ferment, I taste and I decide what percentage of new oak I’m going to do, do I want to press it together or not press... it’s a lot of details. It’s a lot of tasting, tasting, deciding.
We just finished bottling, I bottled all of my ’19s. After harvest, I prepared my wines for bottling, so this period I would say we call it a quiet time. For example, we’re aging out wines right now. Everything is mostly finished with fermentation so every few weeks, we’re testing it, topping it, making sure it doesn’t get oxygen, doing a little bit of office work, paperwork. Soon we’re going to start meeting different critics where you’re presenting your wine. Tasting wines, thinking how they’re developing, how they’re going, what you’re expecting, circulating your barrels and doing little notes. I do little sides notes on the barrels just as a reminder. Sometimes I’ll go in and taste a few and put different notes on the barrels, like this one gets a heart… and then I’m already thinking in my head which blends I want to make. It’s hard to taste 100 barrels a day, so I’ll go there and taste a few barrels and see where these barrels are going. Once I start doing the blending it’s easier for me to approach; I already have an idea – when it comes to blending – what I want and where the barrels are going. When my consultant comes and tastes the wine, he sees the hearts and he’s like, “Ok, give me this one!”
I’m going to do this for a while. After surviving a war, I’ve never been a big planner. I just don’t plan, I live for the near future and just planning the little steps. I just let life take me somewhere because from being a little kid in a war, being in beautiful Santa Barbara making beautiful wines for Alma Rosa, it’s pretty exciting, so I’ll let my life take me and see what happens. I love working for Alma Rosa, I love making wines and living in Santa Barbara, so I’m happy and planning on staying here. That’s the plan for now. And drink this beautiful wine!
I’m always positive. After surviving something like that, everything is good. I have food on the table. It gives you a different drive in your life, to appreciate everything. Even now if I complain about something, I stop myself really quick, like, “Hold on. What am I complaining about?” It has changed my attitude to be thankful. It’s a horrible thing to survive but I’m also grateful on the other hand because it taught me a lot and it makes me who I am today as a person.
I think there’s a lot of future for women and there are a lot of females that are winemakers so it’s really exciting to see more and more diversity. I hope it’s going to grow where there are more women involved on the production side of the winemaking. It’s very exciting to be a woman and do this job. Driving a forklift, moving your barrels around. I think, in this region, it’s the region with the highest number of women winemakers. People usually see me and say, “How old are you? You’re the winemaker, but how old are you?” It’s exciting to be young and to be on top of my career and accomplish so much in a short time, coming from a different country and having a language barrier with everything else, so I’m very proud of myself accomplishing all of that.
People are excited to see a female, somebody from a different country, they’ve never met somebody from Bosnia. Back at home, people are super excited at what I accomplished. That I came here and I’m a winemaker – they’re all proud. All my professors at college are super proud. I’m a winemaker now in California – there’s no Bosnian winemakers here, I’m the first one, so they’re super proud of it and I think it’s an accomplishment being a female and being Bosnian to be where I am today.
In the southern part of my country they make a lot of wine – very small production, and we have our own varietals that we make. When I tasted the Chardonnays here, what I love about Santa Rita Hills is that it takes me back to my country – the acidity and minerality of the white wines that you don’t find in a lot of regions here in California. When I tasted Chardonnays here, it just took me home and made me more nostalgic. Santa Rita Hills is very unique when it comes to that. It reminds me of home.