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  • Authority Magazine Interview with Kristen Barnhisel

    Kristen Barnhisel of J Lohr Vineyards & Wines On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In the Wine & Spirits Industry

    Kristen Barnhisel 2022

    Authority Magazine
    An Interview with Doug Noll

    First and foremost, lead with respect and kindness in everyday working relationships. The second trait is to listen to your team and understand how you can help them do their jobs. I’ve always tried to recognize the team’s efforts, as it’s important that the craft and the wines are recognized. Finally, it’s been instrumental that I pay close attention to detail and continue to train my palate — so an interest in continuous curiosity is key.

    The world of wine and spirits is not only about the nuances of taste, aroma, and presentation but also about understanding the intricacies of the business, mastering the craft, and building meaningful relationships. It’s an industry rich in tradition, yet ever-evolving with trends, technologies, and tastes. Navigating this fascinating landscape requires a blend of passion, knowledge, strategy, and a touch of artistry. In this series, we aim to shed light on the key ingredients that brew success in the wine and spirits industry. We’re speaking to industry veterans, master sommeliers, distillers, marketers, and professionals in the wine and spirits industry to discuss the essential elements needed to create a highly successful career in the industry. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Kristen Barnhisel.

    At J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, acclaimed winemaker Kristen Barnhisel brings two decades of viticulture and winemaking experience spanning three continents to her role as winemaker for all white wines. Known for her gifted palate and technical skill, Kristen uses her expertise with a range of white wine varieties, styles, and winemaking methods to guide J. Lohr’s white wine portfolio.

    Kristen was raised in Santa Rosa by a microbiologist mother, who worked for Simi Winery, and a father who was a home winemaker. Though she grew up immersed in the wine industry, even working harvests as a summer job, it wasn’t until she traveled to Italy while earning her B.A. in Italian literature that she was inspired to become a winemaker. Encouraged by legendary California winemaker and family friend Zelma Long, Kristen became one of the first women, and the first American, to work harvest for Ruffino in Italy. Kristen went on to earn a master’s degree in enology from UC Davis, while also working a number of coveted internships, including Warwick Wine Estate in South Africa, Opus One, and Long Vineyard, where she gained invaluable knowledge working alongside her mentor, Zelma Long.

    After graduation, eager to build on her growing knowledge of different wine regions, Kristen moved to Washington State, where she spent two years as the enologist at Columbia Crest. Returning to California, Kristen held positions as the assistant winemaker at Jordan Vineyard & Winery and later Belvedere Winery, before joining Handley Cellars in Anderson Valley, where she was co-winemaker with founder Milla Handley for eight years. Prior to joining J. Lohr in 2015, Barnhisel was the quality control manager at Inglenook, where she was charged with ensuring wine quality of the Rubicon, Inglenook’s flagship Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Blancaneaux, the winery’s top white wine.

    Today, utilizing her extensive experience with cool-climate white wine varieties, Kristen works alongside President/​COO Jeff Meier and Director of Winemaking Steve Peck to guide J. Lohr’s white wine program. We are a winery that values leadership, experience and a willingness to experiment,” says Jeff. From her work in multiple countries and appellations to her leadership role as president at the American Society for Enology and Viticulture from 2019 – 2020, Kristen has shown a career-long commitment to research and experimentation. She is a phenomenal winemaker.”

    I love the challenge of making serious white wines that reflect their vineyard roots,” says Kristen. It is incredibly rewarding to take an inherently transparent grape and to find that perfect place where fruit flavors, aromatics, alcohol, acidity, texture, and palate length all come into perfect balance.”

    Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your origin story, and your childhood?

    Iam originally from Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. Growing up, my mom, worked as a microbiologist at SIMI Winery, where Zelma Long was the winemaker. I was struck by how happy she was, working with a great team that was inclusive and always experimenting. My dad made homemade wine, so I was crushing grapes at eight years old and helping ferment at home. It was these experiences that got me hooked on wine early on in my life.

    Can you tell us the backstory” about what brought you to the wine industry?

    Although I grew up with wine in the family, my undergraduate degree is in Italian Literature, and it was when I traveled to Italy for school that I knew that winemaking was my calling — making wine to bring people together around the table and a conduit to conversation.

    Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading the J. Lohr team as White Winemaker? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

    The most interesting story is the one of moving J. Lohr’s white wine production from San Jose, California, to our state-of-the-art winemaking facility in Monterey County. I started at J. Lohr in 2015, with the second official harvest at our new winery, where I was only doing about 25% of the winemaking in Monterey County and 75% at our winery in San Jose. Gradually, I worked my way up to 100%, and I am now the winemaker for all white wines which are all produced in Monterey County. Since then, to see the continued success of one of America’s top-selling Chardonnays, the J. Lohr Estates Riverstone Chardonnay has been amazing.

    It has been said that sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

    It wasn’t funny then, but early in my career, we were making a master blend of wine, and I miscalculated the calculations on the tank. So, the crew came to me at a certain point and said that we made the blend, and the tank was now empty. Unfortunately, we had to re-master blend the entire vintage of that wine. Thankfully, we were able to fix the issue. However, it encouraged me to double and even triple-check my additions, calculations, and measurements from there on out!

    None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

    Yes, I would have to mention Zelma Long; as a leader in the industry, I really admire her. She always asked me thoughtful questions and encouraged me to experiment and investigate more into wine. She encouraged me to be a part of The American Society for Enology and Viticulture (the sciences of winemaking and grape growing), an organization for research to move the wine industry forward. She has also provided endless support for my career through internships and first jobs and continues to be my mentor to this day, and I am very grateful for that. Zelma also encouraged me to mentor the next generation of people in the industry, particularly women, to assist them with their career growth. When you can, pay it forward!

    You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

    First and foremost, lead with respect and kindness in everyday working relationships. The second trait is to listen to your team and understand how you can help them do their jobs. I’ve always tried to recognize the team’s efforts, as it’s important that the craft and the wines are recognized. Finally, it’s been instrumental that I pay close attention to detail and continue to train my palate — so an interest in continuous curiosity is key.

    Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

    We here at J. Lohr are very happy to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of our family-owned and operated winery. It’s very exciting! In addition, we’ve just launched the new J. Lohr Estates Riverstone Chardonnay packaging. It’s awesome to have been able to freshen up the look to a more modern design. Now, consumers will see beautiful floral imagery on the label, and a screw cap closure, making it easy to enjoy the wine wherever they go. The process of blending is always an exciting project at the winery. I am currently working on the blends of upcoming new vintages for our white wine portfolio. Some of these are as small as 200 – 300 cases, which really allows the winemaker’s creativity to shine.

    Okay. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the wine industry today?

    I think it’s really great that in 2024, we are still seeing white wines trending and continuing to be a consumer favorite. I am particularly excited to see people enjoying white wines and the diversity of white wine varietals. Secondly, the focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion across the industry is great to see. The industry’s committed inclusion of more communities of women, BIPOC, and LGBQT+ is an important step in the right direction. The third thing that I’m excited about is how we’re continuing to grow our sustainable portfolio of wines. Today, California has over 230,00 certified California winegrape acres. It’s great to see more sustainable vineyards out there as efforts to continue minimizing the impact on the land we’re farming rise. All are worthwhile directions for moving forward in the wine industry at large.

    Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

    Focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion is important, as this issue continues to be a priority for our industry. I believe we still have more to do there in terms of building a path in the right direction. There is also room for improvement in the wine industry when it comes to sustainability. We can continue to look for ways to take even better care of the environment and our land through sustainable farming and further minimize our impact and water & energy usage as best we can. The third, and something I look forward to, would be introducing and engaging the next generation of wine consumers. By bringing everyone together with wine, whether over a casual meal or at a celebratory event, you’re creating memories together, and this is where the magic happens.

    You are a Wine Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non-intuitive things one should know to succeed in the wine industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?

    The first thing that comes to mind is confidence. Confidence in your skills and decision-making, confidence in your opinions and palate, as these are all very important aspects needed for success. Understand that in the wine industry, relationships are important. In this industry, there are only one to two degrees of separation, and it’s a small wine world community. For example, I’ve run into people in South Africa who were from Napa, and I’ve run into people in Japan who knew friends of mine from back in California. It’s vital to recognize that the world is very small, and relationships are important, so appreciate that as you go through your travels. Building your network is also very important as you move through your career journey. It is pivotal to continued learning and growth within your career path. It’s okay to take calculated risks and don’t be afraid to be bold.

    Specific to winemaking, patience is essential to succeeding in this industry. It’s important to know when to treat or interfere with the wine or when to hang tight and come back the next day. You need patience to be able to think about wine strategically versus acting impulsively, and that’s a real skill set, especially with white wine. We don’t want to move it or interfere with it too much. Maybe have a glass and think about what you want to do before you do it. For example, when making small lot white wines and during certain trial periods, I’ll sometimes let a glass sit overnight and come back the next day to see what happens, ensuring I can make the right decision for that particular vintage. All in all, patience is crucial for decision-making across all industries.

    Can you please give us your favorite Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? A rising tide lifts all boats.” — John F. Kennedy. Everything that we do at the J. Lohr winery, we do as a team. If the awards and accolades come in, we all celebrate together. It’s about all of us.

    Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!

    About the Interviewer: Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA was born nearly blind, crippled with club feet, partially deaf, and left-handed. He overcame all of these obstacles to become a successful civil trial lawyer. In 2000, he abandoned his law practice to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts. Doug teaches his innovative de-escalation skill that calms any angry person in 90 seconds or less. With Laurel Kaufer, Doug founded Prison of Peace in 2009. The Prison of Peace project trains life and long terms incarcerated people to be powerful peacemakers and mediators. He has been deeply moved by inmates who have learned and applied deep, empathic listening skills, leadership skills, and problem-solving skills to reduce violence in their prison communities. Their dedication to learning, improving, and serving their communities motivates him to expand the principles of Prison of Peace so that every human wanting to learn the skills of peace may do so. Doug’s awards include California Lawyer Magazine Lawyer of the Year, Best Lawyers in America Lawyer of the Year, Purpose Prize Fellow, International Academy of Mediators Syd Leezak Award of Excellence, National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals Neutral of the Year. His four books have won a number of awards and commendations. Doug’s podcast, Listen With Leaders, is now accepting guests. Click on this link to learn more and apply.