Wine Pro Wednesday

Winemaker Edition

A seasoned winemaker celebrating more than a decade at Domaine Carneros in Napa Valley, California, Zak Miller’s journey to winemaking was not initially a straight path. After receiving a B.S. in Forestry from Virginia Tech University, Zak spent years working as a forestry scientist, traveling across the U.S. leading field research study teams and Youth Corps groups and consulting on projects for the government. Zak’s first introduction to wine came at a young age while touring Europe with his parents, but it wasn’t until his now wife was drawn to pursue a winemaking dream in Napa Valley that the possibility of a career in winemaking took hold for him.

It was his first harvest in Napa Valley at Saintsbury Vineyards that gave him a deep respect and fascination for the ever challenging Pinot Noir grape. Eager to continue learning, he traveled to New Zealand and Chile to hone his craft. Returning to northern California wine country in 2008, Zak joined Domaine Carneros with the goal of continuing to evolve his skill with Pinot Noir, working closely with TJ Evans and his still wine program at the chateau. Or so he thought.

Working alongside Founding Winemaker, Eileen Crane, opened to Zak a new realm of possibility in winemaking – sparkling wines – and he hasn’t looked back since. Through Crane and the Domaine Carneros team, he developed a deep appreciation for the versatility of both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in sparkling winemaking and the great skill required to craft beautifully balanced, elegant yet complex wines. And through his work as a sparkling winemaker, he grew to love a variety he admittedly didn’t gravitate toward originally – Chardonnay – which provides the base for what he feels is its finest expression (and a personal favorite), Blanc de Blancs.

When Zak isn’t making delicious wines at Domaine Carneros, he can be found savoring food and wine with family and friends and enjoying the wine country life with his winemaker wife and two young children.

1. How or why did you become a winemaker?

I owe becoming a winemaker to my wife, Shawna.  She wanted to move to Napa and make wine, so we made the move.  My goal was to support her, but after my first harvest I got the bug myself and the rest is history.  We were fortunate enough to travel the globe learning the trade from many accomplished winemakers.  After it all, we finally settled back in Napa, where it all began.  At this point I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

2. What are the most frustrating and rewarding parts of making wine?

Making wine in and of itself is simultaneously frustrating and rewarding.  Constantly dealing with Mother Nature can be very stressful.  For me the biggest satisfaction is sharing a great wine that we made, with good food and company.  The fact that people I know and love are enjoying our wines is always confirmation that I’m in the right profession.

3. What is your most memorable vintage?

Picking one is not easy.  I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for 2009.  It was such a great vintage that didn’t always get the accolades it deserved.  I think it suffered from the critics declaring 2007 the “vintage of the decade.”  You can’t really come back two years later and declare another one, so it flew a bit under the radar.  The reality was that it was a fantastic vintage that really stood the test of time, and will continue to do so.  That being said, we have no shortage of great vintages, each one is memorable for many reasons.

Domaine Carneros, Napa, California
Domaine Carneros, Napa, California

4. What is an upcoming trend you see in wine?

I don’t really focus on or think about trends.  My goal is to make sure sparkling wine is always trendy.  I want our sparkling wines to be elegant and timeless,  trendy now, and trendy in the future.  I don’t want it to ever go out of style!

5. What is the best piece of advice someone has given to you?

“Do what you love, love what you do.” 

Domaine Carneros Winemaker Zak Miller
Photo: Avis Mandel

Zak Miller,

Sparkling Winemaker

Domaine Carneros Winery

"Never lose the spirit of experimentation."

6. What is one tip you have for someone who is interested in winemaking?

This is an industry where you don’t want to land your dream job right away, because you won’t be ready for it.  Harvest hop, between the northern and southern hemispheres.  Work at as many wineries in as many countries and regions as you possibly can.  You will learn more from different winemakers and styles than anything else that you can do early in your career.  Later on you can take all that experience and apply it to a job that is a good fit.  Also, later in your career,  never lose the spirit of experimentation.  This is the real joy of winemaking, the learning never stops.

7. What do you drink at home?

Usually Shawna and I drink the wines we made and laugh about and/or discuss the nuances of that vintage.  Other times,  especially during harvest, we gravitate away from wine.  However, we always come back to what we love, which for me is Domaine Carneros.

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