When Rene Calderon took his first job in America on the bottling line at Franciscan Winery at the age of 18, he had no idea that wine would someday become his calling. Having grown up in Mexico, Rene came to California wine country after his mother was remarried to someone who was living in the Napa Valley. But after experiencing his first harvest in 1997, he soon realized there were opportunities to make a living in the wine industry.
“In Napa, that’s just how it is—you work for the wine industry,” he said.
After working on the line at Franciscan, driving forklifts and harvesting, Rene also realized that he could easily move from job to job within a winery. He quickly found himself in the cellar, where he soon became interested in how the wine was being made.
“Once I started working in the cellar, I kind of knew it,” he said. “Once I made that transition, I wanted to be more and more involved. I really just wanted to kind of figure it out.”
After about five years in various roles at Franciscan, Rene then got a job in the cellar at Stag’s Leap. At the time, there were only four other people working in the cellar, including wine maker Kevin Morrison, who Rene credits for sparking his own interest in becoming a winemaker. “It was really nice working with him,” he said
“In my first year working with Stag’s Leap, the quality of the wine, the work ethics of the place, it convinced me that wine making was something that I could do as a career and not just a job,” Rene said.
After a year at Stag’s Leap, Rene decided he wanted to go back to school to learn winemaking. But to go back to school, Rene knew he would first have to improve his writing skills. So he enrolled in community college so he could take ESL classes and prepare himself to get his English language skills to college level. Because Stag’s Leap had an education program for its employees, he was able to get some of his classes financed through the vineyard while working.
“That actually helped a lot. That’s another thing about the industry. There’s always a giving part of it. They realize they have to grow from within. That’s one of the things I really like about it,” he said.
Although many people learn how to make wine by just working with other winemakers, Rene felt strongly that getting a degree in wine was the right path for him. After finishing community college, Rene enrolled in the two-year enology and viticulture program at UC Davis.
“Fourteen years after my first job, I finally graduated as a oenologist and viticulturist,” he said.
Despite entering as a non-traditional student, Rene says many of his classmates were also over the age of 25, which helped make the experience even better since many of his classmates were in similar life stages. And, he said, 60 percent his classmates were women.
“I really wanted the school experience. I really enjoyed it. It just reinforced the whole part of winemaking. You can make wine, but I think what I learned was, you learn how to make wine with a purpose. You actually conceptualize, you actually visualize the wine and [learn] the tools for it.”
When he was growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, Rene says he had far more exposure to tequila than to wine. In fact, he actually had some interest in the distillation process when he was younger but he was a good student, so making spirits or wine wasn’t something he thought about. Nevertheless, he says he does vividly remember the first time he discovered that he enjoyed wine—and he remembers that it was a Zinfandel.
“That was the first time I tasted some wine and was like, ‘Wow! This is delicious—I mean like ‘Wow!’
Rene says that he feels lucky that his mother remarried and that he ended up in wine country. He says the industry is very welcoming to newcomers and helped him tap into his inner drive. He’s always been driven when it comes to what he wants to do with his life—one of those people that is always asking himself, what’s next, where he wants to see himself in five years. But Napa was also a bit of kismet.
“I mean, to land in Napa?” he said.
Nevertheless, after graduating from UC Davis in 2010, Rene decided that rather than go back to Napa, he’d like to try a different wine making region. Although he looked for internships at wineries on the Central Coast around Paso Robles, he didn’t get one. Since he hadn’t done work in viticulture—the science of studying grapes and production methods—he hoped to get a job where he could explore the laboratory side of winemaking rather than just staying in the cellar.
Rene ended up getting a job in the lab at Wente Vineyards in Livermore, where he worked for two vintages, doing a lot of “wet chemistry”—studying sugars, doing pre-blendings and fermentation profiling. Working with winemaker Brad Buehler, Rene examined wine by the numbers, testing differing aspects of the wine by analyzing the data coming out of the barrels. Until that point, Rene says, he’d always relied on someone else’s numbers, so doing his own analysis was a good learning experience.
“One of the things I really liked about it was about data and data analysis. I was really into that—I have an affinity for numbers,” he said. “That was actually a very good experience for me.”
After a few vintages of lab work—and, he says, after gaining 40 pounds due to sitting too much—Rene was ready to go back to production and working in the cellar where he could be more active and more involved in the whole winemaking process.
“I knew that was always what I was going to do—I really like production,” he said. “Now that I had the experience in both the cellar and the laboratory, it really rounded me out. Now I see wine, but I actually see what’s behind it. I can then taste something and look at the numbers and really figure out why something tastes like that. It really shifts your perception of things and you can manipulate things a lot easier.”
“Wine making is about designing and making at will but really you’re working with what you already have,” he said.
When Rene saw that there was an opening for an assistant winemaker at Dashe Cellars in Oakland, he jumped at the chance to work where he’d been living. He and his wife, a fourth grade teacher in Castro Valley, had been living in Oakland since he’d started school at Davis. He was drawn to both the Dashe approach to winemaking—single vineyards, quality, moderately priced wines—and the reputation that Mike and Anne Dashe had in the industry. “I was very excited,” he said.
Rene says he was excited about the prospect of working with Mike and learning from him. In winemaking, Rene says, there is always an aspect of apprenticeship, of learning and passing down different winemaking methods. “You’re either learning or passing on something to someone else,” he said. As such, he says he was really interested in learning Mike’s methods because he says he highly respects the Dashe style of natural winemaking.
In particular, he was interested in learning how Dashe made his Zinfandels, which, Rene says, combine both French and California sensibilities when it comes to the varietal. Rather than just being heavily jammy and fruity, Rene says, they retain some of the California jamminess while also reflecting a lighter French style, which is a reflection of Mike and Anne’s respective backgrounds (he being from California and she being French).
“Their wines express that, they’re vibrant, acid rich, aromatic,” he said.
During the interview process, Rene says he discovered that he and the Dashes shared both a similar language and similar sensibilities when it came to winemaking. After tasting with them, Rene says, he felt he could taste their vision of the brand and style in their wines and understood why they took the approaches they did.
One of the things Rene likes about the Dashe approach is that they do native fermentation, or natural winemaking, he says. They use the wild yeast present in the air rather than adding any industrial products in the wine. They occasionally add some sulfur for stability, he says, but keep it very low. There are no other additives in the wine. “It’s the closest that it gets to making wine straight from the vineyard,” he said.
“Natural wine is a very interesting thing. The very first time you make a vineyard, you don’t know what is in it,” Rene said.
Rene says you learn a lot about what’s in the vineyard from what shows up in the wine—the so-called terroir of the wine. Although you can test the soil to see whether it’s high in potassium or other minerals, Rene says, you really don’t know what will show up in the wine until it’s made. And even though the numbers may point you in the direction of what it will taste like, the nature of fermentation ultimately dictates the taste.
“Wine is one of the only beverages that really has a life of its own,” he said. “Even in the bottle, it’s still transformed. It’s still moving and still changing.”
However, Rene says, the winemaker gets to make the decisions about when the wine has reached a place where it tastes the way he or she wants it to taste and there is some room for manipulation.
“Wine is a conscious act – it’s a constant activity, a conscious act – a deliberate act,” he said.
Having now been through two harvests at Dashe, Rene says he’s also looking forward to helping grow their wine business. After witnessing a growth period at Stag’s Leap, he says that he enjoys being at a company that’s in the expansion phase. “It’s a really good place to be,” he said.
He’s also enjoying being in Oakland, a city where he wants to live and enjoying work in an industry he likes—he’s happy to be where he is, doing what he loves.
“You don’t get bored at this job,” he said.
What drew you to wine and winemaking?
I really like the driven nature of the industry. That was one of the first things that I noticed, and obviously the product itself when I was old enough to drink. I like the welcoming part of the industry, I think that’s what first brought me to it. And soon I realized how competitive the industry is, how great the products are.
I got my first job at 18, so there was a period of three years where it was a J-O-B. Being here for only a couple of years, I saw how you could make a name for yourself in this industry, and at that point, I realized that potential, that you could have a career. Once I started tasting wine and became more active in the cellar and got more involved, I really enjoyed it, I really liked the job, I liked doing it. I think that’s why I’m always so cheerful is because I really do like it. I like what I do. I really enjoy this part of it. I like walking into the cellar, I like the smell of the barrels, I love the smell of fermentation—it always comes to me, and I can figure out where things are at.
I think it’s the nature of the industry first of all, and then I don’t want to over-romanticize it, but I really like production, I really like it – it’s good for the senses. It smells good, it’s always nice, I love the temperature—it’s always 65 degrees in the cellar.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I worked with a lot of people that all have an idea of why they do winemaking, but there were definitely a few winemakers that I’ve worked with that I really liked the way they do things, the way they conceptualized wine. I learned from them to draw from within. I like eating, I like drinking—I think about what would I like to drink, what would I like to eat? I really, really like wines as an expression of one place. I remember Kevin Morrison telling me when he was working at Stag’s Leap, “This is Stag’s Leap. This is what we do, this is what we want to represent.” So when it comes down to the wine this is what we’re driven from. Here at Dashe my inspiration is I live in the city I want to live in, work in the industry where I want to work and I work with the people I want to work with as well. It really is the driving force for me being able to do things that way.
I remember the first time that I was in charge of a crew of interns, we’d gotten a few people from UC Davis, and I’d decided that this is what I wanted to do, I had two interns and I asked them how they liked the program, and how they got in it, how they decided to do it, how they applied, how they went about it—the usual questions. I didn’t know anything about it. I said, I’m thinking about doing that myself one day but I can barely speak English—at that point it wasn’t about the language, there was so much education that goes into it, so much that I was behind. My written English was such that I didn’t think that I could write a paper on that level. He was like, ‘If I can do it, you can do it. It’s not rocket science. Just learn how to do it. You already know the language, you already know how to do this, you already worked your way here, you know how to do it, you’re obviously capable. If this is want you want to be, you can do it. You just take classes, that’s how you do it.” But for him to say, ‘If I can do it, you can do it,’ that took me out of it, it took the spectacularity of it out. The idea of being accepted at Davis, which is a really hard school to get into—I was always very good at school—but it was like you had to get started. Getting started is really difficult. That’s when I started taking my first English as a Second Language classes and took my math, and built by taking one or two classes a semester. That’s how you do it—I just did it, you just do it. That was a big thing, going to school. And going back to school was important for me. A lot of people will say, ‘you don’t need to go to school to make wine.’ But I really think it brought it to a different level, the understanding of wine, the culture of wine, working with people doing the same thing as me, these spectacular teachers, sharing their ideas. I really took advantage of that—it was really a very nurturing experience. I’m glad that Karl—that’s his name—told me that, ‘if I can do it, you can do it.’ I think about it often, that event.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
This is obviously a touchy subject. I was born in Mexico, I worked in the United States for a very long time, and the industry favors everything of its own. There’s always a bit of a language barrier that’s a bit difficult and getting myself across—the industry has a prototype or vision of what things should be like, but I think it’s just getting the story across, my story. I’m still working on presenting myself—trying to get a comfort level. Like when I was a student, it took me a while to get comfortable, and getting out of school it, it took a while after that. It’s just getting comfortable with something new. Even the last eight years, there’ve been a lot of changes for me. Going from one thing to another—I think it’s about getting to a comfort level. But that’s more personal.
Wine industry-wise, I remember when I got out of school, there was a limited amount of jobs—everybody’s got the same limitations, but the timing of things, the industry closed itself up – but there’s always room and things to do. What I was trying to just say earlier was about developing a persona, what kind of things do I want to develop, what kind of wines I want to be part of—it’s those choices, that part of deciding. That was a bit hard. I wanted to go back to Napa at one point, but I realized it wasn’t the best choice because I’d already been there. Once you make those decisions about where you want to work, it affects a lot about the places and the things you do. But I think I’ve made the right choices and with the right people.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
The fringe benefits! [Laughs] At this point, like I was saying about developing, it’s nice to talk about the wine, it’s nice to do the chit-chat, it’s nice to do the work, to taste all the wines and see them now with more of an objective. To take something and say ‘I want it to be this way,’ and now you have the tools and the time to make it so. Obviously, Mike will be the one in the end who makes the decision but all the input and taste, I like this, I like that, the opinions carry weight, they shape the wines. I like that. I like to be an active participant in winemaking, I really do.
What’s your favorite wine that you’re making?
The ancient vines blend is really, really good. The very first wine that I tasted here was the Florence Vineyard. The wines that I find myself going to a lot now, even at home, I go into a lot of ancient vines bottles. It’s a blend of Zinfandel, Carignane and Malbec. It’s a really nice wine. I call it the winemaker’s wine.
Are there other local winemakers that you admire and why?
Kevin Morrison – now he’s working with Heller Vineyards up in St. Helena. I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot about winemaking and just about making an impression as much as with winemaking and moving forward. I learned a lot from him, I really admire him. Brad Buehler in Livermore at Wente. I really liked his philosophy of wine. In making wine—this is what you do, you taste the wines, you consistently taste the wines and don’t be afraid of making changes as you go. Don’t be afraid, even at the last minute. If you think that it’s not right, just make the best wine. If you taste the wines, you’ll always meet your objective and you’ll always make the best wines out of the vine.
Obviously Mike. Definitely at this point, he has a big input into reshaping my ideas, not just in winemaking but in winemaking techniques. Every time we talk about wine, we talk about how to make something, it’s nice to put it into context. You have to have that conversation—that’s part of working with someone like that. You have to have those consistent conversations about why you want it to be this way, why you like it this way, why you choose this vs. this.
If you had to choose your last bottle of wine, what would it be?
Wow—let’s see. Ooo—1993 Merlot from Shafer. Oh my gosh. Shafer – the 1993 Merlot from Shafer was one of the best bottles I’ve had. And I would not mind to replicate that, but it’s not around, they sold out so quickly.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
We eat a lot—my wife and I—of the cheap thrills, like Tuesday burgers. I really like Baywolf. Baywolf’s really nice on the higher end. I really like them. I like their food, I like their wine pairings, the philosophy of the meals, just picking up something and going with it – I really, really enjoy it. But the regular day by day, I like Hog’s Apothecary’s homemade sausages, they’re made in-house and it really comes together.
Photos courtesy of Rene Calderon, Dashe Cellars.