The Music of Wine

When Brazil-born winemaker Elizabeth Vianna crafts wine, music is on her mind.

“Music is an important part of my background, and I use it as a metaphor to better understand the aesthetics of wine,” said Vianna, winemaker and general manager of Chimney Rock Winery located in the Stags Leap region of Napa Valley.

Vianna and her new assistant winemaker, Laura Orozco, share a passion for winemaking and of being two of only a handful of Latina winemakers in California. They spoke while tasting wine in one of the courtyards at Chimney Rock Winery. Behind them lay rolling hills covered with brown leafless vineyards. The sky was full of gray clouds, the muted background in sharp contrast to the shimmering red wine in their wineglasses.

“Music has its own harmony, rhythm, texture and intensity, and so does wine,” Vianna said. “In both cases, when these elements are put together, well, they can tell a story of where they came from.”

Wine and music can certainly tell a story of their origin, which often also includes the histories of the people who create it. Vianna and Orozco have intriguing histories.

Vianna was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil. But because her father was in the export business, she spent her childhood split between the United States and Brazil.

“By the time I was 8, I’d lived in Los Angeles, Illinois and Boston, but then we moved back to a small mountain town in Brazil just outside of Rio de Janeiro. The music, food and environment were very different.”

At 16, Vianna and her family moved from Brazil back to the United States, where she was eventually accepted at Vassar College in New York. There she studied biology, intending to become a doctor.

“After I graduated college, I worked in New York City while I prepared for medical school. My roommate introduced me to wine and, like music, wine actually took my breath away. But I didn’t really know how people became winemakers, so I started going to wine events. One day, I heard Christian Mouiex talk about making wine in Bordeaux and at his winery in Yountville, Dominus Estate. He also talked passionately about the wine program at UC Davis and that’s when I knew what my next move would be.”

A few years later, Vianna had obtained her master’s degree in winemaking from UC Davis, and for the last 14 years she has been at Chimney Rock Winery, becoming the official winemaker in 2005. In 2015, she brought on Orozco as her assistant.

“I am excited to be here; I have always wanted to work with Elizabeth,” said Orozco.

Orozco grew up in Michoacan, Mexico, while her father made his way to Napa Valley to work in the vineyards. After a harvest accident left her father unable to work, Orozco’s mother found a way to bring her and her young brother to the states.

“My mother was finally able to get a short-term visa, and she was so worried that it might be revoked at any minute,” she said. “We left Mexico without even saying goodbye to my friends and grandparents and moved to Yountville. That was very hard. I didn’t see them again for 10 years, not until we gained our status and could travel freely.”

“My dad was in so much pain, and it was really tough at the beginning. The four of us lived in a single bedroom in a tiny apartment with my uncle and aunt in the other bedroom. Our room only had two beds, a dresser and a small space to walk between,” Orozco said. “Back then, my mother took care of us and worked while my father healed.”

Even though she spoke no English when she arrived in the Napa Valley, Orozco was placed into the local schools.

“The community embraced me,” she said. “Even with my heavy accent, they treated me like one of them. But I never shared my family’s story with anyone back then. I felt accepted, but even though I tried to integrate into the culture on the outside, on the inside I was another person. I didn’t really come out with my true self until I was in college when I felt like I could freely express my ethnicity, express that I was proud to be Mexican.”

Like Vianna, Orozco had intended to pursue medicine after college. But she also found the pull of the wine industry drawing her back home.

“Growing up, winemaking seemed mysterious, but after college I started to really understand and enjoy the process. I thought, ‘I can do this.’”

And she did. After seven years at Franciscan Winery Orozco was hired as enologist at V. Sattui. Within a year, she’d become assistant winemaker and by 2014, winemaker.

The wines tasted that day included the 2012 Stags Leap District Estate cabernet sauvignon ($76 per bottle) and the 2012 Elevage ($95 per bottle), which is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot all grown on the Chimney Rock estate. The estate cabernet shimmered in the glass, its ruby-red color reminiscent of velvet.

Aromas of rich dark red fruit drifted up and in the mouth the wine was satiny and had flavors that reached a crescendo of currant, black cherry and a hint of candied violets. The Elevage wine was dark in the glass, with aromatics of coffee, cinnamon, black tea and vanilla.

In the mouth, chewy tannins accompanied flavors of dark blackberry, fresh tobacco and a savory spiciness. The wine finished with dark cocoa and spice cake.

“Our goal is to make wines that tell a story about where they come from and that highlight the various rhythms and harmonies of this place,” said Vianna, when she had finished and put her glass on the table.

As the two winemakers gathered up their glasses, a longtime Chimney Rock wine club member, Peter Ghishan, stopped by. Both Vianna and Orozco listened as the man talked about his love of the “outstanding” wines. “I mean,” he said emphatically, “I put my nose into the glass and I am transported to Stags Leap — every time.”

By the broad smiles on Vianna’s and Orozco’s faces, that must have been music to their ears.


Originally published in the Napa Register, Jan. 2016