Matt Smith and friend at 16 in France

Becoming Passionate About Wine

You could say I was born into winemaking, but when my great-grandfather died it skipped a couple of generations.

My mom’s side of the family is from Italy.  My grandfather, John Santini, came over from Capestrano (Abruzze) when he was 14 years old.  My grandmother, Evelina, was born the daughter of Italian immigrants from Sassoferrato (Marche).  She always told stories of how her father, Alberto Santoni, made wine in the old country and that when he found a new home in Iron Mountain, Michigan, he continued that tradition.

Alberto happened to be close friends with Cesare Mondavi, Robert & Peter’s father, also from Sassoferrato.  When Cesare bought land and started growing grapes in California, my great-grandfather would purchase boxcar loads to use for his own production and to distribute to the other Italian immigrants who liked to make wine.

I remember the first time I walked into a wine cave, in Vouvray, France at the age of 16.  I was captivated by the smell of it all — wine aging in barrels, the aromas of the caves, and the enthusiasm that the vigneron had for sharing his wines.  It all felt very comfortable to me.

Later, in college, I spent a year studying abroad at the Sorbonne University in Paris.  While there I had more opportunity to visit some of the wine regions of France and to experience the way Europeans viewed wine: as part of life and certainly part of the enjoyment of a meal with family and friends.

My best friend’s father kept a terrific wine cellar with the best vintages of his favorite appellation, St. Emilion.  I was hooked.

While finishing my Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and French Language studies at the University of Michigan, I worked at an Italian restaurant waiting tables.  The wine list was pretty good, and they made a point of educating the servers to improve their knowledge and help generate sales.  I think this was my first experience with Californian wines. This experience cemented me as a loyal wine consumer.

I arrived in California in 1995 and was drawn to the wine industry from day one.  To this day I remember my first visit to Opus in the Napa Valley.  I was enamored of their caves, the intoxicating aromas and passion for the art of winemaking.  But I also remember feeling drawn to the fittings board.  Every manner of valve, clamp and fitting that we use to move wine around was arranged in perfect order on that board, and I knew I wanted to work in that environment.  Two years later, I began my formal wine education at UC Davis.

When I finished coursework at Davis, I had the opportunity to work overseas in Burgundy, France.  I worked for Maison Joseph Drouhin.  I developed a real appreciation for small-lot winemaking there, with fermentations sometimes yielding no more than a couple of barrels from the most prized Grand Cru parcels that Drouhin owned.  I remember the aromas of the Grand Echezeaux parcel when we drained the free run off the skins and shoveled out the press.

I also spent time working in Australia for Mitchelton Wines in the Goulbourn Valley (Victoria).  Mitchelton is a winery that reminds me of Kendall-Jackson.  They produce a multitude of wines from Riesling to Syrah and everything in between, all made from gorgeous vineyards and fruit from the best regions in the area.  I loved being out with the head winemaker in the vineyards or on their estate.  I remember thinking: this is the life I have always dreamed of.  I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  I look forward to sharing more of the aromas, sights and sounds as we go forward.