This is another installment of a series called “Livermore Stories,” which takes a look at the most exciting wineries in this wine growing region located east of San Francisco. More than 50 wineries now call Livermore Valley home. The wines have never been better, and the wineries have great stories to tell.
Winemakers come to winemaking from all sorts of backgrounds. Take Rhonda Wood. “I used to fly for US Airways,” says the commercial airline pilot turned vintner. “I flew as a First Officer on the Airbus 320, the Boeing 737, the F 100, and the BAE 146, and I was side saddle (flight engineer) on the Boeing 727.” How many winemakers can say that?
Rhonda’s winery is Wood Family Vineyards, in the heart of Livermore Valley. She actually started learning about making wine in Fremont, a community in the southern San Francisco Bay Area, where she and her husband planted 18 vines in their backyard. “Nine Cabernet Sauvignon and nine Zinfandel vines, all with the intention of learning how to make wine,” she says.
Rhonda’s journey to winemaking began with her making beer at home. “When I was pregnant with my first child I heard the old wives tale beer is good for the breast milk, so I started brewing beer,” she says. “But then I asked myself what am I doing brewing beer, I drink more wine than beer, so I should be making wine.”
And that’s exactly what she started doing.
In 1995 she and her husband Michael found property in Livermore Valley for sale that had a vineyard. They fell in love with it and bought it, planning to build a house so they could live and raise their children among the vines. That house became headquarters for her new winery business and the vineyard now provides the grapes for Rhonda’s estate Merlot.
Wood Family Vineyards was bonded with a production level of about 165 cases. Now Rhonda produces about 2,000 cases a year. “I just hired my first employee this year,” she says. Otherwise it’s been a one woman band operation, with help from her husband at harvest. “I used to do everything myself,” she says. “Taking care of the wines all year, cleaning the tanks that was all me.”
During the five times a year the winery is open to the public for events, and the two wine club events, friends and family come out to help. “That’s fun for me, to catch up with everyone.” She cooks dinner for everyone.
Rhonda learned to make wine by just doing it. When she moved to Livermore, she worked at other wineries, made some wine at home, and took classes, read books and talked to other winemakers. When a couple of barrels turned into 165 barrels she knew it was time to start her own winery. “If I can’t sell it I can drink it.” She knew she had plenty of friends who would help her drink the wine too.
At the beginning both Rhonda and her husband kept their day jobs. Michael commuted to Silicon Valley (and still does), and she commuted to San Francisco International Airport. Then US Airways closed their San Francisco hub, and Rhonda was faced with having to commute to Philadelphia. Instead she asked for a 30 day leave of absence that started on September 1, 2001. She wanted to focus on her winery.
Then September 11 happened. US Airways gave her a five year leave of absence. “I had five years to decide if the winery is what i wanted to do or not,” she says. “I resigned at the end of five years because the winery was going really well.”
And the winery is still doing well. Rhonda sells out of everything she makes. “All the wine we make is from Livermore grapes,” she says.
Her Chardonnay is barrel fermented and aged in a combination of new, one year and two year old French oak barrels. In the wine the oak is very well balanced instead of being so obvious. “I believe when you barrel ferment its much more integrated,” Rhonda says, “because the yeast interacts with the wood and the barrel characteristics when it is fermenting.” That helps tame the oakiness in the wine.
She calls her Chard ‘Para Mas Amigas,’ which means “for more girlfriends.” Rhonda says, “all my girlfriends wanted me to make a Chardonnay, they were like come on Rhonda please please make a Chardonnay. So I called this ‘Para Mas Amigas’ thinking that it was for my girlfriends. But my Spanish is from my high school days, so instead mas means more so it’s for more girlfriends.” Indeed, she makes more friends with this wine.
The Wood Family Merlot comes from Rhonda’s vineyard, which has a lone California live oak tree that is home to a red tail hawk. Hence the name One Oak Vineyard. On the back label of this wine, Rhonda writes that when they bought the vineyard she was dreaming of retiring as an airline pilot and that Michael is still dreaming. He works in Silicon Valley at Trane HVAC, but helps out during harvest and at blending.
Rhonda says she and Michael agree on blending decisions, except for one time, when he really liked one particular blend. “We called it 50/50 and it was a blend of a very high residual sugar wine,” she says. “I made a dessert wine out of it, 50% Zinfandel and he liked it with 50% Petite Sirah which was still too sweet for me. Boy everybody loved it. They are still asking for it, so it was a good thing i listened to him.”
Another wine that sells out quickly is ‘Muy Bueno,’ a Zinfandel blended from two vineyards along with some Petite Sirah. It is muy bueno, fruity, smooth and tasty.
Rhonda makes another Zinfandel, ‘Big Wood,’ a blend of Zin grapes from three Livermore vineyards. It bursts with dark berry flavors and licorice spice. Big, bold and very popular, this wine sells out quickly.
You can see Rhonda likes to have fun with her wines. The Wood Family label is a Woody station wagon with surfboards. She and Michael used to wind surf. “The Woody on the label is like the first family station wagon, pack it up and go and have some fun. It’s a classic car, this is classic winemaking.” The license plate WFV 988 is a nod to the year that Rhonda and Michael married and started their family.
One of her sons is now in the wine business, selling wine for another Livermore Valley winery. Her other son is in college, and comes home to help out at events. One day, Michael will become more involved too.
“I love flying I do miss flying,” this pilot turned vintner says. “I fly little airplanes, I flew this last Monday, rented a Cesna 140 out of Livermore, but it’s just for fun now.”
All photos by Anzelone Photography