By Bob Johnson
This is a Christmas story.
In 1996, some eight years before the movie “Sideways” sparked the widespread planting of Pinot Noir vineyards from Santa Barbara County to Mendocino County, the Goldeneye Winery was founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn of Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Winery.
Duckhorn was well known for its Bordeaux varietal wines, especially a coveted Merlot made from grapes grown in a vineyard named Three Palms. But like many people, over the years, the Duckhorns had grown to love Pinot Noir, and decided to found a winery that would be dedicated to the variety. They chose Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, which connects the hot inland part of the county with the much cooler coast, for the estate they would name Goldeneye.
The first Goldeneye wine was released in March of 2000 — 375 cases of an estate-grown Pinot Noir.
Two months earlier, well down the California coast, Michael Fay was hired by Cambria Winery. Fay was attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, studying enology and viticulture. He had developed an interest in wine — Pinot Noir, in particular — while working as a server and bartender at Ivers Acres of Clams, a restaurant adjacent to the ferry terminal in Seattle.
The chef there, Barbara Figueroa, was a Wolfgang Puck protégé who often would bring in wine suppliers and staff members to sample food and wine together.
“I remember having a Panther Creek Pinot Noir that was on the wine list,” Fay says. “It was an amazing wine — one of several that helped me learn that Pinot Noir is a variety that can be paired with so many different types of food.”
The job at Ivers not only ignited Fay’s passion for wine, it helped pay for his tuition at the University of Washington. But he would not end up getting his degree there.
Fay’s father was stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base outside Santa Maria, Calif., and Fay would travel down the coast to visit during summer and holiday breaks.
“On one trip, I was visiting the Fess Parker Winery, and mentioned that I was planning to transfer down there. As I was leaving, Parker tapped me on the shoulder and said that Cal Poly was going to have a program for growing grapes and making wine. I could go to Cal Poly and live with my parents.”
That’s what he did, and that’s what led to the vine-pruning job at Cambria.
Fay had a keen interest in “how plants worked,” and recalls being “the only white guy on the crew — a great group of guys.” He took his work seriously, and performed the vine pruning with precision.
There was only one problem: He was slow. Much slower than the other members of the crew, most of whom had been at it much longer.
“After about five weeks I was called in and told I was doing a really good job, but they were going to have to let me go.”
Fortunately, he was able to land a job at the Firestone winery. Once again, his good work was noticed — only this time, he was offered a promotion.
“Adam [Firestone] wanted to promote me to assistant manager of the tasting room,” Fay recalls. “I told I’m I’d do it, but only if I could work two days a week in the cellar. He reluctantly agreed.”
Practical, hands-on experience was trumping book work, and within nine months Fay was promoted to cellarmaster. After less than a year in that post, he was recommended for an open enologist post at Cambria Winery. Fay embraced the irony. During the job interview he asked, “Will it hurt my cause if I’ve already been laid off by this company?”
It would not.
Fay and Cambria proved to be a good match. He liked the work and he did it well, but that meant giving it full-time attention. There was no time for Cal Poly.
In 2006, Fay was in line for a promotion, but there was a problem: Jess Jackson, the owner of Cambria and the vast Kendall-Jackson empire, wanted all of his management personnel to have degrees — to be the best trained team in the wine business.
“Jess told me that I would have that promotion as soon as I graduated from Cal Poly,” Fay says. “And he said that the company would pay for it. I’d work 30 hours per week at the winery and spend the rest of my time in school. Five quarters later, I had the degree and the promotion.”
Fay would spend a total of 11 years at Cambria.
Fay is confident he could have spent his entire career at Cambria or elsewhere under the vast K-J umbrella. But with so many talented (and degreed) people there, advancement figured to be slow.
“I wanted a place where I could have control over the grapes, people, facilities and a brand known for Pinot Noir,” Fay says.
In 2012, that opportunity presented itself. A mutual friend of his and Duckhorn COO Zach Rasmuson had put in a good word for him. That July, he became the new winemaker for Goldeneye.
While looking for a place to live, Fay lived in an old apple dryer building on the property, and used the winery’s barbecue to cook his meals. He gained intimate knowledge of the property, and immersed himself in every aspect of the operation.
“This is where I belong,” he says.
And that would make for a good ending to this tale… except, as you may recall, this is a Christmas story.
Sometimes in life, particularly when we’re young and still finding our way, we take jobs simply to make ends meet.
If we’re lucky, we may find a job that truly interests us. And if we’re really fortunate, some aspect of a job may open the door to a career.
Michael Fay was really fortunate. That job as a server and bartender at Ivers Acres of Clams piqued his interest in wine and opened the door to the dream job he now has.
But it was Fay’s even earlier interest in forestry that makes this a Christmas story.
While studying forestry management at the University of Washington — studies that planted an interest in how plants grow and, later, how grapevines should be pruned — Fay had a seasonal job that his mother absolutely loved.
“Mom would tell me that I smelled better when I came home from work than when I left the house,” Fay says.
You see, before he landed his dream job at Goldeneye, before he became a tasting room assistant manager, or an enologist, or a cellar rat, or a grapevine pruner, or a restaurant server and bartender, Michael Fay wanted to own a Christmas tree farm.
It would have been a noble profession, but probably not a realistic one. Forestry management degrees typically lead to jobs at lumber or paper mills.
And once the wine bug bit, there was no turning back.
“Why am I learning how to grow paper?” Fay asked himself. “I’m going to learn how to grow grapes.”
Identifying one’s true place in life is the best Christmas present of all.
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Goldeneye specializes in single-vineyard Pinot Noir bottlings, and also makes another variety for which the Anderson Valley is well known: Gewurtztraminer.
I tasted three wines during my visit with Fay — a Gewurztraminer, a rosé made from Pinot Noir, and one of the single-vineyard Pinots…
2012 Goldeneye Gewurztraminer, Confluence Vineyard, Anderson Valley
Fay utilized a slow fermentation to preserve this wine’s lovely aromatics, then aged half of the cuvee in stainless steel tanks and half in neutral oak barrels. Honeysuckle, lychee and various stone fruit notes jump from the glass, and the bright, refreshing mouthfeel invites another sip. Fay calls this “the best sushi wine I’ve ever had.” (100 cases; $35)
2013 Goldeneye Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley
All four of Goldeneye’s Pinot Noir vineyards contributed fruit to this wine, which accounts for its complexity. A purple flower aroma leads to flavors of tropical fruit, banana, citrus, orange peel, red berries, watermelon and cherry, with an engaging creamy component. (350 cases; $28)
2011 Goldeneye Pinot Noir, Gowan Creek Vineyard, Anderson Valley
This wine possesses a tannin structure that bodes well for aging up to a decade, but it’s drinking so nicely now that waiting seems illogical. Eight different Pinot Noir clones can be found in the Gowan Creek Vineyard, and five blocks were used in crafting this rich wine, brimming with blackberry, plum and licorice flavors. (1,500 cases; $80)
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Goldeneye is located at 9200 Highway 128 in Philo, Calif. Call 707-895-3202 for hours of operation.