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Winemaker Spotlight: Senses Wines

Senses Wines, Occidental, CA

I’m on a journey to Senses Wines vineyard to learn more about how they make their exceptional wines. After a long Northern California drought, the rain finally returns. It takes one such day to bring me to Occidental via Sebastopol. I’ve never been to either. As I drive through Sebastopol, I am struck by the small town feel, the vibrancy, standing out even amongst dark skies & the unique nature of this quaint town.

I’ll be meeting with Christopher Strieter, one of the three founders of a unique boutique line of wines at a company called Senses Wines. It’s a youthfully unique wine business. Unique in that the partners have been friends since preschool. Youthful because this generation gets the importance of active engagement on social media, specifically Twitter & Instagram. It’s one of the easier ways to open doors and break down the social nonsense of meeting like-minded people, and this is what brings me here. It’s a start up. Inspired by unique stories and start-ups in the wine space, I know I am in the right place.

The roads are wicked today. I’ve got a raincoat on, complete with hoodie and umbrella because the rain is coming down so hard. Driving on the 101 at the strong pace of 55mph I am being passed by cars, trucks and everyone else who loves hydroplaning. Settling in for the one hour drive, my only care is getting to my destination on time and in one piece.

En route to Occidental, I make a mental note to stop at the Bohemian Creamery next time I’m in town. The entire town is a little Bohemian, and the creamery is a sweet surprise on the way, but for another day.

The roads are narrow, twisting and turning including the three tree tunnels that envelope my little Prius as I motor on. I look to the right while the shoulder disappears instantly. I catch my breathe and focus on the road, not the lack there of. I’m about 8 minutes away and the clouds part as if on cue and the rain magically stops. Ah! Must be a sign of something wonderful.

As I get closer to my destination, the vineyards appear. It’s a view that never becomes ordinary for me regardless of where. I love to guess the treasures they hold, the fruit they’ll bear, the wine they inspire, who whispers & enchants them into producing their gifts of nectar.

The winds of the Sonoma Coast blow strong in this region with the ocean less than eight miles away. It’s known as the “Extreme Coast” in winemaking circles. Extreme meaning hard to grow in the region, providing these vines with such a struggle that the juice extracted from the grapes, tells the story of said exertion through the nuances and notes it evokes. The rainfall can be up to 100+ inches a year, with an occasional dusting of snow.

Arriving at the gate the buzzer sounds and I drive forward. I’m at the estate known as Hillcrest. The vineyard stands off to the right. A magnificent horse stable to the left. As I pull in a sign warns me of cockatoos… Seriously? Are they dangerous? I shall soon find out.

Christopher Strieter of Senses Wines at Hillcrest Estate

As I round the bend, Chris pops out to welcome me. His enthusiasm and upbeat nature are immediately engaging. A very pleasant surprise. In the wine industry, like many others, there are all types. I can tell this is a visit I am going to enjoy thoroughly. Equipped with a cooler, Coravin (a delightfully efficient wine opener and preserver) and glasses, he shares a bit about the property. It’s a location in Occidental where he spent much of his youth along with his two friends and business partners. A farm of sorts with rescued animals surrounded by vineyards. You can tell the property has been well cared for and is a family home. He apologizes for the weather, and we talk about where we should taste his wines, stating he prefers to sip while next to the actual vines responsible for said wine. I’m delighted with the idea and ready to hear the guts behind the start-up, why they grow and produce the wine they do. We navigate behind the rear-end of a horse passing through a corral where he is tied. Glad I brought the boots! There’s a bit of mud and muck all around.  This is country, and at the core of every wine company is the farm, the vines, dirt, and on rainy days mud and muck. It’s the very boiled down, raw aspect of the industry I find so intriguing.

Chris and his partners, Max Thieriot, a successful actor (Bates Motel) and Myles Lawrence-Briggs a writer and grape whisperer, began school together in the small town of Occidental as preschoolers. This lifelong friendship makes the bond in business a genuinely solid foundation. It’s bound by their lives growing up with the support and nurturing of their families, something that continues to thrive in business.

Each went on to university and later off on their respective career paths. Myles, the English major/writer who returned to learn winemaking, Chris working for a local winery learning the business from the ground up and Max, a professional actor. The friendship is an easy one. It includes an in-depth knowledge of each persona, families intertwined and the land they love. It is a part of their heritage they want to maintain. The question? Could they put a company together encompassing their history, skill sets and desire by tapping into their shared expertise and sustain the camaraderie that began so many years ago?

The idea of wine brand starts with a seed somewhere in a pub “Down Under” (the exact location unimportant). Each of the friends Max, Chris, and Myles, who are on various career paths, determine this good enough to result in a homecoming. Back in Sonoma County, the once whimsical thought erupts into a meeting of the minds of the three and fast tracks resulting in the business plan, an agreement to work together and assuming the responsibilities of the estate. This venture takes the three friends back to Occidental, adjacent to the family plot which might be lost had they not been prepared to take a dream to the stages of adventure.

Fast forward four years later…

The setting for our meeting is stunning. The vines are resplendent in their fall glory. Leaves have taken on their fall rainbow hue and shake the rain from themselves as the wind gives on last storm push over the hillside.

Q & A
It’s unusual to have a team so diverse and well rounded in business, while at the same time working powerfully well in the union. I asked Chris Strieter about the dynamics of the business side of the friendships and how they play so well together.

CS “It’s the willingness and ability to share creatively and solve problems together. Part of that includes the trust developed since pre-school.”

The foundational stance of the team on wine.
CS “We believe everything starts with farming great vineyards and that the rest of the business takes care of itself when you have a world-class team. Quality is always first. “

If you had to give each of your partners and yourself one word to describe what they do in the partnership what word would that be?
CS “This is hard to answer because we don’t divide roles with any granularity. We share all decision making and rely on one another to contribute where experience and knowledge may give a competitive edge. “

In wine, often it takes a village. Which wineries or winemakers that contributed to your success? 

CS “Ted Lemon of Littorai
Bob Cabral of Sonoma’s Three Sticks Wine.
Thomas Brown of Rivers-Marie

Senses Wines tasted:
2014 Sonoma Coast Rosé
2013 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
2013 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
2013 B.A. Thierot Vineyard Chardonnay
2013 Hillcrest Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir

The alliance at Senses Wine shares the common goal of making world-class Chardonnay & Pinot Noir. From an outsider’s view, I have to say I feel they’re well on their way to exceeding the plan. The wines are bright, evoking a clarity and unfettered distinction. I was especially taken with the Rosé, who’s bright grapefruit and peach finishes delighted and the Estate Pinot Noir with its berry notes, and elegantly smooth finish.

It’s hard to miss the excitement and enthusiasm in this venture. Four years and counting this team is producing wines available exclusively to subscribers.At the time of this post all wines are currently sold out and there is only one way to get access to their vintages, by subscribing www.senseswines.com .

As for the cockatoos. They certainly can be dangerous. However, these two appeared reasonably tame.

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Kelly Mitchell

Kelly Mitchell

The Wine Siren

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