Shawna Miller, Winemaker, Luna Vineyards
Luna Vineyards’ winemaker Shawna Miller spent much of her 20s as a wine harvest gypsy following the harvest seasons around the world from Napa to New Zealand.
Now at age 33 and the married mom of a two year-old daughter, Zaira, Miller is encouraged to tote her baby to work by her boss, Luna Vineyards President and CEO Andre Crisp. The special “bring-your-child-to-work” policy extended to Luna’s winemaker is paying off. Crisp believes “Luna wines will taste better when our winemaker is at peace and close to her family as much as possible”.
In July, Luna Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2012 received a 98 point rating, a gold medal, and Best of Class distinction at the 2015 Los Angeles International Wine Competition. The LAIWC used a 100-point system, the wine competition saw 3,003 international wines tasted. Wines were blind tasted by an international panel comprised of judges ranging from Master Sommeliers to chefs to wine writers. The rating would be a stellar success for any winemaker. For such a young winemaker, it’s astounding.
And thus it is so. Luna’s dedication to world-class wine makemaking, combined with a forward-thinking working environment and culture, encourages Miller’s experienced palate to create a glowing harvest of award-winning wines.
Shawna Miller’s Agricultural Virginia Roots
“My priority for wine is that it tastes great and especially that it’s delicious with food,” says Miller who despite the international praise heaped on her maintains the cheerful down-to-earth demeanor of her Virginia agrarian background.
Breaking the winemaker stereotype, Miller didn’t grow up in Napa. Her rural Virginia family didn’t even drink alcohol. She didn’t spend her undergraduate years majoring in enology major at UC Davis. She did try to take a wine chemistry class while she was forestry major at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University at Blacksburg. But she was turned away for being under 21.
And she developed a working knowledge of soil and plant chemistry in her agricultural studies. This technical knowledge was layered on top of the love of gardening and making jams and preserves from the yield that she learned from her grandmother as a child.
How Two College Sweethearts Become Mr. and Mrs. Winemaker
At a hiking club in college, Shawna recognized fellow forestry major Zak Miller from an ecology class. The two became close. After college in 2002 they married and moved to Arizona to work for the park service and then to Florida for jobs with the U.S. Geological Survey. But when they visited friends in Chico, CA and took a day trip to the Napa Valley, something clicked for both of them.
“We both realized the Napa Valley was where we wanted to be,” says Shawna. Travel plans they had made to journey through Asia were scuttled. They were now in love not only with each other but with winemaking.
After working their first Napa harvest, they headed to New Zealand at the suggestion of a new friend from there.
“Because of the hemisphere change, it was easy to go back and forth and work both harvests. It helped us condense our learning about the winemaking process. It was really nice. We just didn’t know then what was going to come of it all.”
When the couple returned to Napa for the 2008 harvest, Shawna was offered a job at Rombauer. Zak worked the Chile wine harvest. He returned to join Domaine Carneros where today he is assistant winemaker. Shawna left for a four month opportunity in Australia to study Cabernet Sauvignon and Sémillon grapes. When she returned to Napa this time it was for good and a job at Luna Vineyards.
“Whether it’s acid levels or oak levels, we don’t always agree,” Shawna says with a smile. But they also manage to find common ground.
Shawna’s Quest for Winemaking School
“When we first started living in the Napa Valley in 2004, the movie “Sideways” had just come out and it was impossible to get into any winemaking classes at Davis,” she recalls. “The waitlist was two and half years.”
Shawna discovered that UC Davis Extension offered a one-year winemaking program in Santa Rosa and Napa. Many of the classes could be taken online. Other classes were very hands-on. It was the right fit.
But Shawna’s real graduate school has been her work in the winery fields in Napa, New Zealand and Australia. At Luna Vineyards she continued to hone her craft and learned the art of blending from the other winemakers. She worked together with Luna CEO and President Andre Crisp on sourcing grapes. Most of all she learned to trust her own instincts.
Drought Concern All in a Day’s Work
“The 2013 wines were bottled in July,” Shawna says, “And I’m feeling great about them.” But at the time of the interview her concerns were focused on the harvest season and whether it would need to be moved up because of California’s drought.
“These really are just normal viticultural worries. There’s always something to be watching out for. At the end of the day, I go home, play with my daughter, have dinner and drink some wine.” NVL – by Deborah Burstyn