One of the things I most admire about Napa-based winemaker, Kira Ballotta, is her fearlessness. She isn’t afraid to put herself out there and to risk failure in order to try something she’s never done before. Let me put it this way. Kira served wine she had made at her wedding. This, in and of itself, is a huge accomplishment. But what I am completely in awe of is that Kira only had a few months of hands-on experience and limited coursework under her belt when she started making her own wine. And it still turned out well enough that she served it at her own wedding. I am flabbergasted.
When I sat down to talk to Kira, she and her husband were on their way back from a Thursday night dinner in San Francisco. Her husband, Pete, was kind enough to take the wheel while she and I talked about her craft. I should disclose that Kira and I met in high school and have been friends for half our lives, but I have always maintained that interviewing someone—even a person you might think you know—allows you to see him or her through completely fresh eyes, and is probably the best way to discover how little you actually know about them.
Kira has only been involved in winemaking for about two and a half years now, but she has always been someone who creates. As she walked me through her childhood writing projects and her teenage fashion designs, I thought back fondly to the savvy 16-year-old who outfitted my jeans with rhinestone decorations and told me confidently about her plans to study business in college so she could launch her own label. I particularly remember thinking, first and foremost, that I didn’t even know you could major in business; second, that it seemed like a smart thing to do; and third, how impressive it was that my friend already knew what she wanted to do with her life. But most impressive of all is that here we are, 13 years later, and Kira really did launch her own label of sorts: a 2013 Napa red blend, appropriately called “We Made This.”
Kira’s 16-year-old self would be pleased to find out that she did study business in college. But her wine career took a more circuitous route. “I really liked the idea of creation but it took me a while to land on [winemaking],” she explains. Upon graduating, she went into finance. “I think when I actually started school and my professional career, I just wanted to make money for a while.”
During the time she was crunching numbers, Kira’s creative side was relegated to hobby status. “I started to dance a lot. I really like salsa.” But it was actually her work in finance that once again brought her creative side to the forefront, this time in the form of a new interest: winemaking. “I always enjoyed wine, but I don’t think I thought about the whole process of making it until I started to value some wineries.”
Valuation is a branch of investment banking where you estimate the worth of something. And it was through this framework that Kira also began to experiment with how she could incorporate wine into her work. “I think I just kind of naturally wanted to learn more and I didn’t really have the skillset or the course work or anything to pursue winemaking at that time. So I thought the business side would be where I could add the most value.”
In order to improve her understanding of the wine business, Kira supplemented her research with some hands-on experience working with the winemaker of a small 1,500 case winery on the weekends. Quickly, she watched as the value of winemaking grew exponentially in her own life. “I just ended up really enjoying my work with him and wanted to come back.”
Kira still remembers the pivotal day when she realized she wanted to make wine for a living. She was in a cave tasting from different barrels and one barrel had a “really sulfurous kind of rotten egg smell to it.” The winemaker she was working with at the time took a penny out of his pocket, put it in the glass of wine, swirled it around and handed it back to her. The rotten egg smell was gone. The wine had essentially been purified. “I learned much later that this was due to copper being a kind of an absorbent of the sulfurous compound but at the time it just kind of just seemed like magic.”
It was that sense of magic that Kira realized she was missing from her life. “My career in finance just didn’t really make me very happy anymore. I had to make a change.”
Kira ended up finding analytical work at a wine conglomerate, which turned out to be a happy medium between researching wine and actually making it. The company provided some coursework in the evaluation of wine for free to their employees called the “Wine and Spirits Education Trust” (WSET) training. On the weekends, she continued working with the winemaker she had shadowed, “just doing odd jobs, and punch downs, and cleaning out kegs and pick bins. You know, whatever was needed.” After a year and a half, Kira decided that the production side of winemaking was where she wanted to be. “So I had to just quit my job and join a harvest team.”
If that sounds like the plot of “Under the Tuscan Sun 2,” Kira assured me that her transition to winemaking felt a lot less spontaneous. “I had such a long easing-in process into winemaking because I really had tried to make wine and business work for a good two years before I realized I just wasn’t going to be satisfied with that.” And a lot less glamorous. Going into production meant having to begin climbing the career ladder all over again. “With winemaking, you really have to start at ground zero.”
I wondered if she felt intimidated by becoming a student again, but she said no, that it was unexpectedly liberating. “I actually had this wonderful sense of bewilderment. I felt kind of like a sense of wonder again.” And even though her colleagues had not only winemaking experience, but also education including degrees in viticulture [the science, production, and study of grapes] or enology [the study of wines], she found her inexperience to be an opportunity for growth. “I think in a lot of fields you feel very competitive with your peers, but I think in wine, I kind of lost that and just felt like I was learning how to do it and was happy to learn from the people around me. So that was a cool feeling.” Was it that the wine industry is in general less competitive? I wondered to myself. Or is it that something just felt different internally? “Maybe when you love something you just feel like you have something to learn from everyone who does it,” Kira said, as if in answer to my thoughts.
‘Maybe when you love something you just feel like you have something to learn from everyone who does it.’
And that includes learning from herself. “When you’re making other people’s wine, you get a lot of instruction. But when you’re doing your own project, you are kind of out in the middle of nowhere, trying to figure out how to make a fire. It’s a totally different learning curve to do your own thing. And it was a really important experience that I wanted to have to start things off.”
For Kira, the process of creating and bottling her own red blend ended up taking a year and a half. After being ready to pick some second-growth crop (“grapes in Napa are very expensive so I was willing to do the laborious thing,” which involved finding vines that had managed a second growth of grapes and waiting toward the end of harvest for the tiny grapes to develop enough sugar), or if that didn’t work, “just making a beer because I didn’t know what else to do,” Kira lucked upon 400 pounds of first-growth grapes (Petit Verdot) that were offered to her by a vineyard manager — enough to make a half barrel of wine.
After taking her sample back to her lab, and running the sugar and the pH to make sure the grapes were sound, she called everyone she knew to get a truck and to help pick the grapes. “It was a crazy, whirlwind 24 hours but I couldn’t stop smiling.” She then brought the grapes to a friend’s winery where he lent her a food grade blue plastic bin and she “jumped in there in some shorts and foot tread all the grapes!”
As she is telling me this story, she and her husband are winding through the hills of Sonoma, and we get cut off a few times. I think it adds to the suspense.
After getting everything pressed, Kira asked a friend to help do her punchdown. As she explained, in order to keep the grapes aerobically fermenting (the process by which CO2 and ethanol are produced), instead of going into anaerobic fermentation (where a sulphurous compound is produced that leads to what people in the industry call “reductive flavors and smells”), someone has to flip over your grapes a couple times a day. At the time, Kira was working harvest full time at her other winery job, and so she was lucky to have a friend who could help her with that process.
A few days later, she inoculated the grapes with yeast to get the fermentation going; and then a month or so later, she returned at the end of harvest with a rented basket press to press out the wine into kegs. These she used to transport the wine to her house, where she put in a half barrel to be aged for a little over a year. As Kira explained to me before we again got cut off, “Wine does best with a little bit of oxidated aging and a barrel will enable that process kind of elegantly. The grains in the French oak barrel are very tight, so they allow just a little bit of oxygen to get into the wine, in order to create better aromatics and ‘open it up,’ as we like to say.”
I wondered if making wine involved just putting it into a barrel and crossing your fingers that it turned out okay, but Kira assured me that, no, it wasn’t at all like making jungle juice in college. “You try to taste it pretty frequently to see how it is doing in the barrel, and to make sure that the volatile acidity (which is something that creates vinegar) is not getting too high.” Luckily, if it does start to go toward vinegar, which Kira says is not uncommon, especially in smaller batches, there are things you can do to rescue it, such as adding sulfur to kill the fermentation process. Kira was quick to add, “the amount of sulfur added in wine is less than a tenth the amount that you eat in any dried fruit. People get scared of that word, so I want to clarify.”
In Kira’s case, because she was working harvest and wasn’t able to top off her wine as frequently as she would have liked, her volatile acidity did get a little high. Her solution was to buy some merlot to blend with her wine. “Sometimes that works. Sometimes you can kind of just blend something down in your wine, like if you find a wine that will counterbalance it and you blend those together.” Kira adds that this is an advantage of making wine on a larger scale, because you’re more likely to have things that will balance out what’s not going well. “People will often tell you in the wine industry, it’s easier to make a lot of wine than a little wine, because at the end of the day, you have a lot of wine to balance things out. Versus if you have two barrels, and one of them goes bad, then 50 percent of your wine is bad. And so it’s like, you know, it’s a better hedge.” Spoken like a true former investment banker.
Knowing just what to add to fix the wine is part of the learning curve, Kira tells me. “That’s the fun part about making your own wine,” she explains, before we again get cut off. After calling me back for the fourth time in five minutes, she declares, “I don’t know why the cell phone service is so bad in Sonoma, but in Napa it’s much better. I’m not sure about our wine, but our cell phone service is superior.”
I was curious about something Kira had mentioned during her story—because she was working harvest at another winery, she didn’t have the chance to tend to her wine in the way that would have been ideal for her. I asked her how she managed this tension between the requirements of her job and her personal pursuits. “Well, I think you just kind of have to forgive yourself the days that you’re not able to focus on your project as much as you’d like. I get so mad when people say follow your dreams and say it so lightly. Because it’s really just ‘work really hard and do something you like’. That’s what it actually looks like.”
For Kira, balancing her winery work with her personal projects does look like hard work. “Right now I’m working like six days a week, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. And my boss called me today and told me that she found some grapes I might like, so I’ll probably go check those out on my lunch break tomorrow and then maybe pick them on my next day off at 7 a.m. I think you’re always kind of working in one way or another even when you’re not at work.”
Yet despite the long hours, Kira says that doing what she loves has helped her find a greater sense of internal peace.
‘I find myself certainly enjoying work a lot more and laughing more. I was in my friend’s wedding a couple weeks ago and she wrote me a note and it said in the last couple of years that I have been my most authentic self. And that was nice to hear because I kind of feel that way too. I don’t know how else to put it but, yeah, I think I’ve definitely come into myself more when I’ve been able to pursue this.’ Thinking a bit more she adds, ‘it’s not 9-5, but that’s ok.’
By this time, Kira and Pete have gotten home and she has to get ready for bed so she can begin again early the next morning. I ask her if she has any final thoughts she would like to share. “I think I would tell people to explore wine over $10 a bottle.” I crack up. This wasn’t exactly the pearl of wisdom I was expecting, but I’ll take a good financial analysis if I can get one. “Let me put it this way,” she continues. “A French oak barrel is like $1,200 and yields about 300 bottles. So just the storage alone costs $4 a bottle. Anything over $10 a bottle, it’s been in barrels, it’s had a winemaker pay attention to it. The whole thing. I think it’s worth it. If you’re going to risk the headache the next day to drink a bottle of wine, at least give to the process.”