From Climbing the Corporate Ladder to Planting Cabernet

Last month I had the chance to spend a few days exploring the Snake River Valley AVA with the Idaho Wine Commission. My private Idaho wine tour opened my eyes to more varietals and amazing wines being produced in the United States. I’m finding more and more intrigue in wines produced here in areas outside of California, Organ and Washington. This country is so vast, with many different climates able to produce a huge amount of varietals. I’ve often found myself wondering just how the wine world would be if Prohibition had not killed the wine industry in the United States back in 1920’s. Alas, that’s for another post…or book.

While the wines in Idaho were the draw for my trip, I found the winemakers we met with just as much, if not more intriguing. These men – and a lot of women – are truly pioneers. They’re shaping what this young wine industry will become…and working to put Idaho on the country’s – and the world’s – wine map.

One of the handful of winemakers I had the chance to meet and speak with was Earl Sullivan at Telaya Wine. What struck me with Earl was his corporate background, not to mention his Mourvèdre. He was working as a COO of a global pharmacy company, traveling 280 days a year. His wife, a veterinarian worked similar hours, yet without the travel. They never saw each other, their nanny was raising their two young sons and it wasn’t going to be sustainable for their family… Sound familiar to anyone? It struck home for me, as it was the same reason I stopped running the social media division at the agency I was working at and why The Husband changed his gig. Truly a Carpe Diem moment.

I had really enjoyed hearing Earl’s story – and drinking his wines – I asked if he’d be interested in participating in Carpe Travel’s Interview with a Winemaker series. Lucky for me, he agreed. Not only did Earl share his own story but insights into the one being harvested right now in Idaho. Cheers!

Interview with a Winemaker: Earl Sullivan, Telaya Wine

Earl Sullivan, Telaya Wine in Idaho
Photo by Elaine Schoch

How was Telaya Wine born?

My wife, Carrie and I were working corporate careers and realized through a series of events that the life we were living wasn’t going to help us stay together, stay healthy or raise good kids. So we decided to make a change.  We were in Cabo San Lucas for a vacation and one morning sitting on the beach meditating on how we were going to make this change I came up with the name Telaya. It was a blend of both of our favorite places (Carrie – The Tetons and me the beach (La Playa)). We had been contemplating creating a winery for a while, now that we had the concept for the winery we began working to make it a reality.

I got the opportunity to work with a local winery as a cellar rat one season and learned some great techniques and general principles. We then hired a consultant to help teach us further and then finally we struck out independently.

What is your background as a winemaker? Where have you studied viticulture?

I have worked with some winemakers and some consultants but most of what I have done is OTJ – On The Job training.  Just recently I finished a two year stint at UC Davis in their winemaker certification program.  Mostly that was to broaden my education and network and less about teaching how to make wine.  I am a biochemist by education and I grew up working on a farm in Kentucky so the science and the agriculture come fairly naturally to me.

Idaho is still considered a new player in the wine world. If there is one thing you could tell people about the wine scene in Idaho, what would it be?

People will be very happy with the quality of wines and the associated value that they get from Idaho wines. The Idaho wine industry is growing quickly with very competitive wines nationally.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in producing wine in Idaho?

We are not a big enough producer that the perception of Idaho hurts us.  Most of our wine is sold out the front door.  However, if we were to grow bigger the smaller nature of our industry would have an impact.  Fortunately that is changing.

The real big hits to us are:  Skilled labor in the vineyards, supplies (we have to go to California or Washington to get basic supplies), equipment sales, service and support (again California or Washington) and the generally very low volume of Idaho Wine grapes planted (about 1400 acres vs 60,000+ in Washington).

What varietals are grown mostly in Idaho? How do these compare to what Telaya Wine is producing? And what varietals do you see doing better than others in Idaho. Why is that?

I work with Idaho and Washington fruit. I try to pull the best from both regions. The Rhone’s and the Rioja region wines grow best in our climate, soil, etc.  Syrah, Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Viognier.  I make all of these except Tempranillo at the moment. Cabernet doesn’t grow as well here because our season is a bit truncated and there just isn’t much fruit planted here. With that being said we pull all of our Cabernet for Telaya Wine from Washington (Red Mountain and Boushey Vineyards in Yakima).

Idaho has a lot of potential but we need wine grown that is heat tolerant and not a really really long season.

When did you fall in love with wine? Do you remember the wine that was “the one” that started it all? Is there a story behind it? 

Judd’s Hill Merlot was the wine that made me passionate about wine.  I had some aha moments with various wines and love Italian wines in general.  I have traveled all over the world and the opportunity to try wine and diverse wines was always present.  So my international travel really helped me develop a background and baseline for what I liked and what I was interested in.  However, that one trip to Napa where I met Judd and Art and Bunny really cemented it for me.  They let me do a punch down, they took us in the back.  They understood hospitality and made a simple visit anything but simple.  I wanted to have that type of interaction with people and make people enjoy something that much.

What are some of the misconceptions/phrases you hear from people regarding wine that are simply not true (or drive you crazy)? 

In Idaho specifically we hear the comment about “oh I didn’t know they made wine in Idaho” or is it “potato wine”.  One that does drive me crazy is that people will assume that because we are not Washington, Willamette or Napa that the wine can’t possibly be good or they will act with such surprise when it is as good or better than what they are used to.

Just because we are an emerging region doesn’t mean that we don’t have excellent wines.

Are there any memories / lessons you learned in your training that have stuck with you?

There are three main lessons that have stuck with me…

  1. 1. I learned that just because you have worked at big wineries or you have more experience doesn’t mean you are better at winemaking or that you know more about the process. Sometime intimidation is a factor in our industry and I think that anyone who is willing to make wine and make it with intention and passion should go for it.
  2. 2. I learned that “you can smell clean” (a direct quote from a mentor) and that by being clean we can make better wine so 80 percent of our job is cleaning.
  3. 3. I learned that diligence is the key. Don’t let things sit, don’t wait to top, don’t forget to do XY or Z.  You have to be diligent and stay on top of the wine.  It is a living, breathing representation of what you are and how you treated it.  Treat it well and it will treat you well.
Telaya Wine in Idaho
Photo by Elaine Schoch

What is your winemaking philosophy?

Be intentional.  Very intentional.

Each step has a purpose and needs to be done on time and in the proper manner.  You can’t cut corners, skip things because you are tired or you have already worked 12 hours. You have to make sure that each step is done with intention. We are trying to make old world style wines.

What would you hope people say about Telaya Wine? 

I hope that they would say that they are amazing.  However, I am just as interested in knowing how they felt while they were enjoying the wines. We really focus on hospitality at Telaya Wine and I want to make sure people feel welcome, that they have a sense of place and community and that they can come and enjoy a great glass of wine with friends and be able to leave some of their cares at the door.  The best compliment that we could have would be for someone to have that “Aha wine moment” with one of our wines.

How does your approach differ from other winemakers in Idaho?

I think one thing that makes our approach different is that this is a second career for Carrie and me.  We approach the business more about creating an environment of hospitality and building the people on our team while making very intentional wines that are really making a statement. We get the ability to make the wines that we would drink versus having a corporate parent or an investor or even the swings in market likes and dislikes tell us what we have to make.

Tell us about the wines being produced at Telaya Wine…

Right now we are in the middle of harvest. We are getting the opportunity to use all new equipment and Carrie and I are very excited about the quality of the wines this year. Both the harvest and the finished product. We are just finishing up our Syrah for the season.

At Telaya Wine we have a cold site and a warm site so we get to play with both and the Cabernet off of Red Mountain is finally all in. We are really having fun playing with some varietals that most people don’t work with (Mourvedre, Counnoise, and Semillon) and as always we put our flagship blend Turas (Irish for journey) together as the best of each vintage so in January we will start working on the 2015 version. It is a great time to be in the winery and this is what we live for. It’s a hectic two months but a ton of fun. We often say in the cellar that we “are having fun making serious wines”.

Telaya Wine in Idaho
Photo by Elaine Schoch

When people visit Boise, what are the top three things you think they should do/go/see?

Telaya Wine of course, but after that they should go and see the following three:

  1. 1. The greenbelt is one of my favorite places in Boise. There is so much of Boise you can see and it is a beautiful journey throughout our town.
  2. 2. The local restaurants like Juniper, Fork, Chandler’s and Mai Thai that source food locally or work with the local community. We have some really amazing Farm to Fork type restaurants in this town.
  3. 3. The Boise Capitol Building. It is open to the public and it has amazing architecture and some of the most beautiful marble work you have ever seen.  It really is a hidden gem.

What resources would you reference for people who want to learn about wine? From a novice to more advanced. 

General information on wine would be a book called Educating Peter.  A great, easy, informative read on what wine really is and how to understand the lingo.

For professional education, I don’t think that there is any better education than the one you get on the cellar floor. You have to see how people do it, what techniques they use and why to understand the opportunity. WSU and UC Davis both have education extension programs that will give the beginner or novice more details, more experience, and a broader network. The key is people. Talk to other winemakers and help them as much as they help you.


One Comment

  1. Hi Elaine,

    Inspirational post indeed. There are many to things to learn and analyze to become a successful person. Reading this post was useful for me and I praise you for sharing a wonderful interview of Earl sullivan, Telaya wine. This is one of the famous winemaker company and I have heard a little about this company before.

    Reading this post motivating me to do best in life. Glad to hear the reply wine making philosophy that is very intentional. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    Have a nice day.
    – Ravi.

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