A Sip Wines “Winelight”
Brian Mast & Jennifer Waits, Owners/Vintners
Shalini Sekhar, Winemaker
Not long after I started blogging for Sip Wines, I had the pleasure of speaking with Brian Mast and Jennifer Waits, the owners of Waits-Mast Family Cellars. Without giving too much away up front, I left that conversation completely convinced that not only had I missed my calling as a winemaker/winery owner/vintner, but in fact that path was completely attainable and I would be a fool not to pursue it. I walked away from our conversation overflowing with hopeful optimism and excitement for my new calling.
Then I told my husband about my career epiphany. To say that he met my enthusiasm with skepticism would be an understatement, and to prove his point, he started asking me for, like, concrete ideas and data points about how I intended to achieve this life transformation. Unfortunately, the “Brian and Jennifer did it so why can’t I?” argument was not as compelling out loud as it was in my head. So here I remain, forced only to drink wine and live vicariously through our amazing Sip Wines partners.
In my defense, Brian and Jennifer’s path to winery ownership was just relatable, and unconventional, enough to make me think I could do it too. They didn’t grow up around wine, or study wine in a fancy program, or work in the wine industry. No, Brian and Jennifer are just two people who share a love of wine and pursued that love to fulfill a dream. (My argument to my husband that I, too, have a love of wine, was inexplicably not compelling enough to win him over.)
As I reflect on my conversation with the Waits-Mast duo, I’m struck again by how simple they made it all sound. Mind you, I said simple, not easy—meaning, they told their story as a series of relatively straightforward steps, confidently taken and without regard for a pedantic view of realism, in pursuit of something they both loved. I don’t at all want to suggest that it was easy, because entrepreneurship rarely is, but they also didn’t dwell at all on the challenging aspects of launching their own winery with no historical or academic background in wine. (Can you blame me for thinking I could do this too??)
Brian and Jennifer met 22 years ago, and from the beginning they shared a love of wine. Actually, the term they used to describe themselves was “wine geeks,” and I understand why they would want to make the distinction. Lots of us love wine, after all, but for them it became a true pursuit. They traveled extensively throughout the US, as well as some ventures overseas, not just tasting wine but also learning and studying.
Pinot Noir was their true love, which led them to spend more and more time in the Anderson Valley, a region in Northern California renowned for amazing Pinot. Through an annual Pinot Noir conference attended predominantly by growers and winemakers, they were able to vastly expand their knowledge and network. At that point, the seed of an idea for starting their own winery was planted, although it was still too early to see anything other than farfetched.
That is… until they stumbled across an opportunity that is just so completely San Francisco: the “urban winery” startup. I’m honestly not even sure if I’m using the correct terminology to describe it, so just bear with me. The particular winery that they found was called Crushpad, a venture started by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and the model was pretty straightforward. Crushpad sourced grapes from local vineyards, provided winemaking facilities, and hosted experienced winemakers on site, and customers signed on to make as little as a single barrel of wine with as little or much involvement as they wanted ranging from basic consultation to actually crushing grapes themselves.
Brian and Jennifer thought it would be fun to make a single barrel of wine, so they signed up, not realizing that the “just for fun” barrel would be the equivalent of their famous last words. The problem was, they ended up being really good at it, and produced a single AMAZING barrel of wine. After numerous requests from people wanting to buy their wine, suddenly the idea of starting their own wine business seemed a lot less farfetched—particularly because Crushpad also offered small business support services at the two-barrel production point. Well, what’s one more barrel, right?
Fast forward to their first commercial vintage in 2007, and Waits-Mast Family Cellars was born. They started small with three barrels, still viewing the endeavor as a side hustle more than anything else. That is, until one of the wines from that first vintage was ranked in the top 100 wines of the year in the San Francisco Chronicle, with an incredible review by famous wine writer Jon Bonné. At that point, Brian and Jennifer realized that fate wasn’t merely knocking, but rather basically punching them in the face with their obvious next move. Bye, side hustle. Hello, wine life.
The really interesting thing about Waits-Mast is that, as an “urban winery” themselves, they work very differently from the typical wine country operations. Brian and Jennifer live in San Francisco proper and don’t own their facility or equipment outside of some barrels. By their own description, they’ve been “itinerant” winemakers; I guess fate has been willing to chase them, because in 2016, Shalini Sekhar arrived as the new custom crush winemaker at the facility where they’d been operating since 2012. It didn’t take long for Waits-Mast to realize that Shalini was a gem, not only in terms of her actual winemaking ability, but also her collaborative and communicative style that aligned so perfectly with their own.
Shalini Sekhar, winemaker extraordinaire
I forgot to mention earlier that Shalini was also on the call, at least once we got our dicey Zoom issues out of the way. I know I might sound defensive, but Shalini didn’t help my (ok, I’ll admit it) delusion of my wine destiny, given that she’s another person who kind of fell into the wine world by her own account. Born and raised in New Jersey, Shalini was a musician with a Master’s Degree in Flute and Piccolo Performance who didn’t pursue wine until she moved to California for her husband’s job. Her plan was to look for a job in a symphony; in the meantime, she worked part-time in a local tasting room for fun more than anything else…
Then: THE WINE BUG BITES AGAIN. Shalini decided to put the symphony plan on hold and try her hand at making wine, interning at that same winery during the following harvest and ultimately going back to school to study enology and viticulture. She got all kinds of credentialed and worked in Napa for a while, until she decided that the corporate winery scene wasn’t her thing and moved into custom crush work in the Russian River Valley. At that point she was still living in San Francisco with her husband, and when they had their first child, the commute got old pretty quickly. Shalini moved into the SF custom crush market, met Brian and Jennifer… and here we are.
Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Napa anymore…
There’s so much more I want to say about Brian, Jennifer, and Shalini, but I’m running up against the acceptable limits of blogging word count and need to wrap it up. Begrudgingly, I’ll choose just one main takeaway from my conversation with the Waits-Mast team that I’d like to leave you with, and it’s in line with my unofficial theme this week: the future of wine looks pretty different from the past, but it’s just as bright. Waits-Mast is definitely not your traditional winemaking model, operating instead as a beautiful collaboration among people with the right combination of passion, creativity, open-mindedness, and willingness to push boundaries. It’s one of the things that drew our Sip Wines team to them, and one of the reasons we’re so lucky to call them partners and friends: at the end of the day, what matters to us is finding good people doing good things and making good wines. Oh, and if it wasn’t already clear from everything I said about Waits-Mast already, their wine really is that good. If they’re breaking a few molds to make it, well, then maybe those molds needed to be broken.