Q&A With Director of Winemaking Manveer Sandhu
Get to know Manveer Sandhu, our Director of Winemaking!
We sat down with Manveer back in 2020 to ask him some questions, and we’re sharing that interview with you now:
You have a degree in neurobiology. Why were you drawn to winemaking? Had you ever considered an alternate career path in the sciences?
When I first studied at UC Davis, I was a pre-med major and dedicated myself to that career path — decided early on in high school. In my junior year, as most college students do, I needed a part-time job to help pay for my living expenses. I started working at Dr. David Smart’s Viticulture lab (at the university) and became fascinated with grape growing and winemaking. I took a few classes in viticulture and enology and fell in love with the science, culture and art of winemaking. From that point on, I was determined to explore winemaking as my future.
Was coming to Rack & Riddle a major switch in your winemaking career or was sparkling always your primary wine focus?
Coming to Rack & Riddle was major shift in my winemaking career and my geographical location. In the past I had primarily still winemaking exposure, although I did work with sparkling wine a little at Gallo. Sparkling wine did interest me, mostly because it was so specialized and unknown to me at the time. I relocated and moved my family to Sonoma county, a place that I was quite unfamiliar to and far from my extended family. Looking back now, it was one of the best professional and personal decisions I’ve made.
What are the winemaking principles you hold most dear?
Winemaking starts in the vineyard; I believe a winemaker’s job is to showcase the best the grapes have to offer. The craft of winemaking really begins with understanding the terroir of the fruit and using the experience you’ve gained along the way to bring out the best character in the wine. The principle I hold dear to me is, treat each lot/vineyard like the unique entity it is, try to intervene as little as possible to preserve character or dig deep into my tool kit, if needed, to coax out the best flavors. Following an individual, personalized approach to winemaking allows me to showcase the best a wine has to offer and to craft truly special blends.
How many harvests have you worked throughout your career? How many at Rack & Riddle? Has there been a particularly memorable one, and why?
I have worked 15 harvests in total, it will be my 16th this year. At Rack & Riddle I have worked 10 harvests.
Over the course of my career I have had two memorable harvests, and both have been with Rack & Riddle. My first harvest at R&R was memorable because it was the smallest winery I had worked for; because of that, it was also the smallest team and most intimate environment I had been a part of. I was more hands-on and involved in harvest then I had ever previously been, and coupled with sparkling wine grapes, it made for a truly exciting harvest. The excitement and eagerness were what likely got me through my first 7-day/week, 4-month long harvest.
Harvest 2018 was the most special and memorable for me. This was the both challenging and extremely rewarding for me. We had four new additions to the winemaking team at the very beginning of harvest. While bringing in 5,400 tons of fruit in the first six weeks of harvest, I also had to train our new, bright team. Luckily, we have some very capable and hard work winemakers. They were able to hit the ground running and made 2018 harvest one of our best and most fruitful harvests.
Are there any programs now in place at Rack & Riddle that you initially spearheaded? If so, which ones?
Throughout my tenure at Rack & Riddle, I have strived to improve and promote our processes and programs. My first initiative when I joined the team was to develop and upgrade the Laboratory functions. All our efforts have led to a fully automated laboratory and an expertly trained lab team. For the sparkling wine side, three years ago we implemented producing special, unique wine blends to the embody the best the vintage has to offer. We are continuing this effort for the 2019 vintage and producing four unique special blends.
As Head Winemaker, and the lead for your team, what would you say are the pillars of your leadership, and how do you approach that on a daily basis? In other words, what is your leadership style?
My leadership style is to be involved in daily interactions with the winemaking team and provide support for their roles. We have a diverse team with varying experience, so it is important for me to have open communications with them to determine the level of mentorship and training I can lend.
Working at Rack & Riddle for almost 11 years has given me an opportunity to work in each of their roles. This puts me in better position to work closely with them when needed. My approach is to provide my team the tools they need, so they can work independently to grow and own their role. I find this aids in overall team growth and prepares them to take the next steps at Rack & Riddle.
Do you have a personal credo that you abide that directly applies to the quality of your work or your leadership style?
When it comes, to my work ethic, I try to work with as much information and detail as possible. To make the best decisions, it is important that I evaluate “all the angles” prior to moving forward. I feel this was engrained in me due to my science and math background, to follow the scientific method. I follow a similar path when it comes to my leadership; open, forthright communication, lead by example, and then let the team work through their process. I’m here to course correct if needed, but for their growth the team benefits from some autonomy.
At the end of the day, what do you find most rewarding about your job/position?
At the end of the day, one of the most rewarding parts is, after all the work and effort we put in, all the late night and weekend hours, we are making something tangible. Something our audience can touch, taste, smell and enjoy. Winemaking is one of the few food and beverage industries where we control the process from fruit to its final form for consumers to enjoy, with as little intervention as possible.
Icing on the cake is the positive responses we receive and the accolades we have accumulated over the years for something we are deeply passionate about.
What’s your favorite sparkling wine pairing?
To be honest I’ll drink sparkling wine with anything. There isn’t a meal or time of day that doesn’t call for some bubbles. When is comes to cheese, bread and cured meats or fresh raw oysters, sparkling wine is a must for me.
Besides sparkling wines that Rack & Riddle produces, what wine is likely on your table at night? Why?
My choice of still wine on any given evening is a light, earthy Pinot Noir. We have so many great Pinot Noir producers in Sonoma County, its hard to pick out a favorite.
Where are you from originally? How has that had an impact on your winemaking style?
I am originally from the United Kingdom, West London area to be more precise. Not sure how it has impacted my winemaking since I was only 15 when I came to the United States. Moving to California, the leading producer of wine in the US, has given me a wider perspective of wine varietals and the quality of wine we can make. Being of East Indian decent, this career choice was a bit of a deviation from what my parents and members of the Indian community typically expect. There are not many (or any) Punjabi Winemakers in the California wine industry, let alone sparkling winemakers. In a way I am exploring my own style with the guidance of those before me.
Can you recall the first time you actually drank a glass of wine, and what your thoughts were? Did early experiences with wine influence your decision to become a winemaker?
My first time tasting wine was as a student at UC Davis. My roommate enjoyed the occasional bottle of wine, so I decided to join him. Prior to this, my only exposure to alcohol was cheap beer and cocktails. My first wine experience was drinking BV Coastal Pinot Noir.
Like trying beer for the first time, drinking wine was an acquired taste. I did enjoy the fact it had more complexity than what I was accustomed to, and was better savored with sips rather than gulps. From this point on I explored more varietals bouncing around with new favorites like Petite Sirah and Zinfandel before finding myself back to Pinot Noir.
The joy of tasting and drinking these wines sparked my interest in the process of winemaking and has an influence in me ultimately pursuing a career in winemaking.
Let’s talk about the diversity of the winemaking team. Tell me about the overall diversity of the team as a whole, and your thoughts on why it’s relevant in today’s winemaking landscape, or in comparison to the professional winemaking landscape overall. What makes your team a bit different?
We have quite the diverse winemaking team at Rack & Riddle and the diversity pretty much follows through the entire company. We all hail from very different areas but found our way to Rack & Riddle. I think having this diversity within our team is great from a wine tasting and sensory perspective.
On the winemaking side, we all started with a focus in still wine and wanted to pursue the education and exposure to sparkling wine.
Wine growing regions overseas and on the opposite end of the country are quite different, allowing that unique perspective and palette to bring something new to the table. Part of my objective within the team is to not only have each of our winemakers understand the house palette, but to also learn from their opinions of the wines we make.
Keep an eye out for more interviews with Manveer and other members of our team!