At first glance, Sarah Cabot is your typical Oregon winemaker: tattoos, pickup truck, canine companion (a German shepherd named Gretel); a degree in jazz composition from the Berklee College of Music.
And Cabot’s winemaking chops are quintessentially Oregonian. Until 2014, she was the principal winemaker at Willamette Valley’s Omero Cellars (now part of Craft Wine Co.), where her low-intervention, small-production wines scored high with the critics.
But Cabot differs from her peers today. Because today she makes Costco’s Kirkland Signature Series Willamette Valley Pinot Noir—as well as private-label wines for clients like the restaurant group Landry’s. “When I took this job, I got some crap for selling out,” Cabot admits with a wry smile. “I still do.”
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The old Sarah Cabot bottled about 5,000 cases a year—in keeping with the majority of Oregon wineries, which annually produce that much or less. The new Sarah Cabot, head of winemaking for Precept Wine’s Oregon portfolio, bottles more than any other woman winemaker in the state: “I am currently sitting on the equivalent of 101,809 cases of 2017 vintage,” she says. (That number, she adds, does not include a one-off bulk project for a high-end retail client.)
When she joined the Seattle-based Precept in the spring of 2014, the adjustment from artisanal to commercial was jarring, to put it mildly. That first harvest, Cabot carefully handwrote her data in elegant Moleskine notebooks, as if she were re-creating the Dead Sea Scrolls. Today she uses Excel spreadsheets.
“I used to use 1.5-ton macrobins as fermenters,” Cabot recalls, shaking her head in disbelief. Today she mostly uses 7,000-gallon closed-top fermenters, which hold 24 tons of destemmed fruit. She now knows her way around Pulsair cap management, micro-oxygenation, cross-flow filtration, and a centrifuge.
Cabot has mastered the art of cold stabilization. She has learned that machine harvesting can be imprecise and that there’s a big difference between a farmer growing for quantity on the valley floor and a vigneron growing for quality on a steep hillside. “At this point,” she says, “I draft my fruit contracts. I state maximum tonnage. If the farmer exceeds that, I have right of refusal.”
And her winemaking methodology has changed from slow, slow, slow to go, go, go. “I don’t cold-soak anymore,” she says. “Bring me the fruit at 2 pm, warm.” She needs fermentation to kick into high gear as soon as possible so that she can free up the tank space for the next massive batch of fruit.
The job, harrowing at times, can be lonely. “You’re not on the ground with your guys in the cellar every day,” says Cabot, who has no full-time support staff and works out of a shared winemaking space—the 12th & Maple Wine Co. facility in Dundee, Oregon. For liability reasons, the 12th & Maple crew carries out her orders; she can’t hop on a forklift or punch down a tank herself.
So for a onetime boutique winemaker, what’s the upside to a macroproduction job? The pay difference, Cabot says, isn’t all that great. For a curious, autodidactic winemaker, however, the backing of a large conglomerate—and its budget—can be a gift. “They let me play,” she says of Precept.
In addition to her large-production labels, Cabot produces a boutique label, Battle Creek Cellars, that releases $59 single-vineyard Pinot Noirs. “This job has given me a lot more confidence in my high-end winemaking,” she confides. “I asked for amphorae and I got them. I put Pinot Gris on skins in one of them for 57 days. I brought in Baco Noir and fermented it carbonically. I have the leeway to experiment.”
But Cabot has surprised herself. Her biggest reward now, she says, isn’t her fine-wine production but rather the mass-market stuff. “My objective has shifted over the years,” she says. “Now it’s to make the best $15 Pinot Noir—a wine that can line up and perform next to a $25 Pinot in a blind tasting. It’s a challenge, but it’s doable.”
She has done that with Primarius, a wine that would pass any somm’s Pinot Noir typicity test with its exuberant cherry aromatics, punchy acidity, and marked mineral notes. Says Cabot, “It’s the first time I’ve made a sub-$20 Pinot Noir in my life.”
Cabot sees her inexpensive wines as ambassadors. “If a consumer’s first bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir ever was a $15 bottle of Primarius that blew their mind,” she says, “and if that buyer ends up later on coming to Oregon wine country ready to spend $60 on my peers’ wines—well, I am so proud and honored to have had the opportunity to do that, to represent my state.”
Brian O’Donnell, Cabot’s mentor earlier in her career, at Belle Pente winery, where she was an assistant winemaker, describes his winemaking style as “old school” and “low tech.” He recently attended an industry blind tasting that included Primarius. “I really liked it,” he says, “and it was well received. It certainly fooled a few very well known sommeliers.”
Cabot’s Boutique vs. Big-time Winemaking Takeaways
The former artisanal winemaker reflects on what she has learned while growing her production volume 20-fold:
No Margin for Error
“With large production, you have a shorter time frame and a lot more to lose. Your volume is bigger, and you can’t second-guess your decisions because you’ll miss your window. When you’re dealing with 25,000-gallon tanks, if one of those goes wrong, that’s a lot to be accountable for.”
Get Off Your High Horse
“This job has made me allergic to dogma. You can’t be dogmatic when you’re dealing with so much liability resting squarely on your shoulders. You can’t stick to your guns about native yeasts, no additions, or making unfined and unfiltered wine. You’ve got to be willing to crack into your tool kit, because any loss would be too big of a loss to take. If your production volume is 500 cases, sure, be dogmatic. But I can’t afford to be.”
Craft Feels Like a Cakewalk
“If you have a beautifully farmed vineyard in a perfect site and you can afford to crop it to the ideal yield, and if you’re hand-harvesting and berry-sorting and letting your juice sit on the skins for three weeks in small open-top fermenters—well, if that’s your program, it’s kind of easy to make really nice wine.”
Commercial Wine Is a Tough Sell
“It’s easy to pour your boutique wine at special tastings or dinners, because people have paid to be there and they are there for you. Where I came from, the wine spoke for itself. Now the package, the story, and the relationship with the rep really matter.”
Two years ago, Cabot came to the realization that “Isolated drinking and 80,000 cases of production don’t mix.” So she quit drinking. At wine dinners, she always has a coffee mug on hand to spit into. “I am so much happier now,” she says. “And my palate has gotten a lot sharper.” To let off steam, she throws herself into fitness and sporting events, from yoga to muddy, all-terrain races.
“I was never groomed to do the corporate thing, so I never learned how to do it right. I just went from being awkward to being myself. And that has been successful, thankfully. I didn’t really know what to say over a PowerPoint to a roomful of sales reps. Turns out they love it when I cuss, throw out one-liners, act kind of crazy, and show my tattoos. I’m very Portland, and that, to them, is memorable.”
Katherine Cole is the author of four books on wine, including Rosé All Day. She is also the executive producer and host of “The Four Top,” a James Beard Award–winning food-and-beverage podcast on NPR One.