A Music-Loving Microbiologist Finds Her Passion

“I care about people, I care about vineyard practices, I do really love natural wine, and I think wine should be for everybody – it should make people happy and connect people.”

Kristie Tacey is the winemaker and founder of Tessier Winery in California where she produces beautiful natural wines – each with their own song pairing. She spent much of her career as a microbiologist. We sat down with her to find out why the change, how did she make it happen, and what advice does she have for us?

GV: What sparked the move from biotech to winemaking?

“I wanted a passionate career and I felt like my biotech career was not going in that direction.”

Kristie graduated from the University of Michigan with a microbiology degree, ultimately leading her to working on the Human Genome Project. She found that her work was “all so micro-scale” and reflected back on the classes she loved in college – ecology, botany, and soil. She wanted to do something more hands on.

“A winery job opened in Oakland at Lost Canyon Winery and I lived in Alameda, so that was convenient. It was an urban winery, so I didn’t have to change too much of my life – or my residence at least. The winery in Oakland was getting their fruit from Sonoma County. They were focusing mainly on Pinot Noir vineyards and Syrah vineyards. That’s kind of how I made my connections – working for them. After three years, their business sold and I didn’t wanna go back to biotech so I met with one of their growers and got two tons of grapes to start Tessier. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I didn’t think about it like ‘this is gonna be a business’– I was just naïve in doing it. That was in 2009.”

GV: Did you have any mentors or people you met in the beginning that helped you out?

Kristie spoke warmly about her past colleagues.

“The guys at Lost Canyon Winery – they were awesome. They were very encouraging which is kinda the opposite of science – that’s quite critical. [In science,] I never felt smart enough, good enough. They were just super encouraging. They worked alongside me so I really learned how to make wine. I learned the calculations and spreadsheets. They were so helpful.

Kristie’s cousin, Mat Gustafson (Owner of Paul Matthew Vineyard) also helped her out.

My cousin also had his own brand and he was in Sonoma and so I worked with him a little bit. Kinda “how do I do this”, “how do I have my own business without having my own winery” – just having a brand.

A true scientist, Kristie also did a lot of her own research – learning as much as she could by experimenting on her own.

“I read a lot about other winemakers and emailed them. I tried a lot of different wines, started a lot of different tasting groups so I could try a lot of wines. Just see who I really liked.

I was always looking to Europe – France – for answers. Since they had been doing it for so long and I really liked that balanced approach. I liked the ideas of terroir. Every time I went to France, I was inspired by a new wine region or a new producer.”

GV: You place a heavy emphasis on keeping your process clean and sustainable – has that always been your process or has that evolved since you got started?

“Yeah, that definitely evolved! Because I was in the lab, I kinda applied the same practices in winemaking. I wanted to make this perfect wine, I would tinker with things a lot in the beginning. And also that was kind of the style at Lost Canyon. I got my certificate in winemaking from Davis so [in the beginning] I was just in that mindset of understanding all the chemistry and being able to manipulate it.

It wasn’t until France that I got into minimal intervention and really seeking vineyards that don’t use round-up, that tend towards organic, that treat people well. 

In 2015 I moved up to Sonoma and felt like I could really go native and practice all of those things that I had been reading about and I was nervous about. 
The wines got way more complex and it changed my whole strategy and it got me thinking…

This is what Tessier is – sourcing sustainably farmed fruit, no round-up, tending towards organic, unfined and for the most part unfiltered. But I am a microbiologist and I always check all of the stats in the wines to make sure that I am making the best wine possible.

I am not a zero-zero dogma natural wine person, but I definitely am under the umbrella of natural wine as of late 2015.”

GV: do you find that making natural wine is more difficult than traditional wine making?

“It’s just a mindset that I change upfront. So, really looking at the acid before I pick the grapes. Having a clean cellar, tasting a lot. But no, it’s not hard. In the natural wine world, they really care about wine being for everybody, and not being pretentious and including everybody. I really like that and I didn’t really see that as much back in the early parts of me working. I was making pinot noir, high end pinot noir. I was at country clubs serving the wine and those really weren’t my people. It was like exclusive, and that’s totally not my scene at all, so that’s another great thing about natural wine.”

GV: I saw on your music pairings that you paired one of your wines with an Action Bronson song – have you watched his natural wine series?

“Yes! Of course! I was obsessed with him! And when he first came out I saw his lyrics and I was like ‘oh my god this is so cool, I love that he’s rapping about wine and food.’ I thought that was awesome, so of course I paired that.”

GV: On the topic of music pairings – what is your process of pairing music with wine? About general vibes of the song, lyrics, the person?

“All of those things – I am always listening to music. I live in Berkeley, and I drive to Healdsburg to get to the winery, so it is like an hour drive. I am a KXSF DJ so I am also listening to music for my shows to get those going. I do them once a month – I am just a part of a team doing it. I have always been into music too – even back when I was in college, I went to see live music all the time. I was in this nerd science kind of group of people but then no one went out! But I went out – not that I was like a party person, but I went out and I did the lab stuff too. I did both. Ive always loved music and I really wanted to incorporate it into the wine. 

As I’m going on my trajectory of life, I have been really rigid and structured with science and math and studying and now I have been really creative and I want to get outside of that box. Pairing a song with the wine is really just a way to experience the wine – have the feeling of the wine. I’m tasting the wine since its inception, tasting it every month and I feel they have a personality, so I try and match a song with the personality. Yes it’s like lyrics and vibe and artist – it all connects – in my mind at least. I am hoping for the end user it’s just a fun experience.”

Check out Kristie’s cool music pairings and past radio shows HERE.

GV: Do you have a favorite?

“Well it depends on what my mood would be, and what I was eating and yeah.. that’s way too hard. They’re all my favorites!”

GV: Where do you see your winery in the future? What’s your vision going forward?

“This is a tricky question – I am just happy to be able to make wine every year – I feel it gets more and more challenging with the fires and just the cost of everything going up. And labor shortages – just everywhere I turn it’s difficulty. 

But I love it and I am really trying to hold in there – I am in more states now nationally. I am around 1400 cases and I am just going to hold on that level as things get back to normal…? I mean what is normal now? It’s really difficult but I love what I am doing and I want to keep doing it as long as I can. So… I don’t know.”

GV: As long as you get to do what you love, that’s really great.

“I know, a lot of people want to do that but it is hard to define – what do I love? Would I be able to do that? And I get to do that and I feel really grateful and fortunate. But it is very difficult – financially, emotionally, and physically hard too.”

GV: You mentioned labor shortages – what does that mean for you? What does your day to day look like? 

Kristie explained that Tessier is at a custom crush facility.

“They provide the labor to do the cellar work and I use their equipment but it’s all under my protocols and how I want it done. I am there for every pick and bottling and racking and tasting. That definitely helps – I don’t have to have my own staff. Once we bottle, the wine goes to a warehouse and once again, there is a staff there. I have a sales team in California and they are brokers. They go out and sell the wine in restaurants and mark which wine in the warehouse needs to be delivered on which day. It’s a whole big system which is really helpful because I do not have to provide the staff. They have labor shortages too but I don’t hear about it all the time. It is stored at cellar temperature and it stays consistently cool, no sun, all the good stuff for wine. I do have a part time employee who does a lot of social media, and helps with the backend of sales like calculating bottle costs and coming up with price lists. 

Its been a lot of work for me– office work, wine clubs, and getting into other states is a lot of compliance and licensing which I do myself… Its pretty small-scale.” 

GV: Obviously Tessier is a woman-owned winery – what advice do you have for women hoping to break into the wine industry or male dominated industries in general?

“I think the best thing to do is start up a network group or join a network group. It does not have to be all women – I think men are great allies. Connect with other people, vent grievances, talk about positive things from work – maybe they can implement your positives. That’s a super important thing and something I wished I had when I first got into the wine scene. But I was lucky that I had the guys that owned the winery that were so nurturing. I see a lot of that happening already with Bâtonnage in Northern California and WINeFare too – its all women supporting women in the natural wine world.”

Check out Bâtonnage HERE.

Check out WINeFare HERE.

GV: Is there anything that you would like readers to know in general about you, your brand, life?

“So many things! I want to let them know about The Research Club – that goes out 3 times a year, 6 bottles each time. When you sign up you get a really cool t-shirt right now and a pin. With every club shipment we do a little card with each wine. On each card there is a cool picture on the front, some technical notes on the back of the card talking about the wine (when it was picked, final PH is, what the alcohol is, tasting notes, song paring)

The idea is you are hanging out with your friends, you have the card out, you play the song and drink the wine. Either you vibe with it or you think that was neat! That’s what I’m hoping for.

I care about people, I care about vineyard practices, I do really love natural wine, and I think wine should be for everybody and it should make people happy and connect with people.”

Check out Tessier Winery by clicking HERE.

Check out Kristie’s cool music pairings HERE.

Check out the Research Club by clicking HERE.

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