St Helena, California 94574
Before her career as a sommelier and acclaimed author, Kelli A. White was a very straight and narrow kind of kid. She had a gift for maths and sciences and won a Howard Hughes Fellowship in Neurogenetics while at Brandeis. As the stars would have it, Kelli’s life was about to change in a big way.
Taking some of her leftover grant money, Kelli was able to take a trip to France. As with any amazing tale, this is where it all began to change for Kelli. The richness of France's food, the depth of its culture, and the shape of life in general immediately touched her. When she returned, Kelli wanted a way into the world of wine, and took a part-time job at a wine store. Kelli says, “being that I was a high-strung person, wine´s soothing effect went well with me”.
Fast forward to her work as a top sommelier. This was really established during her years at New York City’s Veritas, as the first female sommelier in over a decade, helping to explore one of the largest and most highly regarded wine lists in the world.
In 2010, around the economic downturn, she and her partner Scott decided to move to the California Wine Country; where the tranquility of the wine country was seen as an opportunity to fulfill a life´s dream of growing their own wine. The perfect way to wind down after the many years of working in the intense big apple restaurant industry. Right at the time, an investor named Leslie Rudd was looking to recreate his wine list at his well-known restaurant PRESS in Saint Helena. And the stars aligned again. Kelli and Scott were immediately hired, and together created the internationally recognized PRESS Restaurant Wine list in St. Helen; a unique Napa Valley wine list reminiscent of the great European regions. Scott still remains here as the wine director, happily imparting his wisdom of their impressive list.
As open and collaborative as the Napa environment is, it didn't take long for Kelli and Scott to also begin their winemaking dream. In 2011, while Kelli was curating the wine list at PRESS and turning it into one of the deepest Napa Valley wine lists anywhere in America, she and Scott co-founded a small wine brand called Houndstooth.
The Poseidon Vineyard played home to their humble beginnings. The vineyard met both Carneros Creek and the Napa River at the northern edge of San Pablo Bay. At high tide the river tastes of salt, a reminder of the sea's proximity. Pacific winds blow through the Petaluma Gap from the west, bringing fog and cooler temperatures to still the strong California sun. Add to this an ideal soil of clay and gravel from the ancient banks of the Napa River; The perfect setting or a labor of love.
The fruit of their efforts was a delightful Pinot Noir in 2011, with the addition of Chardonnay in 2012. By 2014, they expanded to add Barbera.At every step of the journey, the Houndstooth brand has been a self-realized product of passion.
Kelli is as constant yet changing as the valley itself. As her tastes and goals change over the years, so too does the style in Napa change. Producers are rediscovering old techniques and varietals not seen for ages. There is much more fermentation than before. They´re even using redwood, and concrete amphoras to explore nuances never reached for. Kelli has become such an intricate part of the Napa Valley, it is hard to tell if Kelli is changing the valley, or if the valley is changing Kelli…
In Kelli’s eyes, there are some underrated wines here; some distinct yet underrated wines can also be found in Paso Robles and Santa Ynez Valley. The Finger Lakes region in New York is also producing great wine and still flying under the radar (for now).
Personally, Kelli favors a Brander "Au Naturel" Sauvignon Blanc.
When asked about her favorite pairing, Kelli raised a few eyebrows in appreciation. It’s actually a gin & tonic with salty popcorn for Kelli — a pairing that may catch on once this is posted.
As for advice for the beginners in the room, Kelli has a direct and unembellished answer. She advises to find a somm that is very direct, and start with a price range you are personally comfortable with — or try wine by the glass. A bit off the beaten path, Kelli recommends frequenting a wine store that has experienced staff who can guide your first foray into the depths of wine. You can build relationships with more experienced drinkers and bloggers, and try to take on what they are saying about each wine.
Simple. Direct. We like it.
Like many, Kelli has a healthy skepticism about the hype surrounding natural wines. While they are getting a lot of press these days (maybe disproportionate to how much press they deserve), the reality is that “Natural” has become the new buzz word. But Kelli keeps this healthy skepticism for all wines. As with every category of wine, there are good and bad versions of what is now called natural wine.
When asked how she sees it, Kelli says “A skilled somm’s job is to convince a client to try the wine without seeming condescending. 95% of our job is to read between the lines and suggest new wines as well as making them happy with the choice, of course.”
Difficult to do if the drinker is hard-headed about having only “natural wine”, indeed. Younger drinkers are much more adventurous in this regard, so it is somewhat easier to introduce new types of wines for them to taste. We might all take a page from this book and open ourselves up to new experiences offered by knowledgeable sommeliers; new expansions of the seemingly endless palate.
In 2013, Kelli was named one of Food & Wine’s top ten sommeliers in the country. She is currently a writer for Guildsomm, an international nonprofit for sommeliers that promotes education, collaboration, and healthy debate; while still maintaining the sommelier’s key values: integrity, humility, and hospitality. Kelli is responsible for featured content on the site, and her articles are informative and eye-opening. Each piece is offers tremendous insight, as she often dives into aspects of the wine world some never glance at. Her view on Valencia and the exceptional wines coming out of the region may have you re-thinking your next Spanish wine purchase.
Kelli A. White’s book, Napa Valley, Then & Now, was released in November of 2015 and has received immense critical acclaim; winning both the IACP award for Best New Wine, Beer, or Spirits Book as well as a Graphis design award. In 2016, she was nominated for the highly prestigious Roederer Award for Best Emerging Wine Writer.
In one word, what does wine mean to Kelli A. White?
”If you stop learning you get bored. The world of wine is reborn every year, so it can never get boring!”
A hearty “Salud” to the thirst for knowledge!