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A Decade of Winemaking

By Tiffany Tran, director of marketing and communications
From doctor to a winemaker, Kerith Michelson Overstreet ’90 shares her 10-year journey of owning a winery in Sonoma County.

Kerith Michelson Overstreet ’90 celebrates the 10th anniversary of her winery, Bruliam Wines, in Sonoma County. A boutique winery with only one full-time employee—Overstreet, herself— Bruliam Wines has grown from producing a single barrel to 1,000 cases a year. Overstreet’s pinot noirs can be found in nearly 100 restaurants and several retail outlets in California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York and Texas. Named after her children, Bruliam Wines incorporates the first two or three letters of each of their names: Bruno, Lily and Amelia.

Tiffany Tran:
You are a winemaker, a writer, a salesperson and a marketer. What’s your story?
Kerith Michelson Overstreet: I touch the wine at every stage from vineyard to harvest to fermentation to barreling to barrel aging and bottling. Not only do I get in the tanks and shovel the grapes, I can also discuss oxidation reduction chemistry. Additionally, I am the face of grower relations, working directly with the growers all the time. I am the winemaker because that’s what I love the most, but I also write the copy for the website.

TT: What was the beginning like?
KMO: I bootstrapped it starting with one barrel of wine. There was no outside financing. I called growers and asked if I could buy a ton of fruit, and they laughed. It was the recession. I was lucky I could get my foot in the door.

TT: And you were persistent.
KMO: Take a vineyard like Sangiacomo Roberts Road. I emailed them politely every four months for two years until they sold me fruit. And in the first year, they sold me less than a ton. Every year I’ve been lucky to increase my allocation in a vineyard that is quite well-known. I also now count among my mentors some of the biggest names in Sonoma County pinot noir.

TT: So what did you do?
KMO: I had to do a lot of learning very quickly, as did everybody else. I put the wine through a process called reverse osmosis. It took out some of the smoke, but it also diminished the wine’s soul, leaving it uninteresting and charmless. I ended up dumping the whole vintage from Anderson Valley that year. We also had to learn to deal with our insurance company. You learn all kinds of things you want to, as well as things you wish you didn’t have to.

TT: How do you develop your wine palate?
KMO: Drink more wine. Learn the story behind the wine and why it is what it is. Read about it: What is this wine supposed to taste like and what makes a wine from one place different from someplace else? What makes a cabernet different from a pinot noir? Compare pinot noirs from the Russian River, Oregon and the Sonoma Coast.

TT: You pursued winemaking after completing medical school, residency and two fellowships. Why did you choose to be a winemaker?
KMO: Before I went to the UC Davis [winemaking] program, I already had a harvest under my belt. I made a barrel of wine in 2008 and fell in love. I’ve always loved wine as a consumer, and I was eager to learn about the process. I was part of an active wine-tasting group when I was a resident, and although we didn’t have a lot of money, we did what we could to try and expand our palates.

TT: You source your grapes from established vineyards in Sonoma County and Santa Lucia Highlands, but you have your own vineyard as well.
KMO: In 2012, we acquired what is now our estate pinot noir vineyard located in the Russian River Valley: Torrey Hill Vineyard. The name “Torrey” pays homage to the Torrey Pine and the mighty mascot of La Jolla Country Day School, where my husband, Brian ’90, and I met in 10th grade.

TT: What part of the process do you enjoy most?
KMO: I enjoy harvests. I enjoy making wine. I love yeast microbiology and experimenting and running trials.

TT: You often learn from your biggest mistakes. What was a hard lesson?
KMO: 2008 was a year of wildfires in Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley. It was the first time that United States wineries had to deal with significant smoke taint. It was a rude introduction for me—one of the first wines I made tasted like a campfire.

TT: How has climate change affected winemaking?
KMO: The weather has gotten warmer, and we obviously have the drought. I think we’re not going to see beautiful, consistent, sunny-every-day, moderate temperatures as often anymore. 2017 was really tricky. We had spurts of super hot weather right before harvest. If the grapes get too warm, the heat can cause sugars to spike. You have to be in communication with your growers to make sure you irrigate before those heat spikes happen.

TT: Your winery has a philanthropic focus, giving back to numerous organizations and charity auctions, including LJCDS’s Blue Bash. Why have you chosen to allow your clients and restaurant partners to select their charities of choice?
KMO: It’s important to me to share the joy and gratitude that I experience every day walking through a vineyard with those who support my wine. We need people out there who believe in Bruliam and in our vision as much as I do. By letting others pick our charitable beneficiaries, we’re able to directly share that gratitude. There are deeply personal reasons why people pick the charities they do, and our goal has been to involve more people with smaller donations.
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