The threads of a career in winemaking started gathering early in Jennifer's life. From a childhood friend’s family moving from the neighborhood to grow grapes and start a winery to being disappointed, if not more than slightly embarrassed at age 14, upon learning she couldn't buy a bottle of wine to pair with the dinner she was preparing for Father's Day.
While her “Ah-ha” wine, a DRC Grands Echézeaux, was decidedly French, Jennifer is a California native from Santa Monica who considers herself a thoroughly California winemaker. After graduating from UC San Diego in 1993 with a Bachelor of Science in Biology and working in the Environmental Sciences field focusing on Plant Surveys, Jennifer set her sights on the Jewel of California winemaking, the Napa Valley. Her time, travelling and studying abroad made clear learning by doing was her most powerful teacher. So, in August of 1995, Jennifer packed her belongings into a U-Haul and, alone, made the trek North to Napa to report to her new life.
That new life began with working for Catalina Hunneus in the Tasting Room at Franciscan Oakville Estate. Now, a Tasting Room may seem an unlikely place to get a start as a winemaker, but the behind the scenes pass into the cellar, access to the winemakers, education in becoming an Ambassador of the Napa Valley by learning what makes this place so unique and finally the boots on the ground experience of how different people perceive wine was invaluable. After 10 months, in June of 1996, Jennifer was promoted to a spot in the lab vacated by Vanessa Wong to work with Darice Spinelli. Franciscan also introduced Jennifer to her first mentors, Gary Brookman and Frances Rojas. A Native of Sonora Mexico with 40 years of winemaking experience in both the field and the cellar; Frances was a patient and thorough teacher of her craft. Over their 12 years together in the cellar, Frances took Jennifer under her wing sharing her vast knowledge and instilling her calm meticulous work ethic.
In early 1998 Jennifer joined Gary to be a part of the founding winemaking team at what would become Miner Family Winery. First, running the lab, then as Enologist and for the last 5 vintages of her tenure, as Assistant Winemaker. Gary’s creativity and flair for fearless experimentation while maintaining a gentle respectful style of winemaking remain part of Jennifer’s winemaking philosophy. With many successful, highly rated wines including the foundation of Miner’s renowned Pinot Noir, Oracle and Stagecoach programs to her credit, Jennifer made a significant contribution to the Miner brand.
Miner was also a crucible for learning from the select upper echelon winemakers who quietly custom crushed and made their wines at Miner over the years. One of the biggest gifts from Miner was the encouragement and support Jennifer received in establishing her own winemaking consultancy. That generosity included introductions to her first clients to allowing her to make those wines in house.
It was in this way Jennifer joined Trent Moffett in 2007 as Winemaker. Her holistic winemaking philosophy, laser focus and scientific approach was a good match with Trent’s deep local roots, vast wine knowledge, ease and flow. The Moffett and Screenplay wines reflect Jennifer’s penchant for evolving lush, balanced and aromatically interesting wines. “It’s gotta smell good and feel good to be good.” 8 vintages later, Jennifer continues making wines for Trent’s 3 brands: Moffett, Screenplay and C&T Cellars.
Developing close, long-term winegrowing relationships are key. As winemakers, Jennifer believes we are only as good as the story we tell about the place through our wines. Presenting the thinnest veneer between place and palate is her goal. This goal is only possible through a deep intimate knowledge of the vineyard and respectful minimal manipulation in the winery.
In 2010 Jennifer was asked to join the infamous custom crush house Napa Wine Company (bonded winery 9) as Associate Winemaker to oversee the barrel ageing programs. The Napa Wine Company machine is well known as a trophy wine and Winemaker incubator. This environment allowed her to work with, share and learn with many other notable Napa Valley Winemakers while allowing Jennifer to continue to focus on her wine craft.
The latest chapter begins in early 2014 when longtime colleague and friend, Consulting Winemaker Anne Vawter, came to Jennifer and asked to join forces. Jennifer signed on with Anne in February of 2014 to shadow her through the 2014 growing season and vintage to take over as onsite Winemaker for Anne’s major clients in 2015 including: Oakville Ranch, Hoopes Vineyard, Liparita and Anne’s own brand, Red Mare.
After many years behind the scenes as the invisible hand and ‘winemaker’s winemaker’ behind many trophy wines Jennifer is comfortable taking one foot out of the cellar and stepping into the spotlight. One of these vineyards, Oakville Ranch, was the first vineyard Jennifer fell in love with and has been a continual presence through her entire 19 vintage career, having worked with every Oakville Ranch winemaker since 1996. The return to Oakville Ranch’s soil after many years of hard work and redevelopment by Phil Couturri, Anne Vawter and Mary Miner was a very sweet homecoming indeed.
Nothing is clearer than the fact that great wines made in the vineyard can be ruined by poor, unfocused winemaking. The thought of winemaking as a ‘negative’ craft in this way is a challenge, which supports her life philosophy to tread lightly. While some winemakers have a stamp on their wines that mark them clearly as having been made by their hand, Jennifer sees success when her hand is invisible with only the voice of the vineyard coming through clearly. Stewardship is an important part of allowing that voice to come through. Jennifer has chosen her projects very carefully to work with those in line with that thinking and priority.
Along with winemaking, Jennifer enjoys playing in the dirt and doing science experiments with her son Otto, spending time with her best friend and husband John Curnutt as well as, gardening, urban chicken farming and remaining open to life’s lessons.