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Napa Valley's Alisa Jacobson is Turning the Tide

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: July 24, 2021 series
  • Updated

Over the last two decades Alisa Jacobson has been a Napa Valley-based winemaker. She was the first employee of Joel Gott Wines, where she shepherded its winemaking production from 1,000 cases per year to more than a million. She has been one of the valley’s leading innovators, leveraging technology, new techniques, dogged determination and hard work to craft wines of distinction through rapid growth, fires, drought and labor shortages.

Now she is leaving the Napa Valley and setting out on a new journey, launching her own brand — Turning Tide Wines — and operating under a new mantra. She’s plans to dedicate more time to her own brand and to spend more time farming her own vineyards in Oregon and Southern California.

“The primary focus of Turning Tide Wines is sustainability,” she said. “Yes, quality is a must — if it’s not good no one will drink it — but it has to go farther than that.”

Jacobson says she is excited to make wines from grape-growing regions where yearly fires, water use and extreme prices are not constant threats. Her new brand has at its core the idea that even a small wine company can lead changes that are not only positive for the wine industry but also good for the planet.

“I see an industry that is changing but too slowly,” she said. “We can do more and faster to ensure better environmental practices and also greater equality.”

Born connected to land and water

Jacobson grew up surrounded by farms in Brentwood, California. Although her parents were not full-time farmers — her mother is a retired teacher and her father is a retired electrical engineer who worked at Teradyne — they did have a small orchard of cherry trees. While other children might have run a lemonade stand growing up, Jacobson operated a small cherry stand. She also helped in the family’s vegetable garden and was an active member of 4-H, raising hogs and lambs to show at the summer fair.

Farming in “old school” methods — using the Farmer’s Almanac, planting and harvesting based on the weather, following the moon and natural cycles and using only organic techniques — just seemed right to Jacobson.

“We are all intimately connected to the land and water, and how we treat our crops and livestock matters,” she said. “It not only matters for the end product, but without understanding these connections we do ourselves a disservice in the long run.”

Jacobson does not eat meat because, as she explains, “If I didn’t raise it, then how could I know how the animal was treated and fed?”

As a child she spent time with her family exploring the Northern California coast. Her grandparents — her grandmother Irene in particular — were big influences.

“We’d go out to Mendocino, and before sunrise we’d head out to dive for shellfish. She [my grandmother] was right there, too.” Jacobson said. “Even though she had a fear of swimming, at the age of 60 she actually learned to swim.”

Irene was tough yet wise, and her love of the ocean spilled over. On those mornings they’d sit together on the beach, cleaning their catch before grilling it up for breakfast.

“She taught me to be brave and resilient — to be honest, hardworking and never give up,” Jacobson said.

Ever since those days, Jacobson has been drawn back to the ocean. Now, not as a collector of crustaceans, but instead as an avid scuba diver and paddleboard enthusiast.

Hogs to wine

After high school Jacobson headed to UC Davis, where she intended to study animal science. Holding fast to her farming roots, she’d wake before sunrise to help muck the hog stalls at the university’s small farm.

“My friends would tease me and ask why I was doing it,” she said, “but that’s just me. I like to be involved. Besides, to be comfortable and competent in a task it’s important to understand the entire process. If not, how will you know how to tweak something if it goes wrong?”

Like many attending UC Davis — one of the world’s leading wine-growing/making universities — Jacobson was seduced by the lure of wine. Growing a crop that might be transformed into a product so heavily influenced by the quality of the farming, the yearly fluctuations in weather and the winemaker herself seemed like a challenge she was made for.

“It just seemed to click,” she said. “Skilled farming, innovation, quality winemaking and a lot of hard work come together and produce a wine that is essentially a time capsule not only of that vintage, but also everything that goes into it.”

Shifting from hogs to wineries, Jacobson spent her summers interning at sparkling wine producers such as Korbel and Schramsberg, where the grapes were picked before school started back up again.

“Working those summers at the wineries helped focus my studies back at school,” she said. “I knew what I wanted to learn and why.”

Building a brand from 1,000 cases to well over a million

After graduating from college she was hired at Joseph Phelps Winery, interned in the off season in Australia and gained a reputation for her hard work, precision, ambition and infectious laugh. While she was at Joseph Phelps, she worked under head winemaker Sarah Gott, and two years later she was hired to make the wine at a fledgling wine startup that would eventually evolve into Joel Gott Wines.

Jacobson was the Joel Gott company’s first employee, and she later rose to vice president of winemaking, overseeing a team of 35, more than half of them women. She said growing a brand to more than 1.4 million cases has been a combination of excitement and mind-boggling complexity.

“Having amazing mentors including Heidi Barrett and Randy Mason, and being inquisitive and observant have gotten me a long way — I also love experiments,” she said. “Looking for vineyards in areas that were lesser-known but still also quite good and finding grower partners who were farming high-quality and outside of the Napa Valley allowed us to grow but also keep the prices down.”

Examples of experiments included maintaining Sauvignon Blanc aromatics by fermenting it at low temperatures using cold-tolerant yeast strains. She also found that wines needing more brightness actually benefited more and retained better balance if she removed potassium rather than adding tartaric acid.

“This gives the wine a more natural shift in pH and can be done by using charged resins,” she said. “It’s pretty cool what you can do with science and technology.”

Turning the tide

In August Jacobson will officially depart the company she helped to create.

“We all grew up in the business together and the last 18 years have been a whirlwind,” Joel Gott said. “She has been amazing to work with over all these years and we are super excited for her next chapter.”

“I grew up in the company and learned a ton along the way,” Jacobson said. “But I felt like it was time for me to take what I had learned and apply it to something new. I want to focus on organics and sustainability and forge a path for our industry to help with climate change, support groups like the West Coast Smoke Task Force and dedicate myself to improving the world’s oceans.”

Turning Tide wines are sourced from organic vineyards, and the packaging uses lightweight bottles and recyclable caps and includes labels that are made with compostable ink. A portion of the proceeds from each bottle sold goes to help free our oceans of plastic waste through the Wine to Water organization. The company is also dedicated to equitable hiring that promotes gender and racial equality.

The wines of Turning Tide

I have tasted four of Jacobson’s wines: the 2019 Santa Rita Hills Santa Barbra County Chardonnay ($29.99 a bottle, 234 cases made); 2020 Santa Ynez Valley white blend ($19.99 a bottle, 440 cases made); the 2018 Pinot Noir from Eola-Amity Hills Oregon ($42 a bottle, 121 cases made) and the 2020 Santa Ynez Valley Red Blend ($24.99 a bottle, 158 cases made).

Each wine is bright and extremely aromatic. These are lovely, expressive wines that speak to a lifetime of making distinct wines that go with food and life. There is not one wine that I would not gleefully share with friends and family, and the price points make each offering accessible. These are wines that you might expect at two or three times the price points, if not more. Another interesting element to each of these wines is that they all have an ocean element that I find enthralling and at times perplexing, as in, where did that complexity come from?

The Santa Rita Hills chardonnay is straw-gold in the glass with aromas of mango, pineapple and lemon rind. The mouth mirrors the nose but with a salinity that pleasantly blends with hazelnut and mint. Think grilled plank-roasted salmon with grilled pears and lemon.

The white blend, a co-fermentation of Verdelho and Chenin Blanc, is stunning and steely yet silky. What a wonderful combination, full of citrus, sweet cantaloupe and tender green herbs such as chervil, with a minerality that speaks to oysters with peppery mignonette or a squeeze of lime and hot sauce.

The Pinot Noir is a creamy amalgamation of sun-dried black cherry, sautéed lobster mushroom with shallots and sage, and spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and clove. This would pair beautifully with mushroom risotto. This wine is possibly my favorite given this time of year.

The Santa Ynez Red Blend with its combination of Tempranillo and Grenache speaks to its Spanish roots. This is a delicious wine full of classic flavors of red cherry, tobacco and raisin, but it also carries with it a bright acidity that screams of being paired with savory-spicy paella.

A path forward

Jacobson has moved on from the Napa Valley, which is likely to mourn her loss. Her expertise, enthusiasm and innovation have advanced the science of winemaking, and her sense of humor, dedication to fairness and work ethic have provided motivation and direction to those who follow.

“I want to give a shout-out to Sarah and Joel Gott for giving me the opportunity, freedom and flexibility to find my path,” she said. “I am now honored with the opportunity to help others (including many young women) along the way to help find their confidence, and teach and encourage their self-expression.”

We stood on the beach as Jacobson readied her paddleboard for an early morning ride. The sun was just rising, and the clouds glowed orange, gold and purple in the early morning light. Around us gulls called and the smells of salty seaweed and surf perfumed the air.

“What are my wishes for the future of the wine industry?” she asked rhetorically and then answered: “Provide an equal opportunity for a diversity of men and women of all races. We should all farm more sustainably and stop extracting excessive ground water, cease using harmful pesticides and herbicides that harm the natural flora of the vineyard and soil (and to prevent it from running off into the water), and take regenerative steps to capture carbon. We can do this.”

She paused, and then said thoughtfully,

“We have to do this."

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