Can you become a winemaker without ever having made wine before?
Morét Brealynn can answer that question: yes.
If you want to get the answer first hand, your best bet is to check the vineyards where she’s sourcing her fruit. She’s most likely there, looking for trouble and opportunities. Even though her first full vintage under her own label, Morét Brealynn Wines, was just last year, and even though she’s never made wine prior to launching the winery, she’s no neophyte to evaluating vines.
After going to work for now fiancé Adam Lee supporting his various projects a few years ago, she became a frequent visitor to the Santa Lucia Highlands. During one of the many trips to Adam’s favored wine region, famed vineyard guru Gary Franscione would remark that she was in the vineyards “more than the winemaking team [where Adam was consulting].” Morét was perhaps closer to becoming a winemaker at that moment then she realized, which is only fair given her multi-step path to the punch down.
Here’s how she did it
Morét started her professional life as the director of a teen center at University of California Davis after having studied psychology. In 2011, she moved to Healdsburg to work at the Boys and Girls Club there. The line of work proved to not be her cup of tea, and hanging out in Sonoma County “made me realize that I liked wine more than I liked teens.”
Upon this realization, she looked for a part time tasting room gig to get her feet wet and was hired by Silver Oak, who posted her mainly at Twomey. “That was my first exposure to fine wine as opposed to grocery store stuff,” she said. She quickly realized there was “so much more to wine than knowing how to swirl without spilling” and decided to go full time in the tasting room, start evening classes at junior college to learn more about wine, and intern at the San Francisco Chronicle’s annual wine competition.
As she navigated deeper into the industry, she wanted to grow professionally. Silver Oak didn’t offer the upward mobility she desired, and so she found her way to Kosta Browne where she had an entirely different kind of experience. “They had [recently] won [Wine] Spectator’s Wine of the Year [award], and sales were crazy. I didn’t know how allocation lists worked.” Her job was marketing, a role that entailed “mostly sending [owners] Dan and Michael out into the world to promote the brand.”
As employees of small wineries are inclined to do, she leaned in on other areas of the business as well. “I was the annoying little sister to production. I went to them after I was done with my work and followed the cellar master around asking questions.” She participated in fruit sorting, and chewed the ear of the oenologist off “to learn about pH and [total acidity]. I loved the camaraderie and energy around the fruit.” However, she didn’t love the early morning hours required to work in production. “I do them now, but thankfully it’s only for six or ten weeks out of the year,” she said as she laughed…and then made clear she wasn’t joking. “I’m not a morning person. I have a reputation.”
From Kosta Browne she moved to Martinelli where she did events and hospitality, but spent her extra hours with the vineyard team learning from them. “[That team] is super smart, and really good teachers.” She then moved to Hall Wines where she did “mostly marketing and administrative stuff.” The best part of this experience was that she got to work closely with Katheryn Hall herself, a legendary business person in the wine industry. “I got an overview of how the business is run, different facets and components like licensing and human resources.” She stayed for five years.
But for COVID…
Hall is also where Morét was when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “We went to social media to expand the customer base and stay connected with our wine club,” she said. Morét led the effort, setting up virtual happy hours featuring celebrities from the Hall network. “We would send wine to them and they would join our social channel and bring their followers to join ours’,” she explained.
All told, Morét produced over 100 of these events. Her guests ran the full gamut, and the experience improved her ability to engage with a variety of characters. “You can’t talk with an Olympic gold medalists the same way you talk with Molly Shannon or Florida Georgia Line. By the end we had had the cast of Schitt’s Creek, Martin Short, Tina Fey, a bunch of country music artists and reality TV starts, and the entire line up of Desperate Housewives. Some were flops, others were great.”
One of her favorites: Adam Lee. “I met Adam on the show. We wanted to do a focus on the Santa Lucia Highlands, so we had Mark Pisoni, Gary Franscioni, and Adam join the winemaker from WALT Wines [part of the Hall family wine empire].” In producing the content for the event, she had to research Adam. “I knew of him because of [Adam’s original winery] Siduri,” she said, but her interest was piqued when she came across Adam’s core project, Clarice Wine Company, which we’ve profiled here on Good Vitis. “I loved Clarice’s format and became a member without even trying the wines,” she said.
After the show, Adam reached out to her because he recognized her name as a new Clarice member. They met up for a drink at a nearby restaurant, and a mutual professional interest was sparked. Romance would come later.
Morét commits to getting up early
At the time, Adam’s consulting client base was growing, while his then-new Beau Marchais project was coming online as he was also working to solidify the young Clarice label. He was looking for additional help, and Morét was looking to add vineyard and winemaking responsibilities to her official job description. “I went to work for him,” she explained, adding that “I was in the vineyards with the vineyard managers where he sources. There was every hat to wear [because it was only two people running every aspect of the business].”
One of Morét’s talents that Adam most admired was her palate, and asked her why she wasn’t pursuing winemaking. “I hadn’t gone to school for it,” she told him, “and I didn’t think I knew enough. Adam told me his college studies were on the French and American prison systems, and he offered to teach me.”
She wasn’t convinced she could do it, so Adam gave her an unlabeled bottle and asked her to call it. “I tasted it and said it was a barrel sample of Napa cabernet from a mountain side vineyard that was produced by a pinot-focused winery. It was a bottle from ROAR Wines, and they’d gotten some Rutherford fruit from Hall to make it.” That gave her more confidence. They did it again, and again she got it right: Russian River Valley zinfandel. “ROAR had gotten some zin from Mike Officer [of Carlisle].”
These correct calls got her to think that maybe she could put something decent together, but where would she start? “Having Adam with his experience and contacts was pivotal” and she decided to go forward with a focus on the Russian River Valley. “I love elegance and femininity in wine, and I’ve always loved those qualities in pinot noir from the Russian River Valley,” she told me. When she was offered some fruit from a vineyard she knew and loved, her first pinot became a reality. “I was offered [the fruit] in April of 2021 for that year’s harvest,” so she had to be in or out. She was in.
Her inaugural release
I’ve had the pleasure of tasting every wine Morét has produced thus far, including her inaugural Stray Dogs, which is an annual bottle that benefits dog shelters “in every location where a bottle is purchased” and will likely be a different wine each time. That first release, a 2020 (93 points, value B), which is still available on her website (and which I recommend), is an unusual but addictive blend of grenache, pinot noir, and mourvèdre.
The nose achieves Morét’s goal of elegance and includes delicate red berries, pastel flower petals, crushed Smarties, and wet stone. Nearly full bodied with long, slightly grainy tannin and juicy acidity, the mouthfeel is pleasant and satisfying. Pretty violet florals lead the flavor charge, followed closely by plum and strawberry with thyme shining through. This isn’t a wine for those looking to be smacked upside the head with concentration or power, but rather requires attention and thought to get the most out of it. It’s great now with food, and I’d like to revisit it in a year or two when I think its personality will fully come into its own.
The 2021 Stray Dogs (90 points, value TBD based on price) is a 100% pinot noir scheduled for release “in November-ish.” The nose comes out strong with crushed cherry and blackberry, sweet tobacco, Acai juice, and black pepper. Medium in body, the tannins offer palpable chew while the acid starts broad and builds to a fine point. The flavor profile is driven by a savory overtone of salted plum that is augmented by black tea, strawberry, and black current. It strikes me as a wine that will be interesting to follow over its first five years of life because it’ll likely show a few interesting personalities along the way.
The other 2021 releases, which are available now, include the Rosé of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, and Lakeview Vineyard Pinot Noir. The rosé (91 points, value A) is a case purchase contender, offering nice body with acid levity and ripe fruit that forms a rosé of substance and significance. The Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (92 points, value C) offers an intriguing profile of plum, cherry, baking spice, tamari sauce, leather, and red beet, and portends a promising life as the longer it has to take on oxygen at this early stage, the more structured it becomes. Finally, the Lakeview Vineyard Pinot Noir (93 points, value C) is best suited for the cellar at this stage. It offers sweet berry compotes, pomegranate, clove, tangerine peel, violet, and cigar box, and promises more delineated complexity to come with two or three years of aging.
Planting her flag and looking to the future
With a focus on Russian River Valley, Morét is putting herself up against stiff competition. When asked what sets her apart, she goes back to the time she spends in the vineyard. She and Adam agree: “you only get one shot each year, so you need to see what’s going on and make adjustments and informed decisions.” Unlike Adam’s focus on the Santa Lucia Highlands, which is over three hours from where they live, Morét’s vineyards are fifteen minutes away, which she calls “pivotal” as she’s not a natural morning person and it allows her to spend ample time in the presence of the vine. “That’s part one.”
Part two of what makes her brand unique is having Adam on her team. “He’s the pinot wizard. He knows the weather. To have him to work closely with, to guide me, is pretty pivotal.” But make no mistake, these are not Adam Lee pinots. As someone who has tasted a lot of Adam’s wines and his full range of styles, Morét’s is decidedly different.
“Adam likes more whole cluster than I do, and I go for earlier extraction with the fruit. I also like more new oak, I want that bigger mouthfeel.” Adam also builds wines that benefit from aging, whereas Morét is looking for earlier-developing finished products. She is making wine “that has the richness to be more drinkable early on.”
Part three of the Morét Brealynn Wines brand is Morét herself. She is aware that it takes more than good product to make a brand stick in the wine industry – there needs to be a personal connection as well. “If you email the info@ email on the website, it goes to me.” You can follow the creation of each wine on her winery Instagram account and her own adventures in wine, tacos, and golf on her personal handle. “I’m really excited about the fruit and have things to say with it, and I want people to be part of [that expression].”
The final part is Morét’s search to find her wine signature. “She’s putting herself on the line with her own label,” Adam told me, adding that, “she’s starting the winery on her own, and the wine has to pull its weight to keep the business alive.” Morét’s wines thus far are going in the direction of her intended profile of elegance and accessibility, but this being just her second vintage she has more work to do to get there.
Knowing this, she’s wasting no time in putting nearly every aspect under a microscope in pursuit of it. There is a new vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands coming online in 2024 that might inspire her to expand her physical footprint. She’s continuing to try new grape varieties: the 2022 vintage will include a zinfandel from 75-year old vines. She’s testing out different types of barrels (the Lakeview vineyard bottling, for example, was made using four different producers and barrel types). Her winemaking processes will change based on each wine she produces and each vintage she faces, which is to say that following Morét Brealynn Wines means following Morét’s personal and professional growth.
It will take time for Morét to find her ultimate sweet spot, but she’s off to a quick and advanced start. Her phenomenal connections, understanding of the business side, and Adam’s decades of experience are indeed significant assets, but her palate is her true north star and her passion and work ethic are what will allow her to follow it.