SALINAS VALLEY — Standing in his vineyard as a brisk wind runs amuck with his curly, sandy-blonde hair, Denis Hoey reveals why the Salinas Valley region — known for its vast agriculture — should also be noted for fine winemaking.
“We make wines here that rival the finest in the world,” he says.
And Hoey would know. The 38-year-old is not only the owner of Odonata Winery in Salinas, but also president of the River Road Wine Trail, a coalition of seven small wineries that sprawl along River Road, stretching from Salinas to Soledad and the surrounding area in Monterey County.
Touring his winery, Hoey talks about his own winemaking journey and why — due to Covid — he will always remain committed to the Salinas Valley.
Strolling between rows of vines, nestled below the rugged Santa Lucia Mountain range, Hoey says the vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands, which parallel the River Road Wine Trail, are in a region known as an American Viticultural Area, or AVA. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has recognized this area as ideal for vineyard cultivation.
Hoey says the Spanish missionaries planted the first grapes in the highlands in the 1790s. But for the next two centuries, crop growers took advantage of the area’s idyllic growing conditions to produce mostly vegetables, until the mid-1970s, when boutique wineries moved in.
Seated comfortably in board shorts and sneakers on a wicker sofa in the winery’s sun-dappled patio, Hoey explains that these young, educated vintners had not only rediscovered the region’s potential to grow fine wine grapes, but also understood the reason why — cool temperatures, abundant morning sunshine and a steady wind blowing in from the Monterey Bay.
Hoey says these weather conditions help extend the grapes’ ripening season, allowing for the ideal balance between sugar and acidity for smooth, robust flavor in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines.
“This really is the perfect place to live if you have a passion for making fine wine,” he says.
A PASSION FOR WINE
Hoey has long had a passion for fine wine. Growing up in Sacramento with a dinner table always festooned with wine, he developed an early love for the refined beverage.
Never expecting to make a career out of winemaking, he graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 2004 with a degree in business management; however, during his final year of school, something happened that changed his life.
Hoey met Jeff Emery, owner of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, and began helping him around his winery. While bottling some rosé one afternoon, he had an epiphany and knew his life mission.
“That night, I took a bottle of rosé to my girlfriend, Claire, slapped it on the table, and said, ‘This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.’ And she looked at me like I wasn’t serious or maybe just crazy,” Hoey recalls.
But Hoey wasn’t either and began working hard toward his dream. He became the production manager for Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, and for the next decade, learned the ropes of winemaking from Emery, a 30-year winemaking veteran.
In 2005, Hoey founded Odonata Wines in Santa Cruz, and later, he and Claire (now his wife) purchased property in Salinas, establishing Odonata Winery on River Road in 2014. They have two sons, Gavin, 8, and Colton, 9.
Standing under a metal awning, behind three stainless-steel fermentation tanks, and keeping an eye on his sons doing their homework on two foldout tables, Hoey says his small winery offers something that the larger wineries can’t typically deliver — a distinct taste experience.
“Our Pinot Noir, for example, tastes a little different every year, depending on the climate — how much sunlight or wind or fog the grapes received that year, or even by the type of barrel the wine was aged in,” he says.
For Hoey, his wine is a type of anecdote to the homogeneity that often epitomizes the food and beverage market today.
“We offer a pure and distinct wine that simply reflects what Mother Nature offered that year,” he says.
Though some might accuse him of waxing profusely over the joys of winemaking, Hoey says that operating a winery is hard work — during harvest season, he puts in 14-hour days. There are also plenty of worries, such as could bad weather compromise the harvest, or is the economy strong enough for good wine sales?
“Covid has also presented challenges for our area wineries,” Hoey says.
Odonata shuttered for two months in March and April due to the pandemic and then for a week during the River Fire in late summer, when the winery lost 30% of its grapes due to smoke damage.
“It’s been a tough year,” Hoey says with a sigh, adding that his sales have also suffered.
His local customers, however, have given him something to be thankful for this season by continuing to purchase his wine during the Covid-19 crisis. Hoey says he has been touched and humbled by their loyalty, and that they have taught him about something larger and even more important than wine.
Seated back in his patio, with the Santa Lucia Highlands gleaming bright behind him, Hoey continues, “They taught me about the power of community — it’s how we survive during difficulties, during hard times, during adversity, and it’s also how we heal and come back. And in the end, that is truly something worthy to toast.”
Odonata Winery and tasting room, 645 River Road in Salinas, is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment. Call 831-566-5147 for more information, as hours of operation may be affected by current health restrictions.
Article written by Anthony Chiorazzi for King City Rustler and Salinas Valley Tribune.