Friday Feature: Terra d’Oro’s Winemaker Emily Haines: Blending Science and Art

By | Wine & Travel Writer, Consultant & Marketer
Last Updated: August 18, 2022
Previously we introduced you to Amador County and Terra d’Oro. Now, meet young winemaker Emily Haines, the head winemaker for Terra d'Oro Wines.

Earlier this week we introduced you to Amador County and Terra d’Oro, now it’s time to meet the young winemaker shaking things up with her own blend of science, art and intuition. As you might recall, I had the opportunity to meet and taste with Emily Haines, the head winemaker for Terra d’Oro wines.

Like many winemakers I’ve met around the world, Emily was approachable, passionate and happy to share her experience and knowledge. And while you may think of scientists (Emily is a biochemist and biotechnologist who formerly researched Type 1 diabetes) as introverted or overly technical, I can assure you Emily is neither of those things. She is relatable, gregarious and frankly, downright funny; not to mention, brilliant! Absolutely someone I could sit down and have a beer with – that’s right, a beer! Because that’s this winemaker’s preferred style of travel when not immersed in wine, and how relatable is that – we all need to disconnect from work sometimes!

So, let’s take a few minutes and disconnect with Emily, and if you’re like me, you’ll be itching to travel to Amador County too.

Winetraveler (WT): What made you decide to go into the wine industry, it’s quite a diversion from diabetes research?

Emily Haines (EH): When I was a senior at Eastern Washington University, a good friend of mine introduced me to winemaking and shortly thereafter I got the itch. My friend convinced me that I had a great palate and that I should make the leap, so at 24 took a temporary position as a lab tech, which eventually became a permanent job. After that, I transitioned over to the Wahluke Wine Company and Milbrandt Vineyards, owned by the Milbrandt family in Eastern Washington. While there I moved from lab technician to lab manager, to enologist and then on to an assistant winemaker in charge of white wine production. Just before I left, I was the director of winemaking.

WT: That brings me to my next question, why leave Washington for Amador County?

EH: Well, the Terro d’ Oro position came open in 2017 and was an opportunity to work with new varieties in a region I had not heard of before. It was definitely a thrill of the unknown situation – an adventure. Then as I began researching the area, I became fascinated by the region’s long history of winemaking and viticulture and realized it was an opportunity to put my own stamp on it. Not to mention, it was both scary and thrilling to have an opportunity to work with grapes from vines over a century old!

RELATED: More Top Wineries to Visit in Amador County

Terra d'Oro Winemaker Emily Haines |
Image courtesy Terra d’Oro Winery.

WT: And what type of stamp were you hoping to put on the wines of Amador County, your wine philosophy so to speak?

EH: I like to think of myself as very open-minded when it comes to winemaking. My science background gives me an idea of why things work, or why they don’t, but in winemaking I also get to engage my creative side. My goal is to make each variety and each wine the best it can be and as such each wine gets its own unique treatment. Every single block in the vineyard has the ability to be good, my job is simply to make it the best it can be. This is where the science and creativity blend together – I tweak the wines. I let the fruit shine in some cases by pulling back the oak or using more understated oak, other times I pick earlier for more of a cool climate profile in the grape. It really all depends on the particular vine and variety. I let the grapes speak to me. And I guess ultimately, in addition to making each vineyard the best it can be, I want to make wines that appeal to all consumers from those that like to really geek out on unique wines with little to no intervention, to those that prefer the California oak bombs. (But I do have some really nerdy wines in the tasting room!)

WT: Do tell! What are the “nerdy wines” of the tasting room?

EH: We have a new line of wines, the Exploration Series. This has been a ton of fun! These are each based on different experiences I’ve tried with various small lots. For example, I have a Pinot Grigio from the hot climate area of Clarksburg which I had picked earlier. Instead of presenting like a hot climate, crisp and light Pinot Grigio, the Exploration Series Pinot Grigio is far more like a rich, cool climate Pinot Grigio. Think more along the lines of a Pinot Grigio from Friuli in Northern Italy. We also have a Barbera that received 90 days of skin contact. It’s a delicate-skinned grape, so more time with the skins resulted in a more robust and velvety profile. Amador County is different from the rest of California and as a winemaker, I like to introduce new winemaking styles to embrace those differences.

WT: How do you tackle the number of different varieties from Zinfandel and Barbera to Aglianico and Teroldego?

EH: Well with 500 acres planted, it’s not easy. Nothing is left to last minute – everything is done with lots of planning. We have regular planning meetings and ongoing conversations. We have to be forward-thinking at all times. For instance, water is always going to be an issue, especially with the warming trends, so we need to consider things like waste-water management.  Are there things we can be doing better or differently, for example.

Or if a variety is struggling, maybe it’s the wrong variety for the vineyard. We have this north-facing vineyard with a particular clone of Zinfandel that frankly was horrible for red wine production. First, we moved it into the production of White Zinfandel because that was the best those grapes could be – making the best of a sour grape situation you could say. However, we also have Barbera planted on the same slope and it results in one of our best Barbera wines, so here we’re considering transitioning the whole vineyard over to Barbera. Again, it’s all about planning and forward-thinking!

WT: You’re coming up on your two-year anniversary with Terra d’Oro, what’s your favorite experience at the winery so far?

EH: I love coming to work every day. Honestly. I love harvest – we’re at the vineyard early and as the fruit is coming in, the sun is rising. Oh, and I also love blending! I can really geek out there. And the facility itself – it’s a large winery that has a country meets industrial feel. It’s surrounded by vineyards, oak trees and rolling hills. It reminds me of Italy in many ways, or how Napa used to feel. Really though, I just love my job. It’s another layer that completes me.

WT: What would you tell Winetravelers coming to visit Amador County and how would you describe a tasting at Terra d’ Oro?

EH: It’s a beautiful region with so many amazing wineries, things to do and it’s incredibly laid back. I would tell Winetravelers to get to know Amador County and embrace its differences – its long history, terroir and unique ability to present Italian and southern French varietals in truly authentic expressions, but it’s also best known for Zinfandel, and you must try some Old Vine Deaver Zin! We’re off the beaten path, but also a great destination for trying new things. And for a few more advantages there’s no traffic, 46 wineries and if you’re on an extended trip, we’re close to a number of other California wine regions!

As for a tasting at Terra d’ Oro, well, it’s a treat. We’re open seven days a week from 10:30 to 4:15 and only require reservations for groups of six or more, otherwise, you can walk in anytime we’re open. We offer two flights: one is for $5 and it’s our market wine flight. The other is a $10 flight of our reserve wines. We produce 25 to 28 wines each year and of that, only eight go to market. The remainder are only available here in the tasting room.

WT: Well, you’ve sold me! So, one last question, are you also a Winetraveler and if so, where do you like to travel outside of Amador County?

EH: In all honesty, I don’t really wine travel. I’m more of a beer traveler! That said, I’m from Washington. It’s my go-to, my roots. And you never forget your first love.

Learn more about how to get to Amador County and where to stay here. And we’ll be back soon with a suggest list of wineries to visit!

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