For a native from Michigan who never had a sip of wine until he moved to California in 1977, John Hoddy is making wines that are both outstanding and innovative for Bray Vineyards in Amador County. Working closely with renowned consultant Marco Cappelli, Hoddy has produced numerous award winning wines made from traditional Italian and Portuguese grapes, such as barbera, primitivo, verdelho, and vinho tinto, in addition to wines more typical of California, such as zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon. I had the pleasure of speaking with this laid-back, jovial, banker-turned-winemaker recently in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.

KW: How did you become interested in winemaking?

JH: I was working for Bank of America, and I was doing some home winemaking just for fun. I decided to take it one step further and take some classes on winemaking from UC Davis extension. After that, I began helping local winemakers out during harvest. I’ve been working with Bray Vineyards since 2004.

KW: Did you grow up with wine?

JH: I grew up in Michigan where nobody drank wine. I don’t think I had my first glass of wine until I moved to California.

KW: What is your philosophy when it comes to winemaking?

JH: Well, you can’t make good wine from bad grapes. It all starts in the vineyard. I like to focus on having better control over the grapes and managing the vineyard. We’re growing everything ourselves now, and we’re out in the vineyard everyday, making sure the grapes are up to par.

KW: When making the wines for Bray Vineyards, you work with consultant Marco Cappelli and the Bray family. How does it work to put wines together by committee?

JH: It works out very well. One person doesn’t always have all the answers. It helps to have validation, to get other’s opinions. If you make everything to one taste, you’re not going to please everyone. Not that you can ever please everyone, but working with a committee ensures that we’re putting together a quality product that will please the public.

KW: What is your favorite grape?

JH: I would have to say primitivo. I’ve been growing it for awhile now, and it makes a very nice wine. It’s a lot easier to grow than zinfandel. Zin can have problems with early rains rotting the inside clusters. Primitivo ripens a lot more evenly.

KW: What kind of music do you listen to when you’re making wine?

JH: If I’m by myself I like to listen to Classical. I’m a big fan of Beethoven, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff. But in the tasting room we like to keep it fun and upbeat; we usually have the local Classic Rock station on, which the customers seem to enjoy.

KW: Tell me about the “BrayZin Hussy.”

JH: Well we were all sitting around relaxing after work one day, and we knew we needed to do an inexpensive table wine. We had a lot of excess zinfandel and sangiovese that we could put into a blend. We just needed a name for it. So we came up with “BrayZin Hussy” to work the name of the winery and one of the grapes into the title. Now it’s our best seller—we’re making 1,200 cases/year. We even sell t-shirts in the tasting room with the logo (a blonde woman drinking a glass of red wine in a bathtub) on it.

KW: Have you done any interesting traveling with your career?

JH: Most of the traveling I do isn’t related to my career, though I have visited some wineries in both Italy and France. It’s a lot different to go wine tasting in other countries because it’s not as much of a tourist thing as it is here. You usually have to set up an appointment, and it can be difficult if you don’t speak the language. On the other hand, you tend to get a lot more personal attention. I would really like to visit some of the wineries in Australia and New Zealand because I enjoy the wines they’re making down there.

KW: What is your most memorable wine related experience?

JH: I would have to say it happened this year. I decided to make a Barbera Rosato—and for some reason nobody is making a rosé from barbera, even though the grape is very successful in Amador County because of it’s long growing season. It recently won six gold medals and best of show at the Amador County Fair wine competition.

You can sample the Barbera Rosato and many other delicious wines made by John Hoddy at the Bray Vineyards tasting room, Friday–Monday from 10–5, in Plymouth, California.  Additional information is available on the web site