As a graduate from UC Davis with a Master’s in Enology, Janet Myers spent time in Italy working at the Santa Cristina Estate in Chianti. She also enjoyed stints in Australia's Margaret River region and at big Napa Cabernet producers like Beaulieu Vineyard, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, and Louis Martini. She came to Franciscan Estate in August of 2003 as associate winemaker, and was promoted to director of winemaking in August 2005. Known for Chardonnays and Cabernets, Myers continues a legacy of dependable, rich wines which have helped shape the allure of the Napa Valley.

Franciscan is known for fermenting much of its Chardonnay using wild yeasts. Specifically, how does this create complexity in the wines and does it ever cause problems being potentially so unpredictable?

The complexity comes from the multiple yeast strains that do the fermentation. Typically winemakers add a commercial strain to do the fermentation, much like you’d do when making bread at home. But there are many strains of yeast that live on the grapes and in the atmosphere of a winery. Native fermentations skip adding the yeast, and instead rely on the wild yeasts do the winemaking. As in a relay, one by one they each take a turn dominating the fermentation as the ratio of sugar and alcohol shifts, and each contributes subtly different flavor components. We’ve been fermenting with native yeast since 1987 when we introduced Cuvee Sauvage – and were the first in Napa to bottle a Chardonnay with wild yeast. Using the same vineyards, like our Carneros estate, helps to keep the results consistent and reliable.

The blending of your red wines is known to be a stringent process. Describe the attention to detail you need to taste through hundreds of lots a day and distinguish those.

We make around 200 red lots and 100 white lots each vintage, each from a particular vineyard block, to be aged in a separate group of barrels. We have a fantastic team to keep track of all the details. Every few months during aging, the winemaking team tastes through the lots, with 50-80 wines per day, keeping hand written notes on each. 

Over time, you get to know the vineyards and their personalities. Trial blends are developed and tasted blind, as we hone the blends over the 18-20 months of barrel aging.  It’s an exacting process, but really helps to develop an understanding of the vineyards and blends. 

Certainly female winemakers are nothing new, but it seems the general public still has a fascination with them. Are there any advantageous or disadvantages to being in this reasonably small club?

There are more and more women entering the industry, and I agree, it’s not a big deal anymore, which is great. It probably resonates with the public because it is still largely a male dominated field. Leaders are looking for people to get the job done, and if you are proficient at what you do, then you will get more responsibility and rise in your profession, whether male or female. I often say that the grapes don’t have an opinion on the winemaker’s gender; they just want to be well taken care of. One aspect I do enjoy is getting together with other female winemakers in a group we call the Wine Divas; this involves wine discussions over Champagne brunch – a great way to spend some time!   

What prompted you to pursue winemaking as a career? If not winemaking, what path would you have chosen? 

Like a lot of winemakers, it was not a straight path. Though I started college in Illinois in Chemical Engineering, I quickly switched to Biology as I was more interested in living things. While in grad school for Biological Anthropology, I decided to travel and then moved to London where I worked in restaurants and lived above a wine shop. What started as a six month trip turned into four years, and during that time I got into wine. 

My family background is fruit growing, and my mom’s family was from Sicily.  Winemaking combined my agricultural and European roots, and blended interests in science and culture. I came back to do a Masters in Enology at UC Davis in 1992, and have been making wine ever since. 

Describe your winemaking philosophy, without all the hyperbole.

It’s fairly simple. Start with good vineyards. Showcase the fruit, building good body and structure, but keep it round and supple. Pick ripe enough to be very rich, but not so ripe that it becomes Port. Keep it vibrant - wines should pair well with food to my way of thinking. I try to strike a balance of approachability with age-worthiness. 

What specific wine varieties would you like to see the public embrace more fully?

New wine drinkers often try to go straight to the big Cabernets, and I think that they might have a better experience trying aromatic whites. Riesling and Gewürztraminer are beautiful, noble varieties with great personality. These same varieties belong on more wine lists, too, especially Asian cuisine. There are still too many Cabs and Merlots in Indian and Thai restaurants; it’s incredible how a great Gewürztraminer can take Thai food to another level.

Rating wines on a point scale will not be going any anytime soon, be that 100 point rating scale or five stars. Some people say these types of ratings empower consumers, others feel it distorts wine prices, while still others say it has actually changed the quality of wines being produced. What do you see as being the long term impact of the 100 point rating system?

The ratings system evolved to help consumers negotiate the multitude of choices on the shelves, and it’s been positive in that regard. The challenge can be that in a line up for scoring, some excellent wines may get overlooked since they are not the most showy right off the bat. Over-ripe and high alcohol gives perceived sweetness, low acid will present as soft and fat, a lot of obvious oak can make a wine stand out. But over a longer sitting or dinner, a more elegant, vibrant wine may be a better fit and over time may age better and be more complex. Besides scores, also try to find a local wine merchant for suggestions. Knowing your likes and dislikes, they can make tailored suggestions, and it can be a great way to learn about wines and brands that you may not have considered. At the end of the day, the rating that matters most is your own – have confidence in your palate, and drink what you like. 

You have traveled quite a bit. How crucial is it that a winemaker travel the world and experience winemaking techniques from other countries?

Having experience in other countries certainly gives perspective, not only on winemaking techniques, but how palates vary. In Italy I saw traditional methods, and enjoyed tasting and comparing wines with their European palates. In Australia, we did things I’ve never seen in California or Europe, they can really throw away the book and follow their instincts. With delicious results, I should add. What’s important is to work at more than one winery, whether or not it’s abroad. Seeing that there is no one way to do things is a good lesson. There are many approaches, all valid. The key is to find the techniques that work the best for your fruit.

Big, bold Napa Cabernets/Bordeaux blends are a hallmark of Franciscan wines. Is making these types of high-end wines still a challenge for you?

Absolutely! Winemakers only get one shot per year for the picking decisions and fermentation choices. Mother Nature keeps us on our toes, and it’s never exactly the same twice. We are making vintage products, and celebrate those differences and nuances. Each block expresses slightly differently each vintage, and the varieties also, so together there is always a fresh challenge. Wacky things happen during the growing season, or during harvest… the hottest January, latest frost, coolest July, biggest/smallest crop, earliest/latest rain, etc. Some 40-year industry veteran will say, “oh yeah, that hasn’t happened since 1972.” I love that. 

What advice, if any, would you give to a novice winemaker?

Get a good foundation in the sciences, it will serve when you need to problem solve. Apprentice with a number of winemakers, to see a range of techniques and approaches.  Keep your eyes open, and don’t get hard and fast opinions too soon.