After driving for nearly four hours from San Francisco through winding roads and coastal highways, I pull into the long dirt driveway at Pacific Star Winery. Dust flies up from my car as I maneuver my way down toward the mid-sized redwood and stone winery overlooking the powerful Pacific Ocean. A pot-bellied beagle snoozes at the entrance to the winery while a calico cat mews loudly at me as I enter the tasting area. At the wine bar, a vivacious woman with long curly blonde hair entertains two guests from New York with tales of what’s inside their wine glasses.

Meet Sally Ottoson, the mastermind behind Pacific Star Winery. Sally was among the first female winemakers in California. Crowned “the Queen of Charbono” by the L.A. times, Sally’s bottlings include some of the more obscure grape varietals, such as Charbono, Carignane, Petite Sirah, and Barbera, but her extensive catalog includes everything from Chardonnay to Zinfandel. I was lucky enough to have a brief interview with her at the tasting room.

KW: How did you first get involved in the wine industry?

SO: “I was originally contemplating a medical career, but during that time I was managing the first wine tasting bar in Napa. The bar was owned by attorneys, but all the local winemakers used to come hang out there after working in the cellar all day. I was fascinated by the winemaking process and learned the trade by apprenticing with several winemakers in the area.”

KW: Were there many other women winemakers when you first started out?

SO: “When I started making wine, there were only 3 women wine makers. Now there are women winemakers all over the place.”

KW: Did you ever feel discriminated against for being part of a “boy’s club?

SO: “Not at all. The men I worked with were very supportive. I’m currently doing a project with other winemakers in Mendocino called Coro Mendocino. The wines are made up of all Mendocino county grapes, and they must be at least 40% Zinfandel. I’m the only female winemaker involved in the project. It’s funny—when I walk into the room all of the jokes immediately clean up. But the thing is, I know more dirty jokes than any of the men!”

KW: You’re known as the “Queen of Charbono.” What made you interested in bottling Charbono?

SO: “I like the rarity. Right now there are only 80 acres of it planted in California, and that’s still more than there was in the past. All the winemakers in California who are bottling it have to fight over the grapes. But back in the ‘70’s Inglenook was doing a Charbono, and so was Parducci. John Parducci was really a mentor for me. I think Charbono is a very universal wine. It’s not too tannic and not too acidic—a real food friendly wine. People always ask me to describe the grape’s characteristics, but that’s a difficult thing to do because it doesn’t have a distinct flavor profile like other grapes. So I like to say, it’s like an old woman who puts perfume in the same spot every day and it kind of sinks into her skin and you get this essence that evokes memories.”

After the New Yorkers and I finish sipping the Charbono, Sally pulls out a bottle of Pinot Noir from one of the cases in the back. “I don’t usually have this open for tasting,” she says. “The rage surrounding this grape really pisses me off. People are such lemmings, and all because of a stupid movie! But I think this is a really nice wine.”

Sally fills our glasses, and then leads us outside onto the cliff overlooking the ocean. The tide twists and crashes below us. She tells us about various wine club events in which she cooks up feasts of crab or abalone for her guests. She seems to have a real passion for cooking, so I ask her how food plays a role in her position as a winemaker.

KW: Your wines seem to be very food friendly. Is that intentional?

SO: “My wines aren’t meant to be over the top. I’m really going for the varietal characteristic of the grape, so they’re naturally better with food. I’m an obsessive cook; I’ll go through different phases. One time I was hooked on cooking Thai food and my hands began to turn green from all the peppers and herbs. I love buying fresh, locally grown produce and making something interesting with it.”

So great is Sally’s love of food and wine that she often compares the two.

KW: What do you love about your job?

SO: “It’s not a job, it’s a passion. I love that every grape variety has its own personality. You really get to know them when you’re working in the vineyard. Winemaking is really a creative process. It’s like cooking. You start a project and then you work at it until it’s finished and you have created something wonderful.”

Inspired by Sally’s passion and creativity, I leave the winery with a trunk load of wine, contemplating what to prepare for dinner to pair with my recent purchases.