From Winemaker to Wine Director: Sonoma County’s Erin Miller

A practical summer job led to a passion-driven career for the lead sommelier at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen

From Winemaker to Wine Director: Sonoma County’s Erin Miller
Though she's entered a career in hospitality as wine director of Dry Creek Kitchen, Erin Miller continues her own winemaking project on the side. "It's who I am. I can't not make wine," she says. (Courtesy of Dry Creek Kitchen)
Jan 25, 2022

Erin Miller is a restless explorer at heart. She typically describes herself as “from” Sonoma County, Calif., where she attended junior high and high school in her mother’s hometown of Santa Rosa. But she has lived in several U.S. states and regularly traveled abroad from an early age. "I've never really been very good at staying in one place,” she says.

After Miller graduated from Portland’s Lewis & Clark College in 1999 as a math and Russian major, her adventurousness led her to work with the Peace Corps in West Africa. For the short gap between college and the Peace Corps, her winemaker cousin had an idea: Why not work a harvest to help pay off some student loans?

“I interviewed at places, and people were like, ‘You don't know anything,’” she recalls. “And I didn’t know anything.” But in a move that’s not uncommon for wineries in need of extra hands, she was given a chance. She worked her first harvest at Napa’s Trinchero, a high-end brand from the family behind Sutter Home. “It was just a summer job. I had no intention of making it something more than that. But it really struck me.”

Miller was intrigued by winemaking’s intersection of art, science and nature. Her subsequent work with the Peace Corps, which focused on environmental sustainability initiatives like natural-resource management, only fostered that interest. Though she’d planned to start medical school once she returned from Niger, Miller realized that winemaking could bundle her multiple interests into one career.

Soon she was studying viticulture in a post-bacc program at U.C. Davis, then working harvests in France. Miller moved back to Sonoma in 2006, where she worked for Kendall-Jackson and Hartford Family before heading to Oregon for stints at Evening Land vineyards and Twomey. She also managed four wine brands in a position at Provingage Wine Associates.

 The outdoor patio area at Dry Creek Kitchen
At Sonoma’s Dry Creek Kitchen, wine director Erin Miller gets to share her excitement about wine with an exceptionally receptive community. (Paige Green)

In July 2021, Miller once again returned to Sonoma to become wine director at chef Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, a restaurant in downtown Healdsburg. She wasn’t seeking a job in hospitality, but when the opportunity arose, she saw it as another uncharted area to explore. “There’s the art and the science sides, but then there’s also the educational side—sharing what you're doing and why you’re doing it,” she says. “I feel like I am fulfilling this educational component that’s a new facet of the wine industry for me.” Miller now oversees a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence–winning wine list of about 600 selections, all from Sonoma County.

Though going from the vineyard to the dining room was a significant career shift, it’s fitting that Miller is managing a wine list exclusively focused on the region she calls home. “I’ve always come back to California,” she says.

This past fall, Miller sat down with Wine Spectator associate editor Julie Harans to share her plans for the wine list, the joys and challenges of entering hospitality and why, after traveling the world, she’s happiest in Sonoma wine country.

Wine Spectator: What made you want to shift your career path to wine?
Erin Miller: Some of it was the crossing of happenstance and serendipity. But I remember an “aha moment” [at Trinchero]. I was up on top of the tanks, and I was talking to the enologist tech while doing a pump-over, watching her mix some yeast. She was explaining the science part of her job, and I was like, “Wow, this really is that confluence of art and science.”

I have really always been science-minded, but I also love the art [of winemaking], and I love the idea that you can’t control everything. You guide it to the best of your ability, but you’re really just a stewardess for this moment in time. That’s kind of what life is, and that’s what winemaking is, and I really enjoy that.

WS: What has it been like to now work in a hospitality-focused role?
EM: It's so nice to talk to guests who are interested in learning about wine. Our opportunity to bring the wineries to them and sort of create the winery experience here, it's almost better than going to a tasting room or a wine bar. And often there are winemakers or the winery owners here, so we kind of get to bring the whole winery experience to the guests in the restaurant. It's very lucky, where we're positioned.

WS: Have there been any challenges?
EM: It's definitely a very different approach from selling wine. Going in and selling your wine and saying, “This wine is so special,” you get to tell a story. But [in a restaurant], you have to make sure that your story is getting to the customer. It’s almost like [the game] telephone. You have just minutes at the table, and there's 600 wines on our list or more, and how do we communicate that to everyone? It's like trying to find the right gift for somebody. And it's really fun to talk to people and check in after you've found a wine with them. It's not always perfect, but when it is, it's rewarding.

WS: What’s it like working for chef Charlie Palmer?
EM: Charlie Palmer is very involved in the wine industry's community, and he does a lot of benefits for the wine community and the restaurant community. He's a grower himself and he's a restaurateur, so I think he really lives that wine life that I was first awakened to in France, where, you know, you go to a restaurant in Burgundy, and they're only going to have the Burgundian wines from that region. They're not going to have even, say, the Mâcon wines. And he does that here. He only has Sonoma County wines. There aren't that many other restaurants that do that. That's pretty neat that he's created a menu that goes with these wines because of where we live, and he wants people to learn about that.

WS: What have you been focusing on over the last few months in this position?
EM: I was just reading today about a somm that had sold off so much of their wine list [during the pandemic], and they’re now having to rebuild … fortunately, we didn't sell off our whole list, and we don't have to rebuild.

What's really fun right now is that we still have a lot of our anchors for our list, and we have beautiful library selections of those wines, and vertical selections as well. So now we have the opportunity to fill those in with current releases. And I'm excited to work with people who I really respect in the industry and get to taste through all of their wines and bring them on, find new producers that are starting new projects and things like that.

WS: How do you approach the wine pairings?
EM: We have a three-course prix-fixe menu, and there are so many variables of what people order and what we can pair with it. I may have five tables doing the wine pairing, but I won't pour the same wine because their first and second courses are different or their partners’ dishes are different.

If we had 50 wine tastings all at the same time, it would have to be a little bit more uniform. But right now, even if I have five tables with 20 guests, it's easy to figure out what to do for each person and get to show them an amplifier wine and a contrasting wine. It’s very nice to be so personal and intimate with each person's experience. Because it's not a mega-restaurant where you come in and get the same treatment every single time, which some people want. For me, I want the personal touch.

Last night actually was one of the most fun experiences. We had a table that asked me to come over and choose everything [food and wine] for them. I was like, “This is so much fun!”

WS: Is there something specific about Sonoma County that keeps drawing you back?
EM: I love so many things. Everything contributes to a lifestyle that is very beautiful and fulfilling. That being said, I can see myself living in a lot of different places.

I hope that I am always able to be mobile and travel and experience the world, because I think—especially with the pandemic—it's so important that we have a sense of what our world is like. And for food and wine as well; I can say I was helping Dry Creek Kitchen build their wine list, but I also want to know how they do that in Singapore and how they do that in Japan and how that's done in France. I've experienced some of it, but I hope I can still maintain it.

WS: As someone who’s very curious and has been involved in several facets of the wine world, is there any other section of the industry you’re interested in exploring?
EM: I've always wanted to buy a property and grow grapes and live on that land—the very French-vigneron idea of making your land into where you live and vice versa.

WS: What’s the current scope of your winemaking?
EM: In 2018, I made six barrels, which is 150 cases-ish. And then this year, I made a barrel of Pinot Noir and almost a barrel of Zinfandel [for family and friends]. Whether or not I make that into a commercial enterprise myself, I don't know. I want to be out in the vineyard as much as possible throughout the year so that I can let that inform how I'm going to make the wine.

I met Dick Erath [of Erath wines] once, when Twomey started making wine from Oregon and then they purchased his Prince Hill estate. He was talking about how he built his estate, how he just walked out of his house, down the hill, and stuck vines in the ground and just let them grow. He decided over here, he would grow them this way, and over there, he would grow them that way. He kept copious notes and hand-drawn maps. As a commercial winery coming in there, people were like, “What is this mess?” But at the same time, how beautiful to just explore your land and hope that you can provide for your friends and family and community? I love that, that idea of being able to give back. It takes a village, but I want to give back to my village.

So I'm not done with winemaking. And I'm definitely not done with the wine industry. It's me, it's who I am. I can't not make wine.

WS: Looking back now, is there anything in your childhood that foreshadowed that you would be interested in wine?
EM: We traveled a lot as a family, so [that meant] being exposed to many different cultures and languages and foods. I always really enjoyed the niceties of life, the fine, delicate things.

Similarly, what contributes to being a good wine taster and a good winemaker is being able to call on your past tastes. My mom and I were always toiling in the garden. We are always talking about flowers. I clearly remember being about four years old and looking at crocuses coming up through the snow. Crocuses have a very defined smell. I didn’t realize that then, but now when I smell the essence of crocus, I'm like, “Oh yeah, that's so cool! That's what that first moment of spring smelled like.”

I once took a class from Alexandre Schmitt, he's a perfumer from France who transitioned into providing educational intensive courses for winemaking professionals. It was about breaking down the molecular structures of smells and how that creates a perfume in a wine. He would say, “Is this lemon or is this lime?” And almost every single time I would mix lemon and lime up. But if somebody said, “Is that carnation or gardenia?”, I knew that right away. So I think all of those things contributed to where I am. The threads of your history always make your tapestry.

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