Aimee Baker grew up in Napa, but only came to wine after years of hard work as an athlete and coach. She was head coach of Stanford University's women's rowing team for a decade, winning PAC-10 coach of the year at one point. But she realized her dream job was making wine and after studying at the University of California at Davis she took the plunge, eventually becoming associate winemaker at Opus One in 2013.
Now she's taking on an impressive portfolio as director of luxury winemaking for Trinchero Family Estates, where she'll be managing production for multiple brands such as Neyers, Bravium, Ziata, Trinchero Napa Valley and Mason. She recently talked with Wine Spectator about her love for wine and her thoughts on teamwork in the cellar.
Wine Spectator: Where did you grow up?
Aimee Baker: I grew up here in Napa. My family had a little grocery store in Yountville, built in 1916. That was my first job. I got exposed to the wine industry sort of peripherally—I saw winemakers come in. We had a bottle of Beaulieu Vineyards on the shelf, and I remember I was 13 and my grandfather was at the other end of the counter and [someone asked for it.] He said, 'You can sell that,' and then they asked me to open it. I've never opened a wine bottle before, so I just winged it.
I lived on Mount Veeder. My friends were the Travers, from Mayacamas. My dad isn't involved in the wine industry, but he helped clear and put together the framework for some of the properties on Mount Veeder, including Hess. I learned from the back of a tractor, a bit.
I played all sports in high school. When I was in college, I studied biology. I wasn't sure if I'd be a veterinarian or something in the medical field. But I was on the rowing team down at UC Santa Barbara. I sort of majored in rowing, minored in biology.
In 1992, I tried to make the Olympic team to go to Barcelona, and went as a spare, which means I didn't do anything besides come home. That's when I really thought, What am I going to do? My aunt worked at Beaulieu Vineyards in the tasting room. We talked a lot about wine. I applied for a field sampling position at Beaulieu and was hired. I thought it was because I had a degree in biology, but I think it was because I was really fit and I could carry the five-gallon buckets the field samples were in. That's where I met Michael Silacci [winemaker at Opus One].
WS: But you didn't stay in the wine industry at that point?
AB: I became a professional coach. I was hired at Stanford University, where I pursued a coaching career for 14 years. It was an amazing part of my life. Amazing to be able to use my people skills with the team. I mean, that's part of everything that we do, right? Whether I'm working with a team of rowers, or I'm working with the team in the winery, there's a lot of similarities.
I also love the similarity that you work toward a finished product. You know, that's the culmination of a championship or the culmination of harvest or releasing a blend.
Somewhere in the middle of my coaching career, I remember the coaches would stand at the beginning of each racing season waiting for our teams to start. We would be standing there, nervous as hell and just thinking, "All right. These next few strokes are going to determine whether the next months of my life are going to be good or bad."
We all talked about what we would be doing if we weren't coaching, and I would always talk about winemaking. What I would do, and where I would go, and how to do it. Then I started to really just listen to myself and thought perhaps this is what I should be doing. Perhaps I figured out what I wanted to be when I grow up.
So I got into the master's program at UC Davis and I commuted from Stanford to Davis—coached in the morning, school in the midday, recruiting on the way home. In 2006, I was ready to make the switch.
I owned a house in Menlo Park, so I found a position in the Santa Cruz mountains with Piccheti Vineyards. I took a harvest position and then ultimately became the winemaker there. I was there from 2006 to 2013. It's a great place to start, because we made everything and it was very small. We had amazing fruit—there was some really old, self-rooted Zinfandel, Chardonnay, some Cabernet. I really had my hands in a bit of everything there. From picking decisions, managing the crew in the vineyard to barrels, it was a great place learn.
WS: When did you come back to Napa?
AB: In 2013, I feel like I was getting ready to complete my 23-year interview with Michael Silacci. We had stayed in touch. He had a position open in the Opus One cellar; a little in the lab, a little in the vineyard, but I could use it as a jumping-off point. I ended up becoming the assistant winemaker.
WS: So when you look at your new position at Trinchero, what are you thinking? Are you more excited or scared or nervous?
AB: I think I'm a healthy balance of all. I am definitely impressed with the people that I will be involved with—not that I'm not impressed by the people here at Opus. It's a different group. It's a group, a collection of winemakers, a collection of properties, a collection of wines.
It's a little like coaching an Olympic athlete. They know what they're doing. They know how to be an athlete. These people know how to make wine. It's what can I do to help focus or give them the space to be creative, the space to do what they do best. I love teams. I think that from where I sit and the skill and the experience that I've gained at Opus, I can help apply that.
The last thing that I want anybody to think is I'm going to come tell you what to do. That's not what I'm about. I'm about, how can we do this better? There's got to be some perspective that I have that can free you to be able to do what we need to do here. How do we elevate these wines? How do we elevate the process?
WS: You also have a winemaking wife—how did you meet?
AB: We met on a trip to Portugal—we had the same cork vendor, who would take a small group of people to Portugal to see where corks come from. Sandrine [Bourcier] was working in Canada, but she was born in France. I like to say that we met in Lisbon, but in fact we met in the Newark Airport, on the way to Lisbon. We spent a week there and then we probably took 26 trips back and forth between Canada and California. And in 2018, she came to California, and we were married.
She works at Rack & Riddle in Sonoma, making sparkling wine for a lot of different customers. We enjoy all different types of wine. but we certainly start with sparkling wine or Champagne every night.
WS: I imagine it's helpful to have a partner who understands the demands of the job?
AB: Right. Sparking harvest has already begun, I've been charged with making dinners at this point and anything that happens around the house. We also have a dog. Thankfully, my mom lives around the corner, so when I kick into gear, and we're both doing our thing, Mom helps out quite a bit with the dog. His name is Moto. He's an Italian water dog, a really cool little dude.
WS: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about the wine industry?
AB: That it's all art. That's definitely an aspect of it—you need to be creative. That can mean creative solutions or creativity in how you make a blend of people in a team. We don't work magic here. We just guide the magic and I think that the true champions are the people that have their hands and their boots in the soil.
Opus One is Opus One because of the amazing people in every position. Of course, it all starts in the vineyard and that's where the focus is. I love the people and the experience that I've had at Opus One. I heard someone do a great job of explaining how she felt when she was going to work someplace else. She said, "You're not an ex-employee. You're an alumni." That's such a cool way to think of it.