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Sierra Zeiter: Hands-On Assistant Winemaker, Oak Farm Vineyards

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Winemaker Sierra Zeiter is a Lodi, California, native, yet growing up, she didn’t know her hometown was a center of the wine and agricultural industry. 

Her family is known for being ophthalmologists in San Joaquin County. The youngest of four children, she noted they were raised by two amazing, hardworking and generous parents. “Since my oldest brother decided to go into ophthalmology, I was not pressured into it. My parents always told me I could be anything I wanted, but to find something I was passionate about. The two things I was passionate about growing up were cooking with my parents and science class at school. Cooking with my parents slowly grew into helping my dad pick out the wine to go with the food, then into their letting me try the wine as we cooked. 

Passion for Grapes
“I still remember the first sip of wine I ever had, and a fire was lit inside me,” she noted. Sierra realized that wine and the process of making it are actually cooking, blending flavors and science mixed together. From that moment, she knew she wanted to learn as much as possible about wine and try to become the best winemaker she could possibly be.

To pursue her winemaking career, she attended California Polytechnic, San Luis Obispo, earning an undergraduate degree in enology. While attending college, she took every fall quarter off to work harvests and gain winemaking experience. 

“I worked two harvests in Lodi, two harvests in Paso Robles and recently a harvest in New Zealand,” she smiled. “These experiences led me to greater winemaking knowledge and insight in the field as a whole. Working these harvests, especially the one in New Zealand, has helped me learn new varietal winemaking strategies and bring more innovation to Oak Farm. Working in New Zealand showed me how their sauvignon blanc winemaking is different from California, and I’m hoping this harvest to increase the quality of Oak Farms’ sauvignon blanc with the processes I learned.” 

New Direction
She received a call from Oak Farm Vineyards her senior year, asking if she would be interested in an assistant winemaker position. “Now, here I am after two years of working as a winemaker for Oak Farm Vineyards!” she related. “Oak Farm Vineyards is a fairly small winery. We have five people on our production team; I’m the youngest and only female. I am involved in every aspect of the winemaking and cellar and lab work.”

When she came to Oak Farm Vineyards, she innovated the lab, purchasing new machines so now they can run all lab analysis in-house instead of sending tests out. She wrote all the standard operating procedures to maintain consistency. She has spearheaded four new wine programs, including a rosé, Russian River pinot, a Bordeaux and Italian-style blend. “I’m the winemaker always on site, so it is my responsibility to make sure everything is running smoothly and work is being done,” she reiterated.

Oak Farm Vineyards was started in 2010 by Dan Panella, a third-generation farmer. It sits on a historical property originally purchased in 1860. Dan’s vision was to put the Lodi Appellation on the map; he is focused on quality, not quantity. The vineyards encompass 14 varietals grown over 60 acres. “With 14 different varieties, I get to experiment and learn about all 14 grapes and wines. We do about five experiments each harvest to help better our wines so that the winemaking team can learn,” she explained. 

Oak Farm has a new wine coming out in 2020 that has not been done in Lodi, and Sierra is excited to share it. Her favorite white wine at Oak Farm is the 2019 Fiano, which took some effort to make during harvest. Half was naturally fermented with indigenous yeast and to the other half she added a commercial yeast. It is a complex wine bursting with aromas and flavors.

The 2019 harvest has started, and Sierra has a few experiments going on including her own brand-new wine. “I’m still trying to think of a name,” she mused. 

As she develops her career, her goal is to be the best winemaker she can be. “I want to learn and expand my knowledge while being a compassionate and generous leader who will inspire the next generation to reach greater heights.

“I think what sets me apart is that I am a very hard worker and passionate about what I do. I am a winemaker who gets dirty. I clean tanks, dig out tanks, pull hoses and lift barrels. I am a hands-on winemaker who’s in the cellar almost more than at my desk,” she related. “I try wines daily and really work hard to help improve the wines at Oak Farm. Even though my work is long hours and tiring, I always have a good attitude and a smile on my face. I love what I do.”

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