Q&A with Nick Gislason, Winemaker, Screaming Eagle

Q&A with Nick Gislason, Winemaker, Screaming Eagle

He’s 29 years old and could pass for younger, but even Nick Gislason has one of the wine world’s most coveted jobs: winemaker at Napa Valley’s iconic Screaming Eagle. Most winemakers would labor for years, even decades, before ascending that Everest. Not Gislason, who shot like a comet out of University of California, Davis, landing stints at, among others, Harlan Estate, before nailing the Eagle stewardship in the spring of 2011. We chatted in April in the Screaming Eagle vineyard.

WINE ENTHUSIAST: So how did you get this job?
NICK GISLASON: Following my cellar position at Harlan, I went back to [UC] Davis, and was looking for jobs in my last quarter. And it occurred to me, [I] should really talk to Andy [Erickson, Screaming Eagle’s then-winemaker], because everything I’d known about him as a winemaker was right up my alley. I thought it was a long shot, though. Eventually, we had a good, long conversation, and he said he’d think about it. [In February 2010] we sealed the deal, and I became Andy’s assistant. But he left the winery about a year later.

W.E.: Did you know he was leaving?
NG: I was surprised, actually. I think he’d been thinking about it slowly.

W.E.: Was it automatic you’d be promoted in his place, or was there a possibility someone older and more experienced would be hired?
NG: There was certainly that possibility. The management at that point wanted to understand all their options. There were a lot of recommendations [for his successor] that came from various people. There were top-notch candidates from around the world. The vast majority of them were a little older than me and more experienced. But I knew there was a chance I’d get the job.

W.E.: So were you going through a period of anxiety?
NG: [laughs] Oh, you can imagine that I was fairly excited, let’s put it that way.

W.E.: How long did that period of uncertainty last, and who offered you the job?
NG: That lasted for a few months, because they wanted to be very careful. One day, I was out in the vineyard, and Armand [de Maigret, estate manager] gives me a call and says, “Hey Nick, would you come up here to the lab?”

W.E.: Did you have a feeling?
NG: A funny feeling. So I come up, Armand and Andy are sitting there, and I could just tell from their faces they had some good news.

W.E.: Did you celebrate?
NG: Absolutely. Jennifer [Gislason’s wife] and I opened a bottle of 2007 O’Shaughnessy Cabernet Sauvignon, the first wine I had a part in making in California, to make it full circle. We followed that up with some bubbly.

W.E.: How would you describe yourself?
NG: I’m somebody who’s charging 100 miles an hour and loves every single minute of it. It’s as simple as that.

W.E.: Do you drink Screaming Eagle at home, and do you get it for free?
NG: I do get my allocation, but it’s not for free! I pay the same as everybody else: $750 a bottle. For now.

Published on September 18, 2012