“Why does it matter that we are Asian and making wine?” asks Fah Sathirapongsasuti. “Because the vine doesn’t care who tends it, and the grape doesn’t care who makes it.”
Winemaker and co-owner of Sunset Cellars, marketing director of the Suisun Valley Wine Co-op in Fairfield, California, PhD statistician, computer scientist and genome researcher, Sathirapongsasuti answers his own question. “It matters because people have certain expectations about what people behind wine should look like, and how that might influence it.”
Sathirapongsasuti fell for wine a decade ago, after picking up a smoky note in the Sunset Cellars 2008 Afterglow Cabernet Sauvignon and tracing it to a local wildfire that same year. He was moved by how wine coalesces art, chemistry, biology, geology, history and culture. As a winemaker, he upholds the style developed by Sunset Cellars’ founders, Doug and Katsuko Sparks, allowing time to tame naturally acidic grapes like Barbera (a flagship wine since 1998) and Petite Sirah, with minimal intervention.
Now, Sathirapongsasuti works to increase visibility and representation of Asian wine producers.
In collaboration with Icy Liu and Asian Wine Professionals, he helped to create #drinkAAPIwine, a social media campaign featuring interviews, talks and virtual tastings throughout AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) Heritage Month in May. The initiative began when anti-Asian rhetoric and violence escalated at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. #drinkAAPIwine presents an opportunity to consider biases as to who has access, knowledge and belonging within wine culture, to recognize and celebrate contributions Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders have made to the wine industry for centuries, and to increase awareness of contemporary Asian winemakers and brands.
What do you wish you knew when you started working in the industry?
I wish I’d felt less afraid to be the face of my wine brand. Part of that was the cultural value placed on humility and the desire to honor the legacy of our founders. I was also afraid to go against the Eurocentric stereotypes of winemakers.
When you hear the term “rockstar winemaker,” you might imagine someone that looks more like Ian Devereux White or Carlos Mondavi than me. I now see it as a responsibility to represent my community and myself to highlight the unique contribution we make. I’ve recently released “XEN,” an oak-aged white blend of Chenin Blanc and dry Muscat crafted specifically to pair with Thai curries. I thought it was too outside-the-box and might fail, but it’s one of my most successful wines so far. Being authentic to ourselves is not only a responsibility but a viable approach to wine creation.
What do you hope the #drinkAAPIwine will accomplish?
There aren’t enough of us represented in the industry, though Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been part of the American wine industry from the ”Grape King” Kanaye Nagasawa, born in 1852, to winemakers behind celebrated labels like Williams Selyem, Signorello, Dalla Valle, Freeman and Schramsberg.
Like Sunset Cellars, you wouldn’t know they are Asian-owned brands—it’s not advertised upfront. And there are the Chinese ex-railroad workers who planted many of Sonoma’s old vines, contemporary grape growers and farmers, regarded storyteller Wilfred Wong [of wine.com] and AAPI sommeliers and wine retailers at local establishments.
I hope the platform shines light on the unique perspectives and contributions of AAPI individuals throughout the industry. A more practical and tangible goal would be for most wine consumers to be able to recognize more than a few AAPI producers, get to know their stories and seek out their wines.
How has your science background influenced your winemaking?
At first, wine was a way to take a break from my research. But I find comfort in the scientific aspect of winemaking. It’s nice to see the fermentation data from a paper match up with what I see in my cellar. The beauty of winemaking, though, is that no matter how well-controlled the research is, it may not apply to what’s going on in my cellar, barrels or bottles. There is tremendous complexity in this simple beverage, and the scientific enological work is an art unto itself.
Who’s the most underrated person in drinks?
The vineyard managers. A winemaker’s job is to express the characteristic of the grapes to their full potential. The vineyard manager works with Mother Nature to bring us grapes with the highest potential. I have tremendous respect for our vineyard manager, Gabino Rodriguez, who balances the long-term health of the vines alongside wine quality and yield.
You’re at a dive bar. What do you order?
Sparkling wine, if they have one. The quality variance in wine, especially red wine, is vast. Sparkling wines, like beer, are safer choices. A greater degree of freedom in blending and dosage, plus the carbonation, helps ensure consistent quality. If they don’t have a sparkling wine, a good old PBR would do.