In this episode of Spilled Salt, Nova Cadamatre, a seasoned winemaker often dubbed the “flying winemaker,” shares her journey to become the first American woman to earn her Master of Wine and her insights into her bicoastal life between California and New York’s vineyards.
The conversation unveils the intensity of harvest season, a time when winemakers are fully immersed, working seven days a week, leaving no room for breaks. Nova’s dedication is palpable in the conversation as she shares how she shuttles between the East and West Coasts, managing her vineyards and clients.
Nova contemplates the future of the wine industry, considering the impact of climate change and the evolving preferences of consumers.
She recognizes the industry’s shift towards quality over quantity, with consumers opting for premium experiences. For Nova, with two decades of winemaking under her belt, this harvest marked a significant milestone. Her journey from growing up in a teetotal family in the Southeast to becoming the first female winemaker in the U.S. to achieve the prestigious Master of Wine title is nothing short of inspiring.
She emphasizes the importance of teamwork, acknowledging the incredible vineyard managers and teams supporting her. Nova’s approach to winemaking goes beyond the immediate process, delving into the legacy she hopes to leave behind. Her vision extends to crafting wines that will stand the test of time, offering future generations a taste of her dedication and expertise.
Not only a winemaker but an aspiring author, Nova is working on a compilation of life lessons and her experiences in overcoming setbacks, aiming to inspire those facing challenges with a book she hopes to finish within the year. Nova’s resilience, exemplified by conquering the Master of Wine exam after five failures, serves as a testament to her grit and determination.
In the world of winemaking, Nova’s journey is a blend of dedication, adaptability, and a deep-rooted passion for crafting wines that transcend time. As the next vintage approaches, her reflections and aspirations will continue to shape the narrative of her winemaking legacy.
This transcript has been edited from its original form to support readability.
Maureen Ballatori: I’m Maureen Ballatori and this is Spilled Salt, a podcast on the thrills and spills from the food, beverage, and agriculture industries. Today’s guest is Nova Katamatri. She is a consulting winemaker and a master of wine. She’s based in the Finger Lakes, but she’s known as a flying winemaker because she makes wine all over the United States.
Nova’s experience throughout her career has gone from learning hobby winemaking to working with very large global corporations. And today she talks about those experiences as well as some nuggets on the current state of the industry and where the entire wine industry is going for the future. Some of her predictions there. Enjoy the conversation.
Maureen: Hey Nova, thanks so much for joining today. I wanted to start with, it is November 9th today and I know you just finished harvest and I know what that means a little bit. You know what that means a lot. Let’s start there for you to tell everybody a little bit about what harvest season means.
Nova Cadamatre: Sure. So, you know, the grape harvest is kind of the culmination of all the hard work we’ve done in the vineyard throughout the whole year. And so it’s mother nature’s kind of timing. You’re all in a hundred percent, seven days a week, a lot of times.
There was a period between the end of September and last weekend when I did not get a day off. It’s just go, go.
The way I do things, I harvest both here on the East Coast and on the West Coast. And so I spend two to three days a week in Napa, California, and then the rest of the time here. And so I’m going back and forth all the time.
It’s just insane. And I love it. But it’s exhausting.
Coming out of harvest now, it’s time to kind of reflect and go, OK, where is everything? What are we doing? My brain’s starting to engage in things not related to harvesting grapes and fermenting wines. And going, oh shoot, now here’s all the to-do lists that I’ve been ignoring for the last two months that have to get done but weren’t like uber critical time-sensitive like the grapes were.
Maureen: And what’s the next step, right? So you got the grapes off the plant, you got them into the tanks they’re fermenting. How long do they typically sit there? Does that depend?
Nova: It depends, yes, so I mean the reds are all done.
At this point, they’re all pressed off and so that’s kind of a big sigh of relief.
Everything’s going through ML on the red side right now, so that’s malolactic fermentation, which changes the more tart malic acid, which is the acid of apples, to a more soft lactic acid, which is more of a milk acid. You can see the textural changes that would happen with that.
Then the whites, we’ve still got a couple of Rieslings going through fermentation since those are more later ripening, but all of our early stuff is all done.
The chardonnay’s all done, it’s going through its ML. It’s just kind of getting things done, we call it getting things put to bed, so to speak. Once they’re all done and everything sulfured, that’s when you really can go, okay, now we’re, we’re at a good point.
I always say 85% of winemaking is done in the first two weeks of when you pick the grapes. And then the rest of the time is just not screwing up what you just did.
Maureen: Love that. I wanted to start there because I know that that’s been such a huge part of your life for the last month. I want to back up and have you talk a little bit about your history. I know I’ve seen you call yourself, or other people call you, the flying winemaker. You reference that in your work on the West Coast and the East Coast, but talk about your background a little bit.
Nova: Sure, so this was my 20th harvest. That was kind of a big milestone for me.
Having been doing this as long as I have now, I’ve been fortunate enough to work in a lot of different areas, in a lot of different wineries, with many different winemakers, and lots of different varieties. And so this, what I’m doing now as a consulting winemaker and also as an owner of my own wine company, really is a culmination of all those years of experience together.
The flying winemaker term is just a term for a winemaker that flies around the world and makes wine in multiple places, which is definitely what I’ve been doing. I’m not in multiple countries at this point, but being bicoastal is kind of what I’m working on. So I have clients here in New York, I have a client in Ohio, and I have clients out in California and in Napa.
And so, yes, that’s, I just spend my time kind of managing all the different aspects of that.
Maureen: Talk about keeping a lot of balls in the air!
Nova: And I have two kids, so that’s another thing that is managed. So, you know, it’s busy. It’s never a dull moment.
Maureen: And what brought you to wine and winemaking? Where did your interest in that start?
Nova: I did not grow up in a wine-drinking family. I grew up in the Southeast back when wine was the devil and any sort of alcohol really. And now that’s definitely changed in the Southeast.
The perception of wine has been a much more positive thing over the last 10 to 15 years. But yes, I came into it when I started dating my husband whose family is Italian. And I started having dinners with their family and they had always had wine at the table which is part of a meal. And that’s what really introduced me to it.
Then Brian said one day when we were in college, oh, we should start a vineyard, my family in Italy did it. It can’t be that hard.
It turns out that his family vineyard, it’s a very extended family in Sicily, had four rows in their backyard. So not necessarily like a massive vineyard, but enough to make some home wine. But he was thinking, oh yes, if they did it in their backyard, that can’t be that hard.
So, I said, well, let me look into how hard it actually would be and that’s how I ended up getting into the wine industry. My major is actually viticulture, which is grape growing.
Maureen: That’s fascinating. I married an Italian as well. And my father-in-law also makes his own wine. And it is a big generational thing for them to pass down from generation to generation.
We also work with Billsboro Winery, also in the Finger Lakes here. And Vinny, that was his story, too. He learned winemaking from his grandfather and wanted to make that his job. And so he leaned into it full-time.
But you’re doing it to a whole other degree because you’re not just making wine as a hobbyist, certainly vastly beyond that, but you’re also doing it for your own vineyards as well as other wineries around the country and then maybe someday internationally too. How do you keep like how do you balance all of that? How do you manage a vineyard on the other side of the country?
Nova: Well, the nice thing about my client in Napa is they’ve got an amazing vineyard manager. And so it’s really the team and it’s having the team, because it’s never just me.
People think it’s just me, but it’s never just me. Let me just clarify that. So having the right team around you is so, so critical because I would absolutely fall flat on my face if I didn’t have amazing strong teams on both coasts to work with.
And one of the things that I’m thinking about right now is, I need to hire an assistant winemaker for my client in Ohio. And so it’s like, again, having that team, it’s the people on the ground that can really make things happen.
Clearly, I’m not always pulling hoses anymore. I mean, I’ve done my share of it this harvest, that’s for sure. But that’s not my role 24-7 anymore. And so I need to make sure that I have people around me who can do the things that need to be done while I’m not there. And so that’s been huge.
Maureen: How does your work now differ from – I know you spent some time at Constellation Brands – how does your day-to-day differ now from your time there?
Nova: Oh, it could not be more different. Like, so my time with Constellation, for the most part, every day during harvest was a little bit different. Like, I’d go walking in the vineyards in the morning and be in the office in the afternoon. But for the most part, it was a desk job.
It was very much like, answer emails, get to meetings, you know, these types of things. Whereas now I am all over the place, I’m out at wineries and out in vineyards.
I very rarely actually have time to sit down behind my computer and go through emails. I might have maybe three or four hours a week that I solely focus on emails, where that used to be like three or four hours a day.
Now I feel like I’m much more engaged in the physical winemaking process and know what’s going on and everywhere, you know, and able to get my hands dirty a little bit more, which I really, really love.
Maureen: What are some of your favorite parts of the work that you’re doing now as opposed to getting your hands dirty?
Nova: There are so many aspects of what I do that I love. It’s hard to pick. I’m managing vineyards now and that has been really, really rewarding because that was what ultimately got me into this industry was the process of growing a grapevine.
Being able to harvest our first fruit from vineyards that I’ve managed this year was a huge milestone and very full circle in some aspects.
Maureen: Where you were involved in getting the plant in the ground and this was your first year harvesting, is that what you mean?
Nova: No, not in the ground. We took over a vineyard, two vineyards actually this year, one for a client of mine and one that we leased for our company. And I managed both of those vineyards.
Again, we have a great vineyard team and I just kind of go out there and say, okay, this is what we need to do today.
It was fruit that I called the shots on farming and then I got to make wine from it. And that is something I’ve never done before, which was so rewarding.
Then the other things that I love; I love working with my clients.
Pretty much all of my clients at this point are new-to-world brands. None of them are selling wine at this point. Things are in the bottle. Things are in the tank. They’re getting ready. We’re getting the marketing plans together, you know, and so they’re all like brand new brands. And so next year is going to be such a huge year because all of these brands are now going to be hitting the market.
That’s super exciting to see things come to fruition over so many years of work. Once you see a wine brand hit a shelf, there’s like at least two years of work that’s been happening prior to that wine hitting that shelf.
So being able to see these things come to life is really exciting. And then one of my clients in Napa, we’re planting his vineyard next year. And I got to pick all the clones for that and all the rootstocks. And it’s a new vineyard in Napa County, which doesn’t happen. So being able to be a part of that history, the virgin planting of this piece of ground and let’s see what it does, is really cool.
Maureen: Yes, we’re really similar in that way because we, one of the reasons why we love working with brands that are in agriculture is because of that whole, you can decide what grows in the ground and how you plant it and how you harvest it and then what comes next.
For us, a lot of the agricultural brands that we’re working with, they’re doing some sort of value-added processing that maybe it turns into a consumer packaged good that’s available on the shelf at a retail store and to be able to literally walk in there and pick it up off the shelf and bring it home and bring it back to the office and show the team is a really cool, indescribable experience.
You are the first female Master of Wine, correct?
Nova: It’s a cool feeling.
Yes, the first female winemaker in the US to become a Master of Wine. Oh, that was a long slog of brutal work. It took me eight years. There are, at the moment, I think about 420 masters of wine in the world. We just inducted four new ones last week, so I’m not 100% sure where we are numbers-wise now, but that’s still a relatively small number of people.
Maureen: Okay, tell me about that experience. What was that like to get that?
Nova: There are, roughly, I think, 45% women and 55% men [globally]. So it’s actually a pretty nice split between women and men, but because it has been so seen as like a trade, like if you’re in the sales world, that’s a certification you would get. There are very few actual production people who go for the Master of Wine, which is how I ended up being the first female winemaker in the US to get it.
Maureen: That’s awesome. Congratulations. And I’ve heard this before about that. There are not a lot of women leaders in wine in the wine industry as a whole. What are your thoughts on that?
Nova: Thank you. Yes, I would say that’s true. I would say it’s slowly changing.
I see more and more women going into winemaking and being seen as being capable in production roles, especially with the larger corporations because they’ve put such a focus on promoting equality and equity and really embracing diverse leaders and diverse voices. I see the larger corporations changing faster than the smaller family-owned companies.
But it also depends on the region because here in the Finger Lakes, I think we have a disproportionately higher percentage of women working as owners or head winemakers than they do in California. Not that I have numbers to back that up, but I think if you looked at it as a whole, I think we’re in a relatively newer region, even though we’ve been growing wine since the 1800s. But, from post-prohibition, we’re a relatively new region.
I think we don’t have as many of the old standby, “oh, you have to have a guy in charge” thoughts as maybe the California [wine scene] is fighting. So, yes, I think there’s definitely change, but you don’t see a lot of women at the very, very top
You think about Barbara Banke with Jackson Family Wines, she’s definitely a strong woman leader and there are definitely others that are running wine companies, but the big companies are mostly still men.
Maureen: It kind of just reminds me, I just recently went to go see the Barbie movie with my daughter and you know, she walks into the big boardroom that’s full of men in suits and she says, where’s the CEO I want to meet her. You know, and then she’s going down the line and down the line looking for any woman in leadership at Mattel, which I thought was just kind of, anecdotally, like a really interesting way for Mattel to poke fun at themselves. To say, we recognize this, but what it also comes down to is action. And so it’s, while it may be counterintuitive, I think it’s great to hear that the corporations are moving first, right? Because they have the ability to make those changes and they can understand the importance of making sure that there’s a diverse team in charge.
What are some other industry elements that you’ve seen change in your career of winemaking?
Nova: Well, I think just here in the Finger Lakes over the 20 years, I mean, my first harvest here in the Finger Lakes was in 2004. So I’ve been around this industry for quite a while now, and it is dramatically different now than it was back in 2004.
The quality of wine overall as a region has really elevated. We’re more well-known from an international perspective now as a quality wine region. And I just feel like there’s just been so many people across the years that have worked so hard and kept kind of beating the drum and beating the drum. And I’m one of those people now beating the drum as well.
It’s making sure that the world understands that there’s good wine to be made here.
I do see a lot more embrace of diverse people in the industry. And that’s been a relatively recent change.
And I think it’s been really, really good because we need different backgrounds and different thoughts and points of view and different ways to see things of how we sell to consumers because not every consumer looks like us. Not every consumer looks like the white guy in the boardroom. And so we need to have those diverse opinions so that we know how to really reach consumers where they’re at and how we can best serve their needs.
Maureen: Couldn’t agree more. What do you think are some of the changes that are coming down the pipeline in terms of what you see continuing to happen in the future of the wine industry, either just in the finger lakes or in the industry as a whole?
Nova: Well, I think climate change is something we’re all having to reckon with, and it’s happening now. Everybody kind of thinks of climate change as something that’s gonna happen in the future, or we’re gonna be impacted by it in the future at some point, but if you’re in agriculture, you know it’s happening right now.
We’re having to make changes in how we farm and adapt, especially in California. We’re doing a lot of work with canopy management and things like that so that the fruit can stay protected from the sun when it gets really hot. The wildfires are an issue.
There are so many things that have happened in the last five to 10 years that are really being driven by this change in our climate that we’re having to adapt to quite quickly as an agricultural community, and that globally the industry is having to grapple with that.
Like the flooding in Germany was just tragic and all these major storms that are hitting France and the hail and burgundy. This [affects] every single wine region… It’s not all the same problem, but it’s something being driven to an extreme that we’re now having to adapt to. That’s the biggest issue there.
A very interesting development in the industry right now is this panic about people drinking less wine. But if you really look at the data and you look at the breakdown of what part of the industry is shrinking and what part of the industry is growing, what’s shrinking is the stuff at the low end, you know, anything less than $11 a bottle. yes. People are not drinking that. You know why? Because it just doesn’t taste good. There are better options.
I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. If you’re gonna put something in your mouth and put something in your body, have it be a pleasant, positive experience, you know?
What people aren’t doing is they are looking at all of their options for beverages, be it wine, be it craft beer, be it spirits, be it non-alcoholic options, and they’re making choices. And they’re saying, I wanna have a great experience and what is going to be that experience tonight. And I think instead of being panicked about this, we need to really embrace this movement towards giving consumers what they want.
And the good news is they’re buying them at higher price points. Are they buying the same volume? No, but the value where the market is, is much at a higher price point than it was 10 years ago. And I think there’s a lot of panic around the fact that people are drinking less but they aren’t drinking better. And so I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. Now, if you’re a grape grower in the Central Valley of California, yes, that might be a major problem for you.
Maureen: Because they’re often growing the grapes for the lower-value wine.
Nova: Yes, exactly, exactly. But there’s huge competition in that area for almonds, for pistachios, it’s going to take some adaptation, but there are whole companies that have based their model on, I’m gonna, we’re gonna be doing the box wine at the entry-level price points, and those are the people that are super scared right now because they’ve been doing the volume, but that’s also part of the market that’s shrinking.
I see it as a real, fundamental shift in how customers are approaching wine and consuming wine. I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing because I’ve always been one to encourage moderation. And for me, I’d rather have one really amazing glass of wine every two weeks than just a mediocre one every night. And that’s always just been my philosophy. And so I’m kind of seeing more and more people adapting to that same thought process.
Maureen: I love that perspective. And I think that that’s consistent with a lot of different aspects of food and beverage, right?
We work with a lot of premium artisanal brands that have something special and it’s at a higher price point. And, you can be there, but you have to have a strategy that aligns with that concept that you’re talking about – you’re not going to sell as much, which has always been the case, right?
You either have a volume play or you have a premium play, and they’re not the same. And how much you sell is never going to be consistent either.
So I think that that’s a great perspective to have on the winery industry as a whole, the wine industry as a whole. But I think it also could be extrapolated to many aspects of food and beverage.
Nova: Yes, 100%. Yes, I mean, customers have more choices now than they ever have. And I think it’s a really exciting time to be a customer in the food and bed space because you have so many things that you could explore and that’s exciting.
Maureen: Yes, I think the other thing, too, to your point about mentioning that if those farmers in the Central Valley are not able to have an outlet for their product any longer. There are other things that could be grown on that land. Those pivots are never easy decisions.
But that’s one of the reasons again, why I love agriculture is because the possibilities are endless. You can farm a different way. You can farm a different thing. And again, very easy for me to say. I’m not talking about personally ripping out a bunch of vineyards in my backyard, but as a whole, that farmland is highly valuable for a lot of different purposes.
Tell me a story about one of your favorite experiences from the industry, just in your career, like something that happened or someone that you worked with or something that you got to have a hand in creating that was a really special moment for you.
Nova: One of the really special moments for me had nothing to do with me actually as a winemaker, but had to do with me studying for the Master of Wine.
The first year I was in the Master of Wine program, they always do what they call a stage one Bordeaux trip. And you have to apply to be accepted onto it. And then you have to pay for your plane ticket to get to Bordeaux. And then the Chateau in Bordeaux sponsors it and they cover everything else.
So I applied to be on this trip, got on it, flew to Bordeaux and there were 30-something people on the bus and we were going around to all these different chateaux.
We hit probably four chateaux per day. It was maybe a four or five-day long trip, but the last chateau we hit was Chateau Margot.
This was in early 2009 because they were just getting ready to do the 08 and Paul Pontalier, who’s since passed, was our tour guide. And he walked us all around the cellar. And I ended up getting able to sit next to him at dinner that night.
I have just a notebook that I had with me. And there’s like three, four pages of just quotes from Paul Pontalier in that notebook from that trip.
And one of the things he said, which is very poignant now that he’s gone, is that he says, I’m making wines that will outlive me.
I’m making wines that will be here far beyond my time on earth and people will still be enjoying them long after I’m gone. And he said, and that’s my immortality. And as a winemaker, something that really struck home to me is like, that’s our legacy. That’s what we’re leaving.
Maureen: Yes, that was the word that came to mind for me, too, when you were talking about that.
Nova: I want to make sure that the wines that I’m making are worthy of that. I don’t want people to look at my wines and, if somebody keeps [my wine]for 40 years, I want to make sure that they can see what it was, if it’s not fully at the same level, or maybe it is beautiful in 40, 50 years.
Most wine is drunk within 24 hours, 48 hours of buying it, but not all of it is. And so those ones that get stashed in a cellar somewhere and somebody picks up and they go, what was this? And I want to think that after I’ve left the industry, after I’m no longer around the world, that my wines will still be around and people will still be enjoying them.
Maureen: That aligns with that experience that you’re talking about creating, too, and the industry moving more toward premium experiences that people can really enjoy that moment with their food and beverage and the people and the memories that all surround that, right?
The concept of it’s not many, but it’s one special thing. And so that legacy bottle that will outlive you is going to be something that somebody pulls off the shelf one day and has that same kind of shared experience, even though you’ll be in totally different times. That’s a great concept. Yes, I love that.
Okay, last question for you. What’s next for you?
Nova: Oh, I don’t know. I’m going away this weekend. I’m going on vacation. I’m not going to work this weekend, so I’m very excited about that.
But yes, what’s next? You know, I ask myself that a lot because I’ve been about two years, almost two years in this new iteration of my life with not working full-time for somebody else. I’m loving it, but there’s always the kind of, where are the brands going? Where’s the company going?
Our company’s growing quickly. And it’s always a struggle and a good problem to have, but also a struggle to go, how do you manage the growth in a smart way, but take advantage of the opportunities?
And so, yes, I don’t know, really, what’s next, because I’ve been thinking about that a lot and trying to develop that, where do we want to be, getting ready to come into 2024 planning and sales planning and visioning and all of that.
I have a vision board that I drew out a year and a half ago or so for where we want to be in 10 years. But where we are now versus where we’re going to be in two years from now, that’s always the murky gray area. You’ve got the long-term goals and the immediate goals, but that midterm goal thing is always a little bit challenging to figure out.
Maureen: The same is true for me. I would imagine, too, that now that you’re through harvest, you’re through the busiest time of the year and you can kind of take a step back.
You can take your vacation and rest a little bit, right? Include some time for reflection. That’s the time when some of the brilliance and visioning all starts to come together because you have time to give space to your mind, to be open to thinking in that way, instead of I gotta do this with the grapes, and I gotta do this with the tanks, and I gotta do these with the crates, and make sure all these people have what they need from me, and all of those things.
I’m excited for you and the opportunity that is ahead of you, continuing the great trajectory of your career that you’ve been on.
Nova: Thank you. Yes, I always take the time during the winter to write. I write a lot during the winter and I have been working on a book and my goal is to finish the book this winter. And so that’s the goal. So, yes, we’ll see where that goes.
Maureen: And the book is about?
Nova: It’s about overcoming failure and life lessons that have led me to be able to be gritty and strong and being able to get through things that are hard, basically.
I had a lot of people ask me, especially through the MW program, because I failed that exam so many times, I failed it five times. And then they kicked me out. And then I had to come back and pass it the sixth time.
And so the resilience that was required to get through that. A lot of people have asked me, how did you do and where did you find the gumption and all that? And so I started writing the book for those people that wanted to know
Because it’s not an easy answer. It’s like, well, I’ve been through this my whole life and these are the things I’ve learned and this is what kind of gave me that background to be able to keep going. I feel like that book needs to be out there.
Maureen: I love it. Well, once you’ve got that done or you’re ready to nearly finish it up and start getting it out into the world, we’ll have you back on the podcast and you can tease a little bit more about that because it sounds fascinating.
Thanks for taking the time today, Nova. Really great conversation, I appreciate it.