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Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost: Q&A with Cellar Master Brad Ely

By Suphada Rom

Brad Ely, a native of the Central Coast, has found his way back to the area after several years of travel and cellar experience, taking him from the far reaches of Australia and New Zealand all the way to Washington state and the Rhone Valley. I sat down with him recently to talk all things travel, winemaking, and what makes Tablas Creek special to him.

Brad truck

I know you're local to Central Coast- where did you grow up?
I grew up in Arroyo Grande, California, so about 45 minutes south of Paso. It was a good town to grow up in- close to the beach, which was great since I surfed a lot. Small town but a really good place to raise a family, and it's on the central coast so that's definitely a plus. After high school, I went to Cal Poly.

Did you study wine and viticulture at Cal Poly?
So I was torn between wine and viticulture, construction management, and business. At the time, I thought business would be the most versatile option, but really all my work experience after college has been in the wine industry. My first job was at Saucelito Canyon in Edna Valley. I went into it thinking I'd just do a quick harvest, then do a ski season somewhere else, but I stayed on for two harvests. After that, I took off around the world for 3 years, to travel and continue my passion for making wine.

Brad Barrels

Where have you traveled and worked?
The first place I went to was Australia, to work harvest for Two Hands in the Barossa Valley. I stayed beyond harvest, took some time to travel to Asia, then moved up to Washington to work for Owen Roe, making everything from Pinot Noir to Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. I worked there until winter and went straight back to Two Hands in Australia to work another few months, leading into harvest. After that harvest was done, I hopped on a plane to go to New Zealand for another. Literally, our harvest ended on a Friday and that following Monday morning I was scheduled to start in New Zealand for a custom crush facility called Vin Pro in Central Otago. After that, I traveled through Indonesia and the Philippines, before going to France. While in France, I worked for a producer called Domaine La Barroche under Julien Barrot. The vineyards there have been in the family for centuries, records going back to about the 14th century. Originally sold to negociants, Julien decided to keep the wines and start a label. The year that I was there was the first year they were producing out of their new cellar, which was just a beautiful cellar. All concrete fermenters, large foudres, and gravity flow. I came back and it wasn't long until I heard about an opening at Tablas Creek. I've been here about a year now, which has been a huge blessing!

What makes Tablas Creek special to you?
It's just an amazing property, with a completely different feel than a lot of wineries in the area. I think that has a lot to do with being co-owned by a French family. Just walking through, it feels very French, especially coming from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and basically going straight to Tablas. Not only are the winemaking philosophies pretty similar, but it has that French feel; and that's part of why I like our winery so much. Tablas is a special place and an awesome piece of land to grow grapes on. Everything we do here really reflects tradition, as well, which I am a huge proponent of. 

As Cellar Master, what are your tasks?
It's everything in the cellar and everything winemaking oriented. We have an awesome team and between Craig, Chelsea, Neil, and I, we pretty much have all the bases covered and organizationally speaking, things run really smoothly here. Working in the cellar, it's fruit to glass. During harvest time, it's everything from processing fruit to pump overs to digging the tanks. No job is too small or too big, we're doing it all. When harvest is over, it's a lot of moving wine around, lots of tasting, and making sure everything is going in the direction we want it to. Working in the cellar is very mechanical and you have to wear all sorts of hats. You may be a plumber and then an electrician and a repairman. And cleaning... a lot of cleaning!

Brad Tractor

What would be something people would be surprised to hear about working in the cellar?
Well a lot of people think we drink wine all day, which isn't true! You've got to drink in moderation, which doesn't include drinking at work, so we're constantly spitting. I believe you can taste a lot better when you're spitting, as well. And depending on who you talk to, not everyone knows how much work goes into making a bottle of wine. I've had people shrug it off and say, "Oh yeah, you know... you pick grapes and then make the wine." That's when I have to tell them it's a bit more complicated than that!

What is your personal winemaking philosophy?
Wines that are pretty close to Tablas. I like to be pretty hands off and I don't really like oak. I like natural fermentations, and getting away from additions if you can, even in terms of acid adjustments. I like lower sulfur wines, as well. Basically, trying to make wine as naturally as possible, while still making clean drinkable wines that reflect terroir and sense of place. In terms of what I want to make, I want to make Rhone wines- that's where my passion lies. If I could, I would make Grenache and Roussanne all day, those are the two I care most about. 

When you're not cleaning tanks or moving wine, what are you doing?
I like to travel. I just got back from Cuba, which was really cool. I like to ride motorcycles and work on them. Growing up, I surfed a lot, which I still do a fair amount of. I'll also golf with my Dad and although I'm horrible at it, it's something we can do together. And then of course wine stuff!

Brad Lamb

Do you have a favorite food and wine pairing?
I always love pork and Grenache, like a pork loin or something with a little bit of gaminess. I had a pairing recently with rabbit and Pinot, which was pretty tasty too.

Finally, how do you define success?
I think you’re successful if you’re happy. If you’re happy and you feel like you’re in a good spot then I think that’s success. I wouldn’t tie it anything monetary. I’ve never been into status symbols and nice things, don’t get me wrong, I would love to have nice things, but it’s not a make or break for me. If you’re happy and healthy and the relationships you have are meaningful, that’s success.