An Interview with Wine Speak Co-Founders Chuck Furuya, MS and Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins
January 08, 2020
We are blessed in the Paso Robles area with a remarkable number of world-class wine events. In addition to the three annual events put on by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, we've been the home to Hospice du Rhone for two decades. WiVi has in the past five years become the state's second-largest trade show. And in the last three years, we've seen another amazing event come to our region. Wine Speak is a bit of a different take on a wine event, equal parts industry education and public showcase, celebration of the region and invitation to the world.
With the 2020 event just one week away, I had the chance to sit down with the event's two founders. Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins is VP of Operations at Ancient Peaks Winery, as well as co-founder of Dream Big Darling, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering the success of women in the wine and spirits industry. She recently appeared on the cover of Wine Enthusiast's "40 Under 40" issue. Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya was just the tenth American to pass the Master Sommelier exam, in 1988. He is a partner in and wine director for D.K. Restaurant Group, is a former Chairman of Education for the American Chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers, and writes a monthly wine column for the Honolulu Star Advertiser.
How did the two of you come to work together on this?
- Amanda: In 2017 we were having a conversation about hospitality and the advancement of offering world class service. Chuck is a big fan of Paso Robles (and many other places) so I asked if during one of his upcoming visits he could dedicate some time to sharing his wisdom with our local wine community. Hawaii is after all a culture built on hospitality and tourism. I would never imagine that this one small conversation could lead to so many incredible opportunities for our industry and community.
- Chuck: From my point of view, I recall Amanda asking me to come to a talk/training on wines for a few people. I then asked can we do more? She said like what? I don't think she realized what she was getting herself into. From that came Wine Speak!
What was the genesis of the idea behind Wine Speak?
- Amanda: The idea was and still is to elevate our entire wine community by collaborating and sharing. There is great power in joining forces and teaching the next generation. We want to see the industry grow and flourish and to create a stage for producers and personalities who have something tremendous to
- Chuck: Since I had been working with Amanda on a couple of projects previously, I kind of along the way understood that she would be key to the unfolding of the Paso Appellation. She has an innate gift of charm and is very articulate and really good at problem solving. I also think she has a lot of integrity and is very honest. In Hawaii, if it was not 12 chefs on all the islands, Hawaii regional cuisine never would've happened in my opinion Because it was 12 chefs, it created synergy, camaraderie…… It really was a movement. That is what changed Hawaii culinarily. I believe in each wine region of the world needs a band of like minded winemakers that can create change. Take for example, the gang of four in Morgon, Beaujolais. So with that in mind, Amanda would be the foundation in Paso, and I would look to source and invite winemakers/professionals from various parts of the New World -- both inside & outside expertise -- looking to share, talk story and learn. This would also bring new faces to the Paso Robles wine region to experience the climate, the soils, the wines and most importantly the people.
For you, what was the highlight of years 1 and 2?
- Amanda: The highlight of year one was developing the confidence in our concept and seeing the profound need in our community. Year two was magnificent, we partnered with a new non profit, Dream Big Darling, and offered scholarships to up and coming sommelier’s from around the country. These young people have become ambassadors for not so many producers they met over the course of the experience. Watching them light up and discover something new was magnificent.
- Chuck: For me, year one -- it was seeing Justin Smith of Saxum hanging out for two or three days with Adam Tolmach of Ojai. Two different growing regions, two different generations and two different winemaking approaches getting to know each other, hanging out and talking story. I thought that was magic and it made me proud. For year two -- it was watching an assistant winemaker taste the 2015 Faury Condrieu and seeing that candid sense of wonderment on his face as he switched and switched the wine in his mouth. Seeing the lightbulb go on was something that really affected me.
What new things are in store for 2020?
- Amanda: 2020 offers a more global perspective and we are excited to host producers from Spain, France and Argentina. We also enriched our “Grand Tasting” event to include producers from around the globe. We wanted to make sure that all events were dynamic for our local wine community. Being from a rural area, many people drink wines they make. However, in order to really stretch and grow we need to expose ourselves to new concepts and ways of thinking.
Chuck: First of all, this is the first year that we will be including people from faraway places such as Spain, Argentina and France. It was previously New World-centric. We believe this will add new dimension to insights, the questions, and discussions. Secondly, rather than having panels of two or three all of the time on specifically three of the panels we look to do mano a mano -- specifically with three wine Yodas: Bruce Neyers, long time master Madeline Triffon, and Lionel Faury from Cote Rotie. These three may not be commonplace names which many are familiar with. But for me they are three of the most incredible wine minds I have run across in my 40+ years of doing wines. For example, Madeline was the sixth American to pass the master sommelier examination. She was the first American woman. She was the second woman in the world. I believe that is saying a lot and will hopefully inspire young professionals that attend, whether they are female or male. She is the consummate professional and rose to the top of her field despite all of the challenges. She doesn't typically do on stage interviews like this, but I think we all agree it is an important time for industry to have some of the long-timers with wisdom come and share their thoughts insights and experiences, so that we can all remember what the craft is.
What makes Wine Speak unique as a wine event?
- Amanda: Wine Speak sets itself apart from other wine events in a number of ways. For one, it's small, there is enormous access to speakers, panelists and guest interaction. In addition there aren’t many other events that are engaging; winemakers, distributors, growers, and trade. We bring several parts of the industry together for a time of learning, and not just about one segment of the business.
- Chuck: Back in the 1970s, I remember tasting a wine from Cote Rotie and wondering how the heck can man and God create a wine that's beyond grapes, oak barrels or winemaking? And if that is true, why can't we do this in the New World? I believe that through sharing insights, wisdom and experiences we can make a difference. So for the first year we had two Syrah panels. One was entitled "New World Syrah" and featured Bruce Neyers, Andy Peay (Sonoma Coast), Serge Carlei from Australia and Greg Harrington MS from Washington state. And the other was entitled "Central Coast Syrah" featuring Justin Smith (Paso Robles), Matt Dees (Jonata, Ballard Canyon) & Adam Tolmach (Ojai, Santa Maria Valley). It offered quite a scope of what Syrah can be. Year two featured Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Pax Mahle of Pax/Windgap Wines and Jason Drew of Drew Wines (Mendocino Ridge). For 2020, we are taking a whole new approach to Syrah and featuring Lionel Faury from the Rhône Valley of France. So that is a eleven very different perspectives on what the Syrah grape variety can be from eleven very well respected winemakers and from very different places!
If there was one thing that you hope people get out of coming to the event, what would it be?
- Amanda: New ideas and friendships. In life, ideas and friends are the most valuable assets.
- Chuck: A few years back, when I was inducted to the Hawaii Restaurant Association Hall of Fame, it made me think of all of the people who have touched my life to allowing me to be where I am today. In almost all of the cases, they showed me a box. Then they said, "Chuck, look inside the box". After that they then asked imagine the possibilities. That is what I'm hoping Wine Speak can offer. To make people think differently. How can we effect change. How can we nurture sharing, camaraderie and collaboration so that we can move forward and make a difference.
Do you have dreams for future Wine Speak events?
- Amanda: It’s hard to think about that right now. As long as there is a need we hope to continue to bring forth an event that helps move our industry forward.
- Chuck: Right now, we are focused on getting this one up and running in the next two weeks. Every year, we typically wait a couple of months before deciding if we are going to do another. Having said that, of course I have already have some ideas.
Chuck, what was your “a ha” moment that got you excited about Paso Robles?
- It was a 1988 Cabernet-based red I tasted in San Francisco at a tasting. To me the wine had much more than fruit. It had an underlying minerality that was captivating. I knew then that I had to go see the vineyard.
Amanda, what’s the coolest thing that’s happened to you as a result of being named to (or on the cover of) Wine Enthusiast’s “Top 40 under 40” list?
- Being named as 40 under 40 and making the cover was really special to me. It’s incredible that the publication noticed our collective work and choose to highlight it, I am forever grateful and humbled by my team and community which makes it all possible. I’m blessed to be 4th generation in the Paso Robles region and cattle rancher, I’m glad to carry the spirit of our history with my rope and boots in the picture.
What’s your favorite under-the-radar fact about Paso Robles or the Central Coast?
- Amanda: The spirit of rugged terrain, a story of the land and people that is still being written, and a community that stands together.
- Chuck: The soils AND the people/community!
Although many of the seminars are sold out, there are still tickets available to the Wines of the World Grand Tasting and some of the industry events. If you haven't checked out this event, you really owe it to yourself to do so. If you attend, I'll see you there, since I'll be speaking on one of the panels this year, as well as pouring wines at the Grand Tasting!