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Laura Díaz Muñoz: An unexpected journey to Napa

Napa Valley has lured many young winemakers from across the globe. But in the case of Laura Díaz Muñoz the trip to Napa was meant only to be a brief sidestep before moving on.

The young Spanish-born winemaker arrived in Napa in 2007 at Cardinale to intern with Napa’s noted winemaker Chris Carpenter. “I came from New Zealand to work one harvest here,” said Díaz Muñoz, who is now winemaker and general manager at Ehlers Estate. She was, in fact, on her way to Argentina after the Napa harvest. She never made it.

“Chris offered me a job,” Díaz Muñoz said, meeting at the cozy tasting room of Ehlers Estate in St. Helena. (Following the Spanish tradition, she goes by both her mother and father’s last names.) Even then her thought was to stay in Napa maybe a couple of years. “I didn’t think it would last this long,” she confessed with amusement.

It turns out this was the beginning of her decade-long association with the Jackson Family Wines, starting as an intern then moving on as associate winemaker on such prestigious names as Lokoya, La Jota, and Mt. Brave. Thus, Díaz Muñoz honed her skills working with some of the most renowned mountain and valley floor vineyard sites.

By 2011, she was ready to launch her own project with Jackson Family Wines. She created Galerie Wines, focused on a portfolio called “portraits of place,” featuring Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc wines from some of Napa’s prized appellations.

But the winemaker was keen to expand her knowledge beyond just winemaking. Ehlers Estate offered that opportunity. In 2018, she joined the Bordeaux-focused estate in St. Helena.

“I wanted to learn about the business,” she explained. “Here I am managing operations, vineyards, sales; I can be a part of everything. Sometimes, I’m the electrician.”

Ehlers Estate sits on a 50-acre property with 40 acres planted to Bordeaux varieties laid out in small vineyard blocks and farmed to organic practices. The stone barn, which is the winery now, was built by Bernard Ehlers in 1886.

Over time, the winery saw several owners until entrepreneurs and philanthropists Jean and Sylviane Leducq acquired it in the mid-1990s and established the Leducq Foundation. The charitable trust funds international cardiovascular research programs, thus the logo of the heart, which is artistically embedded in the letter E of Ehlers logo. The winery is owned by this trust and all profits from wine sales and tasting fees benefit this trust.

We tasted a lineup of four 2018 wines, Díaz Muñoz’s first vintage at Ehlers Estate. A varietal 100 percent Cabernet Franc was evocative of violets and dried herbs. The Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with a splash of Cabernet Franc expressed a rush of cherries and dark chocolate. Portrait, a Bordeaux-style blend, was concentrated with cherries and cassis. Intense with ripe red fruit, the deep-hued Jean Leducq Cabernet Sauvignon was backed with velvety tannins.

“Every year I select a block that shows a strong personality,” Díaz Muñoz commented on this small-lot wine (a mere 369 cases produced) named after the late patriarch. “I heard that Jean had a strong personality.”

The winemaker’s philosophy is focused on a sense of place, where the wines come from. “I do a lot of work in farming to minimize work in the cellar,” she stressed.

Madrid-born, Díaz Muñoz was drawn to science as a child and studied biology and food sciences at Madrid’s Autonoma University. An internship with winemaker Jose Pascual Gracia led to working harvest in the wine region of Manchuela. Impressed by her work, Gracia recommended her name to Madrid’s Polytechnic University’s enology department, where she earned her post-graduate degree in enology and viticulture, even though a woman winemaker was a rarity at the time and not accepted by the community.

Among several jobs, she worked in the laboratory at Finca Constancia winery in Toledo, Spain. “I wanted to do more,” she said. Her love for Sauvignon Blanc and the need to improve her English language skills led her to work harvest in New Zealand in February 2007. A colleague there suggested a trip to Napa and a phone conversation with Carpenter sealed her immediate future.

“When I arrived here in Napa, it was hard to communicate in English; it took a few years,” she said in perfect English now.

“It was more than what I expected,” she commented on the beauty of Napa. “Here winemaker is a big thing, opportunities were opening to me and my work was appreciated.”

As a Spanish woman winemaker, Díaz Muñoz is a rarity in Napa. Although she’s not sure if she’s the first, she admitted, “I don’t know anyone else.”

In Napa Díaz Muñoz also met Jacob Cheney, a wine industry professional. The two married in 2014 and live in Windsor with their two sons.

Díaz Muñoz recently signed up for the Master of Wine course to further her wine education. “We get comfortable with our palate,” she noted, “but the more you taste, the more your palate develops. Trends are changing and consumers are changing, I don’t think I’ll be making the same wine in 10 years.”

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