Vanessa Hoffman grew up in Silicon Valley, a short distance from Napa and Sonoma, where she was fascinated by the romantic idea of grape-growing from childhood. She shifted focus while at UC, Berkeley, majoring in Neurobiology. After college, she decided to work a harvest in the laboratory at Ridge Vineyards before applying for medical school. But the passionate people at Ridge was so inspiring she never left the industry. Afterward, she worked at wineries in California, New Zealand, Australia, and Italy. Vanessa was the enologist at Groth Vineyards & Winery in Napa for several years, before joining the Duckhorn Portfolio as an assistant winemaker with Decoy. In 2020, she earned her master’s in Viticulture & Enology in Italy, also working in Piedmont and Chianti. Vanessa joined Knapp as the winemaker in 2021, to continue their long history of quality winemaking and use her skills gathered from her worldwide travels. We hope you enjoy reading her answers to our questions!
What do you find most challenging about making wine here?
Of all the wine regions in which I have worked, the Finger Lakes have the most vintage variation of any of them. Our seasons can vary wildly from year to year, which can make it a struggle to produce consistent wines. Winemakers and vineyard managers never know what to expect from a vintage and need a huge arsenal of tools and tricks at their disposal. While definitely challenging in the moment, Finger Lakes wine have a true sense of time and place when you taste them, which can be harder to express in wines from other regions.
What’s your background and education in winemaking?
I have a degree in neurobiology from UC Berkeley, which helped me get a toehold in the wine industry in California working in laboratories. After several years harvest-hopping in New Zealand, Australia, and California, where I worked in labs, cellars, and tasting rooms, I joined Groth Vineyards in Napa as their enologist. The winemaker while I was there, Michael Weis, is an iconic winemaker with decades of experience and education. He has since retired, but he was a pivotal part of my wine education. After Groth, I was an assistant winemaker with Decoy, part of the Duckhorn Portfolio for several years before moving to Italy to get my master’s degree in viticulture and enology, working with Professor Stefano Poni, a preeminent researcher in viticulture. I moved to the Finger Lakes after graduation in 2021 to begin working with Knapp Winery.
How would you describe your winemaking style?
I try to bring out the best in the wines I am making. Which means understanding where they come from and the vintage conditions, then trying to enhance their natural qualities. However, most important to me is the innate hedonism of the wine. I think everyone has tasted wines that are technically well made and are essentially flawless but are just not very compelling. I always try to make wines and blends that are interesting and enjoyable and make you crave more.
What wine do you love to drink… and your favorite to make?
I have a deep love for anything GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre). I love bright, fruity reds with punchy peppery notes. Although as a native Californian, I also try to champion Californian Zinfandel whenever I have a chance. Many serious wine drinkers tend to overlook zins as overripe fruit/alcohol bombs. And while it can be a struggle to avoid that in California zins, they have a huge capacity for nuance, flavor, and age-ability. Making Zinfandel is so much fun as well. They are tannic, powerful wines with intense color and flavor, so the winemaking techniques tend to be equally forceful and brazen. It can be a great change of pace to try to tame and restraint the natural character in a wine, rather than try to delicately coax out aromas or flavor from a shyer variety.
Any harvest habits/superstitions/traditions?
It is a pretty common tradition, but always bless the first grapes of the season. Everyone should cheer the first bin with last year’s vintage, and then the grapes should get baptized with some of last year’s wine. That way every vintage is connected to each other. But my favorite harvest tradition is definitely my post-harvest massage to help you forget all those sore muscles and long hours.
What do you love about where you work?
It is a great combination of old and new. Knapp is one of the oldest wineries on Cayuga Lake, with a great history. The Knapps were doing farm-to-table dining and elevating winemaking in the region when the industry was just ratcheting up. But now we have new ownership, a new winemaker, and a new vineyard manager with a ton of energy and ideas to continue the Knapp legacy. It is really exciting to be a part of the team at Knapp.
Knapp Winery, 2770 Ernsberger Rd, Romulus, (607) 930-3495
The Edible Finger Lakes Meet Your (Wine) Maker column is developed in partnership with the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance whose mission is to increase the visibility and reputation of the Finger Lakes AVA, its wines, and wineries.