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Kerry Damsky, Wandering winemaker
By Gerald D. Boyd
Feb 26, 2008
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In the olden days of black and white television, the popular quiz show, 'What's My Line?' presented its panelists of erudite New Yorkers with guests who had unusual occupations.  Compared with today's boisterous, rollicking quiz shows, 'What's My Line?' was sedate, almost academic.  Panelists like Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf would ask questions that required only a yes or no answer, while probing to uncover a clue about the guest's job.  It would have been a natural setting for Kerry Damskey.

Perhaps Damskey might have fooled the WML panelists by posing as a non-Indian mahout, but wine consultant in India would have been a stretch, even for the astute  WML panelists.  Besides, Damskey would probably have been watching Howdy Doody in those days and wouldn't have known from wine, India, mahouts or 'What's My Line?'

California wine watchers, of course, know Kerry Damskey as the winemaker behind such brands as Gauer Ranch, Dutcher Creek and his newest venture, Palmeri, but his reach as a winemaking consultant goes as far afield from his Sonoma home base as Washington, Bulgaria and India.  No wonder that Damskey has been called the 'Wandering Winemaker' and 'The Indiana Jones of Wine.' 

Wandering for a living fits Damskey's outgoing personality, a vibrancy that is matched by his wife and business partner, Daisy, and he instills an infectious enthusiasm into all his projects.  Take his consulting for Sula Winery, a 200,000 case winery located at 2,000 feet outside Mumbai, India.  'It was a whole new experience. Until we started Sula in 1995 there was only a history of growing table grapes in that area,' explains Damskey with his signature bigger-than-life smile.  'Our model was simple and fruity first so we planted Chenin Blanc, Symphony and Zinfandel…but the problem there is the vines never go dormant and April and May are very hot, so you harvest the white varieties in February and the reds in March.'

At Sula, Damskey's Indian counterpart is Ajoy Shaw, an enologist that Damskey trained and who spent four years working in wineries in California.  'It was a bit of a struggle at first,' recalls Damskey, 'Indians are numbers oriented, so it took some time to get him away from that line of thinking toward free expression.'  Sula's owner, Rajeev Samant, attended Stanford University and worked for Oracle before returning to India to start up Sula Winery with the Damskeys.  The Indian wine industry is only 10 years old, but there are already 50 wineries and some have attracted outside wine talent such as Damskey and celebrity French wine consultant Michel Rolland, who consults at a winery near Bangalore.

Growing premium wine grapes and making wine in India is opposite from California, where Damskey gained most of his experience.  'The growing season in India starts warm and then gets cool and it only rains three months of the year during the monsoons,' he explains.  Damskey has been experimenting with various grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, especially with Indian food. 'I think Sauvignon Blanc will be one of the best whites in India, and it works really well with Indian food--as does Chenin Blanc.  But we found that wines with heavy tannins or that are oak-aged don't work well with Indian food, so Syrah will need to be made in a softer, more accessible style.'

Although 90% of Sula wines are sold in India, a small amount is imported into the United States by Dreyfus, Ashby & Co.  Today, India and China are viewed by many wine experts as the two world markets with the most potential.  Daisy Damskey is putting her money on India: 'In wine terms, India is more entrepreneurial than China.'

When he's not wandering around the world applying his expertise in grape growing and winemaking, Damskey is involved in a small Sonoma County wine operation called Palmeri, where the emphasis is on 'the essence of mountain fruit.'  The name Palmeri is taken from Quercus palmeri, a small scrubby oak that grows on the mountain ranges where Damskey finds his grapes.

Damskey's attraction to mountain grapes stems from this days at Gauer Ranch when he was taking fruit off Alexander Mountain.  'Red wines made from mountain fruit clearly impressed me with greater depth, concentration, higher acidity and greater ageability.'  He says the Palmeri wines, two Syrahs and a Cabernet-Syrah blend are all made from mountain-grown fruit. 'I can taste the differences between these grapes and those grown on the valley floor,' says Damskey, adding that the mountain-grown fruit is luscious and viscous and the potential for big tannins is high, 'so I continue to work to keep that under control as well as aiming for alcohols that don't exceed 14.4 percent.'

Syrah and higher altitudes are the key ingredients in Damskey's red wines, both in California and India.  A Palmeri Syrah and the Cabernet Sauvignon Blanc-Syrah blend come from the south facing Stagecoach Vineyard at 1,700 feet above the Napa Valley, while the other Palmeri Syrah is sourced from the Van Ness Vineyard in Sonoma's Alexander Valley and the Mountain Vineyard in the Napa Valley.  Both are at 900 feet elevation.

'Palmeri Syrah, with its slight cedary quality and the Sula Syrah, more northern Rhone black pepper and leathery, are made from grapes grown at about the same elevation,' says Damskey.  He admits that the model for Palmeri Syrah model will hopefully have characteristics of Northern Rhône reds like Hermitage and Henschke's Hill of Grace Shiraz from South Australia.  And while red wine is his main focus, Damskey says that he will eventually add a Palmeri Northern Rhône style white wine.

Palmeri labels sport pen and ink drawings on earth tone backgrounds, designed by Linda Schroeter, of the wildlife in mountain vineyards.  The animals on the bales, each with a small green leaf (from the Quercus palmeri oak tree) hanging from its mouth include an impressively tusked wild boar on the Stagecoach Vineyard Syrah, a bat on the Van Ness Vineyard Syrah and a hungry looking fox on the Cab-Syrah blend.  In depth reviews of all three wines can be found on this week's Reviews page.