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Q & A: Jeff Stai, Twisted Oak Winery
By Tina Caputo
Jan 17, 2012
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I first ran across Twisted Oak Winery several years ago, at one of those giant public wine tastings that draw dozens of vintners and thousands of attendees. In a sea of wine offerings, my attention was drawn to a man brandishing a large rubber chicken. That's right: a rubber chicken. I'd seen people walking around the event earlier that day wearing badges that read "Are You Twisted?," and wondered where they came from. Here, at the

Twisted Oak table, was my answer.

Along with rubber chickens and cheeky badges, I found some very good wines at the Twisted Oak station. The Calaveras County winery specializes in Spanish and Rhône varieties, and produces -- among other interesting wines -- a delicious Tempranillo and a juicy Côtes-du-Rhône-style blend called *%#&@! (That’s not my substitute for an expletive, it’s the actual name on the label. If you want to know what it stands for, here’s a hint from
the winery website: “Rhymes with cluck, pairs with duck.”)

Now, I'm not one for gimmicky wine brands -- in fact, I usually head in the other direction when I see a wine that's labeled something like Mommy's Grape Juice or Pinot Enlargement. But these Twisted Oak folks seemed like my kind of people -- irreverent and funny, but with substance to support the wisecracks.

I later learned that the man behind the madness is Jeff Stai – also known as “El Jefe” (the chief) -- a Southern California native who left a career in the data storage industry in the early 2000s for a new life as a winery owner.

Jeff applied his considerable tech savvy to his new business, and wound up leading the wine industry’s social media charge years before most vintners finally decided to get on board the Facebook train. Through his irreverent winery blog, “El Bloggo Torcido” (the Twisted Blog), wacky contests like the “Take Your Rubber Chicken to Work Day” photo competition, and pirate-themed winery parties, Jeff managed to put his little Sierra Foothills winery on the map.

Today Twisted Oak produces about 5,000 cases a year across several varieties, including Tempranillo, Monastrell, Graciano, Verdelho, Albarino, Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, and a few others. Prices range from $18 to $49, with most wines priced under $30.

In addition to running Twisted Oak, Jeff pours his passion for Iberian varieties into his role as founder and president of the Tempranillo Advocates, Producers and Amigos Society (T.A.P.A.S.), which hosts a fun annual tasting event in San Francisco each summer.

Jeff took time out from a road trip to chat with me by phone about his Twisted path to winery ownership.

Wine Review Online (WRO): How and when did you become interested in wine?

Jeff Stai (JS): I was in college and a friend of mine decided to leave college and go work for a start-up company that was going to make the world's first laptop computer. One night he said, “Hey, I'm going to this wine dinner, do you want to go? I have an extra ticket.” It was a BV (Beaulieu Vineyard) wine dinner, I think, and I was pretty much blown away by everything that I tasted that night. That's when I was hooked.

WRO: What made you decide to leave the data storage industry for the wine world?

JS: My (tech) career was kind of an unusual one in that I didn't just sit in a cubicle all day, I actually got out into the world. Believe it or not, they let me out! I had the opportunity to start working on industry standards, which is some pretty dry work writing multi-hundred-page specifications. But it also put me out in the world with people who had their own interests, and somehow I gravitated toward the wine people in the group. Some of them were involved in winemaking and grape growing, so the industry bug kind of rubbed off on me.

It was one of deals where I thought, “If I ever had the chance, (making wine) would be one of the things I'd want to do if I stopped doing this.” So when my wife and I had the financial opportunity to make a change, we made it in this direction.

WRO: Did you immediately start Twisted Oak, or did you work other wine jobs first?

JS: I jumped right in. What was I thinking?

WRO: How did you choose Calaveras County for your winery?

JS: It actually wasn't our first choice for a winery. Another place that was important to both my wife (Mary) and I growing up, was Santa Barbara County and Santa Ynez Valley. That area was where we went wine tasting together, because it was close to Southern California. So we had favorite wineries there, and that's where I caught the Rhone varietal bug.

WRO: What happened to the Santa Barbara dream?

JS: We actually looked at property there, but the deal fell through. We were going to purchase a vineyard property next door to Fess Parker's place, but the seller decided to change the terms completely, so we said, “Nah, we’re out of here.” Fourteen dozen little things happened along the way, and we realized that we really liked the wines that we had tried in Calaveras County (during summer vacations spent in the area), so we started looking around up here.

WRO: What year did you start building Twisted Oak?

JS: We started in 2002 with 120 acres that had been used to graze cattle and dump tires. It's in an odd location, where it wasn't necessarily desirable from a personal standpoint, but great from a business standpoint. It's got highway frontage, and it's halfway between Angel's Camp and Murphy's. There's nothing within walking distance, so there's not a lot of call to live there, but it's got a hilltop where we built the winery and views all around. You really can't beat it.

WRO: How many vineyard acres did you plant up there?

JS: We've only got 11 acres planted. Planting is expensive, and we didn't have a proper water source until recently -- we had to irrigate from a set of three wells that each barely produce enough water. Just this past year we finally got access to agricultural water that was running right across the property, but we didn’t have rights to. So that will change things.

WRO: Do you also buy some fruit to makes your wines?

JS: Yes, we buy grapes locally. Right now The Spaniard is our flagship wine, and we grow the grapes for that. We also grow our Torcido Garnacha and a couple others, but for the most part, that's it. Everything else is sourced from Calaveras County vineyards.

WRO: What’s special about the Sierra Foothills AVA?

JS: I think the potential of the Sierra Foothills is way unrealized right now. If you think Sierra Foothills, you think Rhône, you think Zinfandel, you might think Barbera. But if you look at what people are growing here in Calaveras County, there are as many micro-climates here as there are anyplace else. I think the wine world has yet to be surprised by what can be done here.

WRO: What’s your role at Twisted Oak? Do you have a hand in making the wine?

JS: I do everything but the winemaking. I'm involved when it comes down to deciding which varietals, which blends, what we're going to do -- that’s my job, because I'm El Jefe. But I have a full-time professional winemaker (Brett Keller) and cellar master (Nick Hancock) managing the production side of it, because if I had to do everything I already do, plus that, I would explode. These are folks that went to school, have experience, know what they're doing, and make some really great shit.

WRO: You have a pretty diverse lineup of varietal wines. Why did you choose to go with Rhône and Iberian varieties?

JS: Right at the beginning, when we first closed on the property and started talking about what we would do if we put a winery on it, we went to the Unified Symposium conference in Sacramento. We wandered into this little Spanish-style restaurant that has a huge list of Spanish wines, and realized that could work up in Calaveras -- it’s a similar climate.

Then we talked to Markus Bokisch in Lodi, who is a huge expert on Spanish grape varieties. He came out to the property and went, “Yeah, you should be doing Tempranillo up here.” One thing led to another, and we came to the realization that the Iberians and the Rhônes were a perfect combination for us.

WRO: As the head of the T.A.P.A.S. association, how would you describe the difference between California and Spanish Tempranillo wines?

JS: There's probably more difference than there should be. I think California is still learning how to make it, because the Spanish Tempranillos are amazing. The California style is often over-the-top -- and we're probably as guilty of that as anyone. But I think there's a path that we're on to more interesting, textured Tempranillos from California.

WRO: What’s your goal for Twisted Oak wines?

JS: We want to make the best wines we can have while having fun. I think interesting wines can be made in many parts of California -- not just the two counties north of San Francisco. The winemaking is serious at Twisted Oak until the cork is in the bottle, and then the fun starts.

WRO: You describe Calaveras County as being something of an eccentric place. Is that why you chose to take such a wacky approach with your blog, winery events, etc.? Would you have done the same if you’d ended up in Santa Barbara instead of the Sierra Foothills?

JS: Yeah, I think we probably would have done the same kinds of things -- that's just me. When I was working on those dry, industry standard documents in my previous career, a lot of times I'd end up being the writer. The idea was to get this committee of 50 engineers to actually look at this 300-page document and make sure it was right, so I would drop (funny) shit in there at, say, page 169 -- just to make sure someone was reading it. So there'd be all these little Easter eggs to find in there. I have my fun whatever way I can.

WRO: Was there a risk that some people wouldn’t take the Twisted Oak wines seriously?

JS: There's always that danger, and I've had that reaction. I remember one time, early on, pouring at an event, and this woman took a look at our table and you could see her nose going in the air. She looked at the chickens and all that, and she said, “OK, I'll try your Syrah.” She got two tables down, took a sip -- and then came back and tried everything else. I knew there was a danger, but, you've heard of me, right? We’re a little 5,000-case winery in the Foothills. I submit that it's something that had to be done.

WRO: What’s your favorite part about owning a winery?

JS: It's the fun aspects: making people smile, making people laugh. It took me a really long time to realize that I was a frustrated comedy writer, and I guess I needed to start a winery so that I could have a job. It's having people say how much they love what we're doing, and please never stop.