Employee Spotlight: Head Winemaker, Joanna Wilczoch
It feels a little odd to talk about someone who is alive for Women’s History Month, but that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re shining our spotlight on our head winemaker, Joanna Wilczoch, who is definitely making history in our cellar.
Joanna is a first-generation American, whose parents were born in Poland and immigrated to the U.S. in 1982. Before entering the wine industry, she worked in social services for several years. While working a part-time job in wine sales, Joanna fell in love with wine and wanted to get more involved.
She joined the Pedernales Cellars team in 2016 working in the vineyard. At the time she was taking winemaking classes at Texas Tech. That helped her transition into a role as an assistant winemaker where she really found her groove. Joanna’s winemaking skills and excellent palate helped her break through the glass ceiling in 2019 to become the head winemaker, working alongside executive winemaker, David Kuhlken.
That same year, she also interned at a winery in New Zealand to further hone her skills. She jokes that the real reason she chose to work in the Southern Hemisphere is so she could work two harvests in one year. In reality, she learned a lot to help her lead the wine-making team at Pedernales Cellars. Joanna tells us about that experience and what she is looking forward to in this Q&A.
Q: What did you learn while working in New Zealand that has helped you with winemaking at Pedernales Cellars?
A: I spent the spring harvest season in 2019 at the largest winery in New Zealand, Indevin. My goal was to experience how things are done in a different country and pick up skills to be a more well-rounded winemaker. While there, I primarily worked with Pinot Noir, which requires different processes than we use with the grapes at Pedernales Cellars. One of the biggest takeaways was getting comfortable with spontaneous fermentation and cold-soaking grapes. I learned to relax through the weird cycle of fermentation. I recognized that the grapes might get really funky at different points in the fermentation using those techniques, but they are just passing phases and have nothing to fear. I use that knowledge at our winery to accept the various phases of fermentation in service of the greater good of making a better wine at the end of the cycle.
Q: We source the best grapes possible from talented growers in Texas. What grape varietals are new to the program in 2023?
A: This year we have contracted Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Nogalero Estate Vineyard in the Texas High Plains. I’m excited to work with this vineyard to get fantastic Bordeaux varieties. The vineyard is in the process of transitioning to organic growing. It is part of the strategy to combat the over-spray and drift problems of dicamba. We rely on growers who are committed to producing the highest quality fruit possible. Nogalero Estate Vineyard is growing sustainably and organically, and they do a fantastic job of managing the vineyard to keep yields low. For example, they maintain the leaf canopy well to allow the later maturing Cabernet grapes to fully ripen. The result is really high-quality grapes.
Q: What qualities do you look for in partnering with growers and how do you maintain relationships with them?
A: We start our search using the dating site, GrapeConnect.com. We swipe right on growers who are willing to have heart-to-heart conversations about our shared long-term goals during long walks down the vineyard rows. We want growers who aren’t afraid of commitment.
But seriously, we like working with growers who are willing to learn and grow along with us. We’re fortunate to have several long-term contracts with grape growers who are focused on the quality of the crop and not quantity. We value relationships based on shared commitments and strive to be good partners as well.
On the light-hearted side of that partnership, we bring gifts of wine that we make with their grapes. We bottle early trials of the wine to give them a sneak peek at wine made with different versions of fermentation so they have an idea of what their grapes can do. We separate various blocks from their vineyards so they can taste the difference in their growing approaches. These kinds of trials help them perfect their grape-growing craft, and it goes a long way in showing them how committed we are to their success.
Q: What are you excited about for this growing season?
A: I’m really excited about our continued work with Desert Willow Vineyard in Seminole, Texas. They continue to expand their plantings and acreage under vine in an immaculately maintained vineyard. They are in the process of transitioning all crops to be certified organic. Last year was the first year of organic practice on the vineyard, and all new plantings of varietals such as Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet are certified organic. In the 2023 harvest, we’ll get Alicante Bouschet, Grenache, and Syrah from the vineyard. They are planting Carignan and Petite Sirah specifically for us for future vintages.
Q: Which wines are you excited about releasing this year?
A: We’re releasing our 2021 red wines and our 2022 white wines this year. Working with wines from both growing seasons at the same time is an excellent illustration of the differences in vintages. The 2021 growing year was cooler and a bit challenging with the fruit. The cooler conditions resulted in lighter-bodied, less tannic, and fruitier wines than we produced in 2020. It’s really fun to compare the two different vintages side by side and see how the weather had an impact on the finished wine. The 2022 growing season was hotter and dryer, resulting in more concentrated fruit. We had good yields and the heat and drought reduced disease pressure. The 2022 vintage is outstanding, with balanced wines showing excellent fruit intensity and supple tannin.
Some of the wines that I’m looking forward to releasing are the 2022 Teroldego, which will be a much larger release of a single varietal than we typically make, and the Canted County Reserva Tempranillo 2020 which will be released in the fall. This wine is already phenomenal. I recommend buying a few extra bottles of it and holding on to some of them to compare it to the 2020 Gran Reserva Tempranillo that we will release in three years. We just bottled the Gran Reserva this month and it will require three years of bottle aging. It’s the same wine, but with an additional year in the barrel, and more time in the bottle. It tastes awesome. I’m excited about tasting these two wines side-by-side and think it will be really fun for everyone to see what a difference a year in the barrel can make!