When Chris Christensen graduated from Stanford in 2003, he found himself searching for the same thing many recent grads do: a career that wouldn’t box him into the monotony of a 9-to-5 workplace. In 2003, he found a solution by working as a lab intern at Gallo of Sonoma. Though he didn’t know it at the time, his decision to avoid a confining job by working at a winery would lead him to one of his life’s greatest passions.
After Gallo, Christensen worked around Dry Creek Valley at smaller wineries before settling at Medlock Ames, where his love affair for Sauvignon Blanc and inspiration to start his own brand began. Seventeen years later, Christensen’s journey in the wine industry has led him to start Bodkin, proving that you don’t have to have it all figured out right away.
Bodkin Wines launched in 2011, and the following year, Christensen made America’s first sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, which became the flagship wine for the brand. As an ode to Christensen’s love for medieval history, Bodkin is named after a battle in the Hundred Years’ War. Of the 15 wines he’s made, 11 have scored 90 or higher on Wine Enthusiast.
With a love for both wine science and craftsmanship, Christensen’s minimalist philosophy of “Let the chemistry do the heavy lifting” guides his signature style of high-acid, low-alcohol wines. In addition to his Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, Bodkin also offers a number of aromatic white wines, Zinfandel-based co-ferments, and quaffable rosés.
As a Black winemaker, Christensen wants Bodkin to be a vehicle for promoting inclusivity in the wine industry, as well as imparting his knowledge to aspiring winemakers of color. He works to promote diversity through speaking engagements, podcasts, and mentorship opportunities for aspiring vintners and winery owners, and aims to continue these channels for opportunity in any way that he can.
What has made Bodkin wine so appealing to consumers, beyond its taste, is Christensen himself. A breath of fresh air in an industry whose representatives can sometimes appear too buttoned up, Christensen is a self-taught vintner who drinks Coors Lite but can tell you about the fermentation process with ease.
VinePair chatted with Christensen about what’s next on his journey.
1. When did you first realize you loved wine?
Growing up in a non-drinking household in Iowa, I didn’t really have any exposure to wine or wine culture until I came to California to go to college. I cannot say there was an exact moment or definitive experience where I knew I loved wine. I definitely had an interest in wine when I decided that working at a winery would be a good way to spend a couple years after graduation until I would go out and get a “real” job. I guess since I’ve chosen to stay in the wine business, it has been a more slow and gradual kind of love that has been growing inside me over the past 17 years.
2. What inspired you to start Bodkin Wines?
Oddly enough, winemaking is one of the few career paths you can take on where a B.A. from Stanford does you no favors. After working eight years in wine production, my career had hit a plateau of sorts where my lack of formal education had limited my career growth. Although I had been reading academic texts on winemaking and had immersed myself in learning the hows and whys of the thought process behind making wine, there wasn’t anything on my resume that showed my true abilities. I realized that starting my own brand was really the only space where I could showcase my skills and vision in winemaking.
3. What’s the coolest thing you’ve done in your role at Bodkin Wines?
Making America’s first sparkling Sauvignon Blanc in 2012 is both the coolest thing and the stupidest thing I’ve done as a winemaker. It’s pretty cool to be able to say you’re the first person to do something, particularly in a field that has the history and gravitas as enology does in America. However, looking back at it now, I shake my head and say what was I thinking? A 31-year-old in my second vintage of winemaking for the brand who had never made sparkling wine before. Why would I try to make a wine that hadn’t been made before, and pay for it by borrowing money against two credit cards and rolling those balances over to a third card that was offering zero percent APR on balance transfers? Having to recount this story here it reminds me that there’s a thin line between a leap of faith and jumping to your own doom.
4. The pandemic has caused a lot of brands to adjust and pivot. What significant shift has your business faced this year that you had never considered before?
From the start, I built Bodkin Wines to be a brand where we sell 50 to 60 percent of our wines to out-of-state distributors and 35 to 45 percent to retailers and restaurants in California. With the pandemic, there was a three-month period this year where we sold all of 20 cases of wine through those aforementioned channels. The saving grace for the business was our direct-to-consumer sales through the website. With more people drinking at home these days, we’ve seen an increase in online orders. What before had only been 5 percent of our total sales has become closer to 30 percent of the bottled wine that is sold.
5. In your opinion, what is the best and worst thing that has come out of the pandemic, for your business and for the industry as a whole?
With the increase in web sales, there were some growing pains for sure. I’ll be the first to admit I was caught flat-footed by the amount of time and effort needed for customer service and was slow to get systems in place to manage such a sharp increase in business from out of nowhere. I’m thankful to have these problems, though, as I feel both blessed and energized by all this newfound interest in my wines, and this has really forced us to level-up as a business. Shout-out to Marissa Machado, my e-commerce, website, and wine club maven, who has been a total rock star in helping guide the business through this growth phase.
It’s easy to say that the increase in wine sales during the pandemic is good for the wine industry. However, it’s also a case of the rich getting richer with seven of the largest wine conglomerates seeing the vast majority of the 27 to 30 percent growth in wine sales. I will say that whatever gets people drinking more wine will raise the tide and help lift up all wineries, which I feel like I’m seeing. However, the thing that has me most excited for post-pandemic life is seeing changes to state liquor laws in many states. With the increase in to-go dining from restaurants, many states have softened up their laws on to-go sales of alcohol. I hope this is a small first step in a broader movement for states to revisit their alcoholic beverage laws and start to make more changes that better reflect the desires of the people in our modern era.
6. Are there any new initiatives you are working on with Bodkin Wines or in the wine industry in general?
In light of all the challenges of harvest 2020, I’ve been excited to embrace a more “natural” approach to winemaking this year. Personally, I’ve become more “woke” to the sourcing of the foods I eat and things I put in my own body, so for this harvest, I really tried to limit the additions I made to my wines. Although I wasn’t able to do the vintage additive-free, when I did need to make one, I used all organic-certified and vegan winemaking products. Additionally, this was the first vintage where I made no yeast additions. All of my lots this year spontaneously fermented, the more technically precise term for “native yeast” fermentations, which was a fun experiment to try. I’m saying it was “fun” because I’m pretty happy with the way the wines worked out, though there definitely were some moments of tension while I was waiting for the ferments to kick off, for sure.
7. What’s the most fun part of winemaking to you?
I really enjoy the chase of perfection. It’s the pursuit of making a wine so perfect that I cannot find any fault in it when judged against the impossibly high standard of the idealized wine I set out to make. That’s what keeps me coming back vintage after vintage. I will say that while I’ve taken pride in every wine I’ve bottled and thought a handful of wines were close to reaching the goals I set for them, there’s only one wine I’ve made that’s exceeded my unfairly high expectations, and that was the 2013 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Rogers Family Vineyards in Dry Creek. That wine just hits different, though.
8. As a Black-owned wine company, how do you hope that the industry will change marketing narratives and amplify more diversity?
I feel like we are making a positive (yet long overdue) step in the right direction as an industry. Every time someone showcases the story of or features products from a maker from a community of color, it not only helps that producer keep producing in a business sense, but it also lights up a beacon of awareness for others in the community to see. Keeping up the momentum of the movement and continuing to advance the dialogue of diversity over the next several years is the first step to affecting meaningful change in the industry.
9. What advice do you have for up-and-coming winemakers in the industry?
Work hard, taste a lot of wine, don’t be afraid to ask questions, work for a variety of winemakers who specialize in different varieties of wine, and learn the science behind winemaking. While these standard tidbits of advice are helpful in getting aspiring winemakers pointed in the right direction, developing a strong sense of objectivity when it comes to your own wines is what will keep you on the right track. Being able to look at your own wines as they are, without ego or bias, is essential. Being able to judge your own work by its merits and detractions is what will allow you to learn and grow in your craft. If you think every wine you make is great, you’ll never open yourself up to the idea that there are areas where you can improve, while conversely, if you only look at the faults in your own wines it makes it hard to take the risks you need to make really progressive and interesting wines. All in all, customers, somms, distributors, and critics are all going to have opinions about your wines, and you need to have a strong internal compass to keep the praise from going to your head and the critiques from going to your heart.
10. What’s your long-term vision for Bodkin?
Over the past nine years, I’ve accomplished the majority of the goals I had when I started out back in 2011. From making America’s first sparkling Sauvignon Blanc in 2012, to having 90-plus point scores stacked up like cordwood, being a winemaker for “The Bachelor” star Colton Underwood, to being named to the Wine Enthusiast’s 40 under 40 list this year … I’ve checked a lot of my boxes, professionally. I’ve been appreciative of what I’ve accomplished but I wasn’t replacing my goals with new ones as fast as I’ve been checking them off and was really feeling lost in a way.
It wasn’t until the BLM movement and renewed national attention on racial inequality when I started to feel that Bodkin Wines could be a vehicle that could help affect change. I now see the brand as a platform to showcase diversity and promote inclusion in the wine industry. Additionally, I feel strongly that the work I’ve done and the knowledge I’ve gained over the years is wasted if I’m not able to pass it on to others. While making wine and selling wine are still paramount, moving forward into the next 10 years of Bodkin Wines, I’m really excited to focus on helping other winemakers and wine professionals — particularly those of color — through internship placement and mentorship opportunities.