In the course of a person’s life, there are moments that leave such a powerful impression they can foretell the future. David Baird, head winemaker at Folktale Winery and Vineyards, located in California’s Carmel Valley, recalls such a moment in his own life with exquisite clarity.
When he was 16, his family took a trip to Europe to see the sights. He vividly remembers visiting a family friend with an extensive wine collection who had invited them to dinner. They served a bottle of Condrieu and Baird was blown away by the taste and how it married so beautifully with their meal. The experience sang loudly and continues to reverberate today in his approach to winemaking. The quality of Folktale wines speaks for itself, but Baird is after something bigger.
In 2015, Baird teamed up with entrepreneur Gregory Ahn to open Folktale Winery & Vineyards. Folktale was born out of its mission to create high-quality, innovative, sustainably farmed wines that invite people to have an experience similar to the one Baird had while vacationing in Europe all those years ago.
VinePair recently sat down with this award-winning winemaker to discuss sustainability, organics, and the special role wine plays in our lives.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
When did you realize wine would be your career?
After getting back from Europe, I didn’t think much more of the bottle of wine we all shared. It wasn’t until I was getting ready to graduate high school that I had to really consider a career direction. My parents encouraged me to take an aptitude test to at least narrow my focus down, and among the short list of options was winemaking. This was never even a consideration of mine until I got my results from that test, but quickly became something that sounded like it could be a great fit for me. Having grown up in Carmel, I called a local wine producer, Chateau Julien, to shadow their business for the day and see a behind-the-scenes look at what a winemaking career might look like. I fell in love with the idea of being a winemaker at that moment, and have been working towards this career ever since.
Tell us a little about your wine journey and how it led you here, to Folktale.
I decided to attend Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo for undergrad. It had a great wine program, campus-owned vineyards, and was situated among some of California’s finest grape-growing regions. Midway through college, I took a semester off and did a winemaking internship, the first step towards a winemaking career. Internships, as I quickly learned, are not for the faint of heart. Working six 12- hour days per week was grueling but rewarding, as I had my first opportunity to put many of the learned skills in the classroom to practice. I also got involved in a wine club on campus called Vines to Wines where bimonthly guest speakers in the wine industry would share their experiences with us and offer advice. It was through these connections that I landed a job at Halter Ranch in Paso Robles for nearly a year in various roles in marketing, vineyard management, and winemaking.
I graduated college in 2008 at possibly the worst time to be looking for a job as the world had just entered a deep recession. I was extremely fortunate to land a job at Justin Winery, located just down the road from Halter Ranch. In this role, I was a full-time cellar worker and helped make some of the most well-known wines from the emerging Paso Robles AVA. It was a pivotal position for me, as in my six-year tenure I would see the business triple in size, and my role grew along with it.
I was later assigned the role of cellar master and managed two new winemaking facilities that were built to produce nearly 100,000 cases of wine, all the while managing a year-round staff of 12 people. It was an opportunity to further develop my skills in all things winemaking, while also coming into my own and figuring out the types of wines I wanted to make.
It was with a heavy heart that I decided to follow my passion for cooler-climate grape varieties and took a job as an assistant winemaker at Fess Parker in the Santa Barbara area. At Fess Parker, we worked with some of the most well-known vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Valley and I was able to learn a whole different style of winemaking than how things were done in Paso Robles. After a few years in the SB area, I relocated back to the Monterey Peninsula to be closer to family. It was at a chance lunch meeting that I met Greg Ahn, the future owner of Folktale Winery. He and I connected immediately and he assigned me a marketing role with the hope that he would be soon purchasing a winery in the area. Fate would have it that the winery Greg ended up buying was none other than Chateau Julien, the same one I visited nearly 15 years earlier.
Folktale is located in Carmel Valley, which is located on California’s Central Coast. How does the climate and terroir of this Central Coast sub-region affect the taste and quality of the wine you produce at Folktale?
The Central Coast has such an amazing mix of rich soils and varied climate, and it’s my job to present that uniqueness in a bottle of wine. Where exactly we’re getting grapes from plays a huge role in how that bottle of wine will taste. One unique thing about the Central Coast is the variety of grapes that can be grown, mainly due to climate alone. We have cold regions near the coast, and hot regions inland. Planting grapes in different areas can present flavors that are completely different from one another. You also need to consider where the vineyard itself is located and how it’s being farmed. In general, Pinot Noirs from the Santa Lucia Highlands are earthy, and have some beautiful red fruit characteristics that I just love. White wine varieties do great in our sandy valley floor where they express aroma and have a wonderful balance of acidity.
Folktale is fully committed to organic, sustainable farming and winemaking practices. Why does this matter to you?
I think it’s easy to look at short-term farming and use conventional pesticides these days. Convenience and pricing make this a no-brainer for many landowners, and I can’t blame them. That being said, wine is a product of what we’re putting into it. We can’t talk all about terroir and climate and not about pesticides. They have residue that inevitably gets on the grape and into the wine. When a vineyard doesn’t use organic pesticides or even weed or rodent control, those residues get into the ecosystem around us.
Do you think organic farming makes for better-tasting wine?
I do. I have tasted wines produced from side-by-side vineyards, made by the same producer and have preferred the wine from the organic vineyard. In the fall, I taste lots of grapes in many vineyards to decide when to harvest, and can always tell what is organic versus not, just based on the taste of the grapes. Organic grape growing is much more expensive than “conventional” farming practices, so some wineries prefer to save money. For whatever reason, consumers haven’t really gotten behind buying wine made from organic grapes like they have when shopping in the produce department of the grocery store.
Another confusing element for consumers is the difference between organic wine and wine made from organic grapes. Both use organic ingredients, but organic wine uses a very small amount of sulfur dioxide to preserve wine and keep it from oxidizing. You often see this in a small natural wine shop, but not your local chain grocery store.
Wine can be pretty magical. What do you think is so special about wine and its ability to bring people together and elevate a meal?
Wine is all about experience. You can have a cheap bottle of wine in an amazing setting among loved ones and it’s right up there with giving birth to your first kid. Conversely, great bottles of wine don’t always make the moment memorable. Wine evolves. It sparks conversation. It evokes emotion, and it’s this combination of things that adds up to a magical experience.
What do you want people to know about wine that you think they may not know?
Winemaking is just as romantic as it is hard work. It takes a ton of effort to make a bottle of wine, and countless decisions to make it taste like it does. But the motivation for me lies in creativity and being able to produce something I’m passionate about. New projects are always fun, and seeing the fruits of your labor is so rewarding.
Folktale was inspired by the idea that “in every great bottle of wine, there is a story.” What does that mean to you and how does it inform your creative process when producing a wine?
For me, every bottle of wine I create takes me back to moments in that wine’s life. From the 2 a.m. alarm clock that went off the day we picked the grapes, to the fermentation, blending, and bottling — it all reminds me of how the wine was created and the love and care that went into creating it. Every bottle of wine has its own journey, and creativity can truly happen or be sparked at any moment.
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
Landscape architecture. I love gardening, plants, and design, and it just sounds like so much fun!