Jarod Sleet is the assistant winemaker for ROCO Winery nestled in Newberg, Ore., within the Dundee Hills AVA. Sleet has spent the last three and a half years heavily involved in nearly every aspect of the winery’s functions. From hiring harvest interns, to hand-harvesting grapes and printing labels, to facilitating wine tasting events for club members, Sleet really does it all — and much more. One of Oregon’s most highly rated wineries, ROCO has a heavy focus on sparkling wines, which are a favorite of Sleet’s.
Sleet was born and raised in Kentucky, where cooking was a huge part of his culture and upbringing. At the age of 20, he wanted to change up his scenery, so in 2002 he sold his belongings and moved out to the Pacific Northwest, ultimately landing in Portland, Ore. During this time, he was doing a lot of introspection — ultimately establishing his Queer identity.
After turning 21, he pursued culinary arts, which very well led to his passion for wine. Sleet is truly a shining star in the Willamette Valley, consistently breaking down barriers in hopes of creating a better pathway for those who come after him.
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VinePair chatted with Sleet about his journey in the wine industry thus far and what we can expect from him in the future.
[Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
1. What does an assistant winemaker do, and how unique has this position been for you?
I think the role of an assistant winemaker differs a lot depending on where you’re at. Here at ROCO Winery, we’re pretty small — larger than boutique, but still fairly small — and I do a little bit of everything. Most of the year, I am the only one in production. Then the harvest time comes around, so we hire three interns for six to eight weeks, then they’re gone again.
The job includes managing the small plot in front of the winery by hand-harvesting those grapes, operating forklifts, operating machines, running analysis for the winemaking processes, and so much more. I’ve even led wine tasting events for our club members for the holidays. It is awesome to experience each aspect from grape to bottle to tasting rooms, and being able to explain that process to people is an amazing experience.
2. What has been your favorite vintage out of any of the three Oregon wineries you either currently work for or have previously worked for?
This is a really tough question because I feel like I’ve learned so many different things at each place. I feel that my internship with Archery Summit in 2013 was the most interesting, though, because it was a dual-internship. I worked for three months in the vineyard as a viticulture technician and then transitioned into the cellar as a lab tech. I got the opportunity to use my science background for the lab tech to run analysis, as well as my agricultural background for the viticultural side. Through and through, I would say it was such a well-rounded experience. I got to apply so much knowledge into action — it was great.
2013 was a fairly cool vintage from the end of summer into fall, with a lot of rain from mid-September into October. You could notice drastic differences in wines from this vintage throughout the Willamette Valley due to when producers decided to pick their grapes.
3. Who have been three of your greatest mentors in life, and what has been your biggest takeaway from each?
Well for one, I loved both of my grandmothers, rest their souls, and my dad’s mother Irene Sleet was my first mentor in life. She had such an amazingly positive influence and impact on my upbringing. Her coaching me about gardening and cooking at a young age truly helped inspire me in so many ways, as my love for food and hospitality was born through those experiences and drove me to pursue cooking professionally as a result. She was also a strong independent Black woman whom I love and respect so much.
Second is my professor, James Cassidy at Oregon State University, who was a soil scientist. I learned an enormous amount from him, and he carried himself as having such a positive outlook on life. He did an amazing job of helping me network with people in this area and is probably one of the reasons why I’m here in this role today. He introduced me to a number of winemakers and grape growers in the Willamette Valley, which opened that door for me to really thrive, so I’m grateful for him.
Lastly, my boss now — Rollin Soles — who is the owner and winemaker of ROCO Winery. He’s an incredible person with a great sense of humor, a wealth of knowledge, and working for him has been awesome.
4. What has changed in your workplace since the pandemic has started, and how have you adjusted?
This has been an ongoing adjustment throughout the year. The production time of the year has been fairly unchanged, as I’m socially distant in the cellar on my own by design. I do share an office, but we are well over six feet apart, and we maintain wearing masks whenever we’re in the office. We stagger our lunches so we minimize contact with each other.
The biggest change has been to how we handled harvest this year. Normally, we have a large gathering, where everyone from vineyard to sales gets together to have food, a glass of wine, and camaraderie. That was unable to happen this year. Maintaining the safety and wellness of everyone is definitely our priority, so albeit it’s different nowadays, hopefully we will get back to some sense of normalcy in the future.
5. Do you have any aspirations that you would like to achieve within the next 10 years?
Absolutely! I would love to take over the wine program here at ROCO Winery one day or even start my own label. There’s so much I feel I have to learn, and applying real-world experience will definitely help, too. I’d say five years is a realistic timeline to do this, because by then, it will be possible for me to gather the experience needed. We’ll see how it goes.
6. What’s been the most difficult part of your career so far?
Establishing myself here on the West Coast away from my family has been one of the most challenging things for me to do, in general. In my career, it has been proving that I should be here. On paper, I have the knowledge, so applying that physically, as well as knowing that I can succeed, has been the biggest obstacle to overcome.
7. Who has been your greatest supporter throughout your journey in wine?
My mother! She’s been my greatest support in everything in life. She’s always the one who’s like, “You’ve got this.” Having that person believe in you is amazing. She would even encourage her friends to frequently buy wine from the places I’ve worked for, so that’s been really great!
8. Do you feel like the wine industry has done enough to provide adequate inclusivity in Black and Brown persons?
Short answer: no. Long answer: It is a realization that the industry is having, and it is still in its infancy.
9. What is it like being a Black man in the winemaking side of the business?
Well, sometimes it seems like a lonely road. I don’t see a lot of people that look like me in Oregon in general, so in the wine industry it isn’t much different. There’s definitely a greater presence of Black and Queer winemakers in California, but I am oftentimes the only person of color in the room and feeling like, “do I belong?”
I won’t say that I’ve been made to feel like I shouldn’t be here, but it is a battle with myself sometimes, as I have to affirm with myself that I have a seat at the table. Overall, in my experience, my voice is heard, I’m respected among my colleagues, and people do seek my input to add diversity to work that we’re doing here in the Willamette Valley.
10. What is the greatest thing you aim to bring and continue to bring to the wine industry?
Accessibility of wine. There are many facets to this idea, but one of the first points is having more financially accessible wines which could help capture a larger and more diverse audience. Then, we can work on how people perceive wine drinkers. I want the wine to become more fun and not as structured, so we can diversify the people that drink wine. For example, my buddy Bertony of Abbey Creek Wine hosts a hip hop and wine night. It would be amazing to show the world that there are many forms of wine drinkers and not a monolith.
11. Beyond where you work and the wines that you make, what have you been drinking lately?
I am a bourbon guy at heart. When I’m not drinking a lot of wine for blendings and tastings, I’m typically drinking bourbon, as that’s one thing me and my dad share. We’ll send bottles of bourbon back and forth to compare and contrast, and when I come home, we visit distilleries. My go-to lately has been a newer distillery called Rabbit Hole. They’ve just made it out to Oregon, and they have sherry-cask bourbon that is really delicious.
I’m also still trying more sparkling wines. Every time I go to the shop or the market I aim to try something new to diversify my exposure because there are a lot of wineries in the Willamette Valley making sparkling wines now. Exploring local bubbles has been fun!