Madrid native Laura Diaz Muñoz is bringing Old World flavor to the Napa Valley, creating wines that are expressive of the terroir in California. Given her Spanish upbringing, it comes as no surprise that Muñoz’s early sensory memories center around family and food. These rich experiences led her to pursue a degree in food science at the University of Madrid, until a post-grad harvest internship shifted her interest toward wine. But a career change was no small task in the male-dominated field of winemaking.
VinePair spoke with Diaz Muñoz about her decision to leave Spain, how she became general manager and winemaker for the historic Ehlers Estate, and her advice for aspiring female winemakers.
1. Where does your passion for wine come from?
It comes from food; my grandmother and mom cooking together. Some of my best memories are connected to people chatting and eating. I remember when I was 13 in Spain at a restaurant in Galicia with my father near a port so I could smell the sea. We normally had tapas before the main meal. My father ordered seafood and a bottle of Albariño. He poured me a little of the Albariño. I can still recall the aromas of the wine mixed with the smell of the sea. The experience of smelling the wines influences how I approach winemaking. I always want to explore, smell, and taste wines from different locations.
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2. When did you decide that winemaking was going to be a career and not just a hobby?
I decided right after I had my first internship at a winery. I was 21, had just finished college, and went to work a harvest in La Mancha. From the moment I set foot at the winery, the smell coming out was intoxicating. I worked in the lab for three months and I learned a lot about the chemistry of wine, but they wouldn’t allow me in the cellar. Maybe it was a combination of me being lab tech and a woman, but they felt I shouldn’t be in that part of the work. I really wanted to know more and see more, so I knew I needed more schooling. Luckily, the winemaker there saw my passion and he was open to sharing his knowledge. He proceeded to recommend me for master study of viticulture and enology in Madrid.
3. What did your transition to the U.S look like?
I was 26 when I left Madrid. My family didn’t comprehend where this adventurous side was coming from all of a sudden. My parents were like, “You can live very well in Spain.” They didn’t understand why I wanted to leave everything behind and go to America all by myself. None of my family members supported my decision. It is interesting that my father, who gave me my first glass of wine, didn’t want this life for me. He thought it would be hard to become a winemaker.
4. What attracted you to Ehlers?
I worked at Cardinale in 2007 when I first arrived [in the U.S.]. Ehlers approached me in 2018, and I was immediately intrigued by the history and the feeling of a small winery. The thing that attracted me the most is that I could gain an understanding of other aspects of the business, not just making wine or taking care of the vineyard. [I learned] how to manage a small winery — the team, the sales, the marketing. I like to learn and need to understand the why and what of something.
5. How does working in the U.S. compare to your time as a winemaker in Spain?
There were situations in Spain where I was told, “You cannot do this” or “You shouldn’t be here.” I had people tell me I belonged in the kitchen. Here in the U.S., I have never been told that. In Spain and many places in Europe, your college degree dictates your career. Changing careers and/or focus areas isn’t what you do. But in the U.S., that isn’t the mentality. People can be 40 and be passionate about something and start a new career. That would never happen in Spain.
6. How would you define your style of winemaking? How has it evolved?
When I started working in a winery, I thought we need to make wine that people like. The winemaking was all about changing the wine into a style. When I went to New Zealand and tasted the Sauvignon Blanc I was like, “Wow, this is very different from the Sauvignon Blanc that I’m making in La Mancha — why is this?” It opened me up to the idea of the terroir and the sense of place. Then I came to Napa, and all the wines I was making came from several AVAs within a small region, so that gave me a sense of the terroir. The soil, the altitude, and the sun’s position has an influence and defines the style of wine. Now, my goal is to make wines which are expressive of where they come from.
7. How has Ehlers adapted during Covid?
When I have a problem, I see an opportunity. I worry, but I don’t panic. Everything has a solution. When Covid started, I gathered all my employees and said: “We are going to go through this together. You will not be home; I will find ways to keep you busy. There are many ways to still connect with our members and consumers. People are not going to stop drinking wine — they probably are going to drink more! Let’s take this year to do all the things that we never have a chance to do, like marketing projects or thinking about research we want to conduct in the vineyard.”
When you are managing people [and] you go through tough times, it’s real people with real issues. Understanding that has been a great lesson for me as a leader. My goals are not the same goals of my people.
8. What advice would you give to aspiring female winemakers?
Go for it. Do whatever you want in life; just try to be great at it. I don’t need to tell them it will be harder for you because you’re a woman. I’m confident they already know that. It will be more difficult in some areas and easier in others. For example, we tend to be treated gentler, and we shouldn’t be!
9. What’s next for Ehlers?
Make more wine. Exploring getting fruit outside of Napa. Looking into getting more land. We like being small, so we won’t go big. Ehlers is certified organic, which I had never done before I came here.
10. What are your aspirations for the wine industry as a whole?
Sustainability. Being more respectful with the Earth because of climate change and inclusion are being discussed a lot. I hope that this actually happens, and it’s not just talk. I want people to truly care about each other and stop judging. We should start enjoying each other and our planet. This last year has been stressful for everyone, and we are losing that community. Let’s make sure we are giving back to the Earth and each other.