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A cartoon in the New Yorker a while back featured a pair of lawyers seated in an airliner with their tray tables down and their laptops aglow. “Isn’t international travel wonderful?” one says to the other. “I’m going to be able to bill 48 hours today!”
Similarly, there are winemakers—like Bernard Portet (Clos Du Val, Napa Valley) and Patrick Campbell (Laurel Glen, Sonoma Valley)—for whom a single harvest experience each year simply isn’t enough. Portet’s company also owns a winery in Australia, so he gets twice the learning exercise each year; Campbell also makes wine in Argentina and Chile. Double your crush, double your fun.
“Fun” is decidedly the operative word for winemaker/consultant Kerry Damskey, who isn’t busy enough with his own winery and 14 client wineries. Oh no, he also trundles off to another country each spring to oversee crush at a winery where he’s a partner…in India, where he’s almost single-handedly creating a whole new industry.
It’s irritating enough that Damskey has the youthful strength and endurance to pull off such daring feats, but it’s utterly maddening that he does it—and always has—with an ebullience that’s both charming and energizing. It’s easy to picture him as one of the members of Creedence Clearwater Revival, down on some corner, tapping his feet to the brightest of tunes.
Some people have that ability, that knack of raising you up to their level of blissful connectedness to the world. I’ve known Kerry for more than 30 years, so I’m privy to the secret of his endless energy and enthusiasm: Daisy Damskey, his wife of nearly 30 years and the only person I know who has more natural energy bubbling up than he.
“Daisy is my partner in life and my partner in business,” says Kerry with a grin as wide as Texas and a voice that booms as if he were speaking to a large, packed house. “Though we had both attended UC Davis, we met later when I was making wine at Cribari in Lodi,” he remembers. “She was a beautiful gal, with abundant energy.”
Daisy, who had earned her degree in child development, later taught at San Diego State, worked for the Furth Family at Chalk Hill Winery and handled fund development for the United Way. She now adeptly handles the business side of the couple’s Palmeri label. Daisy and Kerry have two children. Daughter Amity lives in Healdsburg while son Drew is presently away at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where he’s studying Mandarin and business. “I think he’ll get into some sort of international business,” beams Kerry. “He wants to work in China.”
The business in India, near Mumbai [formerly Bombay] is called Sula Winery. “I first went to India in 1995 and was very impressed with the potential. I had become pretty much a ‘corporate guy’ working at AVG [Associated Vintners Group] with Allan Hemphill. I was ‘winemaker,’ but I wasn’t making wine. I had six winemakers working with me, but I was just moving numbers and overseeing. I was really ready for some excitement, some adventure.”
Kerry says he had no notion whatsoever about what to expect in India. “I was pretty well-traveled in Europe, but India was a blank spot. I knew they grew grapes, but didn’t know if winegrapes could be grown there successfully: there’s no dormant season there because it doesn’t get cold enough. But this area outside of Bombay is at 2,000 feet above sea level, so it’s a little cooler than the surrounding area. In the absence of dormancy, we prune twice. After harvest—mostly in February for the whites and March for the reds—we prune severely, leaving no buds. Then, in August, when the vines are pushing again, we prune leaving two buds. December and January are the coolest months, which works out well, as that’s leading toward the harvest season.
“The monsoon season—the rains, which can be torrential—starts in June, well after harvest. Low pressure inland draws in the warm, very moist air off the Arabian Seas roughly from June through August. The area where we are reminds me of a cross between Arizona, Monument Valley and the Serengeti Plains of Africa.
The wines are surprisingly good. The Sauvignon Blanc has a Loire-like mineralism, with a green chili pepper quality that’s really nice. The Chenin Blanc, off-dry but not sweet, is very popular in India’s domestic market, especially with curried foods. Shiraz does very well. We brought 2,000 cuttings of Zinfandel there in 1997, and that variety does quite well. The region is best suited to the mid-season varieties, which is why I’m not too thrilled with how the Cabernet Sauvignon [a late-season variety] does. You get sugar maturity well before you get flavor maturity, so the wines are a little ‘green.’”
The instigator of this project (and the Damskeys’ partner) is Rajeev Samant. “Raj is a very hip Stanford graduate, who’s barely 40. He did a double major in computer science and economics, then worked at Oracle for a time. Crop Care’s Tom Prentice is also in the deal with us; he handles the vineyard side for my Palmeri Stagecoach Vineyard Syrah. Tom and I took wine grapes to India to get things started. Over the last eight years or so, a whole slew of other wineries have been established there. I think there are some 44 wineries there today! We’re making 200,000 cases a year at Sula; the wine market in India is growing by almost 50 percent a year!”
When Damskey started college, he was originally thinking anthropology. “My family always spent time in the southwest—Mesa Verde—and I thought the Hopi mesas were fabulous. I collected kachinas and other cultural trinkets, I thought the dances were mesmerizing and I was fascinated by the mysterious disappearance of the Anasazi. Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t really know what anthropologists do these days!”
He does, however, know what winemakers do. While still in school, he worked for Dick Arrowood at Sonoma Vineyards for one harvest while living above David and Sandra Steiner’s garage. “They were just getting ready to plant the first vines for what would become Matanzas Creek Winery, and I got to help them with that project,” he says.
Damskey finished up at UC Davis in 1976. “It was a great class for winemakers, including Rob Davis [Jordan] and Tom Rinaldi [Duckhorn, now Provenance]. You ask what advice I would give a young winemaker: Do the corporate thing early. That way, you get the nuts-and-bolts schooling, and then you can branch out. You can’t do that without the basics. Learning how to do analysis and research, learning how to understand the ‘numbers’ to the point where they’re additional information but not the be all, end all. Once I got the science and the numbers down, that gave me the confidence to push the envelope, to take risks. You can’t do that without the basics.”
And Damskey definitely pushes that old envelope all over creation, from his project in India to those he oversees closer to his home. “My style aims for lush, full fruit that still maintains some sort of elegance.” Those factors are clearly in place in the wines he offers as examples. Kerry makes a fine Zinfandel for Dutcher Crossing; the 2005 Dry Creek Zin ($32) shows off ripe raspberry fruit and plenty of spiciness, from clove and woodruff to cola and caramel. There’s a lovely Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2004 ($30) he makes for T.R. Elliott, a former partner in Sonoma Cutrer and now a partner in Hallberg Vineyards. “I think he’s a distant relative of Teddy Roosevelt,” says Damskey. The wine is alluringly succulent and juicy, with black cherry and cola, a bit of rare filet mignon and strawberry, with hints of coffee just off to the side. There is a denseness to the fruit, yet there’s agility and lightness as well.
Figuring out what to charge is one of the hardest parts of working as a consultant, says Kerry. He usually works on a monthly retainer—which can range from $500 to $3,000 depending on his involvement—but occasionally works for $100 to $200 per hour. He might also take an equity stake in the business if that works better for the client. Flexibility is always an asset.
“I was lucky enough to realize early on that the alchemy of great wine always starts in the vineyard. Some of my clients are amused with my obsessive qualities when it comes to the growing of grapes. Still, I’ve found obsession with knowing and working with the vineyards gives me the ability to enter into the winemaking part of the year with a clear understanding of how to maximize the assets and uniqueness of each vineyard. Plus, being in the vineyard kindles my passion for the wine that’s to follow.”
Kerry and Daisy Damskey operate a business called Terroirs Inc. (email is firstname.lastname@example.org). The pair advise vineyard owners on business practices, strategic management and operational development, and consult for a cluster of award-winning wineries here and abroad. They also have their own label, Palmeri (www.palmeriwines.com), where the focus is on mountain-grown Syrah, but there is also a Cabernet-Syrah blend that’s meant to push yet another envelope. “People haven’t quite caught on to the notion of blends, but it’s a coming thing,” he says. The name Palmeri comes from Quercus palmeri, a small scrub oak that grows in the hillside locations Kerry favors for Syrah.
His Syrahs—about 350 cases each—come from two locations. Stagecoach Vineyard lies in the Vaca Range above Silverado Country Club on the southeastern edge of Napa Valley, while Van Ness Vineyard is above Geyserville in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley appellation. The 2004 Stagecoach ($54) is densely fruited with blackberry and coffee, with iodine and camphor in the background, while the 2004 Van Ness ($54) features oily strawberry fruit, with iodine and menthol spiciness. Both are solid, lushly fruited wines, clear and outspoken in their varietal identity—no mistaking either of them for something else.
“I learned the value of mountain fruit when I was working with Alan Hemphill and we had access to the fruit from Gauer Ranch [now Kendall-Jackson’s spectacular hilltop property above Alexander Valley],” says Kerry. “I want lots of flavor and extraction, but not a lot of alcohol. I want the wines to be power-packed, but they also have to have some sense of elegance and some sense of ‘yummy.’”
Yummy. That’s a word that comes up often in any conversation with Kerry. It says a lot about how down-to-earth he is, how essential he is. When things come down to what’s really important, the first thing a wine has to be is yummy. It also speaks to the winemakers he respects—David Ramey, Merry Edwards, Paul Hobbs—each of whom pushes the envelope in their own unique way, each of whom looks to get the most out of the grape without overstepping in alcohol or heft and each of whom gets “yummy” well into the equation. Those would be three good candidates for a vinous Mount Rushmore, should that project ever take wing. (The plans, even as we speak, are…no, just kidding.)
“The great thing about wine,” Kerry says loudly and with enthusiasm (he says pretty much everything loudly and with enthusiasm—it’s his default setting), “is that you get to see the fruits of your labor from point A to the finished product. And I love working with a bunch of projects. I can’t imagine being the winemaker for just one winery for 20 years. Yech! But working on a dozen or so projects, that keeps me energized—and I expect to do that for another 20 years or more!” Kerry admits to being a little ADD (which is akin to Attila admitting to have a little of the Hun in him). “It helps me a lot to be able to bounce around from one thing to the other. It’s hard for me to sit still for just one thing.
“The main thing, in all of this, is your integrity. Being honest and working hard—those are at the core of my philosophy. If you do those things, life is going to be pretty good. And it’s not just ‘do the work,’ it’s ‘complete the work.’ Follow-through is of the utmost importance. I work a lot. It’s my passion. I occasionally find time to garden and do a little hiking; I like being outdoors. But what I do for a living is not work. I feel very blessed to be able to do what I love for a living, so I’ll always work.
“Will I be doing this 20 years from now? Absolutely! If I’m still here, I’m still working. I’ll still be doing my own label, I’ll still be helping others and I’ll definitely still be going to India. India has already taken me to spiritual levels I hadn’t previously considered. Daisy and I are thinking of buying a little place there, a place to go live for a month or so each year. I like India. I like being a vegetarian when I’m there. I like the color of the place, I like the smells of the place, I like all the people there. There’s a very large grouping of 20- to 35-year-olds in India now, and they’re very hip. It’s a great place to make and sell wine right now, and the market for wine is growing by leaps and bounds.”
Damskey says going out on his own was the smartest thing he ever did in a business sense. “It was a real leap of faith. I’d always worked for someone else, and there were some sleepless nights at the beginning. I had four clients, and I’d toss and turn at night and think, ‘Well, if I get to five or six, things will be just fine.’ You have to have faith that you can do it, and you definitely have to be good at what you do. It’s what I said before: Do the work, and do it completely. That’s it.