Sometimes called the “Wandering Winemaker” or “The Indiana Jones of Wine,” Kerry Damskey has taken the notion of a consulting winemaker to the extreme. “I consult for 15 wineries within Sonoma and Napa counties as well as Sula Vineyards outside Mumbai in India [where he’s founding partner and winemaker], one in Costa Rica and a new project in Israel,” he says. “I also have my own winery, Palmeri Wines, with my wife, Daisy. Our son, Drew, has jumped in to assure it has a guiding hand while Daisy and I expand our ‘day job’ of running our international wine consulting firm, Terroirs, Inc. I’ve had great mentors and hope I can return that favor to the next generation of winemakers.” (The couple also has a daughter, Amity, who lives outside Healdsburg and runs a recycling business with her partner.)
Share an early career success story.
In 1987, I’d just moved up here from San Diego County, where I’d been setting the world on fire with some of the best Chenin Blanc, Muscat Canelli and Gamay made this side of Temecula. When I won the Harvest Fair sweepstakes award for the best wine of the show for a 1986 Zellerbach Sonoma County Chardonnay, which sold for around $8, everyone was asking, “Who’s Kerry Damskey?” That award helped define the next step in my winemaking career. I shortly left Estate William Baccala for a huge opportunity making and growing mountain wines in Alexander Valley at Gauer Estate Vineyard, which is now owned by Jackson Family Wines.
Tell us about a great adventure.
I took my first trip to India in 1994. I’d never been to Asia and went via the Pacific, flying up over Alaska (to my surprise) to get to my first stop, Hong Kong. I ate and drank all the way over the Mekong Delta to Bangkok. When we arrived in Bombay (Mumbai) in the middle of the night, no one was there to meet me, so I was a little apprehensive. When I walked off the plane, this huge wave of hot, humid, moldy air hit me. I remember hundreds of fans were attached to the ceiling, and not one of them worked. I said a little prayer to Daisy and pushed forward. It turned out fine, of course. I now love India and travel there three times each year. Sula Vineyards is now a 500,000-case winery and defining winemaking in India.
Do you have a pet peeve?
Winemakers who say the wines make themselves—they don’t—and winemakers who don’t evolve their winemaking style. Wine is a living art to be challenged and questioned.
Do you have a pet?
“Must love dogs” is a core principle in our home. We have Olive, a beautiful rescue German shepherd, and Fig, a mix of Boston terrier and French bulldog. Last Christmas, we invited our grape growing friends, Tina and Tom Maple [Maple Vineyards] and Debra Mathy [Dutcher Crossing], to bring along their dogs. It was perfect…though I’m sure our cats thought otherwise.
How have your priorities changed over time?
When I was younger, I was more driven by ambition. While I’m still ambitious and continue to explore new grape-growing areas and new opportunities, mentoring and guiding my clients has become more meaningful. Making time for friends and enjoying the fruits of my labor has become more important to me. Still, I can’t wait to see what new vineyard sites and what innovative projects are around the corner.
If you could go back in time, what year would you visit?
The late sixties would be fun to do again. Let’s say 1967. The California resurgence of winemaking was just beginning, you could impress a girl with a bottle of Red Mountain, and the music was great.
If you could choose, what would be your last meal?
I’d drive toward Nicks Cove, stopping along the way for some Hog Island Oysters and a view of Tomales Bay. At Nick’s, I’d start with a double martini and end with a great Sauterne. My companions would be my family and close friends, and we’d close the place down.
What animals scare you and why?
I hate snakes. They bite, they’re creepy, and I think Adam would have been better off without eating the apple.
What do you do when you want to relax?
My most relaxing days consist of sleeping late, walking the dogs, making buttermilk pancakes for the family and doing something local. Travel is a passion and a major part of my job, so home is my vacation. Simple but perfect.
If your spouse could change one thing about you, what would it be?
She’d put volume control on me. I’m known to be a little loud—I have a client who calls me “Lungs” Damskey. Also, like many winemakers, I tend to be very clean. (Doesn’t everyone Clorox the shower daily? Isn’t there only one way to load a dishwasher?) I try to compensate by being a good guy and providing jewelry.
What’s the most important thing that your parents taught you?
My mother taught me to love nature, to celebrate the small wonders of life and to spit. My father taught me to love travel and to immerse myself in other cultures. He wanted his children to be self-sufficient and independent. His dream was to be a viticulturist and he retired early and made that dream come true in Napa Valley.
What’s one guilty pleasure you enjoy too much to give up?
Cookies. I love cookies.