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Terah Bajjalieh, winemaker, Terah Wine Co.
Issue 55: On building a wine brand from scratch, how she thinks about and sources her grapes varietals, and more.
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Terah is a winemaker based out of California who not only manages a large family winery, but also is the founder of her own small brand. We chatted about her start in winemaking, how she thinks about and sources her grapes varietals, and being a woman in the wine world.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me how you got started in winemaking?
Terah Bajjalieh: I came from a finance background but I was interested in exploring food. I thought business and finance was a safe bet, and then as I got into it a couple years later, I realized I just wasn't passionate about it.
I always loved food and loved to cook, so I went to culinary school in my mid twenties and started doing a career shift. As I started looking into culinary schools, I found a sommelier program in the Bay Area and decided I would study wine for fun. I started the course and really fell in love with it, and I realized I could still be involved in food and culture and travel, just with wine rather than going to culinary school. I headed down that path, and it's been 12 years that I've been working with wine.
Brianna Plaza: How do you find the time to build your own business while you're also running another winery?
Terah Bajjalieh: In 2020, I was unemployed and that's when I really built the foundation for my business. It’s when I put together my website, my logos, my label design. I had a foundation of a couple growers that I was working with. When you get through one year, it's a little bit easier the second and third year. So, thankfully, I had 2020 to get started. Now at this point, I have some flexibility with my day job — I work on my wines in the same space. It’s really helpful and I'm super thankful to have that setup. I can work on my wines during the day while I'm here at work, just as long as I get everything else done. Sometimes I have to take time off from work if I'm doing a special event or something. I'm just trying to make it all work.
I don't know if it's common, but there are a lot of people that have side projects and they're allowed to do it. I was recruited by this winery to be their winemaker, and so when they reached out to me, I told them that I had a small project and it was something that we negotiated that I would be able to use their winery. We make wine for other clients as well anyway, so my project could be seen as another client's wine.
Brianna Plaza: How do you seek out the grape growers that you work with for your project?
Terah Bajjalieh: It's first driven by farming practices. It’s my goal to work with organic or biodynamically farmed fruit. I've been able to do that, but it's been a challenge to find them — I hope to be able to maintain that. So, it starts with how they're farming. Then if I have a choice of something to work with, then that's great, but a lot of times I don't have very many choices.
I also try to keep in mind that the varieties that do really well are from the Mediterranean and do well in California and hopefully maintain low pHs. I’ve worked with Sangiovese in the last year and even in our warm climate, the pHs are still pretty low, so it allows me to not have to acidify and adjust things. It allows me to maybe get a little bit more ripening because it's tough, everybody's picking a little bit earlier these days, so your alcohols are lower, so the wines are a little more imbalanced, but pH is really important for wine making. I've been looking for varieties that do well in warmer climates like Italian or Portuguese varieties.
If they're growers that sell all of their fruit and they don't make wine for themselves, then it's in their business models to sell everything. So sometimes I'll find ads online. A lot of times I ask friends who are working with certain vineyards that share my same values. So a lot of us end up working with the same vineyards because those growers are a little bit more geared towards selling to smaller producers. So it's sometimes just reaching out to your network and asking for recommendations on growers, and sometimes just finding them yourselves.
Brianna Plaza: Was it hard to break into starting your own brand?
Terah Bajjalieh: The grape sourcing part was starting from zero. I didn't have any contacts because I came from pretty much all winemaking and I worked for large companies that had their vineyards already set up, so I really had no connections with grapes. So I started off looking at ads and then just looking at wines that I liked and looking at where they're sourcing and trying to reach out to those people. It’s a lot of work to try to figure out where you're going to source, and then you're constantly driving to all these vineyards and meeting people. My first vintage, I didn't really get very much fruit, but I was able to piece it together. Then this year, I’ve bumped up production a lot more, but still every year I’m putting in that work to find people to work with.
Brianna Plaza: I saw on your website that you noted all the harvests that you've worked on. Can you talk to me about how working in those harvests dictates your winemaking style?
Terah Bajjalieh: Well, I would say working for other people in different climates, I've learned different techniques, like how to treat Chardonnay, how to treat Pinot Noir. I would say that all of those experiences gave me that knowledge as to how people typically do things in a certain area, and that definitely drives how I make my decisions.
I worked in Australia and they make really big Shirazs, it's super hot there, the alcohol is a little higher. so I got exposed to making bigger styles of wine. I learned that I don't necessarily enjoy drinking wines that are super big like that. So it's taught me how to tame it down a little bit. So I think those experiences gave me an understanding for how you treat certain varieties if you want to create certain styles. Most of those producers were more traditional, non-natural winemakers. That was great to learn and understand, but I'd choose a little bit more of a hands-off approach with my wines and just try to source really great fruit.
Brianna Plaza: Like many industries, there are not a lot of women working in this space. How has being a woman in this space influenced your journey?
Terah Bajjalieh: I’ve worked with a handful of women over the years, but obviously I worked with fewer women than men. I will say of the women that I did work with, there are a few of them who actually really contributed to my understanding of wine. They gave me an opportunity to challenge myself. When I first started working for a winemaker at DuMOL Winery, she gave me extra tasks that were more challenging. She gave me more responsibility, and that was really great for my growth at the time.
But harvest is a very busy time and it's very difficult to create relationships with people, whether they're men or women. I learned a lot during that period, but when you're not at a winery for the entire year, it's very difficult to maintain really good relationships with people because you're only there for a couple months.
There were times when I felt like I had to out-compete men or at least show that I could physically do the work that everyone else was expected to do, and that's hard. It means we often have to push ourselves as women, even more than men do because you're constantly feeling like you have to one up people and show that you can physically do the work, and also just excel because it's not maybe the norm.
When I was lucky enough to work with people that didn't have that vibe in the cellar, I didn't necessarily feel that way, but there are certainly struggles along the way. When I started going into management in 2018, it was almost more intense in a way because you're having to show things outside of just cellar work and making wine. You're showing that you have a well developed palate that you can detect flaws and that you can do the work in a very different way.
I certainly had situations where men tried to take credit for my work. They tried to hold me back because they saw me as a threat, when at the end of the day it should have just been a team environment. There was plenty of that over the years, but I just always tried to work on myself and build myself up skills wise. That's why I worked so many harvests. That's why I spent thousands and thousands of dollars on certifications and degrees. I felt like I would be a little bit more secure in my knowledge if I gave that to myself.
It means that I've been working really hard for the last 12 years. There's always going to be those environments where things aren't a great fit and you're the odd person out maybe because of your gender or your ethnicity, but hopefully there will be more spaces where we can feel like we could be ourselves and not have to compete in that way.