Bryce Willingham might seem like an unlikely candidate to become a vintner.
On a whim, this former teacher quit her job and followed her passion straight into the nearest vineyard, emerging after years of hard work with her own label under beverage giant Constellation Brands.
Now the winemaker is busy showcasing her Ravage cabernet sauvignon and dark red blend at culinary events across the country. But Willingham made some time recently to sit down with us to discuss her humble roots; her love of her adopted home of Lodi, California; and where she’s jetting off to next.
Where did the name “Ravage” come from?
It gives you an idea of what you’re getting into. It’s passionate. It’s strong. It’s super bold. It’s kind of aggressive. I want you to be prepared for the wine you’re about to taste — this isn’t your average cab. This is not something you’re normally going to encounter.
It’s a little bolder, a little scarier than what you see out on the market and it’s kind of a nod to me as well. I feel like it embodies my personality really well. I feel like I could not have a label that is a flower and is called “Sunshine” or something. That would not vibe with my personality.
Tell us about your wines.
Most of the grapes are from the Central Coast, Monterey area, and the rest come from Lodi, which is where my winery is at. In Lodi, we do zinfandel really well, so I put some zin in both blends as like a nod to Lodi, because that’s our claim to fame there.
The cab is a little drier, but both are aged in 100 percent new French oak. The cab oak is a lighter toast, so you’re gonna get a lot of the vanilla, crème brûlée, a kind of dessert character on the nose, even though it’s not sweet on the palate. It’s really smooth.
The red blend is a little sweeter because of the residual sugar. But because of that, I do put in a little more petite sirah, so it’s a heavier tannin and I also age it with a heavier toast so that it’s kind of a charred, mocha, smoky, a little bit more masculine to offset that sweetness in the wine.
But the berry characters are pretty similar: they’re both kind of cherry-forward. Since this one is a straightforward cab and this one is a cab blend — it’s about 50 percent cab, the rest is merlot, petite sirah, zinfandel — so that’s that thread of consistency. It’s the same cab in both, so they’re like brothers — or sisters depending on what kind of conversation you want to have.
How did you get into winemaking?
The easy answer is that I made a huge leap of faith. I made a stupid choice. I was working in education, teaching, and I quit my job right in the middle of a bad economy, but it was just because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.
I read two books, one of which my partner at the time gave me. It was called Women of the Vine. It was about all the pioneer female winemakers in the industry. He got me that on like a random whim like, “Oh, I thought you’d like this,” because he knows I like to drink wine.
And then my mom being a mom was so fearful for the fact that I just quit my job she gave me a book called What Color is Your Parachute? And it’s about finding your passion in life and it was written in like the ’70s, so it was a tough read. But it came from a good place. She wanted to make sure I found something that really inspired me, and bless her, because I did.
I went to the back of that book and it had a whole list of assignments, like “write down all the things that you like to do.” So, I wrote, “I like to drink wine. I like to walk my dog. I like to make pottery. I like chemistry. Blah, blah, blah.” And it drew from those thoughts to this list of degrees, and I saw the word “oenology.” I looked it up and found that it’s the study of winemaking and I was like, “Holy crap, there’s an actual degree for that?”
And I realized that’s a real job. I could actually do that. And once I realized that, I just decided to dive in head first, and everyone thought I was a lunatic.
How did you know it was the right career choice?
I taught for four years then realized I didn’t really want to do it, and I didn’t want to spend another four years figuring out that I didn’t want to do that, too. So, as soon as I applied to the college program, I also applied to every winery within a 50-mile radius.
I wanted to do cellar work and that’s manual labor. I’m female, I’m small and I have zero experience, so all of them were like, “Get out of here.”
I had one guy that told me, “All right,” and reluctantly [helped]. And that turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. This guy that I pestered so much finally gave me a job, gave me the breadth of experience and gave me insight into how hard it is. It is a physical and emotional commitment to be a winemaker, and I was still happy.
What are some of your favorite sips?
As a winemaker, we drink a lot of beer because we drink wine at work all the time. To be completely honest, I make red wine so I drink a lot of white wine. It’s like you get tired of it. It’s like your children: I need a vacation from you.
If I could choose a white, it would be chenin blanc, viognier, I like a lot of Rhone varietals. If you can find a standalone chenin blanc, like a South African chenin blanc, that is my jam. But those are harder to find, so sauvignon blanc is a like a good safe bet.
What makes Lodi such a great winemaking region?
I could talk about Lodi all day. I moved there with no intention of staying. And then having been there for a few years, I just completely fell in love with it.
Part of the reason I love it is the community. The feel, the vibe that you get there is much more casual than most wine regions. It’s a lot more grassroots, family-owned, farmers and everyone is really down to earth.
And we have a ton of female winemakers. I just started a forum called BABES: Badass Bitches in Enology for all the female winemakers in Lodi because we didn’t have a way to connect with each other and support each other, and we need to. There are 15 of us. There are 90 wineries, so I know that sounds like not a lot, but considering the normal ratio in most regions, we’re actually pretty high as far as females go, and I love to support that.
People always ask, “Is the next step Napa?” I don’t think so. I think I’m pretty rooted in this community. I think I’m really happy where I’m at and with the family that I’ve built there. I can’t see myself being a part of anything else.
Do you think being a part of that community has helped you become a better winemaker?
Absolutely. Because you can talk to other winemakers like Sue Tipton, who is the winemaker at Acquiesce. She’s been making wine for 35 years, so she was like one of the pioneer female winemakers. And she is a wealth of knowledge, super humble. You can bring her wines and she will give you her honest opinion, and I value it because she’s been doing this longer than I have.
And that’s something you find there. Everybody listens to each other — even some of the younger winemakers that I’m friends with. We’ll start having conversations and dreaming things up.”
That’s how BABES started, too. I was just talking to two other female winemakers and I was like, “Why don’t we have a thing? Why aren’t we all talking to each other in one place?
So, you created this online community for female winemakers?
We have an online forum for us to have conversations about local wine issues and talk to each other, ask questions and things like that. But we’re also working with Fresno State and UC Davis to recruit other female winemakers and talk to young women about the opportunity that they have so they don’t have to go through the process that I went through to find out that this was even an option.
And [we’re doing] community outreach within Lodi, volunteering within the community, like the women’s shelter and things like that.
And most of all, we get to sit around and drink wine, which is the best part about it.
Which winemaking regions are on your bucket list?
I cannot wait to go to Spain. All of Europe is amazing, but Spain just fascinates me. I love Spanish varietals and I love Spanish culture and I speak Spanish, so it’s one of those places I’m afraid to go to because I don’t think I’ll ever come back.
Portuguese, Spanish and Italian varietals are all kind of up there on my list. Italy has so many varietals and I would love to go there as well, but every time I think about, like if I could plan a vacation tomorrow and it was the last vacation I was ever going to take, it would be Spain.
And Croatia. Oh my gosh, Croatia. It’s a beautiful place. If you trace back the genetic history of zinfandel, the Italians will tell you it came from Italy, but it’s actually a genetic clone of something that came from Croatia. So, Croatia is really the mother of zinfandel.
I just got back from New Zealand. That was on my list and I checked that off. That was amazing. It over-exceeded my expectations as a wine region. They have a similar vibe there to Lodi. Very small. They share a lot. That “rising tides raise all ships” mentality. They talk about other wineries in a positive light all the time. They take a lot of pride in what they do, like Lodi.
I like the idea in Europe that wine is just part of the conversation all the time. In America, you don’t always have wine at the dinner table. In Spain, it’s just there. They have table wine constantly, like wine should be part of your daily life.