Kim and I were living in San Francisco when she got a dream job designing wine labels in St. Helena. Since I was an unemployed English major loser I said sure, I can be unemployed in Napa Valley just as easily.
We made the move and four months went by and I still didn’t have a job so I started flipping through the pages of a Wineries of Napa Valley coffee table book my parents had given us. The wineries appeared in alphabetical order and so it started with something like Beaulieu Vineyard, then Beringer. I mistakenly thought that Beaulieu was Buena Vista which was 45 minutes from our house in Calistoga so I flipped to Beringer and thought that that seemed like a bit of a larger corporate winery. And so, somewhat randomly, I flipped to Cakebread Cellars and gave them a call. “Are you guys hiring for harvest time jobs right now?”
The receptionist put me straight through to winemaker Bruce Cakebread and I’m thinking, “Oh, uh should I be bothering the winemaker with this?” Bruce told me to come in for an interview the next day and all I could think to do was act competent and look broad-shouldered enough to handle it physically. (I didn’t realize that as a wiry 5’8″ 160 pounder, I was basically built to do this kind of work.) He hired me on the spot. I was so proud of myself until I found out later that one of the workers they had lined up had backed out at the last minute and so in Bruce’s words, “We were just looking for someone with a pulse.”
Anyway, I loved it, but I was already 29 when I realized what I wanted to do with my life and felt a bit behind all the other kids getting out of universities with their degrees in fermentation science and enology and viticulture. I’m not the scholarly type and so the main framework of my training and education basically involved anything but going back to college.
This was the fall of 1995. The idea was to catch up as fast as possible, and one of the best ways is to work a harvest in the southern hemisphere which runs March to May. This way you can double up on your harvest experience, which is the heart of winemaking. And so it was that by the end of 1999, after 4 years in the business, I’d worked 7 harvests, hopping back and forth between continents. It went something like this — from Cakebread in Napa to Passing Clouds winery in Australia, then back to Cakebread, then to Rupert and Rothschild in South Africa, then back to Cakebread, then Cakebread again, and finally off to Bordeaux to make wine for Chateau du Seuil in Graves. But what it really means is that I met a lot of great people and learned many different approaches to the craft of making all kinds of wine.
Next stop, in January of 2000, was a well-timed job helping Jerry Seps make his Storybook Mountain wines.
And then… in the summer of 2002… with two kids under the age of two… when it seemed like we could add no more insanity to our lives…we bottled our first vintage of OLABISI wine. It was a negotiant style 2000 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon. Kim came up with the label that we still use today, which was very non traditional, especially then. But it had the impact and aesthetic we loved. By 2004, I got my first full time head winemaking job at Piña Napa Valley. And by 2007, it was off to concentrate on our family label for real, and do a bit of consulting winemaking to make ends meet.
No one came to my high school on career day in 1982 to ask if I’d ever considered pursuing a career making alcoholic beverages. I’m not sure how one decides to go to college to study winemaking at the age of 18 or 19. But I do know that no matter how you come to your life’s work, it’s never too late, and it usually proves to be worth the wait.
-By Ted Osborne, Owner & Winemaker