Women of Lodi's wine industry: Elyse Perry of Bokisch Vineyards
In the third of our profiles of the Lodi wine industry’s most powerful women, we are highlighting Elyse Egan Perry, the winemaker of Bokisch Vineyards.
Ms. Perry’s position is a huge, complex responsibility, as it not only entails vinification of Bokisch Vineyards’ cutting-edge, multi-award winning Iberian varietal wines, but also the custom crush production of wines for numerous winery clients purchasing fruit from Bokisch Ranches. The Bokischs’ farming operation supplies some 40 different grape varieties grown on over 2,200 acres, in six of Lodi’s seven official sub-appellations.
Needless to say, a job like this requires not just boundless energy and organizational skills, but also a love of the winemaking process – particularly that of Spanish style grapes, the Bokisch family’s specialty. In Perry’s case, those qualifications are enhanced by an instinctive feel for contemporary style wines – wines that are a tad lighter, notably fresher, significantly crisper, and purer in natural fruit expression. Wines that are a little more appealing to the growing number of wine lovers representing the millennial generation, who are just begin to surpass all other existing generations (even the long dominant boomers) in wine consumption in the U.S.
Today’s 20- and 30-something wine lovers do not have the same tastes as 20-to-30-somethings twenty or thirty years ago. The nature of premium American wines is changing right before our eyes – or ears, noses and palates, as it were – and winemakers like Elyse Perry are playing a key part in this transformation.
Ms. Perry did not come down a chute from heaven as a ready-made winemaker. Before even entering the wine industry, she lived in San Francisco for 17 years, pursuing other occupations while cultivating a wine afición. She first met Markus and Liz Bokisch as a burgeoning, independent winemaker looking for grapes; with designs of striking out on her own with Spanish varietals produced under her own brand (Egan Cellars). Perry's story also proves a point: it is very possible to change careers mid-stream, and be very successful at it.
Recognizing her talent, the Bokischs engaged Perry as a full-time winemaker in the beginning of 2014; just as they were constructing their new winery on the site of their 100-acre Terra Alta Vineyard, in the Clements Hills AVA, on the east side of the City of Lodi – a fortuitous turn of events for everyone.
Our recent conversation:
LoCA: Please talk about the circuitous route that took you to where you are today.
E.P.: The start of my most recent journey began in 2008. I was still working as a project manager for a nonprofit in San Francisco, and had reached a point where I realized I was not terribly happy with the field I was in. I wanted to do something that I was passionate about. I had already started looking into the wine industry after visiting Spain and Italy on my honeymoon in 2004, although I wasn’t sure what aspect of the industry I wanted to pursue. I was introduced to Ed Kurtzman, winemaker for August West and Sandler Wine Co., and was offered a harvest internship in the cellar. I immediately fell in love with the work and decided to focus my energy on winemaking.
LoCA: So you eventually found your way to Lodi, with the support of your family and husband (Jeff Perry, who is now the tasting room manager for Bokisch Vineyards)?
E.P.: Yes, although Jeff and I don’t have kids. Insofar as family, I’m originally from the East Coast, which is where my parents and three older brothers still live.
LoCA: What are you loving most about your job?
E.P.: I love the fact that the process of making wine is ongoing, ever changing, and a blend of both art and science. Every year is different, and each grape variety is different. I love using both senses and intellect to create wines that people enjoy.
LoCA: What is your proudest achievement thus far?
E.P.: I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done over the past two years with Bokisch Vineyards. I helped manage the construction of the new winery, and all facets of building what has already become a successful custom crush program, all the while continuing the tradition of making excellent wines from Spanish varietals.
LoCA: Has being a woman ever been a hindrance?
E.P.: Never. I’ve always had the respect of my male counterparts – I think due in part to the fact that I started as a cellar rat and worked hard to get to where I am today. I think to some extent I’ve also been lucky to work for winery owners who don’t shy away from hiring women and fostering their advancement. I’m also the type of person who, once I put my mind to something, I’m going to do it. I’ve never considered my gender as an issue to achieving my goals.
LoCA: Through your activities in the industry and marketplace, what are you hearing people say about today's Lodi grown wines?
E.P.: People I encounter out in the market are pretty impressed with the state of the Lodi wine industry. They are especially appreciating the wide variety of wines, whether they’re Spanish, German, Italian, etc., as well as the pure quality of winemaking that exists in Lodi today.
LoCA: Where do you envision yourself 10 to 20 years from now?
E.P.: In 10 years I plan on continuing making wine in the Lodi region. In 20 years? Who knows, maybe I’ll be living in Spain or Italy on a little piece of land with my own little vineyard and winery. If that doesn’t happen, then I will probably still be making wine in the Lodi region. I love living and making wine in Lodi. At this point, this is where I see myself for a very long time.
LoCA: Where do you envision the Lodi wine region being 10 to 20 years from now?
E.P.: I came to Lodi not only for the wonderful opportunity to work for Liz and Markus Bokisch, but also because this is a region where there isn’t the attitude that one variety or varieties is best. I love the fact that there are so many winemakers experimenting with different varieties and different styles of winemaking. This is one of the reasons Lodi has been receiving accolades from the press, as well as a growing interest from consumers visiting the Lodi region wineries. I believe this will continue as the years go by, and we will see more young winemakers making the decision to live and make wine in Lodi.
LoCA: What kind of advice would you give for younger women who might be interested in working in the wine industry?
E.P.: If you have passion and determination, you can succeed in the wine industry whether you’re female or male. It’s not easy work, but the reward is amazing!