How to get hired at Harlan Estate
I have a great article coming up in a summer issue of Wine Enthusiast on Nick Gislason, the young (29) winemaker at Screaming Eagle. The following is an outtake–it’s too long to make it into the article, but it’s a really cool story that I wanted to share without having it die on what used to be called the cuttting-room floor. The back story concerns how Nick got hired as an assistant winemaker at Harlan, prior to his Screaming Eagle gig. He cold-called Harlan and was invited in for a “chat.”
SH: So [Harlan winemaker] Cory [Empting] interviews you.
NG: Exactly. So I go over to Harlan Estate to meet with Cory, and very first thing, right in the door, he says, “All right, so here’s the beginning of your interview,” and there’s a long wooden table in the middle of the room.
I know that table well.
And there’s 20 glasses of wine on the table, and they’re marked 1 through 20 on the glass, and a pad of yellow paper sitting in the middle, with a pencil, and he says, “All right, to start your interview, I’d like you to sit down and evaluate all 20 of these wines, and then I want you to pick out the top three, and then you’re going to come in the other room and tell all of us about it.”
Who was all of us?
Uhh, Paul Roberts [M.S., estate manager], Cory, and the assistant winemaker.
Bob Levy wasn’t there that day.
Bill Harlan wasn’t there that day. So I said, All right, I’m ready to do that!
Were you nervous?
Oh, maybe for a couple seconds. But then, I settled down and remembered, this is exactly what I do, I’ve done it for years, this is just another day in the life of.
You had no idea what you were having?
He told me nothing. They were red wines.
Could have been Harlan, might not have been Harlan.
Might not have been Harlan. Could have been anything at all.
So when you go through there, what’s your thinking process?
So I had a funny feeling that it might have been some sort of winemaking trial. That would make sense. If you’re hiring someone for the cellar, you want them to be able to pick out various aspects of the wines: maybe defects–
So these would be like barrel samples?
Maybe. Yeah. So I’m sitting down and that’s my preconceived idea. And they wanted me to find what’s the defect, what’s the problem, what’s the sulfur levels, or whatever. Some technical aspect of the wines. I was going into it thinking it was a test, like that, but at the same time, didn’t really know. Could be anything. So I sit down and start going through the wines and taking my notes as fast as I can, and then Cory pops his head back into the room after about 3 or 4 minutes. He says, “Okay, are you done yet?” I said, “Oh, I need just a couple more minutes, if I could. It’s 20 wines.” And he says, “Okay, well I’ll give you five more minutes.”
And you’re taking notes, too.
Oh, yeah. Yeah, because he wants me to go through, evaluate everything, every wine, and then pick out the top three and explain why I picked those. So I said, Okay, that’s good, I’ll go through it. So, going through the wines, it seemed to me like a dichotomous group. There were some that seemed more Old World to me, more like Bordeaux in particular, oyster shell character, a little leaner, little more taut than I would expect in Napa. And then there’s definitely some Napa in there, big, rich fruit, larger tannin, this type of thing. But I had no idea. It could have been anything in the world. So, to make a long story short, went through the wines, they were all very good, picked out the top three for me, went into the next room, and he says, “Okay, so what do you think was number one?” I said, “Well, it was #16, and I thought it was the best because of x, y and z.” And they were all on the table in bags. So number one, he pulls out, is Futo, which is their neighboring property. So he sets it on the table with sort of a grim look on his face. He kind of purses his lips and says, “Okay, well, what was number two?” I said, “Well, okay, I thought this was second best, because of x, y, z, very gorgeous wine, a little different from number one, but I liked it because of this.” He pulls it out of the bag, it was Bryant Family. And he knew I had also applied up there, and one of his premises about hiring someone for the cellar is they needed to be very passionate about Harlan wine to work there. So suddenly, the pressure’s on. And when he sets the Bryant Family on the table, he shakes his head, and with a very serious look on his face, he says, “You’re not doing so well, son.” I thought, Oh, okay, here we go. He says, “All right, well, what’s number three?” And I said, “Well, number three, very different from the first two, I liked it very much for structure, this, that and the other. I felt it was number three for me.” Pulled it out of the bag, and it was the Harlan Estate.
Exactly! He says, “All right, I guess top three will work.”
EPILOGUE: Later that same day, I [Steve] ran into Cory Empting and asked him about Nick’s interview. He grinned and said, “Very expensive tasting!” Half the wines indeed had been top Bordeaux, as Nick had divined.