IT WAS while enjoying a glass of wine with his then-girlfriend and future wife, Claire, that Denis Hoey had the realization that he wanted to become a winemaker. He had been helping out at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, and one day he got the last bottle of grenache rose to come off the bottling line.
He liked the physical labor of working in a winery, but at the young age of 21 he hadn’t considered making a career of making grapes into wine. But that day the beauty of the wine, the satisfaction of a hard day’s work and the pleasure that came with enjoying wine in the company of somebody he loved sealed the deal. He was going to become a winemaker.
“It was the ‘aha’ moment. I was hooked.”
Hoey continued working for Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard’s Jeff Emery, one of the region’s elder statesmen. Early on there wasn’t also enough work for him to work full time so he took part-time jobs as a caterer, in a gym. But he was clear what he wanted, and he stuck with it. Now he’s the production manager and assistant winemaker.
“I’ve been blessed that Jeff [Emery] allowed me to be and just go for it,” he said. “He is the one reason I am where I am.”
Hoey, now 29, is an exuberant man with tight, curly hair and a cherubic, ever-smiling face. He seems to realize his good fortune and is enjoying the ride. In 2004, he decided to make his own wine and Odonata Wines was born. He started with just 65 cases of wine—three barrels. Now he’s up to 2,000 cases. But he doesn’t want to get a whole lot bigger. He likes running a one-man show. This spring he’s going to open the doors to the tasting room to his own winery. Odonata currently occupies a back corner of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard’s densely packed winery.
He loves working within the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, a region whose potential has yet to be fully tapped, he says.
“My aspiration is to breath new life and energy into the Santa Cruz Mountains [appellation] and showcase the energy that is here.”
He aims to make wines with less tannin and acid to make them drinkable right away.
“I’m not trying to make 30-year wines. I’m trying to make wines that people are going to latch onto day one.”
They are definitely drinkable. He focuses on Rhone varietals, syrah, grenache and mouvedre, but is working with other grapes as well. His 2009 malbec won a double gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition this month. My favorites are his 2009 syrah, a well textured wine made from Santa Cruz Mountains fruit with abundant flavors of black pepper, cocoa and raspberry and a long, drying finish; and his 2009 grenache made with grapes grown near Lodi. It’s a more floral, pretty wine that drinks like a strong-shouldered pinot noir. He’s also got a grenache blanc still in the barrel that promises to be a stunner.
Until his tasting room opens he pours his wines out of the Santa Cruz Mountain Winery space the first weekend of the month. Sometimes his dad helps out and people assume the elder Hoey is the winemaker and he’s the assistant.
“I’ve had plenty of people tell me ‘you’re too young. What are you doing?’ É but I’m starting to get gray hair,” he says. “People are starting to take me seriously.”
In spite of his youth, Hoey’s wines definitely merit attention.