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From Software to Syrah

Brown University Conduit Magazine
Fall - Winter 2005

by Lise Pfau Ciolino (Sc.B. Applied Math - Computer Science)

My freshman year I was hooked by my first Computer Science class (yes, Andy van Dam's CS11). I loved building software because of the intellectual challenge; the creative juices stirred as I formulated the "perfect" design, and of course, the user's profound appreciation of a product that I helped produce. After grad school, I went out into the wide world of software to do research, then startups—once, I actually joined a company that eventually made a profit. By then, I had made the fatal mistake of moving away from engineering and into management. The problem is that I like building products myself.

So my husband and I invested our software earned nest egg into our own small business—a business that involved another passion of mine: wine. I always had a fascination with wine, passed down from my parents who enjoyed wine with dinner every night. I traveled to many gorgeous European wine regions, enjoyed the food, the wine, and the culture—but I was a computer scientist. When I moved to Silicon Valley, however, I realized that Californians (seemingly just like me) made some pretty awesome wine. So in my spare time, I took some classes at UC Davis and started making wine in a friend's Palo Alto garage. As it turns out, lots of good things start in garages in Palo Alto, and that first vintage won a silver medal at a prestigious amateur wine competition. I was hooked.

You see, creating fabulous wine is very much like building great software. Between growing grapes and making wine, it's incredibly intellectually challenging—horticulture, entomology, meteorology, biochemistry, and statistics are all fields one should dabble in, if not master. Although you can make wine without understanding why yeasts need nitrogen at the start of fermentation, long before they begin to look stressed-you'll make a better wine more consistently if you understand the science. There is so much to know about growing grapes and making wine, we decided to specialize in a single varietal, Syrah.

Like software, with wine you are continually producing upgrades-we just call them vintages. Every year, I am optimistic that I can make amore elegant, more smooth, more intense Syrah than I have done before, and usually I do, although Mother Nature throws many curveballs. Winemaking schedules are very much enforced by an unyielding higher power, thus no amount of pleading, graphs, or PowerPoint presentations will change the reality that harvest comes every year around the same time whether I like it or not!

Wine, like software, is part science and part art form. The scientific aspect is undeniable, but also creativity, experimentation, and just "feel" make the difference between a good wine and a great wine. In winemaking, you have to use all your senses to evaluate the fermentation and aging process-of the thousands of variables in making great wine, which one will make a difference this year, with these grapes, in this situation? I mix a bit of science, a bit of intuition, a bit of good luck, and liberally dose it with some great advice from winemaking friends.

Of course the main difference between Syrah and software is that grapes and wine are physical in nature. To have people enjoy the fruits of your labor, you can't just ftp it—you have to lug around a 50lb case of wine. But the beauty also lies in that physicality. There's the sight of the bright green new buds bursting in the spring, the fog rising over the vineyards in the morning, and the ripe purple grapes against the deep green foliage just before harvest. There are the wonderful aromas when you enter the wine cellar full of French oak barrels, and the heady scent of a winery brimming with fermenting grapes. And of course, there's the smooth, silky texture and wonderful flavors of a Syrah that fills your mouth—particularly when you can ignore all the complexity in producing your product, and just sit back to enjoy a simple, wonderful glass of wine with some good friends.

Since the 2002 vintage, my husband and I have made wine and olive oil at Montemaggiore in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, California. Life doesn't get better than this—and the pleasures don't get more simple. If you want more insight into the simple life, e-mail me at Cheers!

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