Growing up in central Indiana and earning a management degree at Purdue University seems an unlikely path to running a successful boutique winery in California's Sonoma Valley. But such is life for Erik Miller, who named his Kokomo Winery after his hometown.
"I had a buddy who moved out to Sonoma County when we were at Purdue," Miller said. "I came out and visited him and just fell in love with the place. It was really weird for a guy from Indiana to come to San Francisco and all you have is public transportation. Then I saw Santa Rosa and thought it would be big enough to support a career and still small enough for me to fit in and be comfortable."
Miller learned the business quickly and is now making great Dry Creek Valley wines in northern Sonoma. Talking about the wine making process earlier this year, he observed how people get just a little too geeky talking about things like oak.
"My philosophy on oak is that we use oak like you'd use salt at a meal," he said. "You want some salt on your meal so it has that seasoning. It would be bland without it to some degree but you don't want to taste the salt."
But wine is more than just the oak it’s aged in. Great wine comes from the vineyard. "It's the terroir — the earth, soil, sun exposure, the bench (land)," Miller said. "That has to be first and foremost in the wine and then that oak is more than a storage vessel. The oak adds some tannin, some flavor and some mouth feel.
"We have to know how to use that and not overpower the delicacy or sense of place. Here I am making 12 different varieties of Zin alone and we use five different vineyards. If I put the same oak on all five vineyards I'd have the same Zin. That common thread would give me a house flavor. I never want a house flavor because those vineyards are very different."
His passion, work ethic and desire to be successful can be traced to his Hoosier roots.
"I think if there is one thing we have in the Midwest and it’s this stereotype that we're hard workers," Miller said in the modest winery offices. "That has been a connection with me and (vineyard manager) Randy Peters and some of the other farmers out here that we're down to earth, salt of the earth kind of people."
Miller's love for his hometown made naming the winery easy. Working with his college roommate Josh Bartels and grape grower Randy Peters gave him a team to direct the winery's success.
"Maybe people will try the wine because the name is comforting too them," Miller said. "We don't spend extra money on the showboat things, the tasting room and winery but we will not take shortcuts on the equipment it takes to process grapes. We use the best oak we can buy, and make sure we're sourcing the best possible grapes."
Miller may have Midwestern industrial roots growing up in Kokomo, but his wines have been lauded by the biggest competition in the world, The San Francisco Chronicle's annual wine contest.
The Kokomo Cabernet is easy to find in Indiana at wine shops and better liquor stores and a great wine for the price point.
Howard W. Hewitt writes every other week for NUVO and 20 Midwestern newspapers in Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. See his blog at redforme.blogspot.com
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