On the Trail of Becoming a Winemaker: K&L Alumna Olivia Ragni Talks Oenology Student Life

There are some people who are lifers at K&L. It’s a great place to work! For others, it’s the launching point for the next phase, be it wine selling, wine growing, or wine making. We have one recent alumna, Olivia Ragni, who got bitten so hard by the wine bug that she left K&L to start a masters in oenology program in Montpellier. I think that people make the wine industry as fascinating as the juice itself, so I wanted to hear her story. She and I caught up to talk about the student-of-wine life (the formal student, that is—any lover of wine has the good fortune of being a perpetual student). It’s exciting to hear what’s going on at the ground level of the next generation of winemakers.

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KS: How did you get interested in wine in the first place?
OR: I kind of fell into the industry unexpectedly at a very young age and became enamored with it almost immediately. I got hired at a wine, beer, and cheese bar in Philadelphia when I was 19 years old called Tria Cafe. I almost didn't take the job because it required me to attend classes and pass exams about wine, beer, and cheese; having been in my third year of university, I wasn't exactly interested in attending any more classes then I had to. But it doesn't take long to convince a 19-year-old to take a job at an establishment that teaches you about drinking alcohol, so I gave it a go and ended up falling head over heels with it all.

At our weekly training, we would learn about different wine regions and I was always in awe of how you could learn about a country's history, culture, and cuisine through wine. At every tasting, I felt like I was traveling somewhere new with each smell and sip of wine. This will come as no surprise to the people who know me, but the moment I knew I wanted to turn wine into my career was when I attended my first sherry tasting. Our sommelier gave us four different dry sherries and I was blown away by the distinct differences coming from the terroir of the different bodegas.

KS: Can you tell me about the program you're doing?
OR: Currently, I am finishing up my first year of the Vinifera Master program at Montpellier SupAgro, where I am getting my Masters in Viticulture and Oenology. I never imagined I would get my masters, let alone get my masters in science, so it has been a challenging experience but never the less incredible. It is an international program with 35 students from about 22 different countries, so it has been eye-opening to learn about winemaking all over the world, from Brazil to Thailand.

KS: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned so far?
OR:
The production side of wine is a whole new world of personalities. I would have never imaged how different the two sides of the industry are, but, at the end of the day, it is an industry filled with amazing people. The one common factor that holds the two worlds together is that they are both filled with professional drinkers. I mean: hard workers who love wine so much that they decided to make it their career. People who don't take themselves too seriously, yet love their jobs and equally love to let loose and share stories over a few bottles of wine on a regular basis.  

One thing I love about my program is that we are just about 50 percent women. Women are beginning to dominate a previously male-dominated industry, and I love being surrounded by so much female intelligence. There is still a lot of work to do to make the industry equal, but programs like this will help begin to level the playing field. I think knowledge and education for women is power. I’ve dealt with a lot of sexism working in the wine industry, and knowing my shit typically stopped sexism in its tracks.

KS: Is it harder or easier than you’d imagined?
OR: Way harder, for sure. I knew it would be challenging but I had no idea what I was in for. The number one thing I've learned is that I know nothing. What I have always loved about the wine industry is that you are constantly learning something new. Switching from sales to production, however, you have to flip your perspective completely. You look at things from angles you never knew existed. At first, it was a bit disenchanting. Everything romantic that I had learned and loved about the wine industry—all of these notions of sense of place, terroir, tradition, etc.—seemed to be shattered by understanding the science behind wine. That is, until I realized these ideas were not actually getting shattered, but rather just turned around and looked at from another perspective. For example, the notion of terroir exists, just not in the charming way we learn about it in sales. It is the structure and make-up of the soil that affects factors like water retention and nutrient uptake, which influences the vine—it’s not the soil itself directly influencing the wine. Looking at these ideas from a different angle, it made them romantic to me again. It's like all the bullshit has been torn away to see the raw beauty inside. I think before, I was in lust with the facade, but now I am falling in love with the truth.

After visiting many wineries and tasting a lot of wine this year, I realize knowledge is power in terms of being able to make good wine, but passion is key to making great wines. The best wines I've tried this year were made by intelligent winemakers and viticulturalists who understand the fundamental science, but who are passionate about the industry. Some companies try to make wine with a recipe, without heart and without passion, which translates into the glass.  

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KS: What’s next?
OR: I've only just figured out where I'm living for the summer so I'm not thinking too far into the future. But I will be working on a vineyard in Menorca, Spain, this summer. It is an up-and-coming wine region in Spain with very distinct terroir and climate conditions, so I think that will be interesting. Later, I will finish my last year of the masters in Madrid and then hopefully travel and work A LOT of harvests in both hemispheres. At this point, I have a lot of theoretical knowledge that I need to put into practice, so actually making wine is a very long ways away. I love being in the vineyards and understanding how the vine functions and how its environment affects the fruit. My hopes are to become a viticulturalist, but this is just what I think today, who knows what I'll think tomorrow. Like everyone who enters the industry, the dream is to own my own vineyards and make my own wine. I hope one day I can make wine with knowledge, but always from the heart and surrounded by intelligent, kick-ass women of the industry.

- Kate Soto