I am so excited to bring to you this week’s #womancrushwednesday — Birdhorse Wines. Behind the scenes are Corinne Rich, Katie Rouse, and Tyler Ernst, three fiercely fabulous humans who are committed to bringing something innovative and fresh to California wines. Right off the bat, I was intrigued by their lineup, consisting of Valdiguie, Verdelho, and Carignan, three grape varietals not often seen in the California wine-o-sphere. As I’ve gotten to know them better through this process, my infatuation with the three of them has only grown. I think they’re an amazing trio who’s about to explode on the scene, breathing new life into the wine space. Read on below to learn why they need to be on your “must watch” list!
To get things kicked off, I’d love it if you could tell us a little about yourselves. Please also give us a little background on how Birdhorse Wines came about.
Corinne: I’m a born–and-raised Sonoman. I got my start in wine just after college, when I was having a bit of a quarter-life-crisis about what I wanted to do post college. I was moving back into my mom’s house in CA post-uni, and really didn’t want to be both unemployed and living at my mother’s. I had heard wineries needed lab and cellar interns for their harvest season, and although I knew almost nothing about wine I was exceedingly qualified to work in a lab, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I was hooked immediately. From there I worked harvests all over the US and Southern Hemisphere, and eventually made it to Davis where I met the delightful Katie Rouse.
Katie: I grew up in Virginia, where my family owns and operates a winery. I spent summers (much to my chagrin) leaf-pulling and winters pruning our family’s vines, but never thought that would be my calling. I went off to school in Washington to study geology (it rocks!), and through my interest in soil science I circled back to agriculture and, eventually, winemaking when I moved to California. I worked my first harvest in Carneros in 2012, and after several years and a stint as an assistant winemaker, I decided to go back to school to get my masters, which is where Corinne and I got together.
Tyler: I grew in a pretty rural, working class part of New Jersey. Wine just wasn’t really a part of my existence. I distinctly remember getting to college and meeting Corinne. At first blush, I thought she was this fancy California-ite due to her wine knowledge. I quickly learned, however, that wine can be an enjoyable part of day-to-day life. It doesn’t need to be consumed on special occasions, and it certainly doesn’t need to be something exclusive and inaccessible to most. In short, I learned to like and then love wine. Independent but in parallel, Corinne and I grew to be great friends over that period (she witnessed a lot of “maturing” in more than just wine). Through volleyball and LGBTQ advocacy, we spent a lot of time together. It was only natural and exciting to be able to work with her (and Katie!!) regularly when the opportunity came five years later.
C& K: Birdhorse came to be after we went to South Africa to do a harvest together. We’d always talked about making wine together since we started dating in grad school, and South Africa really gave us the inspiration. There is so much energy there from new-ish producers, taking a lot of risks with techniques including minimal interventionist wine making, working with varieties that have been in SA forever but aren’t necessarily the big market drivers, and rehabbing very old vineyards. That, coupled with Katie’s boss, this incredible woman named Andrea Mullineux, who is making some of the most successful and sought-after wines in the country despite being young, American and a woman, in an industry where it is not popular to be any of those things. We just thought she was so incredible and seeing what she had accomplished really gave us that extra push to want to start our own project. We saw there was a market in the US for people wanting to take risks, work with less popular varieties, and trying to make wine more approachable for young consumers.
We knew we couldn’t do it all just us two, though. So when we came back stateside, we knew we needed someone with the mind for the finanace and logistical end of things. Tyler is one of Corinne’s closest and oldest friends and one of the smartest humans she knows, so we thought we’d ask him if he was interested. And here we are!
“Birdhorse” is an interesting name for a wine. Where did that come from?
C&K: Haha, we always feel a little sheepish telling this story…but we’ll tell you where it came from but also what it’s come to represent.
The origin: So on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”, the NPR new quiz, there was a producer’s segment where they were discussing how to classify people in this world. They said there were 3 descriptors, and every person gets 2 (and the order of the two matters). So you can either be: Bird, Horse or Muffin.
After some discussion (and a few beers) one evening in South Africa, we came to the conclusion that Katie is a Bird-Muffin, and Corinne is a Horse-Muffin. So, put us together, you get a Birdhorse (and no one wants to drink Muffin wine….).
What its come to represent is a little more important: As silly as the origin story may be, Birdhorse has grown to be a little more meaningful as we’ve grown with it. We think it represents a new and fresh perspective, something that you can kind of imagine in your mind but you haven’t actually encountered before. Fun, unique and distinctive. We’re hoping to be familiar enough to be approachable, but original enough to inspire some new conversations.
What is each of your roles working with Birdhorse wines? Do you ever find it challenging to work so closely with your friends or partner?
T: I handle a lot of the business stuff, and I sorted out a lot of the initial compliance. Corinne and Katie are also some of the kindest people you’ll ever meet, so I suppose it’s my role to be a bit stingy at times and make sure we can afford to keep growing (we’re planning on 2.5x this year!). It ends up balancing nicely. All that said, we tend to collaborate on most things (except the actual winemaking, where I try to intrude as little as possible outside of trucking grapes and some taste tests). We’re all pretty laid back (at least in demeanor) so I find it easy to work together. My main issue has been finding the time with a full-time school/internship obligation!
C: Winemaker, truck driver, compliance officer…I’d say my and Katie’s roles are both diverse and varied. Working with Tyler and Katie has really been a joy, they’re both just generally fun and upbeat humans, in addition to the fact that I love them both dearly. I think the challenging part for me has been on the personal side, making sure we find time for our relationship that’s just about us.
K: Vary much echoing what Corinne said, I wouldn’t choose to start a small business with anyone else, and feel very lucky in that. Open and clear communication has been critical to balancing our personal relationship and growing in our business together.
What are you hoping to achieve with Birdhorse Wines? Birdhorse is currently your side-hustle, correct? Do you envision it becoming your full-time project? What is your day-to-day like working on it?
T: My dream would be to get to a big enough scale where Corinne and/or Katie could afford to work on Birdhorse full-time, while staying small enough such that we can maintain a tight relationship with our customers and retail partners. And of course to keep on making some amazing wine!
C&K: Word domination.
Oh man, so many things but it’s difficult, so early on, to put them into concrete terms.
Truly, I think we would like to chip away, if only slightly, at market saturation. The greater the variety of wines out there, the more discerning consumers can be encouraged to be. And more discerning consumers means, hopefully, those that emphasize thought and care in their farming and winemaking will be able to shine. Don’t get us wrong, classics will always be classics, there will always be space and desire for the Napa Cabernets and Dry Creek Zins of the world, and we appreciate and have a deep respect for those wines and their histories. We are just hoping to encourage a broader variety in the marketplace with a new and growing generation of wine drinkers.
Birdhorse is currently a side hustle for both of us, but the dream would be for one (and eventually both) of us to go full time with it as the business grows and flourishes. We would also love to involve ourselves more and more in the farming aspect of our business as our ability to allocate time to it increases. We don’t have any particular timeline for that. For now, it just means when one job stops the other begins! We don’t have a ton of free time any more. We have affectionately started to refer to Birdhorse as a “Jobby” (job-hobby) since it takes about as much time as a part time job but pays as much as a hobby….
T: Birdhorse probably will not be full-time for me, except maybe for the summer next year (I still have a VERY healthy chunk of student debt to pay off). Day-to-day it’s a bit of a scramble between classes. Sometimes it’s been class, tasting, website updates, class, gym, financial planning… there’s never enough time in the day so the to-do list stays quite long. But that’s part of what makes it fun and challenging. We try to get on a weekly call together and we’re emailing constantly.
What initially ignited your passion for wine and how did you go about learning about it?
C: Working in wine, I would say, ignited my passion. My very first harvest wine was what was paying the bills, but by the end I was totally fascinated by the combination of science, artistry and manual labor that winemaking provided. My education was very much practical, working harvests, learning first hand how wine got made in different regions, and drinking as much as was offered to me… My formal education at Davis then just answered a long list of “why” questions I had built up over years of cellar work.
K: I took a killer class on Terroir in undergrad that connected the dots for me from my childhood growing up at a winery and my formal education of geology and interest in what’s going on under the ground. That’s where my deep dive into wine started and led me to California to see for myself and start understanding what makes California so special. That’s been a jumping off point for me to experiencing many growing regions around the world, most recently Burgundy, which was an incredible opportunity to explore how site and climate impact wine so dramatically.
What advice do you have for other women wanting to get into the wine business?
We’re so new still, it feels very funny being asked to give advice. Right now is an exciting time for women in wine, there is a lot of momentum and thought being given to how to empower ladies in all aspects of the industry, with things like the Batonnage conference getting more momentum and introducing tough conversations to a wider audience. We can only hope we can be a part of that conversation, and hopefully we are able to show other young women that with determination, there is absolutely a seat for them at the table.
What is your go-to wine at the moment?
C: I’ve been really into alpine wines recently, from around Chamonix. The whites are so expressive, and the reds are so refreshing if you chill them a little. I had a bottle of Domaine des Ardoisieres Argile blanc the other day that was seemless on a summer evening. Or any of the Mullineux wines we’ve been close-guarding since we returned from South Africa.
K: Ian Brand’s “La Marea” albarino has been my summer-time bae. We can never get enough of Sadie Family “Pofadder” Cinsault from South Africa, his care for some of the old vine vineyards of South Africa makes for some incredible and expressive wines.
T: Well if I must exclude our Valdiguié and the Carignan (as it’s getting hotter – it’s awesome chilled) I did manage to get my hands on a bunch of Decoy through the friends and family sale. In particular, the Zin and the Merlot make for a great value, which is what I prioritize in the more day-to-day wines
Anything else you’d like to share?
C&K: It’s worth mentioning, we know we aren’t the first queer winemakers that have come along, but since our relationship is at the front of our brand it sort of puts queerness at the front of it as well. And that’s something we are very proud of. So often now a days, we talk about wanting to have more diverse representation to make sure that diverse young people know there is a seat for them at the table. That can be extra difficult, since for LGBT folks its not always clear if there’s one of them sitting at the table already. So being out and vocal about it is so important to insure that visibility, and we are excited to be a part of that.