A grape life

Sommelier Luis Suarez — a district manager for Jackson Family Wines — owes his livelihood to a winemaking accident.

In the mid-1970s, San Francisco real estate lawyer Jess Jackson bought an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard in Lake County, Calif., with the idea of replanting it with grapes to sell. Faced with a fruit surplus some seven years later, he decided to turn the grapes into wine, but something went wrong in the fermentation process, Suarez says.

“The (resulting) wine was sweeter than the traditional Chardonnay. People loved it.”

The 1982 vintage Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay from the Kendall-Jackson label went on to win the first-ever Double Platinum Award in the American Wine Competition and wound up across the country at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal. Today, the Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Jackson Family Wines continues to produce the signature vintage — which has evolved into a drier, classic California Chardonnay — along with Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. The company also owns 48 wineries around the world — from Oregon to Chile to France, Italy, South Africa and Australia. They include Cambria Winery, La Crema Winery, Matanzas Creek Winery, Silver Palm and Stonestreet Winery.

“Jess unfortunately passed away in 2011,” Suarez says. “But his widow, Barbara Banke, has proved to be an amazing businesswoman.” (In 2014 she became the first woman to receive Wine Enthusiast magazine’s Wine Personality of the Year Award.)

The Guilford-based Suarez is the family’s man in Connecticut, growing sales and overseeing distribution to such businesses as Horseneck Wines & Liquors and Putnam & Vine, both in Greenwich. He also took part in the memorable dinner at the Delamar Southport to celebrate Earth Day, serving Galerie Sauvignon Blanc and Windracer Pinot Noir, two top Jackson Family Wines.

“The whole menu was created around honey and local produce,” he says. “I selected wines to match that character.”

Looking ahead to the Fourth of July, Suarez recommends Matanzas Creek Chardonnay, a creamy, traditional California wine with flavors of baked apple and Bosc pear and a bit of attitude in its acidity. But he’ll have to wait four months for his favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, for which he recommends beginning with La Crema’s Pinot Gris before serving Russian River Valley Zinfandel by Hartford Family Winery (part of Jackson Family Wines) with the turkey.

Thanksgiving is Suarez’s favorite holiday not only for the food, the sharing and the gratitude but because he didn’t get to celebrate it until his mid-teens. He was born and raised in Colombia, then settled in Milford before going on to study business at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. Working in restaurants, he fell in love with wine and wine distribution. Suarez became a certified sommelier through The Court of Master Sommeliers and earned a Wine & Spirit Education Trust certification, which is the equivalent of being a certified sommelier in England.

Suarez is now getting ready for the third level of study, to become an advanced sommelier. Completing the fourth level would make him a master sommelier. It’s difficult, but he’s determined to do it.

“Wine is a culture,” he says. “You learn about places, food and people. It’s the easiest way to be exposed to the world.”

For more, visit jacksonfamilywines.com.

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