Before her writing career, Kelli worked as a sommelier at New York City’s Veritas & St. Helena’s PRESS; in 2013, she was named one of Food & Wine’s top ten sommeliers in the country. Outside of GuildSomm, Kelli’s writing has appeared in World of Fine Wine, Robb Report, Sommelier Journal, Le Pan, and Vinous. During her time at Vinous, Kelli was a key player on the maps team, working alongside renowned Italian cartographer, Alessando Masnaghetti, to map numerous appellations of Napa Valley. Her book, Napa Valley, Then & Now, has won numerous awards, including both the IACP award for Best New Wine, Beer, or Spirits Book, as well as a Graphis design award.
Get to know Kelli better through her interview, here!
Name/Company/Position: Kelli White/GuildSomm/Senior Staff Writer
Where are you from: Massachusetts
Where do you currently live: Napa, California
What originally drew you into pursuing wine as your career?
I needed a nights and weekends job during college. After graduation, my attempt to get a paying job in the art world proved fruitless, so I began working full time in wine retail. It was only a short time later that my developing passion for wine vanquished all other interests.
What pushed you to leave restaurants and pursue writing/journalism?
My body is a feeble, decaying husk, but my brain remains robust. Just kidding, sort of. I had been freelancing for various magazines my entire decade-long stint as a sommelier. It simply took a while (the publication of my book, really) to get to a place where I was able to support myself solely through writing.
Where are some of the most exciting places that writing about wine has taken you?
My book tour took me from Japan to Stockholm to Mexico City; it was thrilling. As far as wine producing regions go, some of the most fascinating places I have been include Tenerife and Lanzarote (the Canary Islands) and various crannies of South Africa.
What drew you into extensively studying Napa?
I moved there from New York City in 2010 to take over an all-Napa wine list. Living among the growers and vintners, I had a tremendous opportunity to learn directly from the source and I seized it.
What do you find sets Napa apart from other regions in California?
The established reputation and high cost of doing business can be frustrating and limiting, but it also sets certain expectations of quality. I may not always love the results, but most of the people in the Napa wine industry are extremely invested in working at the highest level, whatever the job. Ambition abounds in the valley, and that often pushes people to excellence.
Tell us something about Napa's history that you were surprised to learn.
We associate Napa Valley with Cabernet Sauvignon so closely, but that is a relatively recent allegiance. Aside from a blip in the 1970s, Cabernet wasn't the dominant grape in Napa Valley until the early 1990s. Prior to that it was Chardonnay, even Petite Sirah at a point.
How would you summarize the terroir(s) of Napa?
Honestly, it is very hard to summarize Napa's terroirs. Just look at the region - it is dramatically varied. Two different mountain ranges, three main bedrocks, over 30 different soils types. Mountain, alluvial, valley sites. Elevations that range from sea level to near 3,000 feet. All manner of aspects. It boasts a remarkable diversity of microclimates for such a small physical space.
Aside from Cabernet Sauvignon, which varieties do you find shine in Napa?
I'm a big fan of Merlot from the more clay-rich and cooler south valley sites, especially in or near Carneros. Some excellent Syrahs can be found, typically at high elevations. Of course, old vine Zinfandel can make for beautiful wine; I'm especially fond of those from up on Howell Mountain. And white wines can also excel, from the classic Chardonnays of Carneros, to more unexpected grapes, like Ribolla Gialla and Albarino.
Who are some of your go-to Napa producers?
It's hard to pick favorites, but I tend to send people to visit the old school properties like Togni, Kongsgaard, Mayacamas, Seavey, Dunn, HdV, Lagier Meredith, Spottswoode, Corison, and Forman. I'm also fond of Frog's Leap and Hendry - they make honest, unpretentious, and relatively affordable wines that are never at elevated alcohols. Of the newer wave, I love Matthiasson, Massican, MacDonald, DeSante, di Costanza, Calder, Zeitgeist. If people want recommendations for more modern Cabernet producers, I generally send them to Hourglass, Larkmead, Rudd, Bond, or Anomaly.
What is a wine that changed your life and why?
The first wine I ever loved was a Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc from Domaine Vieux Lazaret. My uneducated palate loved the easy, generous flavors and voluptuous texture of the white Rhone blend. It was the wine that convinced me I could pursue a career in wine. [Editor's note: be sure to check out our guide on Northern vs. Southern Rhone to learn more about Chateauneuf-du-Pape.]
Where are some of your favorite places to travel?
While I love my time in the various wine countries of the world, my happy places are cities. Some of my favorites include Tokyo, Hong Kong, New Orleans, Berlin, Barcelona, Stockholm, and Athens.
What do you like to do in your free time, when not writing?
I play guitar, badly. And ukulele, worse. Music in general is a big passion of mine. I have a large record collection and my favorite thing to do is to put on an album and lay on the floor - on my stomach - listening to it. I have done this since I was a little kid.
Where do you find the most inspiration while writing?
What are some of the biggest similarities/differences in writing articles vs. writing books?
When I started my book, I naively approached it like one really big article, or several articles strung together. This was a flawed tactic. Writing a book requires a whole different level of organization, discipline, investment, and time commitment. In addition, while some books are commissioned in the way articles can be, they tend to belong to the author in a way that articles don't. So be sure you really love and own the topic. Individual articles may fade from public memory over time, but a book is forever bound to your name.
Any advice for budding writers/journalists?
Learn to take criticism with grace. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing, or of any creative pursuit. Our ego resists and rejects this, but it is essential to improving. The flipside is knowing when to trust your own instincts over the advice of others. Critics aren't perfect, and while you must cultivate the humility to receive advice, you must also be strong enough to question it where required. Also - good writing is all about rewriting. Get that first rough sloppy draft out of the way. Then revise, revise, revise.
If you could only take one bottle of wine with you to a desert island, which would it be?
Are you asking me what wine pairs best with solitude? The best wine I've ever tried, cliche though it may be, was a 1985 Henri Jayer Crox Parantoux. Although maybe a better choice would be an actual desert island wine, such as Taganan.