From Law School to the Family Vineyards: A Q&A with Courtney Foley

Oct. 30, 2019

Women in Wine: Courtney Foley


Families have owned and operated vineyards since humans first uncovered the secrets of winemaking. Parents hand those secrets down to their children and the stewardship of the land passes down from one generation to the next.

It’s a timeless story, but one that sometimes features a few detours.

Courtney Foley, Head of Winemaking at Sonoma, CA’s Chalk Hill Winery, took a long and winding road to her family’s vineyards. The experiences she had along the way, and the perspective she gained, have brought her back to the vines with an eye toward innovation for the future.

We recently talked with her to find out more about her journey, where she sees wine moving next, and the future of the industry. 

Breakthru: As someone who grew up in a family of winemakers, did you approach your education with an eye toward the family business?

Courtney Foley:  No. I'm not very strategic. I knew what I loved, which was history and geology, so I went to undergrad and studied environmental history and geology. Of course, my dad was chirping in my ear like, "What are you going to do with those?" And I'm just like, "I don't know. I like them. I went to law school because, just like any young liberal living in the Pacific Northwest, I wanted to make an impact and grow into the future knowing that I would have some sort of say in what happened in the communities around me.

Then I realized I was writing the same memo over and over again, and it just wasn't doing anything for me. I hated getting up every day and going to my job. It was just something that I kept on trying to power through mentally. But I just kept thinking, "I can't do this." I was looking at this corporate law job in downtown Portland, but my dad sat me down and was like, "Do you even want to do this? You don't seem that passionate." And I said, "No, I don't think I really want to do this at all." So I started stacking wines at grocery stores, working for Young's Market down in Southern California. 

Did you know then that you would be stepping back into the family business?

I thought that was just going to be temporary, just while I kind of figured out if I wanted to go back into law or how I wanted to use my degree, but I loved it. Even though I didn't ever think that I was going to work with my family—sixteen-year-old me was like, "I'm not going to work with them, I'm going to do my own thing"—I feel really lucky to work with them now. 

What’s that dynamic like?

I'm very similar to my mom, and we have kind of similar relationships. I'm like a hippie. My dad is conservative, so we have a lot of very healthy discussions and conversations about where we want the company to go. But the best thing about my dad is that he loves the land and he loves open spaces. As far as our farming practices go, he wants to make sure we're doing it in the most responsible way. It's like the little stuff, like I'm starting a compost program throughout all our wineries and that's the stuff he's like, "I mean, you can do it, but you can't spend any money on it."

 A quote that reads: 'in Sonoma you can curate whatever story you want. It still feels new and exciting and winemakers are trying out different things every day. '

What attracts you to winemaking in Sonoma?

I grew up in Santa Barbara County and I knew I always liked working with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and Sonoma County is also known for those two varietals.

What I really love about Sonoma is that there's so much diversity in not only soil types, but also how warm it is in certain pockets. We're able to make really beautiful Chardonnays. Then up North in Alexander Valley, we can make Cabernets that rival Napa Valley. Then you can also grow Riesling in these cooler pockets that are closer to the coast. We have no shortage of variety and diversity of what we're producing.

I love in Sonoma you can curate whatever story you want. It still feels new and exciting and winemakers are trying out different things every day. I just think it's really compelling. 

If you had to pick one varietal…

Everyone always asks me, "What's your favorite varietal? What do you like drinking?" I'm like, "Anything that's strange." I know I love drinking beautifully crafted wines that are very clean and elegant, but if I just want to jog my winemaker intellect, it's so fun to try something that's weird. Sonoma has no shortage of things that are weird.

Do things get weird at Chalk Hill?

So going to Chalk Hill, it was such a different exercise for me as a winemaker because we have this really beautiful and strong product and something that has kind of evolved over the course of 40 years. Trying to figure out my footprint within this brand that already has such a big identity is hard. We also have the same assistant winemaker who has been there for 30 years.

But the more I worked with the fruit, the more I was just kind of like, "Oh, this is the best possible iteration of this fruit. Like if I brought it in earlier, you wouldn't get all the complexity that you could eventually achieve at Chalk Hill because we have healthier vines there."

I was accustomed to bringing in fruit where the vines would shut down and then we would just get a ton of dehydration and desiccation, so I wasn't adding anything by letting it hang. But at Chalk Hill, fruit's really high quality, so I didn't have to worry about that. 

What was it like collaborating with a winemaker who had been in the position for thirty years? Was it difficult?

Luckily I have zero ego. So I was just like, "Tell me what you've been doing, like how about if we do this?" And so there are certain projects where I got to do whatever I wanted. We have a rosé where I changed the protocol, start to finish; our Sauvignon Gris is different, so our smaller projects I really got to put my stamp on.

But the bigger projects, especially our Chardonnay stuff, I was like, "Well, it just works. You have forty years behind you. We should be doing it this way. It makes sense to me." But I also have a lot of ideas of how I can build on the experience that we've had. And one of them is that California Chardonnay has sort of evolved at the same time as Chalk Hill was evolving.

Quote that reads: 'To me, in the back of my mind when I was learning how to make wine, the pinnacle to me was becoming the winemaker of Chalk Hill. It holds a really special place in my family's heart.'

What did it mean for you when you became Head of Winemaking at Chalk Hill?

To me, in the back of my mind when I was learning how to make wine, the pinnacle to me was becoming the winemaker of Chalk Hill. It holds a really special place in my family's heart. I know the vineyards like the back of my hand. I've lived on property there twice with both of my brothers at different periods of time. My parents live there. It's our home.

It was my proudest accomplishment, getting that nod from my dad. My dad is not quick with a compliment, so him telling me that he wanted me to assume control of this winery that he loves meant a lot. He was like, "Okay, you've done your work, you've gone from stocking wines to becoming an accomplished winemaker and now you're ready. So here it is."

And so even though he had to kind of push me a little bit, it was wonderful and the team there was fabulous. Now they're trying to get me to move to the corporate offices and I refuse. I'm like "Nope, Chalk Hill's my home. This is where I am."

Chalk Hill Chardonnay 

This interview has been condensed and edited for space and clarity. This story is part of our “Women in Wine” series — an ongoing effort to highlight the women shaping today’s evolving global wine industry.

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