From the pandemic to a massive wildfire, Aaron Bryan and Amy Krahe, a husband-and-wife team, found the resilience to creatively pivot and successfully keep their business going. And today, on a sun-drenched ridgetop in the Sierra Foothills, they’re building, thriving, and doing what they love – making wine.
Learning to Make Wine
Aaron first became interested in wine while attending college at UC Santa Barbara. Surrounded by the Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez Valley wine regions, Aaron began wine tasting. Then he started his informal wine education with a few classes at school. Then in 2010, his old college roommate approached him about making beer together. Always interested in wine, however, Aaron says, “I figured if I could learn to make great beer, then I can definitely figure out how to make wine.”
From a Hobby to a Business
So, Aaron started making beer, wine, and cider in his backyard in San Francisco’s Mission District. Amy brought twenty years of sales and marketing experience in wine and spirits to the partnership. In 2012, when some space in a co-op on Treasure Island became available, Aaron started producing cider and wine at that facility. Amy’s knowledge of how to market to restaurants and distributors helped build their business to the point they were successful and growing.
Their first commercial vintage included a wide variety of wines such as Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Barbera, Alicante Bouschet, and some lesser-known varietals. Aaron says, “I always loved Syrah from day one of making wine in my backyard. Then in 2013, I had a line on some Viognier in Amador County.” Syrah and Viognier are the two varietals he has consistently produced since the beginning.
Aaron used to make wine in a more traditional manner, but today he produces natural wines. Aaron says, “It starts in the vineyard with sustainably and organically farmed grapes.” Once the grapes are harvested, he treats them very lightly. He uses whole berry and whole cluster. No commercial yeast is added; the fermentation comes from the yeast on the skins. Aaron uses stainless steel or neutral French oak to age the wine. He doesn’t fine or filter, and only small amounts of sulfur are added at bottling to protect the juice. Aaron uses only minimal intervention. He says, “Which is harder than you think. Wine does want to be vinegar, so I try to be a good steward. We top up our barrels a lot.”
Amy and Aaron didn’t have a tasting room on Treasure Island. However, Amy says, “As a young business, we wanted to get our brands out into the market.” With her experience in sales and marketing wine and spirits, she knew that world. But at that point, Amy says, “We had an 18-month-old son, we were living in the Mission, and we wanted a simple life.” So, they started looking for a winery and location that would provide them with that life and a means to continue their business. Because they were already sourcing grapes from Amador and liked Syrah and Rhone varietals, they were drawn to the Sierra Foothills.
Then the Pandemic Hit
Aaron says, “Our business was growing, and it’s always a dream to have your own vines and control the growth. We wanted to get out of the city and raise our son in the beauty of the Sierra Nevada mountains.” They found their dream location in the Fairplay AVA and entered into a contract in February 2020. On March 17, 2020, they received bank approval to purchase the property, a former winery, and production facility, at 6100 Gray Rock Road, in Somerset. At the same time, the pandemic hit.
Before the pandemic, cider was their major revenue stream, selling to restaurants while brokers were selling their wine. But when the pandemic hit and restaurants and bars shut down, Amy and Aaron had to pivot. Since bank approval was contingent upon their previous income, the bank gave them some time to see the impact on their revenue. Amy and Aaron also decided whether they wanted to move forward with the purchase. Aaron says, “We didn’t really know how long the shutdown would last. We’re a small business that built our business on other small businesses. But we had some club members, allocation members, and a lot of friends and family that really stepped up for us.” Six weeks later, the bank re-approved them.
Making the Move to the Sierra Foothills
The winery they purchased came with six acres already planted with four varietals – Syrah, Viognier, Primitivo, and Tempranillo. They source the rest of their grapes from elsewhere in Amador and Clarksburg wine regions. The property sits on a ridgetop at 2700 feet in elevation with stunning views of the surrounding hills. Its wide, open vineyard basks in ample sunshine.
Amy, Aaron, and their young son moved to the property in July 2020. So they could quickly reside on the property, they ordered a “tiny house” to live in. Amy says, “We didn’t have our tiny house yet. So we camped in a tent on the property or lived in the winery while waiting for the house to be built.” What was supposed to take two months to build took six months instead. The builder, who lived in Paradise, lost his home previously due to the Camp fire. When a new fire hit his area, he was evacuated again. And the pandemic impacted supplies making building materials difficult to get.
And Then the Fire Hit
The family finally moved into their tiny house on Christmas Eve of 2020. But just when things seemed to be getting back to normal in 2021, the Caldor fire hit. It became a massive wildfire that burned over 220,000 acres and didn’t reach 100% containment until late October.
Amy says, “We were camping up the road when we heard the helicopters, and that’s when we knew a wildfire was coming.” That was August 14, 2021, and the fire was just a few miles from their winery. They could see the flames from the window of their tiny house. It was just a matter of time before they would have to leave.
On the day the family evacuated, Aaron had just picked the Primitivo. He was about to cook dinner on the barbecue when the power went off. However, Aaron says, “I had fermenting going on and needed to return and punch the grapes down. At that point, I didn’t know if we would have a production facility.” Plus, with the potential for smoke taint, he worried about losing the rest of the unpicked crop.
Thank heavens a good Samaritan came to the rescue. Chris Walsh, from End of Nowhere, has a tasting room in Amador City and a production facility in nearby Pioneer. He reached out to the Bryans and offered his production facility. Aaron used a trucking service to move the Primitivo to Chris’ facility along with Chenin Blanc and Malbec delivered from Clarksburg. Chris’ facility is small, but they made it work. Once the fire was deemed stable enough, the Sheriff’s Department began allowing farmers to return to the foothills to tend to their crops. Thankfully, the Bryans could get a crew in to pick the rest of the crop.
Two Wine Labels – Conduit and Divergent
Today things seemed to be getting back to normal. Because their winery is remote, Amy and Aaron host campers and RVs on their property to draw more visitors. They offer tastings by appointment, often conducted by Aaron. It’s a seated, educational tasting experience. Aaron says, “My favorite wine experiences are when you visit a family-owned winery and taste with the winemaker. We want to try and recreate that. We do it by appointment to have that time with the customer.”
Amy and Aaron have two wine labels, Conduit and Divergent. Their Conduit wine label is all Rhone varietals and includes a Syrah, Viognier, Syrah/Viognier blend, a Grenache, and a Grenache Rosé.
Their Divergent label is a throwback to Aaron’s early days in winemaking when he wanted to experiment with different varietals. It’s the label for all the other wines they make.
They also make cider under the label Tag and Jug. Aaron says those were the nicknames for his paternal grandparents.
Aaron says, “We try to make light, fresh wines that naturally reflect the place where the grapes were grown.”
Both Amy and Aaron believe that things have turned a corner, and their business is back to the level it was before the pandemic hit. They currently produce 1000 cases a year, but they want to grow beyond that. They just picked up a new wholesaler for their cider, so they plan to start expanding that line. Aaron says, “We bought this space because it has room to expand. We would like to eventually produce 2000 – 3000 cases of wine a year.” Amy says, “We also want to expand to other states and other countries. We just shipped to Germany and Canada.”
But according to Aaron, “It’s not just about expanding our business. We really believe in this area. We feel the only way people are going to discover this area is by getting Fairplay AVA wines out to other states and countries.”
So, barring any more “crazy events,” as Amy says, this resilient couple will be here, working hard in the Sierra Foothills to build their business and raise their son.
To make an appointment to taste their wine, contact Amy and Aaron at divergentvine.com or call 707-395-7711.