Brenae Royal says the inspiration for her future career in viticulture and agriculture stems directly back to the many hours of enjoyment she had planting flowers and picking weeds alongside her grandmother. She soon began raising pigs and joined Future Farmers of America (FFA). While still in high school, her grit and determination eventually earned her an academic scholarship to study crops and horticulture science at California State University. By 2015, she was named ranch manager for the Monte Rosso Vineyard in Sonoma County that grows grapes for E&J Gallo-owned Louis M. Martini’s single vineyard wines, as she explains to Richard Siddle.
Brenae Royal on what it is like working on the Monte Rosso Vineyard, one of California’s, and certainly Sonoma’s, most esteemed and iconic viticultural sites.
Your background is in farming, so what got you into wine and more specifically vineyard management?
I was introduced to farming by my grandmother, who had an enormous garden. At the age of 17, I was an officer at Future Farmers of America. I started drinking wine in college, I worked all the way through college and initially went in under animal science because I had previously reared pigs, but I didn’t want to continue that so changed to crops and horticulture science.
In my senior year, I turned into an old lady where my most fun nights consisted of Apothic Red, a puzzle and Jeopardy. So that’s how I got introduced into wine, I loved it and when I went to my last career fair E.& J. Gallo Winery was there and just happened to have a magnum of Apothic Red on its stand. I was like, “we’ve got to make this work because I can probably farm it. I know I love drinking it. Let’s make this happen!”.
I got hired a week after graduating from California State University (Chico State) and went into the vineyard operations internship. Now it will be eight years in June that I’ve been here, having led seven vintages at Monto Rosso.
Tell us a little bit about what you think makes you a great wine grower. What skill sets do you bring that has made this career work for you?
I think what makes me a great wine grower is my appreciation of the science. Being able to understand the science allows us to manipulate the art. Understanding the fundamentals of every decision that we’re making in the field allows us to create a wine that is unique to every vintage and is unique to my team, that’s making hard decisions throughout the year from vintage to vintage.
I’m a millennial farmer on a very old vineyard. I’ve put lot of technology into Monte Rosso which allows us to better fine tune our wines. Louis M. Martini is about terroir and craft, and Monte Rosso is all of that in a nutshell.
We carry that over from winemaking into the vineyard by being very, very specific about what we’re doing and having a high attention to detail and scrutinising everything we do so that we really can exemplify the best of the vineyard and the best of the vintage. My ability to earn respect from everybody around me and to have that trust with the winemaking teams that I get to work alongside has allowed me to flourish in my career.
In interviews, I often hear you mention the strength of your team, can you talk a little bit about how you were able to create this team and how you get the best out of them?
My team’s been on Monte Rosso for between 20 to 40 years, so some of them, longer than I’ve been alive. I came into the vineyard culture, which at the time was 100% male. So here I am, this bright eyed, bushy tailed 24-year-old, straight out of college trying to change everything, and they were quick to stop me in my tracks and “say actually you need to learn the ropes”.
So, I spent most of the 2015 and 2016 vintages just getting lectured by the team and being educated about why we do things certain ways and really crafting the way I wanted to be a leader out there which meant giving ownership to the team. To give my team ownership made them committed to the vineyard success which has lead into my success.
Without their dedication to the vineyard, I’m useless. We all know our titles out there. We all know our responsibilities on the field but when we’re all together, we’re a single unit, there’s no person more important than the other because we all learn from each other and lean on each other to get the job done. I owe a lot of my success to my team.
I hear one of the challenges you face in your role compared to your Old World counterparts is the wildlife, can you tell us about that?
This year in the field it’s already been 80 degrees a few days, which means we can see rattlesnake activity, we have a lot of wildlife on Monte Rosso and rattlesnakes are probably the most prevalent. We have these very gnarly old head-trained Zinfandel, head-trained Semillon and head-trained Cabernet Sauvignon that have these hollowed out trunks and rattlesnakes like to sit in those little nooks and stay cool – or they’ll sit out on the rocks to sunbathe. Monte Rosso is a mountain site, we’re two miles up from Highway 12 in Sonoma County, we sit at an elevation range of 700 to 1300 feet, so we’re always hot. So, rattlesnakes are definitely a thing.
I get a call every time we encounter a rattlesnake. That never gets easier. I think half the time I get called because they want to see my reaction. But yes, that’s one of the many challenges that we have at Monte Rosso is the wildlife and rattlesnakes are the most prevalent.
You’ve spent your whole career in California, are there any other places in the world you’d be interested in working?
I would actually go to Hunter Valley, Australia. At Monte Rosso we farm the second oldest Semillon in the world, at 135-years-old as of 2021. Hunter Valley has 155-year-old Semillon vines. So, for me, I think that would be really special. I’d like to understand what they’ve been doing to manage vines that old and how they get such a unique variety to live that long, so I can take that knowledge back to Monte Rosso.
We have vines that were planted back in 1886, we still tend to those vines by hand and unsurprisingly they’re a ton of work. As I continue to think about the legacy of Monte Rosso, the legacy of wines being made from that vineyard, I want to bring as much knowledge as I can back to the vineyard and I’m going to go after people who have older stuff than what we have. And so Hunter Valley would be a place I would love to visit and to work the harvest.
Monte Rosso is arguably most well-known for Cabernet Sauvignon and supplying the grapes that goes into Louis M. Martini Monte Rosso Cabernet. Can you tell us about this wine, any favourite vintages?
2016 Monte Rosso Cabernet is probably one of my favourite wines. This was a very challenging year, we were coming off 2015 which was peak drought and Monte Rosso is already dry farmed in multiple places including most of these Cabernet vines that give source for this wine, so it was a challenge. What I love about 2016 Louis M. Martini Monte Rosso Cabernet is it really does show the nuanced characteristics of what 81-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon can do.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the flagship of Monte Rosso, for showing that iron rich terroir, in that red-hill clay loam, showing that elevation, showing some of the tightness and in tannin and acidity that will balance out over time. What I especially love about the Cabernet Sauvignon is that it will live for a very long time. At Louis M. Martini we have a library of wines that date back to the 50s and 60s and they still have life in them.
Something that I love being a part of at Monte Rosso and being a part of crafting these wines alongside our winemaker, Michael Eddie is that I know, my grandchildren are probably going to be able to enjoy these wines.
Being a part of Louis M. Martini is being part of history. Martini was established in 1933 Monte Rosso in 1886. Louis M purchased the vineyard in 1938. It’s all entwined. Now I get to leave my legacy on the vineyard, that’s special to me.