Forging a New View of Sonoma Valley: Introducing Gail Wines

There comes a point in some people’s careers where the only thing left to do is to make some wine. Like they’ve been walking down a road without knowing where they were headed, yet all the while vigneron has been their destination.

Growing up blue-collar in Cranston, Rhode Island, Daniel O’Brien isn’t someone you would have pegged to become a winemaker. He’d be the first to tell you that.

“We were a classic Irish, Italian Catholic working-class family,” says O’Brien. “Mom worked in the local school system, dad worked in trucking and warehousing. Needless to say we weren’t a big wine family.”

Dan O’Brien inspecting the bottling line.

“I was selling paté, charcuterie, cheese—basically rich-people food I couldn’t afford”

Like most working-class kids, if O’Brien wanted pocket money, he had to earn it himself. Which is how he found himself working in a gourmet food store at 18, trying to save up a little cash before he went off to college. “I was selling paté, charcuterie, cheese—basically rich-people food I couldn’t afford,” he says. “But on Saturday and Sunday evenings, they had these ‘cafe nights’ where you could come with your own bottle of wine and so I started to pick up a little bit about wine.”

When the food store went out of business, the owner, who was also managing the Capitol Grill in Providence, hired O’Brien as a busboy, and a road through the hospitality business unfurled underneath his feet. It was a road he found himself returning to, even when he thought he was headed somewhere else.

“For some reason, I went to school for MIS and Database Management,” chuckles O’Brien. “I hated every minute of it. So at night I rolled my way into bartending and receiving wine shipments for restaurants and retailers.”

It was the early 2000s, and in the slump that followed 9/11, O’Brien moved his way up the hospitality ladder, eventually becoming a floor sommelier, and then a wine director.

Checking progress in the cellar.

Listening to O’Brien chart the course of his career, it’s hard to judge exactly the point where selling and stocking wines became more than just a way to pay the rent. It’s not clear that he knows that himself, but he is 100% clear that there have been three key inflection points in his life that made Gail Wines inevitable.

The first was his decision to leave the East Coast and come to California to be the opening wine director at Cavallo Point. The second, which followed so close on the heels of this decision that O’Brien hadn’t even moved full-time to California yet, was the sudden and very unexpected death of his mother, Gail.

“It was around Christmas, two months before I was supposed to move permanently,” says O’Brien, “And it was devastating. She was 51, a saint among saints, just this super-incredible lady.”

Gail O’Brien in a kayak, circa 2006.

O’Brien describes it as a “tragic time” for him, his father, and his two brothers. “But I had accepted this job, so I decided to take it and move.”

Once in California, at the helm of one of the most ambitious wine programs to launch in the San Francisco Bay Area in decades, O’Brien found himself swirling around in the pre-Financial-Crisis, New-California wine boom. Perhaps more importantly, in the midst of it all, O’Brien found both his tribe and his passion.

“Before then, I was treating wine like a business, sort of collecting and trading baseball cards for money,” says O’Brien. “I wasn’t navigating the world with my own tastes.”

Looking out over Bennett Valley.

But hanging out with Rajat Parr, Shelley Lindgren, David Lynch, and Dan Petroski, among many of the others O’Brien counts as friends, mentors, and influences, O’Brien finally felt at home, and was discovering wines that lit him up like fireworks.

The decade that followed O’Brien’s move to California saw him explore every aspect of the wine business, as he moved from Cavallo Point to running a negociant wine label called Cultivar, serving as Estate Director first for Napa’s Long Meadow Ranch, and then Larkmead, where he got to hang out with his friend Dan Petroski, with whom he had been doing harvest work since 2013.

It was at this point that O’Brien realized that there was only one thing having to do with wine that he hadn’t done.

“I was basically a Swiss Army knife in the world of wine,” laughs O’Brien. But, of course, there was actually one blade missing.

In part thanks to some badgering from Petroski, as well as some fantastic bottles of Chinon shared with John Skupny, O’Brien took some of his savings and bought two tons of Cabernet Franc that he made into wine in a corner of Larkmead’s cellar in 2013.

“Even as I did it, I was thinking to myself, ‘I have to be an idiot to be doing this,’ but at the same time Dan was telling me, ‘You’re an idiot if you don’t do this,'” says O’Brien. “Dan can be pretty convincing.”

“I was trying to be cool and do whole-cluster, but I hadn’t exactly figured out the whole thing about stem lignification and didn’t really pay any attention to the pH” laughs O’Brien. “It came out…. ‘meh,'” he says, but to his surprise, he was able to sell every bottle that he didn’t drink himself to friends and family.

Checking on Warm Springs Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Glen Ellen.

At that point that O’Brien confided to Petroski that what he really dreamed of doing was starting a wine label and naming it after his mother. Petroski, of course, was all for it, as was Dan’s brother Patrick who interestingly had also ended up in the wine business at that point, and was serving as Cellarmaster at Failla wines.

“I want to express the diversity of the valley and highlight some of the incredible growers and their sites that exist here”

O’Brien thinks of 2015 as the first truly commercial vintage for Gail Wines, and by that time he had decided that his focus was going to be the Sonoma Valley.

Despite a storied history of wine production, somehow the Sonoma Valley AVA hasn’t seen the kind of recognition among wine lovers as some of Sonoma’s other appellations. In part, this may be due to the lack of a clearly defining characteristic in the same way that the Sonoma Coast has the ocean or the Russian River Valley has the river. It may also have to do with the fact that when people think about the superstar wines of Sonoma County, almost none of them (Hanzell perhaps being a notable exception) tend to carry the Sonoma Valley AVA on the label.

“It’s one of the parts of Sonoma County that really hasn’t been paid attention to,” says O’Brien. “There are a lot of big commercial producers here, but that’s not the legacy of this valley,” he continues. “I want to express the diversity of the valley and highlight some of the incredible growers and their sites that exist here.”

He goes on to add, “Sonoma Valley is like a tiny state that no one really gives a shit about, sort of like Rhode Island.”

It seems O’Brien finally feels at home in California.

Madhavan Vineyard, Moon Mountain District, Sonoma.

O’Brien’s third point of departure in his career came on the heels of the devastating fires in 2017.

“When the fires came through, I was stressed out, and I had one of those ‘gotta change my life,’ moments,’ says O’Brien. “I knew I wanted to do something for myself, and I was tired of the scene in Napa.”

Despite having recently become the COO at Larkmead, a post that might seem to be the apogee of many people’s careers, O’Brien quit and downshifted his life to focus on Gail and a consulting business that he says he still needs in order to buy fruit and barrels.

He’s never regretted the decision since.

Gail Wines offers an eclectic portfolio of Sonoma wines that O’Brien says are inspired by the little producers of the Loire Valley. Yes, he admits that selling Barbera, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t exactly fit that narrative, but he will also point out that trying to make a living selling Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc might make for a very short-lived brand.

Rather than some unifying theme of geography or tradition, the Gail wines (as well as the table wine blends that O’Brien named after his great-aunt Doris) are best understood in the context of an approach to winemaking that O’Brien seems to have settled into naturally as one might ease into a comfortable chair.

Walking the Warm Springs Ranch vineyard.

O’Brien finds organic or sustainable vineyards farmed by dedicated small growers. He arranges to have the vineyards farmed for early picking, so he can make high-acid, low-alcohol wines that convey energy and precision but still possess beautiful aromatics.

“I want classic expressions of specific grape varieties that are appealing.”

He ferments his wines with native yeasts, and doesn’t rack any of the wines until just before bottling. The whites are all barrel-fermented, usually with some battonage (stirring of the lees), and he generally avoids letting them go through malolactic conversion. The reds are destemmed and fermented in bins or tanks (though the Barbera is fermented in neutral puncheons) and aged, like the whites, in neutral oak.

Dan O’Brien in the cellar.

“I’m trying to fit into a missing puzzle piece,” says O’Brien. “Doing good, clean, simple winemaking, but not having the wines feel made. I want classic expressions of specific grape varieties that are appealing.”

And then once the wines are made, he sells them for incredibly reasonable prices.

“My wine journey has to a certain extent been about getting in touch with the joy of drinking a hard-to-find, more affordable wine,” says O’Brien, suggesting that his apotheosis of wine drinking is a great wine that he can easily “buy a case of and not feel ripped off,” something that is increasingly difficult to do in Northern California.

I was about to write, “For the money, Gail wines are shockingly good,” but honestly, to think about these as “value wines” is to not give O’Brien or his wines enough credit. Regardless of price, this entire portfolio of wines is excellent, especially for a self-taught former sommelier who’s only 5 vintages into this journey of being a winemaker.

Of course, the fact that you can buy some of these wines for twenty bucks at retail is kind of magical.

“My wine journey has to a certain extent been about getting in touch with the joy of drinking a hard-to-find, more affordable wine”

When I first tasted O’Brien’s Chenin Blanc, I had one of my favorite moments as a wine writer and critic: when I’m stopped in my tracks, my existence narrows down to a tunnel-like focus on what is in my glass, and I usually utter some unprintable exclamation of praise filled with expletives. My next question is always, “who the hell made this, and what is their story?”

In this case, the answer is a working-class kid from Cranston who eventually found his way to exactly where he belongs.

Tasting Notes

2018 Gail Wines “Morning Sun Ranch” Barbera, Sonoma Mountain, California
A bright medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of citrus peel and mulberries. In the mouth, gorgeously bright boysenberry and cherry flavors have a wonderful, crisp freshness to them thanks to fantastic acidity and a nice stony mineral underbelly. Notes of citrus peel and herbs linger in the finish. Beautiful. 13.3% alcohol. 900 bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2018 Gail Wines “Doris – Red Table Wine” Red Blend, Sonoma Valley, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberry and potting soil. In the mouth, blackberry and plummy flavors mix with earth and green herbs, all very lively thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a nice faint tannic texture to the wine that hangs at the edge of perception along with a green woody quality that suggests some whole cluster usage. Quite tasty. A blend of 40% Zinfandel, 40% Merlot, and 20% Barbera aged for 15 months in neutral barrels. 14.1% alcohol. 1200 bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2018 Gail Wines “Chuy Vineyard” Chardonnay, Sonoma Valley, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, lemon pith, and lemonade. In the mouth, electric lemon flavors crackle with phenomenal acidity as pink grapefruit and other citrus notes sizzle in the finish with a wonderful mineral undertone. This is a lean, mean citrus machine and a great pleasure for acid freaks like me. 13.1% alcohol. 600 bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.  

2018 Gail Wines “Doris” Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of stony cherry and earth and herbs. In the mouth, distinctly savory notes of cherry, wet earth, and green herbs have a cool, cave-like freshness to them. The word dank has a negative connotation, but there’s this “beneath-the-earth” quality to this wine that is quite interesting. Good acidity and supple tannins. 13.9% alcohol. 1000 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.  

2018 Gail Wines “Deering Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Moon Mountain District, Sonoma, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a wonderful perfume of bright cherry fruit. In the mouth, aromatically sweet cherry and floral flavors have an intense, fresh brightness thanks to fantastic acidity. Supple, suede-like tannins buff the edges of the mouth, as the wine moves somewhat weightlessly across the palate and then soars into a wonderfully floral finish. Excellent. 14.3% alcohol. 600 bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: $45.

2019 Gail Wines “Morning Sun Ranch” Pinot Grigio, Sonoma Mountain, California
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of poached pears and white flowers. In the mouth, bright lemony pear flavors have a nice crispness thanks to fantastic acidity. Lo! A California Pinot Grigio that isn’t boring! This is honestly such a pleasure to drink. 11.9% alcohol. 1200 bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.  

2019 Gail Wines “Doris – White Table Wine” White Blend, Sonoma Valley, California
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of apricot, honey, and chamomile. In the mouth, dried citrus peel, apricot, and peaches mix with yellow and dried herbs and a touch of candle wax. A blend of 80% Pinot Grigio and 20% Chardonnay. 12.5% alcohol. 323 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.  

2019 Gail Wines “Doris” Rosé, Sonoma Valley, California
A light coppery pink in the glass, this wine smells of red apple skin, cherries, and orange peel. In the mouth, orange zest, blood orange juice, and sour cherry flavors have a zingy brightness but also a pithy bitterness that lingers a bit in the finish along with sour cherry. Excellent acidity. A 50/50 blend of Cabernet Franc and Malbec. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2019 Gail Wines “Pickberry Vineyard” Merlot, Sonoma Mountain, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of earth, plum, and cedar. In the mouth, wonderfully fresh notes of forest floor and green herbs mix with plum and black cherry flavors. Excellent acidity and faint, muscular tannins linger through the finish along with the minty freshness of green herbs. A fantastic balance between savory and fruity. 13.9% alcohol. 600 bottles made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.  

2019 Gail Wines “Two Creeks Farm” Chenin Blanc, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma, California
Palest greenish-gold in the glass, but nearly colorless, this wine smells of pears and unripe apples. In the mouth, fantastically juicy and slightly saline flavors of crabapple, quince, and unripe apples have a beautiful crispness to them and a wonderful lemony quality that lingers in the finish on top of the deep stony qualities. One of the best renditions of this grape I’ve had from California. Truly outstanding. 12.3% alcohol. 1200 bottles made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2020 Gail Wines “Two Creeks Farm” Chenin Blanc, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of pear and lemon pith and white flowers. In the mouth, electric and bright lemon pith, pear, and faint herbal flavors are positively mouthwatering, with a hint of pear skin and yellow herbs lingering in the finish. Wonderful mineral notes and just a whiff of membrillo sneaks its way in at the very last moment. Fantastic. 12.3% alcohol. 2400 bottles made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.

Dan O’Brien in his Sonoma office.

Images courtesy of Gail Wines by photographer Jimmy Hayes.