Sitting there in a moment of leisure, his excitement and information about grapes and their growing, about wine and its making, flowed as if he had studied it well. Yet he seemed improbably young to be such a seasoned scholar of viticulture and enology.
As he spoke of acreage and appellation; as he talked of tannin and terroir, of vintage and varietal, of Bordeaux-style wine and Bernardus, it became clear that Chris Canepa was professing his passion.
Born and raised on the Monterey Peninsula, the third-generation native worked his way through Carmel Unified School District. Canepa, 28, was just 16 when he began to think about working in the wine industry, and only 26 when he became the cellar master for Bernardus Winery in Carmel Valley. But he believes his winemaking story began with his grandfather, Steve Canepa.
Born in Monterey in 1922, the senior Canepa was a fisherman who worked in the local canneries, and eventually stood at the helm of close Italian family. Functions were frequent and usually centered on his cooking, paired with a wine from his cellar. As a boy, Chris loved cooking with his grandfather, particularly when it was linguine with clam sauce or a simple sauté of porcini mushrooms they'd gathered earlier in the day.
By his junior year of high school, Chris was considering a career in cooking. Deterred by the hours and demands of the profession, he pondered what he might pair with cooking — and turned his attention to wine.
"I love sports and anything that takes me outdoors," Canepa said, "so I couldn't imagine a career where I spent all day in the kitchen or an office somewhere. The idea of getting out into the vineyards among the raw grapes, and developing an artistic talent with winemaking appealed to me more."
Canepa tested his interest with a weekend and summer job at Chateau Christine, a small, Carmel Valley winery now known as Joyce Vineyards. Working just a few days a week or as needed, he was given what he calls an "introduction to everything" as he got involved in planting vines, thinning leaves and bottling wine. "It didn't scare me off," he said. "I had a feeling I was onto something."
After graduation from Carmel High School, Canepa took his desires to UC Davis, renowned for its degree program in viticulture and enology. There, he developed what he considered a solid background in the field but felt it simply primed him for the practical application he would get only through internships or on-the-job training.
Armed with a new diploma and somewhat romantic notions of winemaking, Canepa became a research intern for RH Phillips Vineyard in Esparto, northwest of Sacramento.
"I was working for a research enologist, helping to make small batches of wine in a big production facility," Canepa said. "I found that I liked the idea of smaller production; you have more control, and it's not so mechanized. Most grapes are machine harvested, but I appreciated the practice of hand-picked grapes."
Canepa's next opportunity arose with Kim Crawford Winery, part of Marlboro Valley Cellars, a large production facility in New Zealand. With a letter of recommendation and a one-way ticket, he was off to the other "God's Country," where he spent two months working on the 2005 harvest with other young people wanting to become winemakers.
Due to the seasonal variation between the land down under and his homeland, Canepa returned to Carmel to catch a second '05 harvest with Chateau Joullian and winemaker Ridge Watson.
"I worked for Chateau Joullian for six months, through January '06," Canepa said, "and it was a very good experience for me. I was working in the winery and in the vineyard, on nearly all estate wines. Once the season turned toward winter, I knew it was time to move on to my next experience, my next lesson."
Canepa moved to Bernardus Winery in early 2006.
"Of course I knew of Bernardus," he said. "You can't grow up here and not be familiar with Bernardus wines. It has been around since 1993. A friend of mine, working for Bernardus, was moving on, so I brought in my résumé and interviewed with winemaker Dean De Korth. He gave me the chance to come in as a full-time cellar worker. This gave me the chance to get hands-on experience in winemaking — the crushing, pressing, fermentation, wine-to-barrel process, adjustments, bottling. I finally felt I was moving into my career."
In 2008, Canepa lost his grandfather, the patriarch of the family who, his grandson believes, was the glue that bound his family, a community man who was loved by all, and the man who set him on his career path. By midyear, Canepa had become the cellar master at Bernardus Winery.
"Chris came to us several years ago," said De Korth, "and was immediately a great fit for us at Bernardus. His enthusiasm, UC Davis education and previous work experience, both locally and in New Zealand, have helped make him an important member of our team."
The only thing Canepa likes more than sharing stories about winemaking is sharing the wine itself. The real inspiration behind his work, he admits, lies in knowing he is bringing fine wine and great joy to the people around him.
"Bernardus wine," he said, "is something I put so much passion and so much effort into. There is a certain something that goes into the wine — it is more than grapes, more than technology — there is a knowing, an artistry, a style that gives it its signature. And then, once I open a bottle, the best part is understanding what went into it and being able to share that. I was there for that; what a gift."
For more information about Bernardus Winery, go to www.bernardus.com or visit its tasting room at 5 West Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley. Hours: 11a.m.-5 p.m. daily; phone: 659-1900.