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We ran into Cecil Park, the first Korean female winemaker in Napa Valley.

B eing a winemaker in Napa (one of the smallest wine regions in the world) is a tough gig—especially for a female immigrant without an inherited winemaking business. But there she is. A Korean woman, killing it with her own wine company Innovatus and consulting firm Winefornia. She managed to survive (no, thrive) in a cut throat environment not made for people like her—the elusive American Dream.

In truth, Cecil really had no interest in wine when she came to San Francisco from Seoul in pursuit of an MBA. In fact, she hadn’t had a sip of wine until she was 27. Really. “I can only describe my first taste of wine as ‘pretty.’ I’ve had alcohol before, but nothing compares to how fragrant and beautiful wine tasted. When a Korean thinks ‘fermented’ we think kimchi, soy sauce, and doenjang. Tasty, pungent, and so, so far from fragrant. Wine was something out of this world for me. Obviously, I became drunk pretty quickly because I couldn’t stop drinking it,” she recalls. That was her meet cute with wine, which derailed her MBA track. She officially wanted in as a winemaker in this “precious, precious land where grapes grow.”

Not unlike Cecil, Napa didn’t always have this reputation as a land that produced great wine. She recites an anecdote of Robert Mondavi, a second-generation winemaker who settled in Napa. Cecil states Napa was partially born from the bruised ego of Mondavi. When he went to a restaurant in France in the 70’s, he asked for a California wine. The waiter smartly answered there may be California wine in the kitchen that’s used for cooking. With wounded pride, Mondavi returned home swearing he’d make wine rivaling that of France. He collaborated with other winemakers, invested personally, and worked closely with UC Davis in research and technological development. His name now graces the research institute, the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, the school Cecil got her degree at thirty something years later. “Immigrants who wanted to prove something made Napa what it is today.”It’s clear that it’s this immigrant’s legacy she takes part in protecting.

To say the least, Cecil has got guts to enter herself into Napa’s winemaking business. "I am not white nor male, and my history with wine is one drunken night. But I was not afraid of standing alone." In a war-torn country, Cecil’s mother was orphaned with no educational prospect. She finally revealed to her adult children that she had no education beyond elementary school. To compensate, she raised her daughters with an extra dose of drive and ambition so they might achieve more. Cecil was instructed to become a “professional”-- whatever that meant. Cecil obliged, graduated at the top of her class, and was admitted to Yonsei University, a prestigious school infamous for its absurdly low admission rate. She majored in Food and Biotech Engineering and became the first and only woman in her department at her first job— a non-coincidental foreshadowing. She decided to come to the U.S. to gether MBA to further her career. And it was then she became enthralled with wine, Napa, and winemaking.

She started on the bottom rung of the ladder. In 2007 she became an intern for a laboratory of a winery. “In my eyes, Napa Valley had this perfect ecosystem. People there were talented. Passionate. If I was going to be any part of this ecosystem, I was going to need to really work every single day.” She watched the winemaking process from its beginning stages to completion and studied it quietly.

As a foreign onlooker, she wasn’t exactly considered a threat. She observed it all. To Cecil, the processes seemed overly complex and the terminology difficult to grasp. She worked harder, made mistakes, and like any good student, learned from them. “I went to the fermentation tank for a sample for analysis and I opened the endcap of a valve. The wine burst out like a flood, and I just stood there, notsure what to do. A coworker rushed over and shoved his fist straight into the spew to halt the flood. I had forgotten to set up the valve properly in the beginning. The winery lost a lot of wine that day and I was sure I would beasked to pack my things.” But they didn’t.

The winery she worked at was a shared space among several winemakers. At every given chance, she tasted and observed the ever-evolving processes and styles of wine by celebrated winemakers like Heidi Barrett, Aaron Pott, and Russell Bevan. But more importantly, she learned it was possible to make wine without actually owning land, let alone a winery. This tidbit of information was a game-changer.

Cecil officially started her career making private label wine for clients and special events. “It took years to establish my own brand and even if I could’ve done it sooner, I needed time to learn to make quality wine and see which style fit me.” She attended meetings and conventions— rooms full of sniffing, gurgling, and deep analysis. “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you could sound, well, stupid. I would usually head straight down the barrels and have a sample taste first. I’d think long and hard what to say about each wine before I went back upstairs. The influence of alcohol also helped.” She enrolled herself at UC Davis’s Department of Viticulture and Enology to study advanced winemaking techniques and grapevine farming. She worked for a vineyard management company post-graduation and oversaw eighty sites in the Napa and Sonoma area. Wine consultants and winemakers who interacted with the clients were typically loud with unwavering opinions which— superficially, at least— was attractive. Like a fly on the wall, she watched and learned everything there was to learn. She’d gotten good at that. She quickly lost interest in competing with overhyped winemakers and decided then she would speak solely with her wine. “I found myself in a unique position within Napa. And since I had to handle most of the processes alone, creative solutions were necessary.” With quiet conviction, she launched her own brand Innovatus.

"Innovatus symbolizes the entrepreneurial spirit of Napa."

She broke silent rules, such as blending three grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Syrah,and Cabernet Franc. Her cool disregard for preconceptions of traditional winemaking was a consequence of her late arrival in Napa. Because she grew up in Korea, she wasn’t fettered to rules. It garnered attention from Forbes, James Suckling, San Francisco Chronicle, and other critics. Her Cuvee and Cabernet Sauvignon placed silver in the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the largest competition of American wines in the world. Her wine featured in the 2018 premier of Crazy Rich Asians and became the official wine for the Orpheum Theatre. Her Cabernet Sauvignon scored 92 points by James Suckling and received a rating of 4.6 on Vivino. It was safe to say: Cecil was on the map.

Her career was officially taking off and she was getting comfortable taking a seat in the limelight. “But life doesn’t work like that, does it,” Cecil interjects. In 2019, as unexpectedly as wine came into Cecil’s life at 27, she was brusquely met with a medical diagnosis: stage III breast cancer. After surgery that removed most of the cancerous cells, she opted out of chemotherapy and radiation and decided to heal her body through a combination of Western and Oriental homeopathic medicine and lifestyle change. Most doctors turned her away. They didn’t want to assume responsibility for the medically likely outcome of her decision. But Cecil’s mind was made. “Chemotherapy wipes everything out of the body— good or bad. I don’t do that with my vineyard, why would I do that to my body? I don’t recommend it for everyone. It was a risky decision but it felt right for me.” Long story short, it will be five years since she’s been cancer free.

She takes a similar approach to farming. American agriculture tends to rely on chemicals, focusing mostly on the nutritional status and growth of the fruit. Much of the diversity, especially if it poses any threat, is eliminated, nutrients are injected, and herbicides are used to control growth. Branches that are pruned after harvest are thrown out to prevent bugs and viruses. In contrast, Korean farming, which has gained steady recognition over the years, respects the symbiotic relationships of the land. Diversity is protected and made to coexist. Branches after harvest are reincorporated back into the land in the form of compost. Over time Korea’s natural farming techniques improve the soil health as a sustainable cycle is established. “Healing from the inside out.”

There’s a level of respect Cecil has for all things alive. Her method of healing, farming, and making wine are undeviating— coexistence and balance. Her wine today is “alive,”as she likes to say. With honest winemaking, it’s teeming with probiotics and its own microbiome.

After sixteen years in Napa, Cecil is bringing it all home. She will be introducing Napa’s grape varieties and winemaking techniques to the coastal landscape of Seogwipo, Jeju Island. Partnering with the Korean government she’s building a nursery and research center for plant diversity. The Jeju Vine Nursery Project, she believes, can make Jeju Island a candidate for winemaking. “Entrepreneurs made Napa into what it is today. I really do think Korea, an unlikely place to make wine, can produce world-class wines with a little help from people like myself.”

For the aspiring “professionals” as a young Cecil once dreamed, part of her proceeds go to “Girls in STEM,” located at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. Her wine, Innovatus, Latin for “innovation,” is a nod to immigrants like herself who chipped in with their own versions.

 

Shop Cecil’s wine at https://innovatuswine.com/. Consulting work at https://www.winefornia.com/.

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