Winemaker Spotlight: Optima Winery

As we’ve mentioned before, the producers of the wine on our site are the heart and soul of the craft wine movement. They’ve dedicated their lives to making better wines, so today we want to tell you a little more about one of our favorite producers: the Duffy family of Optima Winery.

Healdsburg’s Optima Winery was started by Mike Duffy, whose interest in wine was sparked in high school, when he worked in his parents’ wine shop. According to his wife Nicol, “He played with making wine out of anything he could get out of his parents’ garden. He would take flats of strawberries, peaches and blackberries and craft them into wine. One time he even raided the rose bushes in the neighborhood so he could make a rose petal champagne.”

That particular champagne was so good, he decided to attend UC Davis to get a technical background in winemaking. Nicol says, “Mike has a unique work ethic and a strong mechanical background, both of which he has his father to thank for… After working at three other well-known wineries, Mike saw an opportunity to put his own stamp on the world and started Optima with a $5,000 tax refund.”

In the beginning, Mike had a lot of inspiration and help from a California wine veteran, Andre Tchelistcheff. “Don’t bother making one of those huge Cabernets like many do in Napa, Mike,” Andre would say.“Anyone can make wines like those.” Mike took that advice, and made a Cab that highlighted the virtues of Alexander Valley-- an intense core of fruit and cocoa, balanced with vanilla and oak. It’s important to Mike that he not manipulate the wine, but, “help it become its best.”

Lately, Nicol said, they’ve been taking a lot of inspiration from cooking shows like Iron Chef. “To us, [cooking] is another form of taking an ingredient and using your creativity to make something incredible.”

As much as they love making wine, though, Nicol said it’s tough to find distribution when their wines don’t fit the mold wine reps are looking for. “Finding the small companies who have a passion for wine, not just box movers, is what we find hard in this business.”

But that doesn’t stop the family from pouring everything they have into their business. And it is truly a family business-- in fact, Mike and Nicol’s relationship sort of started with Optima wine. As Nicol tells it, “The year I moved to Healdsburg my son Tyler played competitive soccer and Mike was the soccer coach. I asked Mike if he would like to come over for dinner so the kids could hang out, [and I] asked if he would like some wine as I was pulling out a bottle of Optima. Mike chuckled and said, ‘You know that’s my winery, I make that wine.’  I was in such shock as I had been drinking Optima for years. Jokingly, I told him I had to marry him. We were married two years later.”

Together they, along with a team of winemakers and their kids, work tirelessly to make great wine. Nicol said, “I always liked the honesty and hard work of agriculture and, to me, winemaking is the ultimate fusion of agriculture and art. This is a labor of love, and every bottle has [our] love, sweat and tears put into that bottle. It’s satisfying to go through the process and see a beautiful wine be born and then enjoyed by so many.”

Jordan Johnson


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