“There are not enough of us”: 5 questions to Fah Sathirapongsasuti

“Why is it important that we are Asian and make wine?” asks Fah Sathirapongsasuti. “Because the vine doesn’t care who grows it, and the grape doesn’t care who does it.”

Winemaker and co-owner of Sunset Cellarsmarketing director of Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative in Fairfield, California, PhD statistician, computer scientist and genome researcher, Sathirapongsasuti answers his own question. “It’s important because people have certain expectations of what the people behind the wine should look like, and how that might influence it.”

Sathirapongsasuti fell in love with the wine ten years ago, after picking up a smoky note in the 2008 Sunset Cellars Afterglow Cabernet Sauvignon and tracing it back to a local forest fire that same year. He was moved by how wine merges art, chemistry, biology, geology, history and culture. As a winemaker, he maintains the style developed by the founders of Sunset Cellars, Doug and Katsuko Sparks, allowing time to tame naturally acidic grapes like Barbera (a flagship wine since 1998) and Petite Sirah, with an intervention minimal.

Today, Sathirapongsasuti works to increase the visibility and representation of Asian wine producers.

In collaboration with Icy Liu and Asian Wine Professionalshe helped create #drinkAAPIwine, a social media campaign featuring virtual interviews, discussions and tastings throughout AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) Heritage Month in May. The initiative began when anti-Asian rhetoric and violence escalated at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. #drinkAAPIwine provides an opportunity to examine biases around wine culture access, knowledge and belonging, to recognize and celebrate the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the wine industry for centuries, and to educate contemporary Asian winemakers and brands.

What do you wish you had known when you started working in the industry?

I wish I was less afraid of being the face of my wine brand. This is partly due to the cultural value placed on humility and the desire to honor the legacy of our founders. I was also afraid of going against the Eurocentric stereotypes of winegrowers.

When you hear the term “rockstar winemaker,” you might imagine someone who sounds more like Ian Devereux White or Carlos Mondavi than me. I now see it as a responsibility to represent my community and myself to highlight the unique contribution we make. I recently released ‘XEN’, an oak-aged white blend of chenin blanc and dry muscat specially made to accompany Thai curries. I thought it was too off the beaten path and in danger of failing, but it’s one of my most successful wines so far. Being authentic to ourselves is not just a responsibility but a viable approach to wine making.

What do you hope #drinkAAPIwine will accomplish?

We are under-represented in the industry, although Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been part of the American wine industry, from the “grape king” Kanaye Nagasawa, born in 1852, to the winemakers behind famous labels like Williams Selyem, Signorello, Dalla Valle, Freeman and Schramsberg.

Like Sunset Cellars, you wouldn’t know they were Asian-owned brands – it’s not advertised in advance. And there are the ancient Chinese railroad workers who planted many of Sonoma’s old vines, contemporary winemakers and farmers, storyteller Wilfred Wong. [of wine.com] and AAPI sommeliers and wine retailers at local establishments.

I hope the platform highlights the unique perspectives and contributions of AAPI individuals across the industry. A more practical and tangible goal would be for most wine consumers to be able to recognize more than a few AAPI producers, learn about their stories, and research their wines.

How has your scientific background influenced your winemaking?

At first, wine was a way to take a break from my research. But I find solace in the scientific aspect of winemaking. It’s nice to see a paper’s fermentation data match what I see in my cellar. The beauty of winemaking, however, is that no matter how well-controlled the research, it may not apply to what goes on in my cellar, my barrels, or my bottles. There is tremendous complexity in this simple drink, and scientific winemaking is an art in itself.

Who is the most underrated person when it comes to drinks?

Vineyard managers. A winemaker’s job is to express the characteristic of the grapes to their full potential. The vineyard manager works with Mother Nature to bring us grapes with the highest potential. I have immense respect for our Vineyard Manager, Gabino Rodriguez, who balances the long-term health of the vines with wine quality and yield.

You are in a dive bar. What do you order?

Sparkling wine, if they have one. The variance in wine quality, especially red wine, is vast. Sparkling wines, like beer, are safer choices. A greater degree of freedom in mixing and dosing, as well as carbonation, helps to ensure consistent quality. If they don’t have sparkling wine, a good ol’ PBR would do.

About Michael Brafford

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