In this week’s Real Talk series, Ashley Leonard, CEO, and Founder of InnoVint, chatted with Evyn Cameron, Winemaker for Buzzkill, an alcohol-removed wine brand, about her fascinating explorations in winemaking, from highly acclaimed North Coast brands to non-alcoholic beverages, and everything in between.
Evyn is an esteemed winemaker of over 12 years, working for notable brands such as White Rock, Saintsbury, Cliff Lede, Anaba, and Crocker & Starr. Recently, Evyn has spun off as a consultant, and one of her gigs is producing wine that has had the alcohol removed, a fascinating, growing space. She discusses the transition from traditional winemaking and some of the elements that factor in (or don’t factor at all) in regard to tinkering with alternative wine beverages.
Evyn’s passion: To create balanced and nuanced wines, but also to collaborate with creative, like-minded, driven, and nice people!
Real Talk Q&A
1. Did you always know you wanted to be a winemaker? How did that come to be?
Great question, Ashley. I did not know I always wanted to become a winemaker because growing up in Northern New Jersey, I had no idea that was a profession!
However, my upbringing was very sensory-focused, and I think that 100% drove me to become a winemaker. My mother was a perfumer at one of the biggest fragrance companies in the world and she would come home with so many different iterations of what she was working on, and I was fascinated.
Through this exposure, I was more and more intrigued about wine but again, didn’t know it was feasible to be a winemaker. I then went to college at Boston University to play soccer and learned they had an amazing Hospitality school. I enrolled and learned they had serious wine courses that I could take which gave me more insight into the winemaking process.
I was then recruited by the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group to work at Per Se, post-graduation, and thought ok – this is how I will be closer to wine. After a year there, I really couldn’t picture myself in the restaurant world long term but met many people through that experience that helped me realize being a winemaker was attainable. I moved to Napa on Christmas day 2009 and never looked back.
2. How did you find Buzzkill? What appealed to you about that project?
Actually, Buzzkill found me. It’s a story of how small the world is.
The founder, Molly, also went to BU and our mutual friend, Laura, went to BU. When Molly was really doubling down on her amazing idea to create Buzzkill, she reached out to Laura for some assistance, as Laura has a small wine brand, Paper Planes, here in Napa. Laura then reached out to me and connected us. After a few hours of conversation, I asked Molly what the name of this project would be, and she replied with “Buzzkill” and I said…where do I sign?” Haha.
In all honesty, more than just the epic name, I thought this was a super interesting untouched category and it would be a chance to set the tone for better non-alcoholic products out there. I like a challenge.
3. There seems to be a big movement right now to the low-alc or no-alc space. Can you talk a bit about this de-alc process, how it’s different from normal winemaking, and your thoughts on quality?
I don’t think quality has been the driver in this category until recently. Talking with other winemakers about this movement, bigger wineries have been trying to make this product since the ’80s but they used not-so-great wine to start with and probably didn’t have the technology, so it never took off.
A lot of those products also have a lot of sugar to mask the quality and try and create mouthfeel but just turn out to be not great and cloying. Now, with more technology and research, we can make a product that doesn’t need to be inundated with sugar. This is certainly completely different than grape to bottle because as soon as you take out the alcohol, you become an FDA product, not a TTB product.
What this means is post alcohol removal, you are allowed to add flavorings and such to de-alc wine. For Buzzkill, I did an incredible amount of R&D because I wanted this to be extremely low sugar, fresh, and highly comparable to wine.
4. What advice do you have for winemakers wanting to dabble in the low or no-alc space?
I’d say go for it! It’s a different world than I’m used to since we can play more with aromatics and other sensory components that we don’t normally have control over post-fermentation. The more minds get into this space, the better the NA wines will be! It’s difficult, but very creative and interesting.
5. What’s been your biggest struggle with the wine industry?
That’s a tough and loaded question. I love the wine industry, obviously. One of the struggles, as I see it, here in Napa, is the high barrier to entry for creating great wines. It’s extremely difficult to afford the ability to create something that is your own. I also think we can be hyper-focused on the same thing year over year and need to find creative ways to be different and appeal to a larger audience.
6. What excites you most about the future of wine?
There is so much going on with the future of wine that excites me. First and foremost, there are so many programs that have started to try and make winemaking more accessible to minorities, such as the BIPOC community and women! I’m just stoked to see how that makes the wine community and the future of wine more interesting and better.
7. What are you drinking at home these days? As a new parent, I would imagine you lean towards alcohol (ha) but, perhaps not?
Haha! I’ve always been a person of moderation, but maybe being a new parent has pushed me a little further. Honestly, we love to start with a cocktail, as my wife has become quite the bartending connoisseur. When we move to wine, we have been focused on Italian whites and reds, with a dabble in older German and Austrian whites because… it’s just so good.