Northern California native Dominic Mantei embraces the adventure of making wine at Kaya Vineyard and Winery in Georgia’s Dahlonega Plateau.
During the latter part of the pandemic, winemaker Dominic Mantei found me on social media after reading some of my past stories about Pennsylvania wineries. He had relocated from Northern California to Grovedale Winery in Pennsylvania in 2020 and was seeking a freelance brand copywriter. Dominic and I communicated and collaborated via Zoom and email to write back wine label copy. In 2022, Dominic accepted a winemaking opportunity at Kaya Vineyard and Winery in the Dahlonega Plateau in North Georgia. We met face to face at Kaya in November 2022, then again in April 2023. I finally had the opportunity to interview Dominic – and what a story he has! 1. Everyone has a story. What’s yours? I am a first-generation winemaker, native to the mountains of Northern California’s Sierra Foothills. Although my heart is torn between the two places that I now call home – California and now Georgia – I’ve embraced the adventure and challenge of making wine and raising a family in a new state. The adventure, the mountains, and producing something with my hands that I can share with the people in my life have all been drivers in my decision making since I was a teen. 2. Did you have a wine moment (or moments) when you fell in love with wine that made you want to be a winemaker? It may be cliché, but when I was 19 years old on a backpacking trip to Europe – already considering a career as a winemaker – I had the moment. I was dining with my friends at a small local restaurant on the cliffs of Cinque Terre on the northern Italian Riviera. I was eating the cheapest item on the menu, gnocchi with pesto – and we drank the least expensive local white wine. We watched the sunset over the Mediterranean and took it all in – the flavors, sights, aromas, and sun – and that was the moment it clicked for me that winemaking was what I wanted to pursue. I had already applied to Fresno State’s enology and viticulture program, so when I returned from Europe, it was time to get to work.
3. What’s your wine background – education and experience? I graduated from Fresno State with my degree in enology and viticulture in 2001. While there, I worked under winemaster, teacher, mentor, and professor Ken Fugelsang – and took part in the very first commercial crush by an educational institution in the world. From there, I focused my career in the Sierra Foothills, working as assistant winemaker at Villa Toscano in Amador County making old-vine Zinfandels, Barberas, and Rhône-style wines. From there, I moved another 1000 feet in elevation to Windwalker Vineyards in El Dorado County, where I worked with exceptional estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and continued to work with some of the top vineyards and growers in the region. It was during my 10 years there that my wines won the coveted Golden Bear Award for Best Red Wine (a Primitivo) and many Best in State awards, among others. 4. How long have you been in the wine industry? I’ve worked in the wine industry around 25 years – 22 years full time – including vineyard crew gigs and internships as a student and winemaker at Villa Toscano, Windwalker and Everhart Cellars in the Sierra Foothills. I was also a consulting winemaker for wineries like Bella Grace, Windwalker, Rosa Luca Estate, etc., then made the transcontinental leap to the East Coast to be winemaker at Grovedale Winery in Pennsylvania, and now Director of Winemaking at Kaya in Dahlonega, Georgia. 5. Please describe your winemaking project(s). Kaya is a leader in Georgia winemaking and viticulture, having one of the oldest and largest premium mountain vineyards in the state of Georgia. We are committed to making high-quality wines from 20 acres of estate vineyards as well as fruit from around the world. Our TWISTED brand is our second label of wines made from primarily California-sourced fruit. We make great wines and offer a casual, full-service, and fine-dining experience in a historic farmhouse at our Dahlonega resort location – with winemaker dinners and experiences that highlight all that we are doing. I also dabble with my namesake brand, DOMINIC, a fun passion project to share with family and friends – wines I make from my home turf in the Sierra Foothills. 6. What is a typical day (or week) in the life of Dominic Mantei like? This depends on the season. A typical work week includes keeping a pulse on current and future bottling projects, scheduling, blending, planning logistics, weekly vineyard inspections, and so on. I manage a person in the cellar and a five-person vineyard crew. I work with an outstanding vineyard consultant – Miguel Barcenas (5 years in Willamette Valley before here in Georgia). I also work with our managers to develop and execute Kaya’s hospitality experience at all our locations. I participate in industry networking events and take the lead as the wine expert within the company. I also oversee federal, state, and local wine and alcohol taxes, reporting, records maintenance, and tasting notes. When I get home from a day’s work I love to go for a swim or a bike ride – plus I shuffle our kids from event to event. Eventually we get around to eating dinner or putting our feet up around a fire on the patio with a glass of wine!
7. Share with me your favorite vineyards and why. As far as a single vineyard source, my favorite is Dorado Canyon Vineyard in El Dorado County, It’s one of those diamonds in the rough that I discovered years ago and it remains one of my favorites! It’s on a south-facing hillside with well drained rocky soils, at an elevation of 2400 feet. The fruit is always immaculate, dark, and flavorful with balanced chemistry. My good friend Ken is the grower, and he babies the vines and even talks to them! Ha ha! As far as favorite regions go, the Douro in Portugal still must be my favorite. I’m awe struck. It’s truly an amazing place to visit. I have tremendous respect for the steep and extreme grape growing. I don’t make wines from this region yet, but that may have to become a goal. 8. What is/are your favorite varietal wine(s) to make and why? I love Malbec (the fruit, depth, spice, color, and structure) and Cabernet Sauvignon (what’s not to love?). I’ve always had a passion for Sangiovese. I like the red fruit and cherry flavors it delivers, and the nice acidity and tannins. I’ve had a lot of success with this grape. I like that it can be made into a light, vibrant wine, or a more full, layered, and complex wine with blending and oak aging.
9. What is/are your favorite varietal wine(s) to drink and why? The three above, plus good sparkling and Pinot Noir. Most of my selections are based on what we are making for dinner and these wines work great with our style of cooking.
10. Do you have a favorite wine and food combo? I love a good steak, seared to perfection, with a great Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon and grilled veggies. I also love anything creative out of the garden, Mediterranean dishes, and Asian-inspired cuisine.
11. Do you have a winemaking style or philosophy? My passion is big reds, but I also like the element of winemaking that requires a plan B and/or a plan C when finding solutions to problems. When having a challenging grape growing year, having to course correct to produce a good wine instead of taking a loss is hugely rewarding – and you can end up with a new and innovative product you otherwise would’ve never made. Once I made a white Pinot Noir instead of a red one to accomplish that. 12. How do you balance a career and family – how do you achieve work-life balance? It hasn’t been too hard for me. When I keep my priorities in order, it works out in the end. There are busier seasons – like harvest – that my family must gear up for and adjust their expectations of me, which is helpful. I’m a good delegator. I also don’t have work email on my phone, which creates a healthy boundary between family/personal time and work. 13. How do you envision the next 10 years? Work hard and play hard! My family and I love living in Georgia, so my goal is to be an industry leader here while championing Kaya, with an emphasis on quality wine and hospitality experiences for our guests. On a personal level, I want to spend more time fishing with my son, enjoying the local rivers and mountain bike trails, exploring the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, and traveling with my wife, Jen, and kids. 14. Please share with me a tidbit of information about yourself that I won’t find anywhere else. I’ve kayaked the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon twice. I’ve worked as a professional whitewater rafting guide. I love homemade apple pie. And good ice cream is my weakness.
Dr. Elizabeth Smith is a former college professor and wine club manager turned award-winning wine writer and wine and writing competition judge. Her day job is wine and winemaker copywriter at Naked Wines USA. Elizabeth is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier International Sacramento and Sonoma Chapters, the Circle of Wine Writers and the Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association. Connect with Elizabeth at easmith.net/contact.
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