Scholarship Winners: Where Are They Now?
By Greg Risling
If you grew up in an area known for producing some of the finest wine in the world, are you pre-destined to work in that industry?
Being raised in the Napa Valley can definitely be a blessing for burgeoning oenophiles. For Gabriel Altamura, 35, he saw all the hard work that went into making a stellar wine time and again.
“I always was part of the workforce, growing up lower-to-middle income,” Altamura said. “To me, wine making is a testament to hard work. It forces you to be present in your environment.”
Altamura’s first passion was cooking. He was able to live and work in Melbourne as a chef for a year before returning back to the United States where he enrolled at Napa Valley College. While taking classes, he got his introduction into winemaking as a cellar worker at Laird Family Estate.
He then learned the trade and his interest grew while working part-time at Groth Vineyards & Winery. Imagine getting to walk among rows of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grapes – what some might say is an embarrassment of riches right at your fingertips.
“I felt a greater connection when I did my first harvest,” Altamura said. “You don’t need to be a super intelligent person to make wine. You just have to put in the hard work.”
Altamura eventually took courses at the University of California, Davis, one of the premier universities in the winemaking world. Taking classes at UC Davis afforded him the ability to be resourceful and answers to what seemed like complex questions were readily attainable.
It was at UC Davis where Altamura received a scholarship from the Orange County Wine Society. Getting the financial help alleviated the stress and allowed him to focus on his studies, he said.
“It was a really special moment for me and I will always be grateful,” Altamura said. “It’s nice to see people who you don’t know, rooting for you.”
In 2022, Altamura received his degree from UC Davis in enology and viticulture. Since then, he’s been busy working at JH Wine Consulting in the Bay Area. Founded by esteemed winemaker Jean Hoefliger of Alpha Omega fame, the company does a little bit of everything – managing vineyards, sourcing grapes for certain labels and helping build a brand.
Altamura’s days are definitely busy. He oversees five satellite locations, sampling and analyzing the grapes and controlling inventory to ensure JH customers get the best results. He said a year’s worth of experience at JH Wine Consulting feels like it would take three years somewhere else.
Altamura knows the stereotypes that comes with the Napa tag. He is somewhat conflicted because while Napa is so alluring for wine enthusiasts, as a native is can be somewhat constricting.
“It’s like if you grew up in Bordeaux – it’s all you know,” he said. “You need to put out a good Napa cab or what else are you doing here?”
He hopes to one day to run his own operation. He believes that his generation – and the generations who follow – will have to deal with the challenges of climate change and how to best grow grapes under those conditions.
For now, Altamura is focused on producing exemplary wine that is served in restaurants and homes across California and abroad.
“There is no shortage of good wine,” he said. “I think one of the big challenges is how do you get noticed?”