Q&A with Oliver Mikkelsen

The Naples native shares his insights on being a young winemaker

Oliver Mikkelsen, photo by Natalie Messenger
Photo by Natalie Messenger

Oliver Mikkelsen, age 28, son of Elizabeth and Paw Mikkelsen, owners of their eponymous bakery and pastry shop, grew up in Naples with his two sisters. However, he headed to California after college to learn his age-old trade—winemaking. Mikkelsen, a proud graduate of Barron Collier High School, is currently assistant winemaker and ranch manager at Villa Creek Cellars in Paso Robles. Between checking on grapes and barrels, he took the time to share his insights with us on being a young winemaker.

NI: What made you decide to be a winemaker?

Mikkelsen: My mother is from England and my father is from Denmark, so I grew up appreciating food and wine and the pairing of both. In high school, I had a friend who owned a winery in New York’s Finger Lakes region. I spent summers working there, and it came together for me.

How did you end up in Paso Robles?

After I graduated from UC Davis in 2015, I worked two harvests each year. I spent the winter at the Howard Park winery in western Australia, then worked at Ovid and Williams Selyem in California and O. Fournier in Spain’s Ribera del Duero region. Next, I spent three years at Epic Wines in Paso before I got the job at Villa Creek.

What appealed to you about Villa Creek?

Cris and JoAnn Cherry, the owners, were pioneers in the area. They opened a restaurant in Paso Robles in 1996, which became a local hangout for winemakers. Cris tried his hand at making a house wine for the restaurant, which became the Villa Creek Avenger; they purchased the property in 2003. They have a deep commitment to sustainability and biodynamic farming.

What’s special about Paso?

I love Napa and Sonoma, but those areas are practically monocultures; all you see is grapevines. There are cattle ranchers here, along with people growing barley and other agricultural crops. They call Paso “the last cowboy town.” It’s close to the ocean and I can fish, hunt, and hike. In addition to being more diverse and interesting, there’s more opportunity here to start a career.

Describe a typical day.

During the summer months, I spent most of my time doing vineyard work: tilling, mowing, and crop thinning. Since we farm biodynamically, we have sheep that we use as grazers—most of my morning is spent tending to them and moving them around to different parts of the estate. In the winter, when the vines are dor- mant, we’re monitoring different wine lots and blending the wines ready to be bottled.

What’s your total case production?

It’s small, about 3,000 cases between Villa Creek and Maha Estate. The two brands are marketed separately. Maha is the luxury line, retailing around $150 per bottle. Both labels are mostly blends of Rhône grape varieties such as Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre, which thrive in Paso Robles; for Villa Creek, we also bottle a Fiano, an Italian white wine.

What does the future hold?

I’d like to launch my own wine brand someday, but I’m sure I’d have to hold onto a full-time job in the beginning, so I plan to stay at Villa Creek. Land is extremely expensive now in California, though, so it’s not a good place to start out. Who knows— someday, I might even end up back in the Finger Lakes.

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