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A.J. Ferrari – Wine Expert, Culinary Manager at Salesforce

Dec 17, 2019

A.J. Ferrari is a wine expert with decades of experience across the wine industry ranging from working for wine spectator magazine and working on a vineyard in New Zealand, to becoming a wine sommelier and teaching a wine class at Stanford University. This episode builds off of a previous conversation about wines and climate change with Peter Mondavi (episode 2).

This week in agriculture adapts:

– Shifting climate zones are leaving many age-old wineries in the dust and opening up the door for newly suitable lands

– Why wineries that weren’t burned in the Napa wildfires were still effected

– Can vineyards developed without irrigation actually be better suited to combat drought?

00:00 / 00:00

Borna (ClimateAi) 0:04
This is Agriculture Adapts by ClimateAi. Every week we speak with industry leading executives, farmers and academics to get a 360 view of how the agriculture sector is innovating to stay ahead of a changing climate. I’m your host Borna Poursheikhani. And I am your co host Himanshu Gupta. We’re a team of climate scientists and agriculture entrepreneurs trying to make farming more resilient, profitable and equitable as we transition to a new age of agriculture. This podcast is our journey as we explore the hurdles and opportunities that lie ahead for the industry that feeds the world.

Hello, hello. Hello. We have another exciting episode teed up for you all today. Episodes back We spoke with Peter Mondavi the CO proprietor of Charles Craig, one of the oldest wineries in Napa, about the impacts of climate change on the wine industry. Wine is a fascinating ag product and there’s so much to learn. So we naturally had a ton more follow up questions after that amazing conversation and just wanted to dig a little bit deeper. So we recruited someone to join us who has a slightly different angle of expertise. With us today is AJ Ferrari, a wine sommelier or a wine expert. He is the ohana floor culinary manager at Salesforce and a wine instructor at Stanford University. Thanks for joining us today, AJ. Thanks for having me. So I think a good place to start as to sort of just hear about your background how you came to be a sommelier a What made you want to do that and just what your personal story is.

A.J. Ferrari 1:26
My personal journey started as a small kid in Pennsylvania, my grandfather made wine that he used for the church that they belong to, my father’s kind of picked up the practice as well and was making wine more for his, his personal temple. And so we got to experience that as a kid moving wine barrels around and from different car boys in different vessels and different, you know, just the whole process. It was very low tech. I moved into San Francisco when I first turned 21 and I got a job for a wine shop called dnm. At the time was one of the top wine shops in the country, really specializing in single malt Scotch French brandy, champagne and boutique California wines. And I was just at the right age to really dive into it because I just turned 21. I was very excited. There’s tons of opportunities in tastings. I was new to San Francisco. So it was just a real education industry. I moved on from that position, and I ended up working at the Wine Spectator magazine, in their tasting department for their editor, Harvey Steinman, who was at the time in charge of Australia, New Zealand, Oregon and Washington wines. So I helped him, put on his tastings, tasted the wines with him, and kind of edited and polished up his notes and sent them to New York. I left that job and to travel for quite a bit and during that travel, I spent some time in New Zealand doing a little vineyard work and then in Australia working what’s called a harvest. So that’s when the grapes are being harvested and brought in, and you’re changing the juice to actual to wine. So it did that and then eventually back into the States, where I started getting into kind of helping out a couple different wineries here in Napa, green and red was one, that was a really great experience. And it built off that experience with that I had in Australia where, you know, previous I could tell you exactly how wine was made, but I couldn’t go into detail because I just had to, you know, kind of a light understanding and it really helped kind of broaden my knowledge, came back to the states then and are still and got into running wine programs for restaurants. So kind of helping them source wines by wine spirits, putting the bar list together thinking about by the glass kind of programs. And that’s really when I started kind of getting into that world of being a psalm or somebody a left there came that I was up in Napa, Sonoma, actually. and came back to San Francisco where I worked for a bunch of different wine ventures, then ended up moving toward being a small Yeah, at a restaurant called Cortez left there to go to Michael Mena restaurant where I stopped being on the floor small Yay, but really got involved with the wine and spirits program from behind the bar. Left, that group went to work for another bar organization in San Francisco, and then on to Salesforce. So it’s always been always been kind of professionals in the industry. Sorry, no, that’s long.

Borna (ClimateAi) 4:35
Can you just clarify for people what it means to be a sommelier? Because I think for some, at least, at least for me, I’ve heard of like the master Somali a and I think I’m watching a Netflix documentary on it before, but what does it mean to be a Somali a?

A.J. Ferrari 4:47
Sure, I mean, the term small Yeah, means that you’re a wine buyer. It was typically applied to a wine buyer who was buying wines for a hotel or restaurant. And so anybody who’s in that position could call themselves a small and then there is different types of credentialing that you can do. There’s the wine and spirits Education Trust, that registers you as a level one, level two, level three, Somalia, and you go through that process to then possibly get to that point you were talking about a master Somalia and there’s a movie, a couple of them now, but one song is a great one a bunch of friends minor in that and that kind of talks you through walks you through their journey, and the pressure and anxiety involved in to get to that level.

Himanshu (ClimateAi) 5:29
Tell us about a class at Stanford

A.J. Ferrari 5:31
You know, during that process that I was talking about, of all those different kind of wind jobs, or I started teaching here at Stanford, so I found out about it, I answered an ad on Craigslist, it was very simple. And you know, the classes there’s no major here, your own vintage culture or analogy. These are one credit classes so they fall really more into the category which I like to call them with like life skills. So here we learn how to teach the class how to talk about why and how to think about flavor how to just process that information that then they can communicate it back to going to a restaurant, or going to a wine shop and having a little bit more to say in the situation, that might actually mean something.

Borna (ClimateAi) 6:15
So I think one of the things that interested us originally about wine, in particular is that if you look at the agriculture space, everyone is dependent on weather and climate. But if you look at the wine space, in particular, there’s this concept of terroir, where people really care a lot about the soil, the region, what the climates doing, and it seems to kind of be front and center. When you’re thinking about the end product. How does the terroir affect flavor? And how should people think about this concept of terroir?

A.J. Ferrari 6:41
Well, terroir really means a sense of place. So, we all have it in all the products we kind of have some terroir for the most part, and it’s going to be represented wines by the angle of the sun. Where were those grapes vines are located matter of days of rain that particular year. They type of soil that all those conditions kind of add up to that terroir. And it’s very important. And that’s why only certain places in the world can produce world class wines. And it’s just not from anywhere that can grow grapes because you really need that right balance, to have the right amount of acidity and sweetness and get to the grapes to that level of ripeness, where they’re able to be produced into wine. And then you have to have a really special terroir to be produced in the world class wine.

Borna (ClimateAi) 7:28
So as the climate around the world starts shifting, and how does that affect that idea of terroir? are different wineries trying to move their operations to be able to sell the same product or are they shifting the types of products they’re selling?

A.J. Ferrari 7:40
Both of those are happening. Certain wineries Are you know, gravitating towards locations that possibly were a little cooler, and now now are starting to kind of warm up so that they’re able to get more ripeness or the ripeness levels in the grapes are more consistent in certain areas. In other areas. It’s where it’s becoming now a little bit too hot for the wine production. Some of these areas, they’ve changed the grape varieties that they’re growing to kind of complement the actual climate conditions a little bit more. The more noticeable to me is the areas that were not viably produced prior and now are becoming a little bit more viable, which is a good thing in the short term. But for some people, but bad thing, I think overall for all of us.

Borna (ClimateAi) 8:26
And then we think about the question of Napa in particular, and it becoming a drier and hotter climate. We seem to be hearing different views on whether that’s gonna be good or bad for the region, like you can read articles about climate change is going to make Cabernet Sauvignon not viable in Napa in the next 2030 years. But then on the other hand, you have people who are saying, Oh, no, it’s gonna allow us to essentially grow more saturated flavorful wines.

A.J. Ferrari 8:54
That would be a good argument to have with certain people, but I mean, yes. It’s true, brighter, warmer, hotter weather produces grapes that kind of will get riper, but we’re really lucky in both Napa and Sonoma because we don’t have just one climate, there’s all a lot of microclimates. So those different areas will benefit or, or have issues one way or the other. Some of those areas will kind of have maybe more vigor or more production from the area because it’s a little bit warmer and it heats things up and other areas, it might turn those grapes into raisins a little prematurely. The heat is generally not going to be good, because eventually it’s just going to get too hot. And you need to have the grapes get to a place where they actually have where they’re ripe. And if they get too ripe too quick. It’s not like you can just pick them, they need to be physiologically ripe. That’s why California is really kind of tricky. And the but we’ve kind of dealt with it well, but that’s where those microclimates really come into play. In areas like the Sonoma coast where you have cooler weather or fog in the morning. Like that really helps benefit the the grapes.

Borna (ClimateAi) 10:07
So I was reading before we came here and tell me if this is wrong. But I heard that a lot of people believe that in order to be able to extract the true terroir, you shouldn’t be essentially irrigating your vineyard. So if you’re dry farming, and your climates changing, are you more or less screwed? Or how are you going to navigate that situation?

A.J. Ferrari 10:27
The whole idea behind that philosophy really kind of lies in the behavior of the root structure in these grape vines. So if you’re watering them or irrigating the vines, and their roots just grow right to where that water is. So that’s typically going to be pretty near the surface, so they don’t go grow deep. If it’s a dry farm, the benefit there is that these vines, their roots go deep down into the soils and they find that water that’s locked in well below maybe 10-20 feet below the surface level. And that really helps benefit the terroir because its getting in between these rocks and in that soil and it’s breaking it apart, it’s actually becoming, you know, part of the whole biosphere. And that’s really important. If you’re irrigating, it’s, it’s easy, and you can control it. And, you know, you might see quite a bit of upside, but it is kind of a short term solution.

Borna (ClimateAi) 11:22
That’s super unintuitive. So you’re saying the people that are dry farming are probably most poised to be resilient in the coming years?

A.J. Ferrari 11:28
100% they didn’t used to have irrigation, you know, so it’s, it’s new. And that’s what they you look at all these old, very successful farms that have been around for hundreds of years. And a lot of them are dry farm. You know, now people talk about, you know, the weather and the change. So people start talking about, oh, we can just do it. You know, hydroponically. Well, you could but you can’t grow enough grapes hydroponically to be a viable winery at this state. So it’s a lot of space. Look at these vineyards and how big and how vast they are. They’re not big and vast because they want to show off their grandiose ness, they just need that much acreage to produce as much wine as they’re selling. Those places that are that are, you know, dry farming there, it’s some, some of them are situated in a better place.

Borna (ClimateAi) 12:12
So we talked with Peter about the impact of wildfires on wine and the fact that they make them smoky, they can make a wine taste different. Are there other variables like that that can factor into the flavor of a wine that could potentially like ruin a batch or can make it unique in a certain way?

A.J. Ferrari 12:28
You know, it would be kind of a short sighted to think or to want that to happen. Because you don’t want to be influenced by some wildfires. Yeah, there there is a certain amount of ash level layer that comes down and kind of coats everything depends on when that what’s going on in the vineyard. If you’re in harvest when that’s happening, I mean, just you have ash, and once the ash hits liquid, you can’t see it anymore. So it becomes an invisible kind of flavor profile. It also coats the barrels, you know, which are constantly respirating, even though you wouldn’t think that so you’re getting that kind of that smokiness in the wine. And there are some wines that, you know, I’ve talked to about or tasted and noticed hints of smokiness and that I haven’t noticed in those wines previously,

Borna (ClimateAi) 13:18
And you weren’t you weren’t told you were able to tell when you drank it.

A.J. Ferrari 13:21
Yeah, you know, I kind of was like, oh, that has a little bit smokiness. I looked at the venue or the vintage realized this was like one of the years that we had a big fire there wine was kind of around that area. Because it’s years later, you’re not tasting that in the wine like immediately unless you’re the winemaker where you’re able to taste it constantly. But if you’re just a person who’s buying wine off the shelf, that’s years after the fact. So sometimes you have to look back in the in the calendar and see what was happening then what were the influences?

Borna (ClimateAi) 13:48
Yes. How does that affect pricing like is that is it like a unique line that people want more of or is it kind of tainted

A.J. Ferrari 13:54
Just like any wine some people like certain aspects of it, some people don’t like those aspects. It’s a typically will drive the prices up, not because of the influence of the smoke, but because there’s gonna be less wine because there was a disastrous wildfire in the area. So people lost product, people lost time, people lost buildings. So anytime anything happens, the prices go up, and they’ll never come down.

Borna (ClimateAi) 14:17
And correct me if I’m wrong, but wines are like heavily blended right?

A.J. Ferrari 14:21

Borna (ClimateAi) 14:21
So would it not be easy to basically dilute the smoky or whatever flavor is coming into your wine by just spreading that parcel of land that was impacted more more thin amongst the others.

A.J. Ferrari 14:33
It just depends on maybe all your parcels were affected. But I mean, this isn’t something that winemakers are, I’m sure yes, it’s a very big concern. But you’re you have so many other problems and you’re just probably happy that your didn’t burn down. So you know, you’re gonna work through it, you’re going to see what how fermentation after you bring those grapes in how that’s going to affect the flavor. And then you’ll go from there. I mean, there’s some very famous wines, well, relatively famous in certain parts of the world, one in particular called Pino Taj in it has this kind of always has this kind of aroma of campfire. Like if you just took your sweater on, put it on the next day after like being in a bonfire, it’s that kind of smell. And it just has its intrinsic value of that grape. And that’s one of its identifiers. So some people love that some people can’t stand it, some people don’t notice it.

Borna (ClimateAi) 15:21
So in California, we’re super well acquainted with this issue of wildfires. And that’s why that’s like the main thing that stands out to us. But what are people experiencing in other parts of the world?

A.J. Ferrari 15:30
Well, I mean, drought, wildfire, floods, those things are all you know, super destructive. You like you were speaking about earlier that winemaking in this whole business is based on agriculture. So they have the same kind of issues. As we see the farmers all around talking about. We’ve had you know, back hundreds of years ago, we had phylloxera which was an epidemic that almost destroyed all wine production in Europe. And that heavily affected what we’re the choices we’re making here in America at that time, because that’s when all of a sudden brandy got really expensive. And that’s when we started producing our own spirits here. And you know, wine production domestically kind of sprung from that.

Himanshu (ClimateAi) 16:13
So a lot of our listeners are also investors, you know, agriculture investors, and seems like a lot of investment activity is happening in the wine industry where companies are trying to acquire estates, which might be more fruitful for growing one grape varietal versus the other. So where would you advise our listeners who might be investors to focus attention to

Borna (ClimateAi) 16:35
not gonna give up his trade secrets?

A.J. Ferrari 16:36
Well, yeah, I’ve noticed. Yeah. You know, I mean, wherever you see yourself wanting to be in spend time because that’s basically what they’re gonna end up buying is, you know, it’s not you do get to buy this beautiful commodity that could travel as well or travels, let’s say well, and you can take it with you but part of being an investor in a winery or wine a vineyard would be to visit and spend time there. So it depends on where you’d like to be. And then you know if that’s in, you know, look at the trends. I mean, California, it’s a very, it’s, it just depends on what your tastes are as well, really. But California is very expensive in certain areas, but maybe you could kind of predict on the climate maps and see what the next, you know, gem is going to be.

Himanshu (ClimateAi) 17:22
That’s cool. It’s a good idea. Yeah.

A.J. Ferrari 17:27
Yeah, I mean, what I’ve noticed, and again, getting back to owning winery, it’s really about you’re not necessarily gonna make a ton of money, per se in a winery, but you’re gonna have great parties,

Borna (ClimateAi) 17:42
which is the important part.

A.J. Ferrari 17:43
Well, it is and I mean, so you have this beautiful space to entertain, and you know, it the wines are enjoy the wines, but you get the write off. And, you know, that’s that’s what it’s all about.

Borna (ClimateAi) 17:56
There you go. So a big trend in the agriculture sector has been organic, and the rest of the world and the rest of the crops get a premium for organic. But a lot of times I’ve been reading that organic wines, at least when they first started coming out, were being like devalued in price because it was assumed that if they’re organic, they’re not going to be as good.

A.J. Ferrari 18:19
Well, you know, there’s this hard thing that winds we’ve gone through in kind of some of the governing bodies to determine what is organic, and what those words really mean. And so just to put any words on your label is very difficult needs a lot of different approvals. So it started off with being like organically grown grapes. But that didn’t say that you were using all organic processes in the winery. And then there was organically made wines. And those wines, by kind of rule then said that they weren’t able to add any other product during the production to the juice and one of those things is adding which commonly is used in a lot of wineries is the addition of sulfur. And we’re talking about a very, most of the time, we’re talking about a very minute amount, maybe 20 milliliters to a ton of grape juice. So it’s just a little bit and a graduated cylinder that’s added to kind of neutralize the active yeast cultures. And whatever the bacteria that has come in, so that you’re able to kind of introduce the yeast cultures that you would like to kind of work with it in that grape, or that production that you’re having. So when wineries weren’t able to use that sulfur, they had a lot of wild fermentations, which sometimes works really well. Sometimes you’re having fermentations by bacteria or yeast that are not going to be good representations of the quality of wine that you have. So that was a real factor. So you got this, you know, what’s now is really, you know, popular as these natural wine kind of movement. It’s very, very interesting to me to see people really cling, cling to and, you know, this demand for natural wine where a lot of people see those as faults they thought that they work their way through. So there’s just that right balance of, you know, using some product but not using too much in some way. Sorry, that was a little.

Borna (ClimateAi) 20:09
No, that makes sense. And and like what is? I mean, obviously this is just is your personal opinion. But what does sustainability mean in the in the wine sector? Like it seems to me that wineries are maybe not wineries. I don’t know about wineries. But these vineyards seem to be pretty sustainable. Already, just from like, if you look at it from a first principles level, like if you guys are even going through and clipping off berries, sometimes you can get better flavors.

A.J. Ferrari 20:34
Unfortunately, I don’t know if your investors are going to love to hear this. But you know, there’s a ton of water wasted at wineries. It’s just the natural, you have to rinse everything down. So that’s really an issue. That happens quite often with wineries. So sustainability is really tough. What I think in my humble opinion is if you want to be sustainable, it’s not about being organic. It’s about taking the next step, which would be being biodynamic and biodynamic is a principles that you can’t be just a little of, you’re not a little biodynamic, you’re it’s 100% buy in. And that helps with your sustainability about how you treat your paper in the office of your building. What happens to all your water and how it’s recaptured, reclaimed? how you go about fertilizing your fields, the kind of pests and positive pests that you bring in to promote healthy grape development, birds, animals, all those things. So I really think that’s the true key to sustainability in the wine business or any agricultural business if possible.

Borna (ClimateAi) 21:38
Yeah. And this term biodynamic? Is there like a definitive framework around what that is? Or is it sort of like organic and sustainable words for people

A.J. Ferrari 21:47
super structured, super defined. It’s a very, it’s a process that you go through. It’s up seven years process to get certified, biodynamic, and it’s a agency called The Meter, is the one that kind of does that it’s a European based system. And it’s it’s really a huge, huge asset to making high quality wine. And having the ability to have your winemakers footprints in the vineyard, which are going to be the basis of having them have the most knowledge of what’s going on and then being able to produce the highest quality of grapes. Got it. So for them, it’s they’re getting their ROI back. It’s not a matter of like trying to label it as we’re biodynamic. It’s just that it’s more profitable for them, for the most part, whether you use no pesticides, no fertilizers. So this was a way that wineries especially impoverished winemakers had to act. And so these are some of those things that have developed from roots of being just a traditional winemaker because they didn’t have the money or the access to fertilizer and pesticides and things along those lines.

Himanshu (ClimateAi) 22:51
Maybe we should organize a wine tasting event, you know, sit by you and inviting a lot of industry CEOs and talking about climate change in the wind.

A.J. Ferrari 23:00
I mean, that is a definitely a great way to bring a bunch of people together. You know, free wine and food definitely work in. And you know, that is a lot of stuff that we do at Salesforce. And, you know, we’re not necessarily focused on how these wines 100% are impacted and how these different meetings go. But I’m always thinking about it. And I’m a supporter of wines that I know being biodynamic being organic, just that process sometimes sometimes they don’t want to even label it, but I know them personally and I believe in their product and I see the kind of work that they put into their their vineyards. And that’s the only way to get the highest quality grapes which then maybe you have the possibility to making high quality wine. But without having the highest quality grapes you really are behind the eight ball already.

Borna (ClimateAi) 23:51
If you’d like to be invited to this executive only event you can reach out to me at haha. So, how can people support what you’re doing either at Salesforce or in your class or just in your life in general, you got anything you want to be on the platform here,

A.J. Ferrari 24:07
You know, drink, drink good wine. Don’t waste Don’t waste time. But you know, the what I really try to get across to my students and I think this is a great tool is when it comes to wine, know what you like, know why you like it and never be afraid to try something new. And those are three principles that I was trying to apply to wines.

Himanshu (ClimateAi) 24:25
For listeners who don’t have a chance didn’t have a chance to attend your class. And that includes me. What resources would you recommend to learn more about about wines?

A.J. Ferrari 24:35
You know, we’re here very lucky because we’re surrounded by wineries. I mean, you can go just 30 minutes from here to Los Gatos and go visit a handful of wineries there Santa Cruz Mountains. You don’t have to go to Napa or Sonoma to kind of dip your toes in and check it out. I think there’s not one favorite winery I have necessarily, I think people should just visit them all. And you know, find your own favorite, you know. It’s not about necessarily like, Oh, these people have the most amazing wine all the time, which I think you’ll find out as you experiment more and try more things. Sometimes it’s really about the situation, the occasion, the view the veranda, you know, the company you had playing Bochy, you know that they’re all designed to have this amazing entertainment values. So that’s the way I think if you kind of search for those and try the all the different wineries and, you know, maybe sample the wines while you’re there, that’s a good good way to kind of educate yourself.

Borna (ClimateAi) 25:31
And what if you’re not from Northern California,

A.J. Ferrari 25:33
come visit.

Borna (ClimateAi) 25:35
There you go get a space on a AJs couch.

A.J. Ferrari 25:39
You know, almost every state has, has wine production, its you know, you find people are very, very proud if they’re, if they come from Idaho, you know, they typically think Idaho wines are the best, and that’s great. They’re good. They’re everybody’s kind of has a lot of fun with it.

Borna (ClimateAi) 25:57
Awesome. Okay, well, thank you so much for your time. That was really useful conversation.

A.J. Ferrari 26:00
Absolutely. Thank you guys.

Borna (ClimateAi) 26:10
Hey everybody, thanks for listening if you have any feedback or you’d like to add your own two cents on the topic discussed today, or if you’ve just got your own ideas about something that we should discuss in the future, please feel free to shoot me an email at At its core, this podcast is just a way for us to learn and we want to share our learnings as we go. So we’re always open to building on these conversations and hearing new perspectives. Thanks for your support and see you next time.


A.J. Ferrari



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