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Know Your Winemakers: Preston Thomas, Associate Winemaker at Stone Tower Winery, Leesburg

Photo for: Know Your Winemakers: Preston Thomas, Associate Winemaker at Stone Tower Winery, Leesburg

20/10/2022 Preston Thomas shares key skills for a good winemaker.

According to Preston Thomas, an associate winemaker at Stone Tower Winery, winemaking yields a broad and unique skill set! He grew up in a scotch-drinking family. His inspiration to become a winemaker happened on Thanksgiving night in 2013 over a box of White Zin. 

Learn more about him and his experiences in the wine space below.

Tell us a little about your background and journey into winemaking.

I have a B.S. in Molecular Biology with a minor in Chemistry from The University of Tennessee - the initial goal being to become a trauma surgeon. After realizing that I did not enjoy the prospects of being a physician, I shifted my focus to winemaking with a harvest internship at Andis Wines in Plymouth, California, in 2015. From there, I moved to Terre Rouge/Easton Wines where, in conjunction with my time at Andis, I realized my passion for winemaking. In 2017, I moved back to the East Coast and began working at Stone Tower Winery in Leesburg, Virginia, where I have been ever since. I said I would give myself until I was 30 to settle into a career, but my heart was set during my first vineyard walk.

Your current role, and what does your day look like?

One of the aspects of being a winemaker that I enjoy most is that no two days are the same. We have two facilities - sparkling/white production and red production - that consistently satisfy my desire for creative problem-solving. A lot of my current role consists of coordinating/planning and putting the pieces of the puzzle in the correct spots. Past that, you can find me in the vineyard seeing what the year is giving us, running analysis, populating spreadsheets and our winemaking software, meeting with upper management about plans, doing what I can to help the team out, and tasting, of course.

What inspired you to become a winemaker?

I grew up in moonshining, Scotch-drinking family, so wine was never really around growing up. My inspiration to become a winemaker happened on Thanksgiving night in 2013 over a box of White Zin (I will not be fielding questions at this time). The conversation that accompanied the wine was what got me hooked. We were still up when the sun rose the next morning. From there, I would visit a local wine shop every week, looking for new wines in an effort to learn as much as I could, which ultimately led to seeking out my first internship. I'm still not sure how I afforded wines in the $20-$30 price point in college.

Preston Thomas

Image: Preston Thomas

What are some of the most important skills for a winemaker?

There is no replacing experience in this industry, but I think there are a few key skills that the best winemakers I know share - the ability to be flexible, good reasoning, being present, and a thirst for knowledge. Winemaking yields a broad and unique skill set!

How do you think a winemaker can help drive marketing and sales personally?

An intern just asked me today whether I thought automation would eventually replace winemakers, and I think my answer to that also answers this question. Human touch matters in every facet of being a winemaker. In my experience, customers want to know the story behind what they are drinking, and the winemaker is the best person to tell it. 

Define a good winemaker.

The best winemakers are humble, formulate good plans but remain flexible and hear ideas, and listen to what the year is giving them to consistently craft elegant and fine wines. Enjoying repetitive cleaning helps.

What is the hardest part of a winemaker's job?

For me, the hardest part of being a winemaker is staying patient. I enjoy instant gratification, but winemaking necessitates patience. The longer I make wine, the more I find the beauty of enjoying the journey from grape to bottle each vintage provides. We only get one shot every year to make the best wine we can, and the staying patient is one of the keys to accomplishing that.

Preston Thomas

Image: Preston Thomas

What do you do when you are not working/making wine?

I am recently married where I gained an awesome stepdaughter and am expecting a boy in March, so most of my free time is spent enjoying time with my family. I would be remiss if I didn't plug in that my wife is an excellent winemaker's spouse in that she is always understanding and supportive of the time commitment winemaking takes. In addition to that, I'm an avid golfer and sports fan (go Braves, go Vols). During harvest, you can absolutely find me on the couch doing nothing during the rare day off. I'm also in pursuit of making the perfect steak; shoutout to a reverse-seared ribeye basted with garlic and rosemary butter.

What are the current challenges winemakers are facing, according to you?

Climate change is what occupies a lot of my mind. In my six years on the East Coast, there have been six very different growing seasons/harvests due to weather that have caused me to redefine what I consider a baseline vintage to be. 

I think winemakers across the world are having to reckon with drastically changing weather patterns and how to best adapt current practices for long-term quality and success. 

What skill or topic are you learning currently in wine and why?

The nuances of sparkling wine production. In 2020, we began a sparkling program, which was my first go-around with the style. When I am drinking wine outside of work, you can find me geeking out on sparkling. So far, it is one of the most creative ways I have made wine since you can take the same base wine and make many different finished products. Plus, nothing beats a well-crafted sparkling wine with some age to it.

Preston Thomas

Image: Preston Thomas

What is your idea of a good life?

Enjoying the ride and finding balance. I used to get so wrapped up in constantly moving/working that I never slowed down enough to actually appreciate and enjoy other aspects of life. Not to diminish the importance of doing quality work but taking time to be with the people you love and doing things you enjoy is paramount to finding a good balance and taking in all the good life has to offer. It kind of sounds like how I would describe a good wine now that I'm reading it back.

Who are your top 3 sommeliers whose work you admire?

The first sommelier who came to mind when I read this prompt was Brent Kroll, who owns Maxwell Park in D.C. I admire his approach to selecting a good list, keeping the list rotating, and welcoming all people interested in wine with open arms. My other two are dedicated to the sommeliers we have on staff at Stone Tower who are always seeking new knowledge and asking great questions that not only keep me on my toes and thinking critically but also elevate the experience of the guests at the winery.

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Your favourite 2-3 wine books?

Let's not get it twisted. I'm a wine geek. I routinely revisit my copy of Principles and Practices of Winemaking, trying to find new ways to approach making wine. I also really enjoy The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson. I enjoy the historical and technical approach to wine she gives.

Header Image: Preston Thomas

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