A Really Twisted Winery Owner

You may wonder why we didn’t join the rest of the blogosphere with a zany April Fool’s Day post, especially given it’s one of our favorite holidays. You might say that we were subjected to one of the worst April Fool’s Day pranks, E-V-E-R, and were in no mood for such things at the time. One day we might tell you about it, but today will not be the day.

Last April Fool’s Day we wrote about a merry prankster we visited last year on our way to Wine Road Barrel Tasting. We spent a few days in Calaveras County and enjoyed copious amounts of wine and food, only to return there again in July for a bit of pre-WBC fun. Although we’ve posted a number of times about Twisted Oak Winery (you’d have thought we were on staff – but we truly just like the wine), we’ve never done an in-depth interview with its owner Jeffrey Stai. Let us remedy that here.

Interview with Jeff Stai of Twisted Oak Winery

A rare serious look of Jeff Stai

Along with his wife Mary, Jeff Stai owns and operates Twisted Oak Winery. Located in the Sierra Nevada Foothills of California, Twisted Oak is a terroir-based winery that specializes in delicious handcrafted wines made in the shadow of a 350-year old California Blue Oak tree. Not only is the tree the winery’s namesake, but its likeness appears on the label of Twisted Oak bottles. But it’s not just good wine that has made Twisted Oak so successful, but Stai’s clever use of a bit of “The Princess Bride” influenced themes in creating and promoting a wine persona that includes pirates, debauchery and rubber chickens.

We sat down with Stai, also known as “El Jefe” (@eljefetwisted on twitter) for an interview, and after he reminded us what he said (see aforementioned “copious amounts of wine”) we thought we’d share his vision with our dear readers.

We asked El Jefe about his earliest memory of wine:

It was during the Peloponnesian War… oh wait, you probably meant THIS life. Wine had always “been around” when I was growing up. By the time I turned 21 I already had some idea of good wine vs plonk. So I don’t really have an “earliest memory”…

A former computer geek (like Joe), El Jefe says he got “sucked in to the idea” of making wine:

When I was in my tech job, I would travel for industry conferences to develop standard computer interfaces (like SCSI and FireWire). A group of us would always get together for good food and wine at the end of the day. There were a couple growers and collectors in the group, and of course we would talk. Eventually I started subscribing to trade magazines and just kind of got sucked in to the idea.

Of course Calaveras County is El Jefe’s favorite wine region, but he says he also has a soft spot for the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria areas, since that it where he and Mary would go wine tasting when they lived in Southern California.

Joe asked El Jefe about his favorite “go-to” wine, and about the best wine El Jefe ever tasted.

I’ve tasted some pretty good ones, and I don’t keep notes. Maybe the port we had at my 40th birthday party. I think it was a 1.5 bottle of 1970 Taylors. They used port tongs to open it, which added coolness. The wine itself was breathtaking.

I usually “go-to” the bottle that is open. Right now our Twisted Oak Petite Sirah is getting a lot of my attention.

Our port-style wine is named after the name I was teased with in grade school, and every time a pretty woman comes up and says "I've got to have Pig Stai!" I just smile...
I wanted to know which of the Twisted Oak wines was El Jefe’s favorite:

Pick my favorite child? Seriously? I could do a short list maybe, in no particular order and I know I’m leaving something out:

2002 *%#&@! – because you never forget your first *%#&@!(and it’s really yummy now too)

Syrah-Viognier – because I love the combination and wish we could make it every year (next release 2010 I’m afraid)

The Spaniard and the Torcido (means “Twisted” in Spanish) – because we grow the fruit for those – our estate wines

River of Skulls – because I love telling the backstory on it!

Pig Stai – because it is named after the name I was teased with in grade school, and every time a pretty woman comes up and says “I’ve got to have Pig Stai!” I just smile…

Murgatroyd – because I never get tired of telling people “it will really Snaggle your Puss!”

Much has been discussed about the influence of certain personalities on wine making. I asked if that of Robert Parker and other wine rating systems affects what goes into a Twisted Oak bottle.

You can listen to bloviating about ratings and awards all day, but the fact is the trade side often uses rating and awards as a filter. There are plenty of places you can’t get in the door without a 90+ rating or a gold medal. The good news is that there are at least as many in the trade that could care less.

One of the good things that come from competitions and ratings is that the process puts your wine in front of people who are likely to write about it and talk about it (if they like it of course.) It is one way to get your brand better known. Note that all this also applies to
bloggers ;)

We like to go into a wine bar serving Twisted Oak’s *%#&@! point to it, and see what if we can get them to tell us the true name of this “Potty Mouth” red. We usually get hemming and hawing until we pronounce the name correctly ourselves. We asked El Jefe what famous non wine-industry person, living or dead, he’d like to taste his wines:

This is one of those questions (like the desert island question) that I always draw a blank on, then think of a better answer a week later (and then promptly forget again!) I do know that I really want to pour our *%#&@! for Gordon Ramsay one day, for obvious reasons, but I suppose he is industry. I do think it would be cool to pour for a President someday.

El Jefe said he would love to change the perception that wine is anything other than an everyday beverage to be enjoyed with good food and good friends. “And rubber chickens.”
When we first heard of Twisted Oak wines, we wondered about the Big Tall guy with the ponytail carrying a rubber chicken. Visiting the Twisted Oak Winery in Vallecito, California, the first thing we noticed was a barn with the tail ends of said rubber chickens extending from the windows. There’s a gold-plated rubber chicken at the Twisted Oak Tasting Room in Murphy’s as well as a number of different styles of rubber chickens one can purchase at either the winery or the tasting room. We asked El Jefe, apart from rubber chickens, what would he like wine writers or consumers (who think that all California wine comes from Napa) to know about Twisted Oak wines.

That despite the preoccupation with rubber goods, and that we use lesser known varieties and that we are not from the N-word (Napa), we do make some pretty darn good wines!

There are so many wine lovers that dream of one day making wine. We asked what advice El Jefe would impart to someone interested in getting into the winemaking business. His response was informative:


If you still insist on starting a winery, do careful research to decide how much it will cost to reach profitability. Then make sure you have twice as much money as that.

If your goal is to participate in the wine industry, just go do it! Volunteer for an event, get a part time pouring, put yourself out there. Learn by doing. You’ll have the best time ever!

Joe was interested to learn El Jefe also had a NASA connection. Stai tells us his father worked on reaction control steering rockets for the Apollo command module at North American; and El Jefe spent a year at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on ground support instrumentation for the Galileo probe. Some other little known facts about Jeff “El Jefe” Stai: He likes to launch model rockets. He used to build disk drives and loves playing poker. His ham radio call sign is WK6I. And he says he loves baseball, hockey, and autoracing – but also says he has no ability to do any of those.

If you have a chance, make the trip to Murphys and visit Jeff and the good folks at Twisted Oak Winery. They’re unpretentious, un-stuffy fun-loving folks who make great wine. And if you’re lucky, maybe El Jefe’s dog Nacha will let you taste some of her wine!

Update: Alas, Natcha passed away in June 2014. She will be sorely missed.


The WineWonkette

Posted in Education, Posts

Amy Corron Power View posts by Amy Corron Power

A licensed attorney, Amy is a wine-lover, foodie, photographer, political junkie and award-winning author who writes about Wine, Food, Beer & Spirits. As Managing Editor & Tasting Director for Another Wine Blog, she travels all over the world's wine regions to share her experiences with her readers and legions of twitter, Instagram and Facebook friends and fans. Amy holds certifications through the International Sommelier Guild, and is also certified, with honors, as a California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS). She is a member of the Guild of Sommeliers, The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas and regularly attends Houston Sommelier Association events. Amy is also a contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books, and was most recently published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Gratitude.
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