Career change leads to fun times making wine for alumni couple
Sixteen years ago, Zak and Shawna Miller were putting their forestry degrees to use. Now, they live in Napa Valley and own their own brand of wine, and Shawna has become a decorated winemaker.
When Zak and Shawna Miller took a vacation to northern California to visit one of Zak’s old college roommates, they drove through Napa Valley, the nation’s epicenter of winemaking.
After a few glasses and a little thought, they decided to pop the cork on a career change.
“We stopped through wine country, and I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This is really a job? This is so me,’” Shawna said.
The couple knew little about the winemaking process. They barely knew chardonnay from cabernet. But 16 years later, these two Virginia Tech alumni, who both hold degrees in forestry from the College of Natural Resources and Environment, own their own small but successful brand of wines, and Shawna stands as one of the top winemakers in the country.
Today, Earthshine Wines, which produces about 500 cases of wine annually, can be purchased through the business’ website or sampled at Mia Carta Wine Lounge, a collective of premium boutique Napa Valley producers located in downtown Napa. People travel from all over the world to wine and dine in Napa, and a variety of Earthshine Wines from Shawna, a Christiansburg native who was recognized last year as one the most influential female winemakers in the world by Decanter Magazine, is available for their palates.
“It's great to receive those kinds of accolades,” Shawna said. “But it’s kind of a grain of salt for me because I just try to make the wines that I like and I think that our loyal fans will like. But it is always nice to get something that we can put in a magazine.”
The Millers’ journey and subsequent successes started with that trip to Napa in 2006. At the time, they were both putting their forestry degrees to use in positions in Gainesville, Florida – he in an industrial forestry job and she in plant sciences at the University of Florida.
They had participated in wine tastings in Gainesville and once toured a winery that exposed them to the background of winemaking. Not fans of humidity, alligators, and mosquitoes, they were seeking to leave Gainesville anyway, and the trip to Napa opened them to new possibilities.
“We thought, ‘OK, we have forestry degrees. It's plant science. Viticulture is not exactly the same thing, but they're very similar,’” Shawna said. “I applied for a job and came out to work the harvest season, and he [Zak] was kind of like, ‘Oh yeah, whatever. I'll see how it goes.’ Then after working in a winery, he got the bug, too.”
“She loved it and wanted to come out, and I was like, ‘Alright, let's do it,’” Zak said. “I don't think we intended to stay. I don't think we even considered that was an option. We just thought it'd be fun for the harvest or something for maybe a year. Stars were aligned, and here we are still 16 years later.”
Their aspirations could have died on the vine in a competitive industry that produced a $276 billion impact on the American economy this past year, according to WineAmerica. Instead, they flourished.
When they first arrived in Napa, they took seasonal positions, and then they ventured around the world. They both worked seasonal jobs in New Zealand, where the harvest season is the opposite of the United States’, and later Shawna helped with a harvest in Australia. When she returned to Napa, she accepted a full-time position at a local winery, where she worked in a lab monitoring the fermentation process. Zak, meanwhile, went and helped with a harvest in Chile.
“We just kept going and going and going, and every harvest, you learn something new,” Shawna said. “Every harvest is different because all the other factors of weather and this and the other are always different every single year. It keeps things interesting, for sure.”
Upon his return from Chile, Zak landed a job with Domaine Carneros, a high-end winery that specializes in sparkling wines, and he has been there ever since. Shawna earned her extension winemaking certificate from the University of California Davis and worked for a couple of different wineries before landing a position with Luna Vineyards that allowed her to run the winemaking operation, which she did for approximately a decade.
That job also provided them with a large opportunity.
The owner of Luna Vineyards passed away suddenly early last year, and the family needed to sell the winery quickly. Shawna saw this as an opportunity to turn her success at Luna into a venture of her own. With their encouragement, she worked out an arrangement with the family to acquire some of the wine in the cellar to start her own brand, Earthshine Wines.
The Millers knew they would not be able to afford a vineyard. The land, the grapes, and infrastructure would cost into the millions, and they refused to take on such a large risk.
Instead, they agreed to rent a small winery space from a friend and assume Luna’s grape contracts with local landowners. Zak would keep his job with Domaine Carneros, and Shawna would start the family’s winemaking brand — named Earthshine, a term coined by Leonardo da Vinci, who describe a crescent moon at sunset as “the new moon taking the old moon in her arms.”
In essence, the Millers are honoring the past of Luna Vineyards and moving forward. The move has left them feeling anything but sour grapes.
“I never said, ‘No, we shouldn't do it,’ but it really was outside of my comfort zone and any plans that I'd ever had,” Shawna said. “I was very, very happy working at Luna Vineyards, and I probably would have stayed there for a long time because they were a great family to work for.
“The wine business can be competitive because there's a lot of people that want to get into it, so I was definitely nervous. But I think sometimes the universe tells you to do something by way of making it happen for you whether you want to do it or not. So even if it doesn't work, I've definitely learned a lot and it's been interesting.”
So far, everything has been working smoothly aside from the occasional hiccup. Shawna handles the winemaking and the business details, while Zak plans the parties.
According to Shawna, Zak has the personality to handle such a role. In fact, he ordered Earthshine Wine business cards. His title on the card: “Trophy Husband.”
“She was like, ‘What do you need cards for?’” Zak said. “I’m like, ‘Well, you know, the party planner’s got to be out meeting people and drumming up business, so I need something.’ That’s my title on the card, just a tongue-in-cheek joke, but we have fun with it.”
Fun lies at the heart of their business model. The Millers host many dinner parties at Mia Carta and even held one a few months ago for a group of Virginia Tech alumni. They hope to work out the details for a spring dinner party in Blacksburg when they return to the New River Valley for the holidays to visit Shawna’s family in Christiansburg and Zak’s family in Harrisonburg.
They even hope someday to host dinner parties at various spots around the country, but consumers do not have to wait until then to sample Earthshine Wine’s product. They can join the business’ Wine Club, which features a selection of wines in a biannual shipment in April and November, through the Earthshine Wine website. Membership also includes interactive online winemaking seminars with Shawna and Zak, as well as discounted wine and shipping throughout the year.
The Millers, though, are not interested in building a wine conglomerate. They still want time to enjoy their family, which includes two young children.
Perhaps better stated, they just want to keep enjoying the fruits of their labor.
“Once it gets too big and we become overstretched, that kind of takes us away from what we love to do,” Zak said. “Have a lot of fun, make really good wine we can share with family and friends, but keep it on a manageable scale. … That’s our goal.”