A winemaker and proprietor of a company that manages small vineyards from Woodside and Atherton to Saratoga, Mr. Wornick is as quick with a grin and a laugh as he is with a detailed response to any question you might have about the art of making wine. A wine snob, he's not.
In fact, the motto that he and his wife, Cynthia, came up with for their La Honda Winery label sums it up well: Lavoriamo seriamente, ma non ci prendiamo sul serio — We take our wine seriously, but not ourselves.
Although Ken's been making wine professionally for more than 10 years, the Wornicks recently opened a new winemaking facility that's open to the public by appointment or during wine-tasting events. Located, surprisingly, in the Fair Oaks neighborhood of Redwood City, it's a restored warehouse certain to catch the attention of anyone driving by, with its striking terracotta-tone exterior, stone accents and name stamped high on the facade: La Honda Winery.
While the outside is eye-catching, the inside is a stunning mix of Wine Country style, Italianate masonry and aesthetic flourishes that reflect the tastes, talents and personalities of the Wornicks and their business partners, Don and Julie Modica.
But what about the wine?
From our backyard
Many local wine aficionados make it their mission to familiarize themselves with wines from their own backyard. And though for most, that means wines of the Santa Cruz Mountain appellation, the wines produced by La Honda Winery add a new dimension to the quest to taste the fruit of the local terroir.
That's because much of the fruit that makes it into the bottles of La Honda's pinot noir, merlot and chardonnay come from the backyard vineyards of Woodside, Portola Valley, Atherton and other Peninsula residents who hire Mr. Wornick to plan and plant their vineyards, harvest their grapes and make their wines.
Mr. Wornick's 10-year-old company, Post & Trellis, manages about 22 such vineyards, of one-half acre to three acres in size. Clients can either pay to have all the work done from start to finish — from managing the vineyard to corking up the bottles for their own consumption, complete with their own labels; or they can have Post & Trellis do the work and keep most of the grapes, with a specified amount returned to the client for free in the form of wine.
In addition to using clients' grapes for La Honda wines, the Wornicks also use the harvest from their own vineyard off Highway 84, above the small town of La Honda, where they grow cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese grapes. "It was planted as a Super Tuscan vineyard, meaning two-thirds cabernet and one-third sangiovese," Mr. Wornick explains. "The combination makes a wine quite distinct from typical over-blown alcoholic blends."
And to supplement the local fruit, Mr. Wornick also buys a limited amount of grapes from other California regions, including Napa Valley, Lodi and Chalone.
Digging the dirt
Although he's long been fascinated by winemaking, Mr. Wornick began his working career as a geologist, a fact he doesn't consider incongruous with his current endeavors. "I've always had an interest in dirt," he says. He also always wanted a job that allowed him to be outdoors a lot.
But even after earning an MBA, his interest in wine never waned. "I read, I researched, I debated" about the best winemaking practices, and eventually took almost every extension class on viticulture and winemaking offered through the University of California, Davis, which has one of the best oenology departments in the country.
He made his first bottle of wine, though, years before, when he and Cynthia were living in McAllen, Texas, where there was "nothing to do all day but watch the dust blow down the streets," he recalls.
"I was by this point at least five years into reading everything on the subject of wine that I could get my hands on," he says. "So I said, 'It's time to make my first wine.'"
But where do you go for grapes in Texas? His friend, a carrot grower, helped, finding about a ton of old-vine zinfandel grapes from Mexico. So he, a pregnant Cynthia, his carrot-growing friend and his wife, also pregnant, got to work.
"We had no equipment, so we crushed the fruit by hand, and fermented in a stainless steel bathtub... . What a way to learn: all the wrong equipment, no lab, absolutely no supplies or tools, pregnant wives bravely wading into the tub — the story goes on and one. We had a great time."
A new home
Before finding the building at 2645 Fair Oaks Ave. that would become La Honda Winery, Mr. Wornick was making his and his clients' wines in various places, including facilities he built on clients' properties.
But when the Wornicks found the Redwood City building, which also houses Modica Landscaping, they jumped at the chance to settle into a permanent space and give the public a glimpse of their enterprise. "We realized we could have some fun with this building," Ms. Wornick explains. "It's a warm and wonderful hospitality space."
Modica Landscaping owner Don Modica became a business partner and went to work converting the spacious warehouse. The results are a feast for the eyes — walls and floors of marble, slate, sandstone and cobblestone, majestic wooden doors, a mezzanine and a kitchen for catering events.
There's an art gallery featuring local artists, managed by Julie Modica, who shows some of her own work there.
Ms. Modica and Ms. Wornick take charge of the food and other amenities at winetasting events — the last one was last weekend. Ms. Wornick, who slogged through all the government compliance chores necessary to get the winery up and running, is in charge of marketing for the business.
The winery has a 5,000-case production capacity, "but we do not plan to make more than 1,500 cases of wine," Mr. Wornick says. "The rest is for dreams."
Mr. Wornick says his winemaking techniques merge "state-of-the-art equipment with old-world winemaking." He says most of the winemaking "intervention" happens outside the winery. "We constantly try to stretch what is possible out in the vineyards, and then resist the temptation to interfere with the fruit in the winery."
In addition to pinot noir, merlot and chardonnay, Mr. Wornick currently bottles sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and viognier.
"We are genuinely making great wine from vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but having the winery in downtown Redwood City is the real treat," Mr. Wornick says.
"People walk in all the time expecting a dumpy old warehouse, or that we buy fruit from some far off place. But during the harvest, the fruit from up in the hills comes straight here and is made here every day, all year long."
La Honda Winery, at 2645 Fair Oaks Ave. in Redwood City, is open by appointment. Call 366-4104. There will be occasional wine-tasting events. To be notified of the events, sign up for the mailing list by e-mailing email@example.com. For more information, visit lahondawinery.com