Meet the Maker
Nicole Walsh: A Santa Cruz Surfer Making Big Waves in Wine
Nicole Walsh of Ser Winery is making a splash crafting super rare wines from rugged coastal terrain.
By Logan Davis
January 25, 2021
Meeting Nicole Walsh
Nicole Walsh lives the California dream: she’s a surfer and winemaker living seaside in Santa Cruz. The ocean seems to influence everything she does – from her beachy lifestyle to the fruit she finds for her one-of-a-kind wines.
Visiting Nicole at her trendy tasting room in Aptos, the first thing we noticed was the huge map of the California coast dotted with pins marking the vineyards that she sources from. It’s clear what they all have in common – proximity to the sea.
We tasted through a variety of her coastal-climate wines, from Sparkling Riesling to single-vineyard Rosés, but there was one that particularly caught our eye: an intriguing varietal called Cabernet Pfeffer. There’s rare and then there’s less-than-10-acres-of-these-obsure-French-grapes-planted-in-the-world rare. Cab Pfeffer is the latter. We knew right then and there we needed to partner with her to put that ultra-rare cab in a can.
A California Girl By Way of Michigan, Costa Rica, and New Zealand
Nicole was determined to work in wine from the get-go. In fact, at Michigan State University – her alma mater – there wasn’t a major for Viticulture, so she worked with her professors to tailor a curriculum that gave her hands-on experience in winemaking. She mastered enology, had an internship on an organic farm, and even studied sustainable agriculture in Costa Rica.
"It opened up a door to a world I never knew existed." - Nicole
Nicole immediately got her hands dirty after graduation, spending the next four years working in Vineyard Management and Winemaking at a vineyard in Northern Michigan.
In 2001, Nicole married the love of her life, Kevin Walsh, and together they moved to California, where Nicole began a 19-year tenure at legendary Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz. While Napa or Sonoma may have been the expected path, she was excited to learn from those doing things differently in the wine industry – Bonny Doon’s culture of experimentation and focus on biodynamic and organic farming fit the bill.
Nicole Walsh doing her thing. Photo credit: Wildu.co
Making Waves in Wine
In 2008, Nicole took a brief “sabbatical” of sorts and moved with her husband and young son to Marlborough, New Zealand. She developed a deep appreciation for Pinot Noir and cool-climate reds, and a seed was planted that it just might be time to start her own project. When she got back to Santa Cruz, she launched Ser – her love letter to coastal-climate wine.
Ser means “to express origin” in Spanish, a language that Nicole is fluent in. Her wines are single-varietal, single-vineyard, made naturally with indigenous yeasts, and are a pure expression of where they came from.
"I'm dedicated to preserving the “isness” of wine." - Nicole
The unifying influence on Nicole’s wine is the ocean - in addition to living seaside and surfing every chance she gets, she sources fruit from cool-climate areas by the coast. As a nod to this ethos, a cresting wave adorns every bottle of Ser.
Nicole Walsh sipping Cabernet Pfeffer. Photo credit: April Burkhart.
Introducing Cabernet Pfeffer
Nicole began working with local Santa Cruz Mountain growers to source fruit for Ser and was immediately drawn to Wirz Vineyard: a dry-farmed, old-vine, organic vineyard in Cienega Valley, 25 miles from Monterey Bay.
Knowing Nicole’s penchant for the road less traveled, Pat Wirz turned her on to Cabernet Pfeffer: an ultra-rare grape from 100 year-old vines. What started as an experiment became love at first sip, and now Cab Pfeffer is a Ser signature.
"I want to be a champion for this unique variety. I love to watch people try it for the first time.” - Nicole
Pfeffer means “pepper” in German, referring to its distinctive white pepper notes. While this grape has been described as a cross between a Cab Sauv and a Zin, Nicole got DNA testing done on this little known variety and found that it has no relation to Cabernet Sauvignon – it’s actually an obscure French grape called Mourtaou.
“You really can’t compare it to any other variety," says Nicole. "It’s delicate with nice structure and subtle tannins; the old vines fill out the mid-palate with an earthy and mineral finish. It’s not a simple wine, it’s intriguing; the layers reveal themselves over time.”
If Cab Sauv is the life of the party, Cab Pfeffer is the beguiling mystery guest – understated, but with layers of depth. Instead of big tannins, think bright red fruits and a subtle earthiness and spice. It’s delish alongside barbecue, lamb ribs, a crumbly feta salad, or a hearty pasta with tomato sauce.
So. Pfeffin. Good.
Canning the Cab Pfeffer as one of our first red wines was certainly unconventional – would everyone think we were crazy? We took to the streets and asked our Can Club to taste a selection of reds, and the proof was in the pudding (or wine, I guess): y’all were obsessed with this rare grape varietal, and we decided to create the first ever Cab Pfeffer in a can.
All-lady canning day with the Maker team and Nicole Walsh.
When it came time to design a label for this one-of-a-kind wine, we knew we had to pay homage to the ocean’s influence on Nicole’s life and life work. The cool California coastal can is the perfect can to throw in your bag for after a surf session or curling up by a beach bonfire.
We write a message on the bottom of each can – this one was a no brainer.
Update: we loved this can and collab so much that we decided to run it back for round two! Join the Can Club and order a pack of the Cabernet Pfeffer, or try our newly released single-vineyard Dry Sparkling Riesling and Rosé of Grenache by Nicole.