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Sean Nelson

More than a decade into a career in National Security (including more than two years in Iraq), first as an Army linguist and later as a defense contractor, I had an epiphany: the business of war is not how I want to spend my life. So I quit, my only direction being vague ideas about working odd jobs while I “found my calling.”

In 2001 I was a graduate student in the Great Books program at tiny, esoteric St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD. Discussions on Plato, Homer and Kant often stretched deep into the night, fueled by many bottles of wine. My wine knowledge was thin, but I knew that some of my favorites came from Rioja and the Rhone Valley, even if I couldn’t tell you what grapes were in those wines. I wanted to learn more.

There was a good wine shop about two miles from my house, where I would go every week or so to learn a bit more about wine, one or two inexpensive bottles at a time. I would walk into the shop with a self-assigned study topic (Spanish reds, Chardonnay from around the world, Syrah vs. Shiraz, etc.) or a recipe and ask for help from the knowledgeable, passionate wine merchants who worked there. (One memorable pairing experience: Alsatian Gewurztraminer with a Moroccan tagine featuring Ras el Hanout and dried apricots.)

But that wasn’t my first wine experience. My first exposure to wine was the ever-present jug of Carlo Rossi or Almaden in my family kitchen in the 80’s. We’d go through about one per week, between cooking with it, drinking with dinner, mulled wine in Winter, sangria in Summer, and the splashes I would sneak when my parents weren’t looking. In Summer there was always a box of white zinfandel in the fridge, to be served with ice, topped with 7 Up. Not the most elevated wine experience, but those jugs of plonk gave me an understanding of wine’s many uses, and an appreciation for the simple pleasure of unsophisticated wines.

More than a decade into a career in National Security (including more than two years in Iraq), first as a linguist in the Army Reserve and later as a defense contractor, I had an epiphany: the business of war is not how I want to spend my life. So I quit, my only direction being vague ideas about working odd jobs while I “found my calling.”

Several years and several odd jobs later, I was living in the Sierra foothills just below Yosemite National Park and visiting wine country (Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles) whenever my wife, Angela, and I could get away for the weekend. It was on one of these excursions when I said to her, as one sometimes does on vacation, “I could live here.” At which point she reminded me that I had always had a passion for wine and was still looking for a calling, so maybe getting into the wine business wasn’t just a dream.

That was my second epiphany. (More a much-needed existential slap across the face, really. Thanks, Honey!) I had found my calling.

So I studied up, worked a harvest internship in Sonoma, completed the WSET Advanced Certification, landed a job running website sales for a high-end importer and retailer, and moved permanently to downtown Napa. I now own a home about a mile from Back Room Wines, and I walk to work every day the weather allows (which, in sunny Napa, is almost all of them). It’s a joy for me to be able to pass on the knowledge I’ve gained over the years, helping aspiring wine connoisseurs develop their palate and their passion.



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