Interview - winemaker Abigail Zimmerman Bordigioni
I am very proud to introduce the very first feature in my “Inspire Series” – the newest section of my blog sharing people's life stories of creativity, happiness, and success. Warm, vivacious, lively, and intelligent, within minutes of meeting Abi Zimmerman Bordigioni I knew she was the first person I wanted to interview ! Eight years ago, Abi took a 92% paycut to leave NASA, move to Sonoma and learn how to make wine, paint, and cook. And what happened ? She lost 60 pounds, fell in love, got married, had two beautiful children, and now co-runs a winery, cooks, paints, and is currently featuring her artwork in the nationally-renowned Easton Gallery. They say fortune favors the bold, and Abi is no exception ! She's a success story because she demonstrates the promise of pursuing your passion over security, and being all the healthier, happier, and fulfilled for it.
So to bring everyone up to speed – you're Abigail Zimmerman Bordigioni (Abi, to friends) – winemaker, cook, painter, and mom extraordinaire. But before this life, you were working in public policy in Los Angeles followed by a few years at NASA. What kind of work were you doing there ?
I had just finished working for the mayor of Los Angeles and got recruited by NASA to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They needed someone to be able to speak about a science mission or project to a variety of demographics. They wanted somebody to work with people who got interviewed or talk to the elected official offices, or talk to the communities themselves, as well as write contingency planning. I did all of that within a group called Launch Approval. I essentially took complicated issues and science and converted it into English.
And during this time, did you have any interest in winemaking and the arts ?
I've been painting since I was a kid, but I got really exposed to wine while at NASA. A lot of these jet propulsion guys were home garage winemakers, so I'd be stuck in these Marriott courtyards outside the weapons testing ranges tasting and talking about wine with these highly intelligent colleagues and their homemade wines. And they could talk about it in a way that I realized I had no clue what they were talking about; I couldn't keep up.
So you decided to learn more ?
I was a wine club member at a winery in Sonoma my mom and I used to go to when I was in college. I called up Deerfield Ranch Winery – owners PJ and Robert Rex – and asked if I could trespass on them during a weekend of harvest in return for one of my paintings. I just wanted to know what the heck people were talking about at work ! PJ said sure, so I drove up on a Friday and walked in as this overweight, LA girl with blonde highlights and a manicure and designer jeans. I walked up to some guy and said, “I'm here ! Put me to work !” He was just another cellar rat like I was about to be, but he told me to go sort fruit, so I did that till 2 am and then dragged myself back up to the house.
And obviously, something about you fell in love with it.
Deerfield is a very professional place now, but this was in the beginning when the cave had a dirt floor, everyone was playing reggae, everyone had these fun lunches and went back to make world-class wine. Kosta Browne came out of there at that time, Michael Muscardini, Peter Haywood, it was just a place of renaissance. Loud music, hard work, artistry, and good times. I woke up the next day and went back to sorting fruit, cleaning bins, and loved it. At the time I had no intention of leaving NASA.
So what was the impetus for your move up here ?
About six months before I left NASA I got really sick – I collapsed at work and went to the hospital. I had some kind of severe bacterial infection and lost 35 pounds in 10 days, my fever was so high for so long I baked the space between my corneas and retinas. And after that, I just didn't have the brain power anymore but I believe it opened up something else. My palate bloomed and my art shifted into a more fluid direction. I could especially taste wine in a whole new way ! I wanted to learn more.
So you made the move !
I had worked at Deerfield that weekend, a full shift on Sunday, and then drove back home to LA in the evening. (Owner) PJ called me and said, “I've had a flash you're supposed to be here.” And I knew I was supposed to be there. So she had called me Sunday night, and on Monday morning I quit my job. I started the exit process at NASA, had a fire sale on my lawn, packed my Volvo with my shoes, clothes, and art collection and was back up here by Thursday. It was insane.”
That timeline is crazy ! Were people supportive of your choice ?
When I was living in LA I was really unhappy, and I just kept thinking this is just how people are. You wake up like everyone else, you fight traffic for three hours a day, you work hard, and it's miserable. There's all this smog, no seasons. I had stress tremors, gray hair, wrinkles; I was overweight and unhappy and I didn't know it. The only person who knew it was my mother. When I called her to tell her I was moving away to Sonoma she cried with relief and said, “God, get out of here ! Go, live !” She was supportive, while everyone else was saying I was never going to find anybody, never going to have children, all those horrible things people say to single women, which is all crap.
So you moved up here and began the daily grind of winemaking in Sonoma.
I agreed to finish up the project I'd been working on at NASA, so I'd wake up everyday and work from 5 to 8 am on a contingency plan for the big rover that's up there right now. Then I'd work in the cellars between 9 to 5, and then in the evening I'd go to Santa Rosa junior college to take wine classes and learn more about how to really taste.
And shortly after, you met your future husband Dean, who had recently bought Annadel Estate Winery.
Right. The following summer, I met Dean at the Sonoma Farmer's Market. I was eating healthy, making wine, and feeling good. Winemaker Mike Muscardini introduced us; and I shook Dean's hand and it was a lightning bolt ! It was the one time in my life that I literally looked at someone and said - “You're going to be the father of my children." And I could see it – the two kids, everything, even though I knew nothing about this man at all. But I looked up at him and he had these blue eyes, and this look of - “I will so take care of you.” Four or five days after meeting, he backed his truck up to my apartment, took my red rocking chair and said “this would be great in my home,” and started moving me in.
And now you two are married with two beautiful children ! And running a winery fulltime.
It's a lot of work – there's the wedding business, the flower business, and running the actual winery, which is a ten-acre vineyard. Making wine is a wonderful, dynamic, year-round thing. It's physical, it's lovely, it's romance and chemistry together. 50% art 50% chemistry.
Tell me a a bit about your wine. Where can people find and taste them ?
We grow our Estate Blends right here outside our kitchen window. We buy our white wine grapes from boutique vineyards like Los Chamizal grown for us by Peter Haywood, and custom crush all our wines at Deerfield. We are starting to win some big awards, which is an honor. Our Bordigioni Zinfandel from Monte Rosso Vineyards just got awarded best of class (in the nation) for 2014 by the San Francisco Chronicle competition. Everyone should know – this is where you go to find real, authentic scores – fourteen days in a row of blind judging by 20 master sommeliers – and they break wines down by category and price. We sell wine directly through our website and to our Wine Club, we don't wholesale or distribute our wine. We also have our wines right now in some of the great restaurants we like to eat at like Aventine, or Olive & Vine in Glen Ellen, or Boulevard in San Francisco. We do host beautiful weddings and garden tours at Annadel Estate Winery, which was built in 1886.
In addition to your winery, you have quite a following on both your blog and instagram handle – abisfarmhousekitchen. You cook up all the most delicious, garden-fresh recipes !
When I got pregnant with Anni (her firstborn), that's when I took up cooking. The theory in wine country is that you can't make good wine unless you can cook ! At the time, I'd been cooking from the farmers markets. Mostly vegetarian – I still love roasting vegetables. But staying at home for the first time with a newborn baby girl, I started reading cooking magazines, buying cookbooks, and experimenting. Food and cooking is vital to my husband's Italian family too and it was something we could do together. It was my new passion - it was bubbling up I just didn't know it yet.
So you're helping run the winery, you're taking up cooking, where does the painting come in ?
I've been painting since I was a child and did art during my undergrad. But with the move, living and collecting beauty turned into into living AT beauty. My paintings are not about me - they're about the scene and the landscape and the breeze and the vineyard and the air and the soil ! I paint California; California is heaven. Just between driving from Napa to Sonoma to the Russian River Valley to the Coast, it's only an hour and thirty minutes, but I can paint 32 different microclimates and all the atmospheres they represent.
Congratulations on your work currently being featured at the nationally-renowned Easton Gallery in Santa Barbara. With everything on your plate, where do you find time in the day to paint ?
I will often paint from 430-630 in the morning. Most of my day is gardening, cooking, painting, and doing the preschool run, which is two hours a day. Really, I'm a mom – and I get about 90 minutes to myself a day, including shower time. I'm still a workaholic but my work is my husband, our children, our garden, our vineyard. People ask me how I do it all and the answer is - I can't not do it all. I come from a family of doers. But you know I started my blog and Instagram and Facebook as my way to connect as an adult food dork with the outside world. There are all of these beautifully fancy chefs out there on Instagram and I'm not one of them. I'm just a mom in a Victorian farmhouse trying to grow and cook as much as I can. Trying to infuse my kids with this love of food and “grow your own.”
I'd like to end with this really beautiful story you told me about your trip to India, just a couple months after you made made the bold move to uproot your life to Sonoma.
I'd only been in Sonoma a few months ago and I was visiting India with a friend. We're in this Kali temple in Calcutta and this man comes up and pours warm lamb blood over our toes to read how the blood moved. And what he said to me was, “You've made your shift. You will be in front of people in a positive, beautiful way. Don't give in to the darkness. If you resist the currents of your life you will drown. Every human soul has a river and that is your river, whether it stops short or goes long. If you fight your fate, that voice in your stomach, your instincts - you know it and you devolve into unhappiness and misery. And even if you're financially successful you've missed your passion, your life, your calling.” I'd only been in Sonoma a few months and I wasn't sure about my life choices at that point, so it was really powerful. I still vividly remember getting into the taxi with dried animal blood all over my feet and thinking about what he said.
An incredible story Abi, from start to finish. As a woman, as an artist, and simply as a person – I'm inspired by your story and how you pursued your passions and found creativity, love, and happiness.
I love being this mom to our kids in our beautiful old farmhouse. Eating well, sharing food, making and drinking great wines, and painting !