From Security Guard to Wine Educator: Chatting with Dana Hunter

Six years ago, Dana Hunter was a full-time security guard in downtown Lodi, a city located in California's San Joaquin County, and perhaps still best known for the eponymously-titled song by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Hunter was 25 years old at the time and had never touched wine; he and his friends preferred beer.

The headquarters of the security firm for which he worked had its office not far from the Oak Ridge Winery tasting room. One fateful Tuesday, while stopping by the office to pick up his pay check, he noticed that the tasting room manager at Oak Ridge was "freaking out," says Hunter, "because no one showed up that day to open up and she had an important meeting to attend."

She asked Hunter if he would hold down the fort for about 15 minutes until the employee scheduled to work that day showed up. After advising him to stand behind the tasting room bar, pour through a few wines and talk to people, she headed for the door. "The last thing she told me," Hunter says, "was, 'It's 10 a.m., it's Tuesday morning, no one will come anyway, so don't worry about it.'"

What the tasting room manager hadn't realized was that there was a convention in town, and shortly thereafter, thirsty conventioneers came through the door, bellied up at the tasting bar, and eagerly awaited Hunter's liquid affirmations. Hunter ended up pouring wine that morning for three straight hours.

"I was a Theater major in college. I studied Improv. So, I figured, I can talk about anything for 30 minutes. Why not give this a try? I chose not to talk about wine," Hunter says now. "Instead, I just asked people what they were looking for. I asked them what kinds of wines they liked, and then I just poured through the line-up. Looking back, I probably should have at least tasted the wines first, so that I had some idea of what I was pouring, but I didn't even do that. At the end of those three hours, I thought to myself, "Wow! That was fun!"

Hunter headed home after someone showed up to relieve him and didn't give it another thought. By the time he got home, though, there was a message on his answering machine, "Can you please return to the tasting room immediately?" Hunter's first thought was, "Okay, this is bad. What did I do wrong?" He was stumped. He thought for a moment. "Well, I don't work for them anyway. What's the worst thing that could happen? Get fired from a job I didn't have in the first place?"

Hunter immediately returned to the tasting room where they directed him to speak to John, the CFO. "John's on the phone when I get there," Hunter recalls. "When he gets off the phone, he asks, 'Were you comfortable filling in today?' I said, 'Yes, it's not rocket science, I guess. I just talked to people.' John continued, 'Well, how do you know so much about our wines?'" Hunter responded that he didn't know anything about wine. "I'm a security guard," he told him. "I was just asked to take over for a while—to cover for somebody." Hunter was then informed that they'd had their best sales day in five years. "So, he offered me a tasting room position then and there, and that's how I got into the wine business."
A look at Hunter's youth clockwise from top left: six months old, voted most spirited senior year of high school 2003, senior year in Halloween costume, high school science class.

Hunter's career in wine began at that moment and he's never looked back. "I learned about wine by drinking it and by hearing people talk about it. I guess my perspective on wine is a little different from a lot of people in the wine business, because I'm not formally trained. I listened my way into the business. In a way, I learned about wine, the verbiage and all that goes with it while trying to also learn how to make it understandable for the average wine drinker, which is also what I was at the time—just learning. So I was teaching about wine in such a way that made it easier for people to learn, because I was just using regular language."

That first day at Oak Ridge Winery, Hunter was sent home with six bottles of wine. Hunter says now that he didn't even understand differences in wines until about four months into the job, when it suddenly started to come together for him. It happened one day when a friend brought him a Pinot Noir to taste. Up until that point, Hunter hated Pinot Noir. "I thought it was a mistake. I just didn't get it. Of course, I was drinking Lodi Pinot Noir; it gets to be 115 degrees on some days in Lodi." But his friend brought him a Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast, where the climate and geography are well-suited to this mercurial variety, and all of a sudden it clicked for Hunter. "This is different! Why is this different?" He began to research Pinot Noir and learned about the different regions where it grows best. He researched soil types, micro-climates, elevations, etc. That was his Aha moment in wine; learning that different varieties grow differently in different locations. Hunter is quick to defend Lodi to this day, though, and even though he remains unconvinced that Pinot Noir can grow there, he maintains that the finest Zinfandels he's ever had have been from Lodi.
Hunter with friends he made while at Darcie Kent Vineyards.

Hunter stayed on at the Lodi tasting room for two years, learning what he could. By the time he was 27, facing mounting bills and wanting to establish a long-term career in an industry he was quickly falling in love with, he moved to Livermore to accept a full time position at Darcie Kent Winery. "Working at Darcie Kent Winery opened my eyes to what the industry could be—a real, full-time, legitimate business. It was run by a husband and wife team. They distributed their wine; they had a real presence in the industry there." Hunter was allowed to work in nearly every facet of operations at Darcie Kent, and especially enjoyed helping with harvest. It was at Darcie Kent Winery that he realized that this was a career he could do for a lifetime.

Two years later, he once again wanted to challenge himself. Hunter was convinced that if he truly wanted to immerse himself in the world of fine wine, he would have to challenge himself at even more acclaimed properties in increasingly acclaimed regions. And so he began applying for jobs in the Napa Valley. "I tried to find a job in Napa for a full year. I kept receiving these letters that said, basically, thank you for applying, but we've decided upon someone who is more qualified for the position. I finally phoned up a winery that hadn't hired me, and asked the lady who had signed the letter what she meant by 'more qualified.' I guess I wanted to know what I could do to become 'more qualified.' And her response was, 'Well we've heard of Lodi and Livermore, but we've never tasted their wines, so we don't know if what they do there is comparable to what we do here.'"

Hunter pushed back a little and politely told her that he wasn't sure how it was that he could become more qualified, if he was applying for a job that he'd already been doing for four years, working in a tasting room. "She responded that if I wanted to get a position with them, then I really needed to land at least one job in the Napa Valley. So I told her, 'Okay, I'm not getting hired, because I don't have experience working in a tasting room in Napa, and the solution to that problem is to get a job working at a tasting room in Napa.' It was very frustrating, but I kept applying. Everyone kept telling me I had to be in Napa, because that's the best place for wine. I did want to at least be around people working at the highest level of hospitality. I figured, if I'm around the best for long enough, then I'll become one of the best."

Hunter finally landed himself a position at the critically-acclaimed Elizabeth Spencer tasting room in Rutherford, one of Napa's most respected sub-appellations. "That was the experience that I needed. That's where I could flourish and grow. I interacted a lot with customers there. I did a lot of social media. It's something I'm very interested in." Hunter insists that while these days, wine isn't necessarily sold on social media, in the next five years, "it will probably be the primary way in which brands move product." It's a prediction about which he's very confident.
Hunter the night before opening Adastra Wines in May of this year.

Today, Hunter is the Lead Wine Educator and Social Media Manager at Adastra Winery in Sonoma. The attractive, gallery-like tasting room, just off of Sonoma's town square, is imbued with his personality. It's an airy, cheerful environment. When I arrive on a misty spring morning, I can already see Hunter tooling around in the open, well-lighted space, even though the tasting room itself is not scheduled to be opened for another hour. Artwork by local Sonoma County artists rotates frequently through the space, which also serves as a gallery. Monthly painting classes are offered at Adastra, during which students can paint while enjoying a glass of wine.

Hunter seems to have finally landed in an environment where he can flourish. He is able to truly engage with what the bottom-line-oriented wine business types tend to call "the end user," but what wine business people who actually care about the average wine drinker, as Hunter does, call "our customers."

"I was having dinner with my girlfriend a couple of months ago, and three different couples, who had been at the tasting room during the day, came to our table and asked for help with their wine recommendations." Recalling the story now, Hunter seems truly touched to be able to interact with the public about a beverage he has clearly grown to love and study with a high level of seriousness. When Hunter visits his hometown of Patterson, California, though, his old friends don't seem to care much that he's become a bit of a wine guru. "They never ask me questions about wine. I'll bring wine home and share it with them and talk about it, but they don't seem all that interested. We drink Coors Light. It's still my favorite thing to drink when I'm not drinking wine."
Hunter in a t-shirt he designed himself.

Unlike many wine industry insiders these days, Hunter populates his social media feed on Instagram (@dhunter1921) not with photos of hard-to-find Burgundies or obscure imports, but with almost entirely domestic efforts. "I didn't plan to focus just on domestic wines. It just kind of happened that way. When I was working in Lodi and Livermore, there weren't a lot of shops around selling European wines, so I wasn't around it all that much. Then, moving to Napa and now Sonoma…well, while there are European wines around here to buy, there are just so many good American wines. I'm just very interested in drinking wine that most of our customers are interested in. Our customers don't really ask about European wines, but they do ask about wines from Sonoma and Napa, and they want to know how they're different from, say, wines from Monterey or Santa Barbara. They want to talk about comparisons and learn about why regions are different from one another. So I want to focus on learning about what they're interested in. Also, this is where I live. I'm proud of American wines. I think the American wine industry is awesome; it gave me a career. I mean, my job is to pour wine into a glass and talk to someone about it. And it didn't happen because of European wines, it happened because of Lodi, and Livermore and Napa and Sonoma, so I stand by the wines of America 100%."

Hunter has a vision for his involvement in the American wine industry. "My long-term goal is to someday have my own winery. I want to open a place that showcases California wines from different growing regions; where customers can come, and I can explain, through my wines, why each region is unique, and what grows best where. I want to have a line-up of wines that demonstrates for the wine drinker what they should expect and look for from each major region." Hunter then surprises me with a refreshing comment—refreshing for its utter lack of snobbery: "And I love grocery stores! There are a lot of good wines available in grocery stores. I'd like somebody to walk up to one of my wines on a grocery store shelf one day and feel confident that they're getting a good bottle of wine."
Middle photo: 2010: Hunter's first time tasting wine in Napa after being hired at Oak Ridge. Remaining photos: Hunter's many friends he has made since changing his career to the wine industry and moving to Napa.

For now, Hunter enjoys living in wine country with his girlfriend, where they often host wine tasting parties for friends that are "mostly in the wine industry." Hunter's favorite grape variety is Cabernet Franc, so he will often hold Cabernet Franc-themed wine tastings for his colleagues.

What does Hunter love best about being in the wine business? "The best part of what I do is seeing someone have a moment of connection—that moment when I translate what someone says they like or want in a wine, and I pour them exactly what they were looking for. My job is to take the mystery out of wine for people. Wine drinking should be a fun thing, not intimidating."

More articles from this author