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!” 

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.

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 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.”

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 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. 

Hunter with friends he made while at Darcie Kent Vineyards.

Hunter with friends he made while at Darcie Kent Vineyards.

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. 

Middle photo: 2010 Hunter's first Napa wine tasting four months after being hired at Oak Ridge. Other four photos: Hunter's many friends that he has made since changing his career to the wine industry and moving to Napa.

Middle photo: 2010 Hunter's first Napa wine tasting four months after being hired at Oak Ridge. Other four photos: Hunter's many friends that he has made since changing his career to the wine industry and moving to Napa.

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.” 

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.” 

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."

Hunter the night before opening Adastra Wines in May of this year.

Hunter the night before opening Adastra Wines in May of this year.

Date Night

Date Night: Jamie Gluck and John Wentworth

Just a handful of years ago, the small California town of Los Alamos was nothing more than a couple of moth-worn hotels, a dive bar, some mediocre restaurants and Full of Life Flatbread, which, once-upon-a-time, was the town’s only bright spot; a hugely popular eatery among Central Coast winemakers and farmers. Then, in quite rapid succession, a string of vital, fun and invigorating businesses began to hang their shingles there and the town came alive. 

Today, there are 29 businesses in what is essentially a one-street country town. Babi’s Beer Emporium, the Alamo Motel, Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, Plenty on Bell, Pico & the Los Alamos General Store, and numerous other businesses offer visitors a diverse and very agreeable eating, shopping and antiquing experience. As I drove into Los Alamos for this interview, a cowboy riding horseback was making his way down the town’s major thoroughfare, Bell Street. As he and his horse passed my car, a tumbleweed made its way across the street in the distance. For all of the great new businesses in this once sleepy little town, it remains achingly un-gentrified and charming. 

Much of this town’s renaissance began when Bell Street Farm opened; a terrific little restaurant offering up delicious food, with many ingredients sourced from local farmers. As is often the case with highly successful brick and mortar businesses, particularly in small towns, colorful and engaging business owners can be as big a draw as the products or services they offer. This is certainly the case with Jamie Gluck, who founded Bell Street Farm with his husband, John Wentworth, in 2011. Gluck is known by locals, and repeat customers who visit frequently from Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, for his wide, sweet smile and big Stetson hat. 

I meet up with Gluck and Wentworth on their date night, which they are enjoying at Pico, Los Alamos’ newest restaurant. Pico and the Los Alamos General Store, as it’s formally called,  offers not only terrific, modern cuisine, but also an elegant selection of gifts, including Tru wine decanters, Zalto wineglasses, a number of wonderful wine books, leather goods and domestic, as well as imported wines. 

Gluck arrives first in his signature Stetson. While we’re waiting for Wentworth to arrive, I ask him, “So, why the Steston?”  “Male Pattern Baldness”, Gluck says, laughing.  “No,” he adds, “actually, when we were house shopping in Santa Barbara County with this big, burly realtor, we looked at about 5 undeveloped acres one day, and the sun was beating down on us. So, I reached into the back seat of this guy’s Bronco, and there was a cowboy hat on the seat. I didn’t know at the time that it was bad etiquette to put on someone else’s cowboy hat, so I put it on…otherwise I would have been sun-burned! And, there’s something about a big nose and a big hat that just really works.” 

“Hi Honey!” Gluck calls out to Wentworth, as he joins us a few minutes after Gluck and I have taken a seat at Pico’s large, family-style table. Gluck immediately rises to greet his husband and to fetch him something to drink. I thank them both for making time to sit down and chat with me, and Wentworth, who is the shy and soft-spoken one, says, “Oh, we’re flattered you’d even want to interview us.” Gluck quickly chimes in, “Oh, I expected it!” It’s Gluck’s frequent and dorky bursts of humor that have endeared him to this community and to his customers. 

Gluck and Wentworth will be celebrating their 15th anniversary next month, (they were officially wed in 2008, but have lived together since they met in 2001). I ask them if they made a commitment early on to set aside one night a week for date night. “No”, Gluck responds.  “It just evolved organically. We both realized early on that we really enjoyed our time together.  I’ve always said that one of my favorite things is just dinner with my husband. We love the stimulation of going out and having fun with other couples but if I had to pick who I want to have dinner with?” Here Gluck takes Wentworth’s hand, “This guy.” “We’re a couple without children”, Wentworth adds. “We aren’t looking at a date night the way some other people do. Those who have children may view date night as an opportunity for some relief from parenting, but we don’t view date night that way. It’s just a part of our routine that we enjoy very much.” “We have never missed Monday night date night” Gluck adds. 

They typically spend their Monday date nights in Los Angeles. What kind of restaurants do they frequent on their romantic night? “Decadent, special and where they know us,” Gluck says. “It may sound over the top, but when we’re done with work, and we work hard, we do want a little taste of luxury. That runs the gamut from Beverly Hills Hotel, to Cut or Spago by Wolfgang Puck, La Scala; we like old-school Beverly Hills restaurants.”

After dinner on Monday nights, the two enjoy watching television together. “We live in a house that was built on television”, Gluck says, referring to the successful run Wentworth has had as an executive with CBS Television, “so television is a great, fun part of our lives that we share. By the time we reunite in Los Angeles on Monday nights, we’ll watch some of our favorite shows that we’ve missed.” The couple maintains two homes; one in Los Angeles and the other in Los Alamos. Wentworth commutes to Los Alamos every Friday, and returns to LA every Sunday night, with Gluck joining him then. Gluck is otherwise in Los Alamos more often than Wentworth to run Bell Street Farm. “John will watch his shows when I’m in Los Alamos and I’ll watch my shows when he’s in LA,” says Gluck.  “I’m addicted to “Girls”; John doesn’t care for it.” Wentworth loves “Billions”, which Gluck isn’t crazy about. I explain to them that I too love Billions, Girls and a slew of stupid reality shows, all of which my wife despises. I tell them she loves the show “Castle”, and Gluck looks confused. “Tell me about it. We don’t have a medieval streak.” I have to explain to him that it’s a really silly detective show set in modern day New York. Wentworth interjects and says, “It’s really stupid!” regretting what he’s said a second later, thinking this might somehow offend my wife, even though she’s not there. “Driving to Los Angeles, I listen to two hours of Forensic Files and Nancy Grace,” Gluck says, “so tell your wife it’s okay: we all have our guilty pleasures. If John ever ends up dead, it’s because I’ve listened to every episode of Forensic Files,” he says and we all three guffaw. 

Following dinner on Monday nights, though, they come together to watch their mutually preferred programs, which recently include “The People Versus O.J.” and “11.22.63”, with James Franco. “And, anything on HDTV,” Wentworth adds, “and, we love Homeland. We spend the whole time screaming at Carrie (the shows main character).” After watching television together, they wind down date night by doing things they each enjoy; Gluck will read while Wentworth plays “Words with Friends.” They conclude their date night with an evening constitutional:  a walk together in their neighborhood with their Jack Russell mix, Hazel, whom they affectionately refer to as “The Dirty Little Rat.” 

I ask them if it’s hard to stay healthy, with all the commuting back and forth and dinners out. “It is hard,” Gluck tells me. We had such a great regime for exercise when we were living solely in Los Angeles. We had weekends off together, so we were religious about our spinning and our weight training, and now it’s just…GONE. I have no discipline. I need someone screaming at me. John is self-disciplined. He does what he needs to do, but I’m terrible. We went to a black tie event recently and I was so busy tucking my love handles into my pants all evening long. It was just ridiculous!” Wentworth adds that they made a commitment after that fateful evening to give up sweets. “And I park my car at the house when I get to Los Alamos on Friday,” Wentworth tells me, “and I don’t use it again until I leave on Sunday. I get a lot of walking done. Not just to Bell Street, but all around town and to visit the other businesses here.”

Wentworth describes his role at Bell Street Farm thusly, “I’m here to support Jamie. I run errands and I help entertain customers, but I just really enjoy watching Jamie in his element.  He is so hospitable, conscientious and warm.”  “It’s because of my dad,” Gluck adds. Gluck’s father, Etienne, was a well-known restaurateur who, like Gluck, never let a minute pass before offering a guest a glass of wine. “I am my father’s son because of the reputation he had for being so hospitable at his French restaurants. I would have kids at school come up to me on the playground and say, “Your dad kissed my mom’s hand when my parents went to his restaurant.” That was the most common thing I’d hear from my school mates. The elder Gluck was widely known and respected for his French restaurants in Scottsdale and Paradise Valley in Arizona, as well as restaurants in Cleveland, Ohio and San Clemente, California. “He taught me how to cook. What I learned from him was a sensibility about food and hospitality that I can’t even articulate. I guess it’s just a very organic experience for me.  I love being able to give people a food experience. It’s so much more than a meal. I love the challenge of demystifying or explaining our menu to somebody who might not be comfortable with our cuisine. Anybody can get fed, but I want to give someone more than that. Taking care of our customers is a very satisfying experience for me.”  Wentworth adds, quite sweetly, that he’ll “usually find our latest Yelp reviews and I’ll read them to Jamie. And, it’s fun. There are now 356 Yelp reviews that give us 5 stars!”

I ask them if they ever worry about keeping Bell Street relevant and contemporary. “We’re very lucky in that we’ve become a part of a food movement that is so attractive to a younger generation,” Gluck says.  “In fact, that younger generation doesn’t really look at prices. They are so used to paying for quality that they never even hesitate. So, we have this hipster audience, from Silverlake and Echo Park in Los Angeles, and what I call The Big Sur circuit; these young, cute people who love to get in the car and have their California weekend, so we’ve been able to capitalize on that. And, because we are serving quality food and because we have a fantastic reputation for service and food, we also naturally get a mature audience, too, that is looking for a quality experience. And we deliver on that promise. Sometimes a mature person, who has been referred to the restaurant, will walk in the front door and I can see this disoriented look on his or her face and they’ll say, “You have to order at the counter?” They’ll look a bit uncomfortable about this, but I’ll go over to them and explain how it works and hand-hold them a little, and they feel comfortable almost right away. I really love making people feel comfortable.” 

What dishes are they best known for? Wentworth thinks it’s their Porchetta. “I only allow myself to have it once a month, because it’s rich, but it’s so good!” Gluck adds that “it’s a little piece of art. Italian visitors that we have had have been blown away by it.” My personal favorite dish on their menu is their Roasted Chicken; the best chicken I’ve had outside of the unforgettably perfect chicken at Zuni Restaurant in San Francisco. Visitors can also enjoy a glass of Gluck and Wentworth’s Bell Street Farm house wine. They have two vintages under their belt, having debuted with a pleasant Grenache Blanc. Recently, though, they’re more enchanted with “lighter, higher acid wines,” so Gluck has enlisted winemaker Ernst Storm to help them producer a lively Rose and a rustic, food-friendly Mourvedre, which they will sell exclusively at the restaurant as their house wine. 

We begin to wrap up our interview a bit early because the couple are expecting out-of-town guests and need to prepare their home. Before they depart, I ask them what they both love the best about Los Alamos. “I love waking up here, Wentworth says, “because it’s a peaceful, sweet, leafy green environment and it’s growing in just the right direction, at the right pace with the right people.” Gluck adds that “It’s got a super cool burst of LGTB vibes, too, that you just can’t beat.” And, indeed it does. I share with them that my wife and I feel comfortable walking hand in hand, or arm in arm, up and down Bell Street when we visit, which is a bit rare for a country town where most of the inhabitants wear cowboy hats or baseball caps to work. There’s an openness and spirit of tolerance, though, in Los Alamos, which underscores something I’ve always wanted to believe about people who live in the country. If they’re often looking at wide open vistas, shouldn’t their minds, as a result, also be wide open? At least in Los Alamos, and in no small part because of Gluck and Wentworth’s warm inclusive spirit, this might just be so.