Community Focus: Lily Hays - SAMsARA Wine Co.

Community Focus: Lily Hays

Our Director of Hospitaliy, Lily Hays, recently sat down with team member Miles Cotton to discuss her deep appreciation for wine and role at SAMsARA Wine Co.

Lily Hays - SAMsARA Wine Co.
Good morning, Lily. Thanks for joining me this morning

Hi, Miles. How’s it going?

Going good. Let’s talk a little bit about your experience as a sommelier and at SAMsARA. I know that you’re a Santa Barbara native who grew up around top-notch winemaking your whole life. Was there a defining moment that made you want to pursue your sommelier certification, or was it all of your exposure to the wine business and culture that led you down the path towards sommelier certification?

So, I became enamored with the wine world pretty much just by hanging out with some of the winemaking families in Santa Barbara and from all across California. I have always just loved the culture of the winery. And, as a kid, I would go to Whitcraft Winery and partake in harvest work. Everyone was always positive and happy, and it never felt like work. They were always just enjoying and communicating and teaching and learning, and it was a really beautiful. I never thought of it as an industry and I never thought of it as a job.

I then went to college and studied biology, got into science and chemistry, and started to learn about that side of winemaking. I started reading books and helping with harvests in a more meaningful way, as I was a little bit older and better able to help. I realized that it is a job and it’s really, really hard. But you get such a tangible return on all the hard work that you put into it.

Realizing that my dream could be a reality was a big turning point in my career. After college, I decided to go travel a bit and got out of the winemaking area. Still, I wanted to stay connected and started doing my sommelier certification, as a way to keep my ties to my wine passion. As I pursued my sommelier certification, I realized that there’s this whole other side to the wine world, which is sales and restaurants.

It was really cool to see both sides of it. I started using my sommelier certification as just a way to keep engaged and keep learning, but I really fell in love with the people on that side as well. It felt really well-rounded to get that part of my education. As I got back into the wine industry in a more production-oriented career, I’m always trying to apply my love of hospitality and all the knowledge I’ve gained through my sommelier years.

What is your best story from being a restaurant sommelier in Lake Tahoe? Feel free to set the stage by telling us what the Tahoe wine scene is like for us.

There is a lot of really, really good wine being consumed in Lake Tahoe. I think one of my most awesome restaurant stories happened a few weeks into my job at Lone Eagle, which is a Hyatt-owned lakefront restaurant in Lake Tahoe. A married couple came in and they were really friendly. They had brought in an 80s Margaux, and I was incredibly nervous to open it for them. He had brought in his wine decanting supplies, talked me through it, knowing full well that I was new. He was just so nice, as he’s drinking this multiple-thousand-dollar, super serious wine. He shared it with me, talked to me about it. Then, they invited me and my fellow sommelier over to casually drink some wine with them. We ended up drinking ’69 Haut-Brion, ’79 Haut-Brion, and ’89 Haut-Brion. And we finished with a Lynch‑Bages from ’69 vintage as well. It was absolutely mind-blowing.  They were some of the first people I met in my new job, and we kept that relationship going. We drank a lot of good Bordeaux. That doesn’t happen everyday though!

That sounds amazing! We’re going to shift gears a little bit here and ask you: If you were to curate a dinner party next week to be attended by the greats from the food and wine world, who would you invite, what would you serve, and what wine would you pair with it?

I’m gonna totally cheat on this one and tell you that I would probably attempt to recreate a harvest dinner we had this year. Before starting at SAMsARA I worked at at the Domaine de la Côte facility in Lompoc. We had insane harvest dinners that were some of the most memorable experiences of my life, by far. One evening, we probably opened 30 or 35 bottles of wine including some Conterno Barolo paired with paella.

Paella is not really what you would think of as a pairing off the top of your head, but Sashi Moorman was cooking, and absolutely nailed it – definitely a great of the food and wine world. And Raj Parr was opening wine and bringing out caviar. I think it was the best meal I’ll ever have for the rest of my life. And it wasn’t in a restaurant, and I didn’t cook, and I didn’t bring the wine.

I would try to recreate that meal because it really showed me that, when the wine and food is incredible, that makes a great experience.  And that you can have a completely random pairing of paella and old Barolo, and it can be the best pairing you’ve ever had.

You’ve been recently filming a vineyard visit series for YouTube with SAMsARA’s winemaker, Matt Brady, over the last six weeks or so. What’s been your favorite vineyard to visit thus far?

I would say that Bentrock Vineyard and Radian Vineyard were probably my favorite so far. They’re sister vineyards at Rancho Salsipuedes, which is an old Spanish land grant that has been farmed continuously by the same family for over a century. It’s a really rugged place that has a lot of extreme weather, with cool breezes and then hot afternoons. It’s also steep, so you get a great view!

We went when the cover crop was blooming. There were pea shoots and flowers popping up all over the place, bees and birds, and pollinators were everywhere. The vineyard is organically farmed and really carefully hand-farmed. You barely feel like you’re in an agricultural situation. It’s more like you’re in someone’s perfectly manicured, loved garden.

And the vineyard really does have a vibe, and I hadn’t realized that that was expressed in the wines. I’ve had a number of Bentrock wines, which I’ve always loved, and I’ve always felt the vineyard speaks very loudly. But, until I went there, I didn’t understand that the soul of the vineyard really shows through in the wine. So, it was really eye-opening to be in the place and connect it with the way the wines taste when they’re finished.

Thank you, Lily!