“I was really so intent on trying to figure out, like, “What’s the right way to do this?” And what I learned from that is that there’s no one right way to do this.”
Alicia talks to winemaker Sheri Hood. After spending the 1990s managing bands like Stereolab and working for the record label 4AD, she moved to Portland, Oregon. She now makes wines for The Pressing Plant — all of which are vegan, delicious, and named after songs. They discuss why she became vegetarian, how that inspired her to make vegan wines, and what it was like to not eat meat while on tour in the 1990s.
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers, and more about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. This show will ask the question, “How do identity, culture, economics, and history affect a diet?”
In this episode I talk to winemaker Sheri Hood. After spending the 90s managing bands like Stereolab and working for the record label 4AD, she moved to Portland, Oregon to pursue wine. She now makes The Pressing Plant wines in Oregon, all of which are vegan, delicious, and named after songs. We discuss why she became vegetarian and how that inspired her to make vegan wines, and also what it was like to not eat meat while on tour in the 90s.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: Hi Sheri. Thank you so much for being here.
SHERI HOOD: Hi. Thanks for having me.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
SHERI HOOD: Sure. I grew up in a lot of different places, and my parents, my parents met in medical school and so after they left, we kinda moved every three years for internships for them to do, and so, so I’ve lived in Nashville, in Florida and the Bay Area, and Boston and Baltimore, and most of, the solid amount of time spent though was junior high and high school, I lived in Alabama. When my parents got divorced, I ended up moving to where my dad and my, that family, part of my family lived in Alabama. And before I moved to Alabama, my mother, my mother cooked and in California, she was, while she was a single mom, when I lived with her, she got into baking bread and, you know, doing all of these, these things. It was really fun. When I moved to Alabama, my grandmother cooked a lot.
My dad, being a doctor, didn’t cook a lot and so we, kind of had a combination of, like, say my breakfast before school would be TV breakfasts, you know? It was in the 70s. Like pancakes and little sausages and, you know, and so TV breakfast, or we would eat out at restaurants in the morning and I would again have pancakes. Very into pancakes as a kid. And then my grandmother would cook a very traditional Southern cornbread, pot roast and meat and ham, but I really loved the vegetables and green beans and potatoes. I loved the potatoes and you know, all of that sort of thing. So, banana pudding, lots of great desserts and, and things like that. Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: When did you become vegetarian and what inspired you to do that?
SHERI HOOD: When I left for college, I, well, OK. So, in Alabama, my dad, he’s a doctor but he also was a hobby farm person. He owned a farm that was, like, 100 acres. So, it wasn’t, like, so hobby, and we raised animals and we also, you know, had a huge garden and grew corn to feed the animals, and we named the animals, and I loved them. I love animals. I had a horse, and at some point I remember toward the end of high school, kind of wondering where an animal was and found out that it was in our freezer.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh.
SHERI HOOD: I don’t know, I never asked those questions before and it really upset me, you know? And at the same time I want to say that my love of vegetables came from my dad because he, we would plant this large garden and we would go out to pick it, and my dad would say, “So, we’re going to pick this corn and then we’re going to run inside and put it in the water and we’re going to have this as fresh as we possibly can and we’re not going to put anything on it.” So, we wouldn’t put butter and salt on it and we’d just have the corn and it was so delicious to really taste those flavors instead of, like, traditional Southern cooking, which adds a lot. Adds stuff and makes it, “Mmm.” But, so those things, so I feel like from my dad, I got both this love of vegetables in their form and appreciation for them coming out of the earth, and also not wanting to eat meat. And so when I went to college, I remember being at Rutgers and being in the student cafeteria and I got some lentil soup and it had these little pink squares in it, and I was like, “Oh, there’s little pieces of flesh in my soup.” Like, “Ew.” And that was, kind of, it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah.
SHERI HOOD: I realized, like, I just didn’t want to eat flesh anymore. I really thought of meat as flesh and, you know, it took a little while. I still ate chicken for a little while because I didn’t associate it as being fleshy.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
SHERI HOOD: And then I just stopped, you know, and I still don’t like fake meat. I don’t like the texture and the chew of something that feels meaty. That was just a choice that felt like animals. Also, when growing up my grandparents lived on the Tennessee River and had a boat dock and everyone would catch fish, and then they’d just put them on the boat dock and the fish would flop around, you know? And it’s just heartbreaking. Like, it’s just heartbreaking and no one really understood. It just, I was just such a sensitive child and I cried a lot of over things like that and, you know, it wasn’t ever validated that that was an OK way to feel about animals or a choice to make really. Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. You spent a long time working in the music industry and running the U.S. office for 4AD, I read.
SHERI HOOD: Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Were there a lot of other vegetarians in the music scene? I’ve noticed that there is kind of an overlap, often.
SHERI HOOD: That time was really great for being vegetarian. Yeah, and even in college. So, when I was at Rutgers, I left there and then when I was 23, opened the U.S. office for 4AD records, and so it was still just, kind of, coming off of that, you know, just right out of being in college and that whole feeling of that it was part of, kind of, this art punk scene and being straight edge or like all the influences that came out, like, with punk rock and seeing and hearing different people and what they were choosing. And so, being vegetarian then was really easy and exciting and felt like being part of a community that I wanted to be a part of. But at the same time, it wasn’t weird for people not to be. You know, it wasn’t uncool not to be vegetarian, but it was easy to find those things. Especially here in New York, you know, eating at places like Dojo’s and, you know, learning about tofu and I didn’t even, for a long time of being vegetarian, I just didn’t like tofu at all. And then I remember going to San Francisco on a work trip and someone took me to Greens and said, like, they ordered tofu and I tried it and the way it was prepared, I was like, “Oh my God, I love tofu,” like, and I just didn’t before.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah.
SHERI HOOD: And so, kind of, that’s how a lot of my interest and choices in food have been, is from other people making suggestions or letting me try their food or things like that. It just, it opens your mind.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. So, you moved to Portland in 1999. Did you know then, when you moved there, that you were going to become a winemaker?
SHERI HOOD: No, not at all. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had stopped working with, I had been managing bands for many years. So, I was only at 4AD for a couple of years, and then I wanted to work more closely with musicians, and when, before I left New York, I just hit a point where I stopped being able to feel that same love for music. It wasn’t free. It was complicated, for me, and so I just stopped having that be my career and work. So, when I moved to Portland I put things on hold. I got a temp job and I typed for a year, and just to, kind of, like, not have any pressure, you know? And, and then it just, kind of, occurred to me how much, someone had actually suggested it when I left New York. A woman that I worked with, at, I was temping at People magazine when I left and this, this writer said, “You know, I see you, when you go to Oregon, becoming a winemaker.” And I thought, “That’s crazy. Like, that’s so nice that you think that I could do something like that. But like, wow, that’s a long shot.” And then after typing for so long I kind of felt like, “Well, what would that mean? What do you have to do?”
So, I Googled it and UC Davis came up and I realized I could take all the, you have to tell you a couple of years of science classes through your microbiology and biochemistry before you can take the winemaking classes. So, I did that in Portland and then I went down to UC Davis and did the course in viticulture and oenology, and then after graduating, came straight back to Portland and worked in the wine industry there. And, so yeah, it was really thinking, such a leap.
What I knew was I wanted, I knew what it was like to work at a job that I loved and I loved working in music. I’ve loved music since I was five. My mother took me to see The Monkees for my fifth birthday, you know, and I wanted something I felt as passionately about, and I loved wine and, and I loved, when I went to wineries, listening to wine makers and to, you know, because a lot of times winemakers would give you the tour and hearing about the process, and learning how to come up with this wine, it was farming, which I understood from being in Alabama, you know? And it was also science in plants and biology, and yet also in chemistry and microbiology. And it was a craft, and there was part that one learned from experience and from listening to the wine and then it was subjective and it’s also, then the product is also social and yeah, there were so many, it was so multifaceted that I just thought, “If I go to school and I learn this, I’ll get a college degree which will make my mother happy, and I will learn something interesting, and if I’m not good at this production side of it, of being a winemaker, then, you know, I’ve done marketing and promotion in music so I could still be involved in it, in that area.”
So, it seemed like something that was worth doing in my life to pause for what my next career would be.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Do you remember the first bottle of wine that, that brought you into wine?
SHERI HOOD: Oh, I don’t. I don’t actually. I remember not liking wine. And then again, similar to, to the food aspect, I remember other people, kind of, ordering wine or opening wine. My ex-in-laws were really into wine and they had a great wine cellar and we would meet them for trips in, say, Sonoma or on Long Island, and go to wineries. And so, kind of, being able to taste a wide range of wines and learn what I liked about the wines and what I didn’t like about wines. And then to also grow, and my palate really changed. You know, they say that people start with sweet and then, kind of, expand from there. People tend to start with whites and then go to reds. I remember that I, the things that I liked are very different from the things that I appreciate about wine now. You know, I really love really interesting, odd wines now. And so, so at the beginning it was really more of going from wines in bars or at parties, you know, cheap, crappy wines and to wines that were interesting and, like, “Yum,” you know?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
SHERI HOOD: And like, “Woo.” And having conversations about them but not in a pretentious way, you know?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah. Do you remember when you felt like you had, kind of, become a winemaker? Was there a moment for you where you realized, “Wow, I’m good at this?”
SHERI HOOD: Oh I think that there, I did, after I left Davis, I just, kind of, did a lot of harvests. So, I went to the Southern, I went to Oregon and did a harvest and then I would go to New Zealand and do a harvest, and then I would come back and do Oregon and then I went back and I did an Australia harvest, and then a New Zealand harvest and I just really wanted to get, kind of, up to speed on using equipment. And I was really so intent on trying to figure out, like, “What’s the right way to do this?” And what I learned from that is that there’s no one right way to do this. And I learned that there are so many different theories that people have and preferences and people feel very strongly about some of them and not as strongly about others.
And, and so after that, when I came back, I remember working at an Oregon winery and, with a friend of mine, I was working at Bethel Heights in 2005 and with my friend Ben, they’re a family who owns that, and it was his first year as winemaker, and I just remember that, he and I having conversations about wine and that I felt like I was holding my own with, like, that I had preferences and that I had suggestions and that they were valid and that my experience and trying these things were, that I was capable, you know? And that’s kind of how it started as opposed to, like, that I was good at what I did, you know? I think I was just very nervous but I realized that I could hold my own and, and yeah, I was capable of making wine that was good and enjoyable and not let anything bad happen to it, if that makes sense.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. Is there anything about winemaking in Oregon specifically that is especially compelling to you?
SHERI HOOD: Oh, well, when I moved to the Northwest, I just loved being there. When I moved from New York, I wasn’t sure what it would be like to be anywhere outside of New York, you know, in this, like, total egocentric way of New York, being a New Yorker. But I really love it out there, and when I started getting just even interested and curious about going into wine, I, you know, one of my neighbors introduced me to the vineyard manager for a big winery, and, or a well-respected winery, and he introduced me to a female winemaker who had been to UC Davis and she helped me to understand what classes I should take or what was important in my studies. And he also introduced me to another friend of his who was also another female winemaker, my friend Cheryl Francis, and she got me, she introduced me to someone to do my first internship.
And that, for me, is what the Oregon wine industry has started, as an introduction to me, but it also continues to be, this day, is that I can call anyone and ask their experience or for some advice and they’re happy to make the time to share that with me. I can walk up to a winemaker, you know, even when I wasn’t a winemaker could, or when I was a young and upcoming winemaker, let’s say, could go to a restaurant and see someone and go up and say, “I really like your wines,” and to, “I work here,” and they would stop and say, “Come have a beer,” you know, and talk and people just couldn’t be any nicer. You know, it’s just a wonderful, wonderful community of people, in addition to the fact that I think we make great wines there and it’s a, it’s perfect for grape growing. The community makes me want to stay there as opposed to going to California. It’s just, I don’t know that community, but Oregon’s really special.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. Do you feel like you’re part of a specific women winemaker community there?
SHERI HOOD: No. I, I think there are many women winemakers and I am always excited to get to know more of them, and we’re all supportive of one another, but I would say no more or less supportive than we are of our male, or male-identified, you know, winemaker friends and yeah. But, I mean, there are some, some really, I really love watching and hearing how other people present themselves and so that’s been a learning thing for me too, with women.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally. So why did you decide, if you’re a vegetarian, to make sure that your wines are vegan?
SHERI HOOD: I actually had just been, kind of, doing that as a personal choice and had noticed that I gravitated toward the choices that I made in not using, not using fining products that were animal-based was really just something that, sometimes I would try them to see whether or not that changed the wine, but the choices were always that it didn’t make the wine better for me. It didn’t make it better in the way that I would like it better, and that’s how I have to make the wine, I have to make it in terms of what I think makes the wine that I want it to be. In many cases using different fining products would end up being that the best thing was to leave the wine alone and let it be exactly as it is. But I, I just more and more make choices in that direction. I was doing a tasting and I remember an older woman came up and asked me, like, a woman in her 70s came up and said, “Are your wines vegan?” And I was like, “Yeah, my wines are vegan,” you know? “Thanks for asking.” And it made me realize that I needed to let the stores know specifically.
I’m carried in a couple of chains, like Whole Foods and a store called New Seasons in the Portland area. And those places want to know if your wines are, are vegetarian or vegan. That is part of, of what people are interested in. And so, I never thought of it as a marketing aspect. It’s a choice that I make but then I realized that other people who are making similar choices for whatever reason, may want to know that. And a lot of people don’t realize that wines are, that there is a possibility that wines are not vegetarian or vegan and, um, it’s a process of fining, sometimes, sometimes a traditional fining product would be gelatin and for me, gelatin’s just, like, a no, you know?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
SHERI HOOD: And isinglass is a fish bladder and people use egg whites or a product that’s derived from egg whites, but some people literally use egg whites. I’ve used egg whites when I’ve been employed by another winery and been asked to do so. Casein, which is from milk. I’ve heard there is another one that’s from like crust, shells, crustaceans. I don’t know that product but, so, there are things. We don’t always know what the processes are. And that’s kinda surprising that there’s a product that we, I mean, wine is a food, it’s just not under the FDA. I think it’s under the TTB, and so we aren’t always aware of what, you know, I, as a vegetarian, I know to ask about, with food, if rice or beans have been cooked with lard or chicken stock or meat, you know. I explain if I think somebody’s not sure about the vegetarianism of, of, in a restaurant but, like, I don’t want those products. I don’t want to put those products in my body. I don’t want to encourage the use of those products in that way. But with wine, people don’t think about it.
And so I think it’s cool that something like Barnivore has a list that you can register. I was approached recently by some, there are attorneys that will, you can have your wine or your product verified, you know? I’m too small to, like, need to verify it. You know, if I make the wine or if I’m aware of all of the aspects of things then this is what I can do is I can tell you what the things are, you know? So, yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. So you grew up on a farm but has being a winemaker and, and being a little bit more involved with, you know, the grapes and the harvest, has that changed your relationship to food and farming at all?
SHERI HOOD: Ooh. I don’t, you know, of viticulture and oenology, viticulture being the grape growing side of things, that is not the side that I gravitated toward. And it’s a really important side, but the side that I have really leaned toward and connected with was in the winery side and the more chemistry and microbiology side. And I’m so, I still feel very intimidated by the farming aspect of it, and I tend to use the advice and help of other friends who that area is more their strong point. So, I would say that I don’t have a stronger connection with farming per se.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. So you say that when you go out to eat that you ask questions and you don’t want to put lard or anything like that in your body. When you cook or when you go out to eat and you make these decisions, do you consider them a political choice or is it always an ethical choice?
SHERI HOOD: Oh, I think that my first choice is it’s a personal choice and it’s ethical. I just love animals so much. What has changed for, and I, and I get to make this choice, you know, just like I get to have a vote.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes, right.
SHERI HOOD: This is my vote in how I would like for things to be. Recently I started volunteering at a farm animal sanctuary and I actually, I’m doing a dinner coming up soon with a vegan restaurant, and they had approached me about it and it’s going to benefit a different farm animal sanctuary. And that idea of where I can contribute toward helping animals, and that that is not about putting that food in my body, you know, what else can I do? I’m volunteering. I’ve been volunteering for this place called Lighthouse and, that’s kind of near Salem in Oregon and just the connection with the animals is, it just, it makes me want to do more, you know? And so it makes it more of a political decision. I would, we have all, you know, Portland’s such a foodie town now.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, yes.
SHERI HOOD: It was not in 99, but we have, like, everything week. “Burger Week” and recently had “Wings Week” and, you know, usually I just tune out because I can’t do anything about “Wings Week,” you know?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
SHERI HOOD: I happened to volunteer that weekend and there are these chickens and the chickens are not the animals that I gravitate toward when I’m volunteering. It’s the pigs that follow me around or the sheep that, like, are total leaners like dogs and that you just, I just, like, want hugs, but I’m looking at these chickens and I realize that, like, out of, I don’t even know, do people eat, like, buckets of wings? I don’t even know how people eat wings but, like, they eat a lot of wings at a time. I think you order like ten or if you order ten wings or something, that this one little chicken in front of me, like, that’s just two of the wings. Like, just two of the wings is, like, going toward that and that like really breaks my heart, you know? And so being around the animals opens my heart to be able to have the strength and conviction to do more.
Sometimes I feel it really daunting. I remember going as a kid, we went to, I don’t know that we went to a slaughterhouse, but we went to a farm that had animals that, you know, a working farm and, and even then, like, I was probably seven or eight, it was, I cried, you know, and that’s not how animals should live. And yeah, I sometimes have to shut down. I see Moby’s feed on my my Instagram feed and I love a lot of it. And some of it, when it gets too upsetting for me, I have to, like, scroll through really fast and I’m not trying to ignore it, but I also have to feel strong enough in order to be able to make change myself, you know?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. Thank you, Sheri.
SHERI HOOD: Thank you.
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