Modern Life: A Winemaking Family
For this Northern California couple, winemaking is a family affair.
“Motherhood and winemaking are very rewarding—both recharge me and invigorate my soul.”
“I spend a lot of time paying attention to my wines and keeping a watchful eye, but I don’t push them to be something they’re not,” says Faith Armstrong Foster. “I actually think parenting has taught me to be a much better winemaker. I want to guide, protect and see what my wine—and my children—will become. I don’t want to tell them or force them.” This organic style of working and parenting is second nature to her, surely a by-product of her unique upbringing. Faith grew up on a little island in southwestern British Columbia, where she lived off the grid, without amenities like electricity. (Hello, kerosene lamps!) Most of her family’s food came from their large garden, and they canned to preserve food for the winter. Her parents, who refer to themselves as back-to-landers, chose to raise their children in a simpler way, and Faith is happy that she and her four siblings were brought up like this. It’s the anchor for who she is and the philosophy behind her successful business.
She chose Onward as the name of her wine company, in honor of the small family boat that ferried her and her siblings to school from their island home. “I learned a lot in that boat; our parents trusted us and there’s something very powerful in that. We grew up believing we could handle things—not necessarily that we knew how to do things, but that we could figure it out.”
Faith worked in sales when she was younger. Then she realized that she enjoyed making things, and at the same time she started developing a love of wine. But Faith didn’t know how to combine the two into a career—that is, until the proprietors of a Sonoma winery invited her to spend the day in their cellar. “I was captivated by the smell of harvest,” she explains. “They threw us into a fermenter full of recently drained Pinot Noir and passed us some shovels. I was hooked. I needed to do more than be in the wine business; I needed to be a winemaker.” She returned to school to earn a degree in viticulture and enology (the science of grape growing and winemaking).
Faith’s husband, Sean, is also in the wine industry. The couple, who met in 2007, didn’t want to rush into anything because they both had kids from previous relationships. “Then one afternoon we got together for a beach playdate and realized our connection was about more than just getting our boys together.
I knew that day I would marry him . . . though it still took him a few months to ask me out!” Once he did, everything sped up and they were married less than a year later. “Sean is a lot of fun and makes me a latte every morning, which is pretty darn sweet!”
Last year Sean switched from being a full-time winemaker to consulting, which freed him up to help Faith with the business side of things. “Working together is new territory for us,” says Sean. “We’re trying to find a balance that won’t affect our relationship negatively. We’re learning!” Because her work is so demanding, Faith is grateful that her kids love to help. They hang out with her in the vineyards, checking out the growing conditions as well as vine and fruit health, which they’re good at.
In terms of that elusive-as-a-unicorn work/life balance, Faith doesn’t let it throw her. “I love being a winemaker and being a mom—I’m fortunate to get to do both,” she says. “There are days when I feel like each deserves 100% of my attention and I’m pulled between two roles. In tough moments, the demands are so high that balance is hard to achieve. But those moments pass!”
What are the challenges of being a woman in this field?
I think they’re probably similar to those in many other fields. It’s difficult to balance parenthood and a full-time career (for both mothers and fathers, I would argue).
When babies are young, the long, grueling hours during the harvest season are pretty challenging. There are more hours of work than day care is open to accommodate. Wineries are often a long way from day care centers, making it difficult to see your little one for long periods, which is hard for nursing or pumping to provide enough milk.
Also, winemaking is still definitely a male-dominated field and has lots of equipment to operate and physical demands, such as shoveling fermenters and carrying heavy pieces of equipment up tiny ladders—necessary tasks that can often be more challenging for women (though not always!). I could barely fit down the barrel rows in the winery when I was near the end of my pregnancies. This made me laugh and I did figure out a way. Simply turning around was definitely not an option!
Overall, though, I’d say I’ve found many advantages to being a woman winemaker, such as having a keen sense of smell and being good at multitasking. And parenting, though not gender-specific, has taught me so much. I draw on it as a positive in my job as both a winemaker and a business owner.
As a small business owner, you don’t take many breaks, especially when blessed with a harvest baby. I was in the vineyards until I went into labor in 2010 and returned to picking grapes when little Owyn was 2 days old. He was a trouper from the beginning, and if there were any doubts about my seriousness and dedication to my craft as a woman, they were immediately dispelled!
What are the biggest misconceptions about wine?
There are many. One that I hope to change is the idea that wine is fancy or for special occasions only—I want to make it more approachable for everyone.
People are often intimidated by wine in a different way than they are about food or clothing. Many are comfortable with what they like to eat or how they like to dress, but they worry about whether they should or shouldn’t like a wine. That’s because wine has been touted as a thing one needs to know about to enjoy. However, I really believe that anyone can enjoy wine; they just need to trust their own personal palate.
I hear comments such as, “I don’t know much about wine, and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be tasting or enjoying.” I always say the same thing: It’s good if you like it. That’s all that matters—not whether your friend or husband or father in-law does, or whether a wine received a high rating in some magazine.
What makes your wines special?
I’m extremely passionate about wine and food and enjoying meals with friends and family. I want the wines I make to be food-friendly, and this has had a big influence in determining which growing regions I work out of and which vineyard growers I’ve chosen to work with. It has influenced my winemaking style as well. The wines are made to honor the soil they were grown in and the hands that tend them. How the grapes are farmed matters to me on so many levels: It’s important for our planet, and I believe that people with integrity who are passionate about what they do produce a better product. I think the world of my growers and I hope to honor their work as a winemaker. My style is about showcasing the vineyard site and sharing this beauty year after year as wine. I try to pay keen attention to how each vintage differs and how my fermentations differ.
What surprised you most about parenthood?
That it was possible to love anything that much. The moment I held my first child in my arms my understanding of everything seemed to reset—I fell madly in love. That has happened again and again. Sure, there are incredibly hard moments, but they never last and the love keeps growing and holding us all together.
Tell me about your four kids. What makes each of them special?
Fynn, our oldest, is Sean’s firstborn and my stepson; he was 5 when we got married. He’s delightful—a sweet, loving young man with a heart of gold who wants to do right by people. He is quiet in nature and easygoing. Fynn just turned 14 and is both more adventurous and sleepier then he used to be! He’s a very caring and helpful big brother who sets a good example, and an even-keeled friend to many people. He’s also very athletic and excels at sports as well as academics. Fynn is very driven; he likes to get his homework done and stay on top of things. He loves baseball and is a blue belt in Tae Kwon Do.
Morgan, my firstborn and Sean’s stepson, was 3 when we got married. He’s always been very curious, inquisitive and eager to learn how things work. Morgan is a gentle soul who gets along well with others. He loves to cook and build things in the shop—a very hands-on type. He’s a lover through and through, still very snuggly and cuddly at 12 years old, but also very independent, happy to go off on adventures. He pays attention and is thoughtful; he knows what people (even Mom and Dad) would love for their birthday and how to cheer them up. Morgan is very athletic, with intense kinetic energy; he needs to be active. When we got a trampoline a few years ago, my only question was, Why didn’t I do this sooner? He bounces back/front/sideways, flips over and over. It’s nice to have a safe place for him to do that instead of the hallway! Morgan was the first in the family to start Tae Kwon Do and has shown extreme dedication and self-motivation; he’s a brown belt.
Owyn was born in October, right in the middle of harvest. He’s 6 and a total love. He is a peacekeeper who looks after everyone. Owyn feels very deeply and has an intensity that is captivating. People fall for him all the time—I fall for him a million times a day. He is rough-and-tumble and plays hard, yet he’s also very affectionate, gives great hugs and loves lots and lots of cuddles. Although Owyn is shy in new situations, he’s outgoing and extremely social at school and has so many friends. His laughter is intoxicating—he has this belly laugh that takes over his entire body. He grows more adventurous almost daily, it seems. He keeps up with his brothers and their friends, running/jumping/flipping like Morgan, and then plays calmly, building LEGOs by himself or with his brothers and sister. Owyn has always been a ninja and was eager to start Tae Kwon Do; he’s a purple belt.
Chloe is our only girl and the youngest—5 going on 35. She is very sorted and has always been ready to go off into new situations. At 18 months old, she started preschool at the same time as Owyn. While he was clinging to my leg and didn’t want to go, she put out her little hand and said, “Don’t worry, Owyn, I’ll be here with you,” and walked him into the school. I stood there in awe. She is very loving and thoughtful and enjoys making things for people and helping out with chores. She also has no problem keeping her three older brothers in line and keeps up with them all just fine. She’s a really fun combination: Chloe is surprisingly girly considering she lives in a household of boys; she loves pink flowery dresses but climbs trees and plays in the dirt like the rest of them. Her current favorite stuffed animal is named Lavender Love Pie Poison Flower, just to ensure that her toy has a little edge too. She’s very funny, with a dry wit, which is especially amusing coming from the little cutie that she is. Chloe was determined to join her brothers and is now a white stripe in Tae Kwon Do.
What are you most proud of?
Our commitment to how we raise our kids. We have a media-low environment, meaning no screens at all during the week and very limited on the weekends. Our kids attend a Waldorf method charter school that has this same media-free focus plus a heavy emphasis on the importance of imaginative play and outside time when little, and an enriched environment that includes music and art as they grow.
I like to say that our kids would survive without us, and I’m proud of that. They know how to take care of their own basic needs. The kids enjoy gardening and cooking and making jam and canning, that sort of thing. We have fun doing it and enjoy the fruits (sometimes literally!) of our labors.
We’re happy to report that Faith’s family and vineyards are safe following last year’s Northern California fires.