Kids are back to school, it’s Labor Day weekend, and 100+ degrees in Northern California. I hope everyone is staying safe and sane. Under normal circumstances I would be traveling or having family/friends visiting but I’m thankful my wife and I are still COVID free, employed, and not impacted by the fires. Because I live in wine country and people seem to like me (questionable? lol) I was fortunate to set up time to speak with John Michael Sweazey, General Manager for Anaba Wines, in Sonoma, CA.
In true nerd fashion I have a list of wineries that I pass by regularly and every time (to my wife’s side eye) keep saying, “I should stop there.” Anaba is distinct because it located at a popular intersection where Routes 116 and 121 meet. For those familiar with the intersection you are either heading deeper into Sonoma or toward Napa so as you can imagine I’ve seen the sign for Anaba dozens of times when heading to wineries. In late August after exchanging a few emails I was able to set up some time to finally stop there.
I arrived to Anaba in the late morning and immediately noticed an oversized wine barrel in the middle of the entrance. Sometimes I’m amazed where my mind takes me. In this moment, for some reason I had a flashback of me keg-standing in my undergrad days…but I digress. There was also an EV charging station and some structure gated off several feet away (more on that later). I walked over to the entrance, was greeted, and told to sit anywhere. “John Michael will be out in a few minutes.” A few minutes later John walked out with a water bottle, scarf covering, and introduced himself as “Johnny.”
Nice to meet you. Do you prefer “John, Johnny, or John Michael?” I noticed the staff calls you “John Michael.”
“Johnny” is cool but whatever you’re comfortable with. My father is “John Thomas Sweazey” so the staff calls me “John Michael” to minimize the confusion.
So, tell me a little about yourself…Johnny.
I’m a married former “techie” living in Lucas Valley. I was at LinkedIn until 2016 when I decided to join my father in the wine industry.
Wow! I feel like your story is a prediction of my future. I’m currently in tech so before I dig into Anaba I would like to hear more about your time in “tech.”
I started in Recruiting at Google in 2010 and used my experience to land a sales role at LinkedIn in 2011. It was a great time to be at LinkedIn as it just went public earlier that year, so there wasn’t a shortage of opportunity. I did my time as an entry level sales professional and eventually made my way to an Enterprise Account Executive role. I loved my job and the sales world but I felt something was missing. Oh, and I met my wife at LinkedIn so that was the best part of working there.
Gaining a life partner is always a positive experience. So, when you left did you go right into the wine business?
No. I needed a break and wanted to travel a bit before deciding my next move with my then girlfriend, now wife.
Where did you go and was it on this trip that your passion of wine developed?
In 2017 we were traveling around Europe – Spain, France, Portugal – and I was amazed by the family style of all the wineries. I noticed how the grandkids, parents, cousins, and extended family of the winemaker/owner were all on the property. I had a direct lesson on the importance of wine and family when I took out my phone to take pictures and was asked politely to refrain from recording there. The owner said how his family, winery, and the “wine experience” is sacred to him. Similar to my father’s experience in Europe almost a half century ago, I found my passion for wine.
Did you go “crazy” on wine the rest of your trip?
YES! We tasted wine from as many wineries and regions that we could including Croatia and Slovenia. I couldn’t wait to come back to the US to join my father at Anaba.
Speaking of your winery, where did the name “Anaba” come from?
Today for some reason the wind isn’t blowing. Usually by early afternoon we have to take down the umbrellas because the wind is so strong. “Anaba” comes from the term “Anabatic Winds,” which basically means upward wind.
John gets up to show me the minor damage from the Anabatic Winds on the side of the building. We continue our discussion in front of the bocce court.
I love that name but I have to ask and I mean no disrespect but “Sweazey” (pronounced: Sway zee) is cool name. Why didn’t your father use your last name?
You are absolutely right! The problem is that the spelling of our last name got changed at Ellis Island so people pronounce it wrong all the time. They pronounce it as “SWEE ZEE” and “SWEE ZEE” doesn’t sound as cool as “SWAY ZEE.”
Valid point, Johnny ((laughs)).
Hey, before I forget did you see the Paddle Tennis court?
My head turned around like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.”
JOHNNY, did you just say you have a tennis court on the property?
I love tennis. My dream is to have a major charity tennis event on the property. I am HUGE Roger Federer fan.
I’m a huge tennis fan as well! Nadal is my favorite player…
I thought for a second you were going to say Djokovic…
I fake spat on the ground.
You mean JOKE-A-VIC!! I can’t stand him. Look he’s a great player, but NO!
At this point Johnny and I go full “Angry Fan” and throw around some colorful language about our “feelings” regarding Novak Djokovic so I won’t share them here. lol
Johnny and I make our way over to the tennis court. I feel like a dummy because I briefly noticed a gated structure but didn’t realize what it was when I initially arrived.
I have never seen or thought of a tennis court at a winery. Are people questioning your sanity?
(Laughs) They question it all the time anyway. Seriously though, there are thousands of wineries with a more “traditional” model and that works for them. But who said you can’t do something different? Many great and/or innovative ideas were called “crazy” in the beginning…
I couldn’t agree more. All those people will feel differently when they see Federer powering a forehand on your court.
(Big Smile) Exactly!
After sharing a few more tennis stories we headed inside to the main tasting room to finish our interview and try some more wines.
How is Anaba doing in these COVID times?
Travel and tourism is obviously down. Also, the fires have most wineries and the wine industry as a whole re-evaluating how we do business. We pivoted early to increase our online wine sales because of COVID. We are very fortunate to have loyal customers!
Talk to me about your type of customers. How do you make “ALL” people feel welcomed at Anaba?
First, we treat everyone the same at Anaba. I love the diversity of people that visit us. I learn a great deal through my conversations with all types and value those relationships. When my Director of Marketing told me about what you wanted to do, Noël, it was an easy “YES.” In addition, Anaba and our wines are versatile enough to interest an experienced drinker but also not overwhelm a newcomer. Personally, I prefer someone that hasn’t had a glass of wine to come to Anaba.
There are many people who feel intimidated by wine so it’s nice to hear that. While we are talking about wine, what is your favorite these days?
Syrah. We have a 2017 Bismark Vineyard about to be released. So, I could be convinced to open one…
Johnny and I tasted a few more wines as we chatted. I thanked him for his time and before leaving he hands me a business card. I had to ask him one last question.
Why does your business card say “John Michael” instead of “Johnny?”
Because “Johnny” dances and plays tennis. “John Michael” has business cards.
Location: 62 Bonneau Rd, Sonoma CA 95476