A part of your childhood was spent in Japan. What was that like? “My dad worked in Japan for four years as a pilot for World Airways. He flew medical and military supplies from Japan to Vietnam during the Vietnam war. I went to the American School in Tokyo. When you have a chance to live in another country, it opens your eyes to new worlds in ways I still appreciate, especially Japanese art, ceramics and food.”

Stanley Cheng, whose wine Xi Jinping drank at White House, talks Napa Valley, cookware and family

Do you remember your first taste of wine? “It was in my parents’ home, after we left Japan and settled in Petaluma, Sonoma County. They always drank a bit of wine but, in California, they were exposed to a lot.

That first wine was Trefethen, a table wine – I don’t know if they make it anymore. I thought, ‘This is interesting,’ but that didn’t suck me into wanting to learn more.”

What lured you into the wine industry? “I had just come back from overseas, moving from a big city and a large school to teenytiny Petaluma and going to a very small high school. I was adrift and it took me a long time to adjust. Through some friends who knew the Sebastiani family, I got a summer job on the [Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery] bottling line. I worked there every day and it was like, ‘Wow, I never knew these kinds of places existed.’ It was really fun. It was this wonderful mix of science and art. They were very kind to me and showed me what a winery was and how to make wine. I don’t know if I would be in the wine industry if it wasn’t for that job.”

Why did you start making your own wine? “When you have worked for other people for a long time, you just want to make wine for yourself. I’ve been so lucky – I have loved all my other jobs. But, in 2006, I decided to try it and made a cabernet sauvignon that got nice reviews and I was able to sell. I had no great master plan; every year I just set new goals and tried to achieve them. I’ve grown slowly and organically. My husband [Bruce Cakebread, of Cakebread Cellars] and I live in St Helena and have a tiny cabernet sauvignon vineyard we planted 25 years ago. Three years ago we bought the property next to us so now we have an hectare. Those vines are about 65 years old, petite syrah. It’s pretty exciting to work with that fruit because it’s an old vineyard. The grape is considered a Californian variety, and not a lot of it is grown and made in Napa Valley.”

Is organic farming difficult? “My previous job was with Spottswoode Winery – the vineyard was certified organic, producing 32 acres of fruit. So I’m very familiar and comfortable with organic farming. That’s the root of good wine – it’s the grapes you grow and what you put in the bottle. It’s about thinking ahead. It’s about not reacting to problems but preventing them. With organic fruit, we’re always having to think what the weather is going to be like tomorrow, next week, what we need to do to prevent mould or mildew, what we need to do to make sure the growth is the right size on the vines. I like this approach better. And we’re blessed in Napa Valley; nine times out of 10 we have amazing weather, but every once in a while Mother Nature throws us a curveball.”

What is your approach to blending? “Different winemakers have different approaches. Some blend really early and then put it back in the barrel, some don’t make their blend until right before bottling. That’s where the art of winemaking comes in. I taste wines out of the barrel every six weeks to see where they are at and what I want to achieve. I blend as I go. If there is something I can do to make the wine better, I might start blending incrementally along the way. Cabernet sauvignon spends 18 to 19 months in the barrel, and might get racked two, three, four times depending on the vintage. At every juncture I’m looking at it and asking if I want to make a blend out of it now or wait. It’s important to follow the wines and see their trajectory and evolution.”

Are your children interested in following your path? “I would love to see that happen, but I don’t think it’s happening right now. My 27-year-old daughter lives in Oregon, doing recruiting for a software engineering company. My son is 24 and he’s the artistic one. He lives in Brooklyn and works in the music industry.”

Do you like to cook? “I’m a Sunday cook; I don’t like to cook Monday to Thursday. I’m impatient and would rather have someone feed me. I like fresh vegetables – we have a garden at home. Luckily, my husband is a good cook. I cover weekends or we cook together when I’m more relaxed.”

What do you like to do when you’re not making wine? “I’m an outdoors person, so I hike, run, ride my bike, visit art galleries. I recently went to Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see Rain Room [a light and sound installation]. I also like to go fly fishing and we have planned two trips this summer, to Montana and Newfoundland.”