This wine maven from Cedar Rapids is shaking up the industry, one bottle of sparkling sauv at a time

Chris Christensen — Emma K. Morris/Little Village

“I’m the fish that likes to swim upstream.” Chris Christensen used this phrase over and over again to describe his journey from a middle-class upbringing in Iowa to attending Stanford University to starting his own winery in Sonoma County.

Christensen’s unlikely breakthrough into the wine business is underscored by his identification with and affinity for underdogs and people who exceed expectations. His winery’s very name, Bodkin, is a reference to the arrowheads used by the English peasant archers who faced down aristocratic French soldiers at the battle of Agincourt. And won.

Not unlike those archers at Agincourt, Christensen’s story is one of exceeding expectations. It is relatable, remarkable and features serendipitous coincidences and a few adventures.

Christensen grew up in Cedar Rapids, the third generation of his family to live there, and is fiercely proud of his Iowa roots. “I identify as an Iowan before anything else,” he tells me.

He was raised by a family of educators who, interestingly enough, never drank, and impressed upon him the importance of excelling academically from an early age. He attended Cedar Rapids Washington High at a time when Iowa was nationally recognized for its educational system. An English teacher introduced him to Shakespeare, and Christensen fell in love with the play Henry V, about the English king who fought the French at Agincourt.

He credits all of this for setting him on the path to starting Bodkin Wines. “I always knew I would go to college, it was just expected,” he said. “And I knew I wanted to go to an Ivy League school somewhere where it didn’t snow.”

Christensen graduated from high school as a valedictorian and realized his goal when he was admitted to Stanford University for college.

He had initially planned to study engineering but felt out of his depth at Stanford.

“I had been one of the smartest people in the room in high school, but now I was in the company of people who were so brilliant their governments were sponsoring their education. I wasn’t prepared.”

He settled on a communications science degree, and graduated in 2003.

Unsure what he wanted to do next, he thought he’d try out the wine business, which was ubiquitous in California. He’d met Ernest Gallo III, a Stanford alum, at a university event and mentioned his interest. This led to an eight-month internship in the lab at the E. & J. Gallo winery, where Christensen discovered that he was deeply interested in the chemistry of winemaking.

By the time the internship ended, Christensen knew he wanted to pursue a career in the wine industry. He went on to work at several wineries performing more hands-on work—mopping floors, filling barrels—so he could learn the business inside and out.

Career paths often have detours and Christensen’s is no exception. For a year during the Great Recession, he thought he’d try a more stable, traditional route and worked at Wachovia Bank. “I hated it. We were repossessing people’s cars at the height of the recession and I wanted nothing to do with it.”

He turned down a job transfer that would have taken him to South Carolina and went back into the wine industry, accepting a job at Medlock Ames in Healdsburg, California.

Chris Christensen — Emma K. Morris/Little Village

In 2011, Christensen grabbed an opportunity that proved to be a turning point in his transition from working at wineries to building his own. He was invited by winemaker Brian Keyes to participate in a grape harvest at his namesake vineyard in Adelaide, Australia. That harvest turned into a year spent working in Australia, and the money he earned there, boosted by a favorable exchange rate, became the seed money for Bodkin Wines.

Christensen says he started his own winery more from practical necessity than entrepreneurship. “I was in an industry where my degree from Stanford didn’t mean anything and where it was hard to move up. If I wanted to progress, I had to start my own label.”

His time in Australia also formed the genesis of what would become Bodkin’s flagship product: sparkling sauvignon blanc.

Christensen had already been thinking about making a sparkling sauvignon blanc; it was his favorite grape and there was no sparkling variety in the U.S. market, he says. He found a few examples while in Australia but felt he could improve upon them.

Asked why he felt convinced a sparkling sauv blanc didn’t already exist in the U.S., he explained that it was a tricky proposition.

“Sauvignon blanc can be a little funky and it gets worse if you add CO2 to that.” Additionally, grapes that will be used in sparkling wine need a certain balance of acid and sugar that is hard to find in sauvignon blanc. It would require finding a vineyard with the right climate and soil composition to get grapes that would be right for this project.

Upon his return to California, Christensen started looking for grapes so he could make a sauvignon blanc table wine. Bad weather had led to low yield and most vineyards didn’t have any grapes to spare. Through a process of elimination, he found a vineyard that could sell him a small quantity. When he analyzed their chemical composition, he realized they were right for the sparkling sauv blanc he’d been imagining.

Bodkin Wines came into being in 2011 in Healdsburg. Its founder’s affinity for history and for the Bard are apparent in everything from Bodkin’s motto, “We few, we happy few,” a line from Henry V, to the red cross patteés gracing the wine labels, to the wines themselves, which have names like Hotspur Cuvée and The Victor’s Spoils.

Clever marketing is all well and good, but at the end of the day what matters most is that the wines are good. And these wines are good. They’re consistently highly rated and often sold out. I should know, I couldn’t get my hands on the Cuvée Agincourt in time for this article. But I did manage to snag a bottle of The Victor’s Spoils—a sauvignon blanc sans the bubbles.

Photo by Ash Rhodes, courtesy of Bodkin Wines

It should be noted that I’m not particularly fond of sauvignon blanc. I often find it to be astringent and to taste of lemon and grass to the exclusion of all else. This was my first time drinking it in years, and this sauv blanc was nothing like the ones that had left a literal bad taste in my mouth. Where I was expecting a sharp tartness, the wine was soft and round on the tongue. It had a gentle fruitiness with notes of apricot, green apple and Rainier cherry. It was like no other sauvignon blanc I’ve tried.

Christensen saw an increase in interest in Bodkin as people sought out Black-owned businesses amid the 2020 racial justice movement. This support has allowed him to make more unusual wines such as muscat canelli, a lesser-known sweet wine for which he has a particular fondness.

“Five years ago I couldn’t sell it to anyone,” he said. “This year it’s sold out.”

Success also gave him a platform to increase representation for people who don’t often see themselves in the wine industry. He said he’d like for the industry to become more accessible, and for the teams who make wine to become more visible.

“Winemaking is agriculture and wine is made by people. We need to see more of the people who actually get wine made and less of owners.”

He also said that winemakers need to evolve and be more responsive to demand in order to attract and retain younger customers.

Asked what goals he had for his own business going forward, he talked about how much he enjoys collaborating with other winemakers. Two of his recent projects include a line of canned wines made in collaboration with Maker Wines, and the Where’s Linus line that he’s making with Jenny and François Selections, natural wine importers who decided to make their own wines domestically.

Ultimately, though, Christensen says, “I want to keep feeling my way through and see where that takes me. I want to stay out of my comfort zone and keep trying to make my perfect wine.”

This article was originally published in the 2022 Bread & Butter dining guide.

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