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Don't Stop Me If You've Heard This One

Having a conversation with a talented winemaker is a lot like eating a strip steak.  Once you cut away the fat, there can be a lot of rare meat there.

Every year I visit 50 or so wineries in various regions, and I talk with perhaps another 50 winemakers on their press trips across the East Coast.  They are mostly a fascinating lot, with strongly held philosophies and intriguing variations on a common theme – making the best wines possible.

Nonetheless, the first few minutes of conversation with a previously unmet winemaker is about as predictable as a professional football coach’s evaluation of the opposition and what his team needs to do to win the game.  No matter how experienced or how young or old or what is the mother language of the vintner, I will bet unlaundered money that he or she will say one of the following phrases in the first five minutes – and perhaps all three:

• “You know, I always say the wine is made in the vineyard.’

• “I make my wine to go with food.”

• “Our vineyards are (choose one or more) organic, sustainable, natural, bio or biodynamic.”

In an industry where sales often result from product differentiation, most winemakers (and too often their PR agencies) all make their first impressions sounding just like everyone else.

“You have to start with good grapes,” is everyone’s mantra.  Of course, you do.  Still, it’s disingenuous to say the wine is made in the vineyard.  What happens if you leave these good grapes on the vine and come back in a couple of months?  Do you see bottles of finished wine hanging there?

I particularly liked the comments on the topic from Eric Miller of Chaddsford:  “I decide what kind of wines I want to make in the winery, and then I try to grow the grapes that that will let me do that.”  Miller then went about telling me the kind of wine he wanted to make and what he tried to do in the vineyards to give him the right grapes. 

So rather than start with a cliché, winemakers should begin with their philosophy of the types of wine they want to make and how they like to make it.  In an interview I did consultant Michel Rolland, he went straight to his idea of what he wants in a wine: ”I don’t like really very light and too acidic wines.  I like the red wine with good tannins, but soft tannins.” 

Next to the table!  Wine has always gone with food.  Whole cultures have been created around the concept.  So I doubt I will ever hear a winemaker tell me, “I wish people would just concentrate on drinking my wine and forget about the food.”  Of course, I realize the wine-with-food comment is a back-handed slap at the big, burly red wines that Rolland likes – which, incidentally, can pair deliciously with the right foods.  So why not just say you make wines that are lean and high in acidity?

And I’ve yet to hear a winemaker saying that he or she wants to pollute the environment by dumping a boatload of toxic, expensive chemicals on their vineyards.  Green is golden these days, and, honestly, I think almost all winegrowers now make a conscious effort to be as environmentally friendly as possible.

About 40 years ago I was interviewing Warren Winiarski at his Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars when I related a conversation I had earlier in the day with a young winemaker who said the grapes he had just picked were so good that any idiot could make wine from them.   Winiarski, himself a great artist in the winery, blurted out, “I hate this naturalistic school of winemaking.”

While Winiarski appreciated the role of a good vineyard with good grapes, he also knew that a good winemaker in a good cellar is worthy of more than being the butt end of a cliché.

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