In response to one of my recent blogs, an industry veteran questioned why winemakers in California change jobs. He also asked about my thoughts on the vintner-winemaker “power-relationship.”
Winemakers seek greener pastures for new opportunities, manifested in many ways, not the least of which is money. Top gun consultants are paid handsomely, and they can work with as many clients as they wish. The classic example, of course, is Michel Rolland.
Other winemakers jump ship to launch their own label and run their own business—a seductive option that frees them from the iron fist of a winery owner. Truth is, many winery owners are hard to work for. Not only are they frequently overwhelmed by financial obligations, they are often demanding and expecting fast results (as in great wines or great wine reviews) in a farming-based business that often takes years to master and refine.
And let’s face it: there are plenty of wineries that struggle for years to make great wines and never do.
The role of the winemaker in California has evolved to an era of specialization. There was a time when winemakers worked exclusively for a winery and many wineries didn’t own their own vineyards. Winemakers more or less waited at the winery for the grapes to arrive, and that’s when their job started.
Today many of the independent growers that once supplied those wineries have ventured out on their own, in effect becoming vertically integrated, growing their own grapes and making their own wine. A classic example in Napa Valley: Charlie Wagner and his son Chuck, who sold their grapes to area wineries for years before launching Caymus.
The Wagners, and others like them, have inspired greater appreciation for the role vineyards have in producing extraordinary wines. The industry has realized that to succeed at the highest levels, you need a driver vineyard. This in turn has led to an era of superstar vineyard managers and ultimately even greater specialization in just about every phase of the wine business, from grapes and sites to style and marketing.
The best wines today are made by the winemaker—not by corporations, or heavy-handed winery owners, or even heady marketing schemes. It's the winemaker who typically makes or breaks a wine, determining whether a wine makes the cut, and whether it should be released under a certain label or declassified into a lesser wine. The best winemakers are those closest to their wines. They need be allowed to use their intuition as a guide to how each wine should be made, starting from which grapes are picked and crushed to which wines are bottled.
The best winemakers are faced with many opportunities, and to stay at the top of their game, they go for the right ones.
William Segui — Sacramento, CA — July 10, 2007 5:31pm ET
Linda Schwartz — Fort Ross, CA — July 10, 2007 8:34pm ET
Charles Curtis — Chicago — July 11, 2007 12:24am ET
Richard Horvath — July 11, 2007 1:39am ET
Robert Fukushima — California — July 11, 2007 11:55am ET
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