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Sometimes You Need a Hired Gun

Winemaking consultants are neither mercenaries nor miracle workers

Posted: Nov 29, 2012 11:00am ET

By Mitch Frank

Is it possible to make 62 different wines, from different vineyards, and have each one taste not just outstanding but also distinctive?

Philippe Cambie is the top winemaking consultant in Châteauneuf-du-Pape—he works for 25 wineries in the appellation. He also has 37 other clients, mostly in the Southern Rhône Valley, but also in the Languedoc (where he grew up), Provence, Corsica, Spain and even Macedonia. His wines routinely score outstanding and classic in Wine Spectator's blind tastings. I profiled Cambie in our Nov. 30 issue and found him to be a warm, friendly, complex man. Watching him interact with his clients was fascinating.

But is it such a good idea for one man to produce wines for 62 clients?

Winemaking consultants have been around awhile. In the late 1940s, Emile Peynaud, a professor at the University of Bordeaux, was offering technical expertise to châteaus in the region. As winemaking became more of a technical science in the 1970s, consultants grew more popular. Within a decade, some had become bona-fide rock stars—winemakers like Michel Rolland, Giacomo Tachis and Helen Turley became so well-known that their names were an asset, something to put on a back label to show that the wine was serious stuff.

Consultants also began working in multiple locales. In the late '80s, some Australian consultants started hopping over to Europe to assist during the Northern Hemisphere harvest. They were dubbed "flying winemakers."

This focus on consultants who visited dozens of clients a day to taste and offer advice produced a backlash. Critics accused some consultants of having a uniform style, of producing wines that tasted almost identical whether from Bordeaux, Tuscany or California. They argued that wineries were throwing out their distinctive character—their vineyards' terroir—to produce wines tailored to please certain critics and become the next cult wine. A caricature emerged: the mercenary who marches into the winery while talking on a cell phone, tastes a few samples, barks out some trademark prescriptions—Riper fruit! More new oak! Microoxygenation!—then walks out to a waiting Ferrari.

I understand the backlash. Wine lovers treasure fine wine because it is an artisanal product. Our favorite producers tend to be people who grow their own grapes and make the wine themselves, often on land their family has owned for generations.

That concept is wonderfully romantic. It's also rather simplistic and naive. Hemingway had an editor who helped shape his work, and many of the world's great growers and winemakers have some outside help.

Why does a winery hire a consultant? Pierre Giraud, Cambie's first client and an old friend, was a longtime grower who decided in 1998 that he wanted to make and bottle his own wines under the name Domaine Giraud, rather than selling everything to négociants. Giraud knew his vineyards—Cambie calls him his viticulture teacher—but he did not have Cambie's technical expertise.

The Maurel brothers hired Cambie in 2002 for their Clos St.-Jean winery. For years, they had drunk mostly their own wines. When they blind-tasted a lineup of leading Châteauneufs, they were horrified at how flawed their wine tasted. Cambie brought perspective. Several clients told me that a big advantage of hiring Cambie is that he works with so many Châteauneuf wineries that he usually knows more about the current growing season and harvest than anyone.

Far from a consultant with a recipe, Cambie always begins by asking what clients want: What kind of wine do they want to make? What is their land capable of producing? Who is their target consumer? He told me he relishes clients who disagree with him, who fight for what they believe is best for their wines, who have strong points of view.

Hundreds of consultants work in wine today, and I'm sure some have a one-size-fits-all approach. Maybe they specialize in finding clients who are insecure, or have no strong opinion on what their wines should taste like, or just want to make something that sells. But consultants who make wine based on what's "in fashion" cannot succeed forever, because fashions always change.

I've profiled two winemaking consultants—Cambie and Stéphane Derenoncourt—both of whom focus much of their work in the vineyards. And vineyards tend to be so individual that cookie-cutter approaches don't work. When you think about it, wine is a collaboration—between man and vine, between man and yeast, between all the people who work in a winery. Every wine you drink has a lot of hands that touch it before you do. So having an outside perspective can be a smart move, even for the most artisanal producer. Call him a consultant, a hired gun or simply a more experienced advisor, but when you open the bottle, judge the wine on its own merits.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  November 29, 2012 12:55pm ET
Hemingway had an editor. What a great analogy! The first responsibility for any winemaking consultant, as for an editor, is to eliminate mistakes. Consultants like Cambie, like the editors I most respect, provide an extra perspective on style and focus, and help producers to achieve what they want.

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