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What Do Big-Wave Surfers and Château Margaux Have in Common?

Hint: They’re constantly trying to get better at a super elite level

Posted: Mar 5, 2013 11:00am ET

By Jennifer Fiedler

Earlier this winter, Château Margaux managing director Paul Pontallier travelled to New York to present ongoing experiments involving organic and biodynamic viticulture, as well as experiments with screw caps. Coming from a famed first-growth, this is something of a big deal in the wine world.

As promising as any of these options sound for quality, before making any such switch, Pontallier wanted to approach it in a methodical way, with trials. So for the past 10 years, Margaux has funded its own R&D department to rigorously test alternative viticulture and closures, using blind tastings to evaluate the same wine bottled under different closures and farming different parcels of the same vineyard plot with organic, biodynamic and conventional techniques.

Margaux, of course, isn't the only winery in the world taking steps toward organic or biodynamic farming (the chateau has not used herbicides or insecticides for the past decade-only fungicides to prevent rot) or considering adopting screw caps, but on account of its first-growth status, you could say that it might have more to lose than most. After all, why fix something that's not broken?

To answer that—and this may be a bit of a leap—let's look at what's been happening recently in big-wave surfing.

For the past two decades, big-wave surfing has been dominated by tow-in surfing, the practice of having a partner on a Jet Ski pull a surfer onto a wave. With the mechanical advantage of the Jet Ski, surfers could be propelled onto waves once thought too big to be humanly catchable. This opened up the map for surfers looking for new waves to conquer, while the dramatic, heart-stopping images have helped popularize the sport with the public.

But in the past couple years, there's been a backlash of sorts within the surfing community against the Jet Skis, with surfers instead choosing to go old school and paddle into monster waves using only their own strength for all but the biggest waves. Here's the surprise: They're catching these waves, giant waves that, pre-Jet Ski-era, would have been inconceivable.

What changed? Some serious machismo is involved, of course, in this sportsman's ethics code of assistance-free athletics. There's also a better sense of how to ride these monster waves from the Jet Ski years, and perhaps most important, new board design. (Generally, the boards are shorter, for maneuverability, with four fins.) Everybody wins: The surfers report more exhilarating rides; the fans get to see incredible displays of athleticism.

So then let's circle back to what's happening at Margaux. Here we have one of the most elite wineries in the world-arguably at the top of its game-pursuing innovation, seeing what can be stripped away, what technology can be added and what personal know-how can be adapted to make a better wine, just like the big-wave surfers are pursuing the most pristine ride. It's pretty fun from the fan side, but it must be a rush to be Pontallier.

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