Here's to the Winemakers

Let's stop pretending the person making the wine doesn't matter
Nov 8, 2012

"I am a winemaker. Not a shepherd or a steward." Sine Qua Non founder Manfred Krankel spoke those words during the third day of Wine Spectator's New World Wine Experience, and I started clapping. Then I realized I was the only person clapping in a room packed with 800 people and sheepishly stopped. I shouldn't have.

The Wine Experience is Wine Spectator's annual gathering of the best winemakers in the world for three days of tasting, talking and having fun. The whole weekend provides a chance to discover some great terroirs—you can taste wines from more than 200 wineries, often from regions you've never tried—and chat with the people behind the wines. The winemaker or owner is often the one pouring. It's a chance to learn from some of the best.

But I often feel like people who work in wine (or write about it) like to pretend that winemakers don't actually matter. A decade ago, some consulting winemakers like Michel Rolland and Carlo Ferrini got a lot of attention. Today, so many producers I speak to insist that they are merely stewards of the vineyard. When they make the wine, they just try to let the vineyard speak for itself.

It brings to mind that scene in Bull Durham when Kevin Costner's grizzled old catcher teaches Tim Robbins' naive young pitcher that, when dealing with the media, "You gotta know your clichés."

I understand the desire to pretend that winemakers are invisible. What makes good wine so special is that it's inextricably linked to a certain place. In an age when we buy our food in sterile grocery stores, have no idea where the beef comes from and have to stare at the small print to see which continent those apples were grown on, it's understandable to want to buy a wine that has a link to a place. It's why heritage breeds and the slow food movement are enjoying success. And you cannot make good wine on bad land.

But we've come to love terroir so much that we downplay the human element. One trend getting a lot of attention right now is "natural wine," a minimalist approach to winemaking. I can appreciate the desire to be hands off and see what kind of wine you can make. But the natural winemakers I've met don't just throw the grapes in a vat and walk away, returning six months later to bottle the results. Minimalist winemaking is hard work.

Wine without the human element is impossible. Vines don't exist to produce wine. If they had their way, they'd grow up trees and produce tons of grapes for birds to eat. We train vines to grow how we want them to. Biodynamic and organic growers don't use pesticides, but they do prune and train their vines.

In the winery, winemakers decide whether wine is fermented in steel, oak or clay amphora. They keep an eye on the yeast fermenting the wine and stop bacteria from turning it to vinegar. They decide whether it should age or be bottled and shipped quickly. Winemakers, even the hands-off ones, have to make hundreds of decisions that will shape the finished wine.

But we have attached so much romance to wine that some of us don't want to know about those decisions. One night during the Wine Experience, I was chatting with two Sonoma-based winemakers. One mentioned how, speaking to a newspaper columnist, he had explained how he had to do a saignée on a tank of Pinot Noir. Saignée is an old French term for bleeding some juice out of a red wine tank. With a reduced volume in the tank, the juice can draw more concentration and structure from the skins. The juice you remove can make a nice rosé. We use a French term because the French have been doing it for centuries.

But this writer told the winemaker, "You better stop telling me about this. That's manipulating the wine. I don't want to know about that." I assume if someone had said the words "reverse osmosis," his head might have exploded.

The best wine always comes from special places. But it's also a man-made product. When I buy a bottle of good wine, I can look at the label and learn where the grapes are from. But I rarely see the winemaker's name. What a pity. Who turned outstanding grapes into outstanding wine?

So bravo, Manfred. Don't be a steward. Let's raise a glass to people who make wine.

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