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Here's to the Winemakers

Let's stop pretending the person making the wine doesn't matter

Posted: Nov 8, 2012 11:00am ET

By Mitch Frank

"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.

Angela Mochi
Casablanca, Chile —  November 8, 2012 1:06pm ET
Clap! Clap! Clap!!!!!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 8, 2012 1:38pm ET
The writer to didn't want to hear about saignée is a perfect example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. Better not tell him about stirring the lees.
Kyle Schlachter
Colorado —  November 8, 2012 1:49pm ET
Excellent post, though I would argue you can make good wine from bad land. You can't make *great* wine from bad land.
Aaron Romano
California —  November 8, 2012 2:35pm ET
I think vineyards and winemakers are of equal importance. A winemaker (in most instances) can't make excellent wine without a vineyard of equal excellence. And the best vineyards aren't just about location, its about how you manicure the vines (with the exception of gnarled, century-old zinfandel vines); and the winemaker rarely has a hand in that. I think its important to not elevate the winemakers status too much. Many winemakers already have a “rockstar” status that can help drive sales and boost a wineries' reputation. But there is more to a successful winery than a good winemaker. There is a lot of work from the vineyard to the cellar, and all the hands that go into making the wine are of equal importance; and every good winemaker will tell you the same thing. Sure the winemaker makes the "big decisions," but sometimes he makes the decisions at the mercy of what the winery wants the wine to be, not what he wants/thinks it should be.

Modesty is a virtue that more winemakers should practice. The wine is only as good as its marketing, and vice versa. Otherwise, a great winemaker is just another great winemaker -- but with nobody buying his/her win.
David Rossi
Napa, CA, USA —  November 8, 2012 4:15pm ET
Great article Mitch. No one disputes that the vineyard is critical, but there are a hundred decisions of what to do and what not to do in the winery. The winemaker is really crafting the wine and not just an outside observer.

Not to mention that those of us that are winemakers at small premium wineries also have quite a bit of input on farming practices throughout the year.

It's not the vineyard or the winemaker it is both. Seems obvious, but it just isn't part of the current marketing message being pushed right now.

David Rossi
Fulcrum Wines
Altesino Spa
Montalcino Italy —  November 9, 2012 4:49am ET
Ciao Mitch,

I liked your article very much!

We have to be careful that the man behind the wines does not become too important! The land has his matter as well!

Unfortunately my English writing is not good enough to discuss this matter, we will have to do it next time we meet in front of a nice glass of wine!

Jack Harlan
Southern California —  November 15, 2012 12:52pm ET
I went to a Lakers game a couple of nights ago during a stretch where they have an "interim" coach while waiting for the newly hired coach to arrive. The game came down to the last nine seconds with the Lakers in possession out of bounds in their own half - with the likes of Kobe, Pau and Dwight Howard on the court, you would have to like their chances to score. However, with no real leadership and no design, the ball was inbounded to Pau who put up a 3 pointer (decidedly not his shot)that rattled off the rim and the game ended with everyone looking a little stunned at an opportunity lost.

I don't want to state the obvious but the analogy stands - winemaker decisions even when working with the best the vineyard can give him will always add to the "wins" and reduce the losses.

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