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Top Gun

Consulting enologist Michel Rolland makes some of the world's best red wines
James Suckling
Posted: June 30, 2006

What do some of the hottest names in California wine have in common? In the case of Araujo, Bond, Bryant Family, Dalla Valle, Harlan Estate, Sloan and Staglin, it's the same consulting winemaker, and he's not a Californian, not even an American. He's Bordeaux's Michel Rolland.

And the Frenchman's list of clients doesn't stop in California. He works with serioius producers in just about every major winemaking region on the globe. From Chile's Casa Lapostolle to Italy's Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, he's probably made more outstanding-quality wines than anyone in modern times. I gave the 2001 Masseto, Rolland's pure Merlot from Ornellaia, a perfect 100 points in a blind tasting.

Rolland, 59, is also at the top of the charts in Bordeaux, his home. He grew up at Château Le Bon-Pasteur, his family estate in Pomerol. He and his wife, Dany, now live at Château Fontenil, their wine estate in Fronsac; together, they run a laboratory specializing in wine analysis in the Right Bank town of Libourne. In the 2005 vintage, he had his hand in a number of the region's top wines, including Pavie and L'Evangile (each earned preliminary ratings of 95-100 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale). He also works for Angélus, Certan de May, Clinet, Le Gay, Lascombes, Péby-Faugères, Magrez Fombrauge, Pape Clément, Rouget, Troplong-Mondot and dozens of others.

"I helped with the blends, but nothing more, really," says the affable winemaker during a tasting of 2005 barrel samples from three dozen different Bordeaux châteaus he represents. He is understating. He does a lot more than that.

Rolland's first consulting work outside Bordeaux took him to California, to Sonoma's Simi winery in the mid-1980s. He now works for more than a dozen wineries in the Golden State. Three of Wine Spectator's four top 2002 California Cabernets—the Harlan Estate Napa Valley (99 points), Sloan Rutherford (99) and Bond Melbury Napa Valley (97)—are all products of his hand.

"There are some truly great wines in California," he says over a light lunch at Meadowood Resort in Napa Valley earlier this year. Rolland stays at the resort during his three or four trips to Napa each year. "In my opinion, California is improving nonstop. I think it still has the most potential in the world to make great wines. It's the American way of doing things. They have an attitude. They want nothing but the best ... there is a great spirit here. And just think, most of the top wines are being produced with young vineyards. What will the future bring?"

California is just one of the stops on Rolland's annual worldwide wine tour. There's no other winemaker tallying Rolland's number of frequent-flyer miles. He works in 13 countries and with more than 100 wineries. He even makes wines in such out-of-the-way places as India. (I have had the misfortune of tasting the result from that country, and it proves Rolland is not infallible.)

His omnipresence in the world of fine wine is impressive, to say the least. But it's also a source of concern and criticism. It seems the Frenchman can almost change water into 100-point wine, but some say his wines are too alike, or warn that he represents the globalization of premium wine, whereby many wines taste alike regardless of their disparate origins.

Rolland pauses to consider the charge. Teeth stained with Napa Cabernet, he's smoking a small cigar on his way to grab an espresso in Yountville. About 5 feet 8 inches tall, with salt-and-pepper hair and a short beard, the consultant, in jeans, a blue button-down shirt and tweed jacket, looks more like a stand-up comedian or a Paris nightclub owner than arguably the most famous winemaker in the world.

"It's just jealousy," says Rolland, his English inflected with a thick French accent. Known for his straight talk and dry sense of humor, Rolland says he doesn't mind criticism, or envy. He's nearly always smiling. He obviously enjoys his life. And why shouldn't he?

About an hour before his espresso break, Rolland is evaluating more than 60 samples of 2005 and 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot for various blends at Quintessa, joined by owner Agustin Huneeus and his winemaking team. Rolland quickly tastes through the wines, finalizing blends for the 2004 and starting those for 2005. The meeting is methodical, with tasters reviewing the quality of each wine presented as well as its origin and volume. Rolland is heading the tasting committee, but everyone has a say in the process.

"Eliminate lots three, four and 14," says Rolland as he tastes some 2005 Merlot. "I don't like them." One of Quintessa's winemakers marks a sheet of paper with the various lots on them and the group moves on to the next wine.

Rolland's blending skill is phenomenal. I have sat in on blending sessions of his in California, France and Italy over the past three years, and he has an amazing palate. It's not so much that he is better than other top tasters at evaluating the quality of a wine, or that he knows more tricks as a veteran winemaker. Where he shines is in his ability to taste different lots of wine in a winery and then decide which ones work best together to make a great bottle.

For example, in a blending session at Araujo, Rolland went through about 50 samples, including half a dozen of Sauvignon Blanc, two dozen of Cabernet Sauvignon and a few of Syrah, not to mention many preliminary blends. Tasting with the winemaker, Françoise Peschon, and owners Bart and Daphne Araujo, Rolland made test blends of the winery's white, red and Syrah in just a few hours. He made it look easy. Peschon took careful notes throughout the meeting.

"There are no preconceptions with Michel," says Bart Araujo. "He can evaluate our wines comparing them to all the great wines of the world. But we have to always respect the Eisele character in all our wines and Michel knows that."

Rolland's method is intuitive, but informed by experience. He has an organic sense of blending that no one can duplicate. It's perhaps akin to the way an artist might paint, selecting various colors as he or she goes along, not entirely by design but trusting the inspiration of the moment. Or compare it to a jam session with a jazz group, the sax player instinctively knowing what notes to hit to complement the pianist and drummer. The final choice is spontaneous as well as educated.

"I take my time," he says, glancing at the four dozen or so glasses in front of him at Araujo. He has tasting sheets of the various wines and proposed blends. The results of the tasting will be filed and then reviewed before the next tasting, later in the year. "I try blends. I taste it. And I decide. I don't rush it."

When Rolland was crafting Araujo's estate red, I was sure that leaving out one or two of the component wines that he chose for the blend would make the wine better. I thought one was too tannic and another slightly herbal. But I was wrong. Rolland left them out in one sample blend, and it was much less complete and complex. In the end, those two lots of Cabernet Sauvignon were not impressive on their own, but in the blend they were very important. As Rolland noted during the blending, "The whole is always more important than the parts."

"Michel is an amazing blender," says Leonardo Raspini, manager of Tuscany's Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, where Rolland has worked since the early 1990s. Rolland is credited with turning Ornellaia's pure Merlot Masseto into one of the best reds of Italy. He did this primarily through reducing yields and picking later, but he also insisted on isolating parts of Ornellaia's Merlot vineyard and then making the wines from those plots. "Michel has an incredible ability to taste through dozens of samples and quickly understand which ones work well together."

Rolland doesn't blend everything immediately when making a wine. A few months after the wine is first made, he might make a few blends of components that work together, but the final blend is put together slowly, after a number of sessions over a year or two, depending on the wine. He knows that wines change as they develop, so some may get better and others worse.

He also doesn't particularly like it when a client doesn't like his blend. He jokes that he has a cushion in his office that is embroidered with the sentence: "I am not bossy, but I have the best ideas in the office."

Clients agree that Rolland may get upset if his suggestions are not completely accepted, but say he usually gets over it. For instance, Jean-Luc Zuger of Malescot-St.-Exupéry wasn't completely happy with Rolland's final blend for his estate's Margaux red in 2005, so Zuger modified it slightly. "In the end, I am the owner and I make the decision," says Zuger, who incidentally made a stunning 2005 (I gave it 95-100 points during tastings of the vintage in Bordeaux this March; my complete report begins on page 42).

Wineries continue to line up for his services, although Rolland admits that he isn't taking on many new customers. Wineries recognize that Rolland's wines please critics and consumers alike, and they are willing to pay for the quality.

"I am in the wine business to make 100-point wines," says Don Bryant of Bryant Family Vineyards. The successful businessman hired Rolland about three years ago after a litigious falling out with California consulting enologist Helen Turley, who worked with Bryant from 1993 to 2002.

Bryant describes Rolland as "a great teacher" and "so much fun to be with." It's not surprising he feels that way. Bryant says that he wasn't allowed in his own winery to take part in or even observe the blending of his wines when Helen Turley was his consultant. Rolland, on the other hand, has regular blending sessions with Bryant and his winery team.

"The ultimate goal is to make great wine, but it is so much fun now," adds Bryant at a dinner in Napa Valley, where he is drinking his 1996, 1994 and 1992 with Rolland, Thierry Haberer (the Frenchman's former assistant in California) and Philippe Melka, Bryant's estate manager and winemaker. Whenever Rolland is in town, it's both work and play. It's not only tasting but also exchanging ideas and partying together. "I am involved now. It's a totally different experience," says Bryant.

I interviewed many of Rolland's clients for this article, and they all praised him, not only as a winemaker but also as a man. The main criticism I heard was that he couldn't visit their wineries frequently enough. For them, he is not only an excellent winemaker, he is a mentor. Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, an owner of Bordeaux's Château Angélus, says he would have never made great wines at his St.-Emilion estate if it hadn't been for Rolland.

"He helped me change my winery completely," de Boüard says. He started working with Rolland in the mid-1980s, but back then it was hard to persuade his family that modernizing the wines was the way forward. "He is not only a great winemaker but a great friend."

Friendships aside, Rolland makes good money. His laboratory in Libourne employs eight full-time technicians who analyze wine samples from about 800 estates in France each year. Dany also works there. Rolland would not divulge how much his business generates in annual revenues, but it is likely substantial. According to winery sources, his consulting fees range from around $30,000 per year to as much as $150,000 per year, depending on how much time Rolland himself devotes to the winery.

This range is at the extreme upper end for consulting winemakers. It's no surprise that neither winery owners nor consultants are eager to publicize the amounts involved, but the trial that pitted Bryant against his former consulting winemaker, Turley, sheds some light on the subject. According to court documents (reported on Wine Spectator Online on March 3, 2004), Turley was hired by Bryant in 1993 at $36,000 per year, but by 2003 her salary had reached $250,000. Bryant replaced her with full-time winemaker Philippe Melka at $120,000 but, perhaps as a kind of insurance, he also hired Rolland. The court documents list Rolland's fees at $95,000 per year.

Rolland emphasizes that it's not all about money, and that it's relationships with people like de Boüard that make his job special. (Incidentally, de Boüard says that Rolland has never charged him a cent for his advice.) "If the owner is not involved, then there is no passion," says Rolland. "And if there is no passion, then it's only for money. Wine is not that."

Yet Rolland's success at a winery, with or without the help of the owner, can quickly be translated into high scores from critics and high prices on retail shelves. The Frenchman gets results.

"Michel has a great work ethic," says Bill Harlan, owner of Harlan Estate and Bond Napa Valley. "He doesn't have a big ego. He just wants to get the best. He doesn't care about feeling big ... it's the dynamics of exchange. It is what we can learn from one another. We are still learning as much today as before. It is still really only the beginning. We can improve."

Improvement seems to be Rolland's goal wherever he works, whether in Cahors, Bolgheri or Napa Valley. He usually visits each client three or four times a year—clustering visits to area wineries at the same time for efficiency—assessing the winery facility and vineyards, making suggestions for improvement and working on wine blends with the owner and winemaker. Rolland often says that his role at a winery is more that of psychologist than winemaker.

"A lot of people don't know what I do," Rolland says. "My job is to devise a strategy, develop the winemaking and create a blend. There is always a winemaker and I talk to them. I am not making the wine day to day."

However, Rolland does have a basic approach to grapegrowing and winemaking. He has been a great proponent of reducing the grape crop in the summer to increase concentration, of leaf plucking to focus a vine's energy on its fruit, and of harvesting later to ensure ripeness of fruit and tannins.

"I look at the vineyard much more than my predecessors did," he says. "For example, [Emile] Peynaud [the late, great winemaker of Bordeaux who made his name in the 1960s] was in the winery. He didn't worry about the vineyards. That was the epoch. You have to live in your epoch. The work is different and the time is different now. I am not better. I am just different."

He has no one formula for winemaking, despite what some may think. His approach is much more flexible, depending on where he is working and the goals of his client. "You can't have a recipe," he says. "Every situation is different."

During vinification, he advises long macerations after alcoholic fermentation to extract good tannins and character, as well as bleeding vats to increase skin-to-juice contact. He also was among the first to promote malolactic fermentation in barrel, in the 1980s. He is not a proponent of micro-oxidation in winemaking as some suggest, and never has been.

Rolland's real forte, however, is working with people. He is excellent at convincing nearly everyone at a winery that his suggestions are the right ones, especially when he is working on a blend. And he tries to build the confidence of the winemaking team at each property, be it large or small.

"It is the winemaker or owner who makes the wine, not me," says Rolland. "I am not there during the harvest. My only decision is on the blend. That's it really."

So what is the Rolland style of wine? "I have to be careful of what I say," he says in French, in a joking manner, when asked about the style of wine he makes. "I have influence." He pauses. "I am looking for the right balance. I am not looking for concentration, but I am not looking for only finesse. The ultimate goal is to make great wine."

Rolland admits that he has a few personal reference points for great wine, especially reds. He is a keen wine lover and taster and says that he has been lucky enough to taste many of the benchmark wines of the past century. "I travel the world, so I have to have references for around the world," he says. "It is not easy. So I have a few references, wines like 1961 Latour and 1947 Cheval-Blanc. You can use wines like that as a reference all the time."

Nonetheless, some critics of Rolland say that his wines are all very similar in style. They say that they are fruit-forward, round and velvety, made in a modern, international style that is especially attractive to the American palate. They argue that the wines lack provenance, or the true characteristics of where they come from. Some even say that Rolland's wines all taste the same. Or that they are made to earn points from critics such as the editors of this magazine.

"It's not new," Rolland says. "It's stupid to say that there is a Rolland wine. The only wines that are Rolland wines are my own in Bordeaux [such as Le Bon-Pasteur and Fontenil]. You know this is ridiculous ... It's so untrue. If you put five wines on the table that I make, you would see that they don't resemble each other. Even if I wanted them to taste the same, I couldn't do it."

I tasted close to three dozen different samples of 2005 Bordeaux from Rolland in March, and each had a unique structure and character. No one could say they tasted alike.

Still, Rolland has been vilified in the media over the years, both in his own country and abroad, as one of the faces of the globalization of wine. This is primarily because he is one of the few truly global winemakers, and he maintains a high profile. The criticism seems unfair in view of the great wines he makes around the world and the fact that they are perceived by many as benchmarks for their respective regions.

"How's Ausone?" Rolland responds when queried about his contribution to the globalization of wine. Ausone is consistently one of the best wines of Bordeaux and a reference point for the region and its appellation, St.-Emilion. It is a unique wine with a unique character. "I have been there since the 1998 vintage, and most people believe the wine is much better," he concludes.

For me, Ausone has been bigger, richer and better structured since 1998. It is a much more intense Ausone that reflects the unique soil and position of the small St.-Emilion estate. Some say that Ausone no longer has the firm and linear style of the past, but in many vintages that style was an excuse for weak winemaking.

And the new Ausone, and others, should age just fine. Many of Rolland's clarets from the 1980s are holding up nicely. Just taste a bottle of 1989 Angélus, 1990 Clinet or 1982 Le Bon-Pasteur, and you'll understand. The wines remain fresh and fruity, with little sign of falling apart.

"I still get chills up my spine when I am tasting during a blending session. I get so excited," he says. "I love my job ... I have a beautiful job. I have 100 clients and 100 different people. It's so good and I love making blends. It is so passionate. For 30 years, I have had the same excitement."

Born in 1947, Rolland was destined to be a winemaker. It was a great year for many wines in Bordeaux, and his father, Serge, was already carrying on the family tradition of running their Pomerol estate, Le Bon-Pasteur (in English, "the good shepherd").

"I used to always make a joke when people called the winery," he says, in French, with a hearty laugh. "They would call and ask, 'Is this the good shepherd?' And I would answer, 'Yes, speaking.'"

Rolland helped around the estate as a boy and soon became interested in wine. He decided to go to enology school in Bordeaux, where he not only received a degree in winemaking but met his wife, Dany, an accomplished winemaker herself. "I had no choice but to become a consultant," he jokes, a bit ruefully. "My father was running Le Bon-Pasteur and there was no place for me."

Husband and wife make a dynamic couple. Rolland often jokes that his wife has the better palate of the two. "She's the most serious winemaker, too," Rolland says at a dinner at Fontenil in March. Rolland serves the 1996 Pape Clément and 1996 Lafite blind during the dinner, and Dany correctly guesses the vintage, as well as identifies the Pape Clément.

"Michel always wants to talk about wine," says Dany, who still speaks about her husband with a sparkle in her eye. "We have been together a long time, and we enjoy one another's company ... it's not just work." The Rollands have two daughters, Stephanie, 33, and Marie, 28. Stephanie works in the office, in finance, and Marie in marketing and design.

Rolland's rise as a wine guru began in the early 1980s. He began consulting at a number of neighboring properties in Pomerol as well as at his father's Le Bon-Pasteur. The best included the wineries of some of his friends, such as Alain Raynaud, whose family owned La Croix-de-Gay, and the late Jean-Michel Arcaute, whose wife then owned Clinet. The group used to socialize as well as work together, drinking great bottles of Pomerol and St.-Emilion from 1947—their mutual birth year.

The 1947 vintage was an extremely hot year producing many wines of unprecedented richness and power. Some, such as the Pétrus, Cheval-Blanc and Mouton-Rothschild, have become legends. Even many of the lesser estates of the Right Bank made great wines, and Rolland and his group drank many of them. It was this style of wine, with rich fruit and big, velvety tannins, that inspired Rolland's mission for winemaking.

"The problem with [1947] Cheval-Blanc as a model is that the sugar level was too high, the alcohol was too high and the volatile acidity was too high," he says shaking his head. "It can't be duplicated. But it is extraordinary."

Perhaps Rolland is still trying to reach the unachievable in winemaking, with the '47 Cheval almost haunting his winemaking psyche. He already has made some extraordinary wines in his career.

And what would the globetrotting consultant's father, who died in 1979, think of his son's wines?

"He probably wouldn't have liked them at first, but after a while I think he would have appreciated them," Rolland replies with a smile. "He would not have had any problem with my wines because, of course, one has progressed; we have not regressed in the quality. So, I think he would have loved it ... no problem."


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