Money Well Spent

Jim Law

“The faster scientific knowledge advances, the greater the risk there is of widening the gap between what we know and what we do.” Emile Peynaud, from Knowing and Making Wine 1971

We are the wealthiest society in the history of man. We have more resources available to us than any previous generation could have imagined. These intellectual and material resources have allowed a flourishing winegrowing industry to evolve in the East. Tools only work well if they are used appropriately and skillfully. In the making of great wine, money is a very important tool, and using it wisely takes skill and experience.

Great wine is an art form. Industrial wine is a commodity. Winegrowing is a business. It is very capital intensive and it needs to be profitable. This is not the best scenario for an art form. This dichotomy is the Ying-yang that many serious winegrowers face: Self expression vs. the bottom line. As my business and I grow older, I find that my priorities in allocating resources have changed.

The following, in my humble opinion, is where I feel money is best spent to make world class wines in the East.

The Vineyard

  1. Place: For most new vineyardists the most important and most expensive decision is where to plant. In the Mid-Atlantic region, some of the best vineyard land is long abandoned hillsides or mountainsides that are steep, rocky and often overgrown or wooded. The path of least resistance typically leads us to exploit the cleared, easy to manage, lower parcels rather than spending the time, effort, and money to plant sites with more quality potential.
  2. Labor: Great wine can only be consistently produced from vineyards that are tended by skilled, experienced, reliable workers. In order to hold on to these workers there needs to be a commitment of decent wages, benefits, respect, and full time work. “Slow time” firewood cutting, fence repair, painting and hand labeling keep labor full-time. These relatively mundane tasks ultimately pay off in high quality grapes. Casual, temporary, volunteer, migrant labor do not have the skill levels or understanding of the vine to make good decisions.
  3. Crop thinning: Paying labor to reduce yields is a tough concept. Yield reduction and a balanced vine is the only way we are going to produce world class wines in eastern North America. Other regions with unlimited sun and heat can push their vines and still have good results. We are much more like Bordeaux and Burgundy where crop levels have a direct impact on wine quality, especially in the case of red wines.

The Winery

“Be sure to know what the world’s greatest reference points for the type of wine being produced actually taste like.” Robert Parke

  1. Palate: You cannot make great wine if you don’t know what it tastes like. Only an experienced, knowledgeable palate can make the important transition from number based winemaking to intuitive winemaking. This transition is a magical metamorphosis. Confidently making important winemaking decisions by taste is the key to great wine.The only way to gain an experienced palate is to taste wine at every opportunity. It is best to taste with other knowledgeable professionals. I find that sommeliers can give great insight into the world of fine wine. I focus especially on wine styles that are similar to my own wines. I personally feel that we in the East need to focus on non-Mediterranean European wines, as their weather circumstances and style most resemble ours. For Linden that would be red Bordeaux and white Burgundy. It is unfortunate that so many eastern winemakers are more familiar with California wines than their European counterparts. As much as I admire and enjoy West Coast wines, I learn very little when professionally tasting these wines as their style, structure and flavor profiles are totally different than ours.

    “When scientific knowledge and technology are limited, our senses of observation, intuition and sensitivity are heightened.” Andre Ostertag

  2. Equipment: Rarely is there a correlation between expensive, state of the art equipment and wine quality. Over the years I have seen small fortunes spent on inappropriate equipment. Top on the list would be: new oak barrels (paying lots of money overwhelm an otherwise harmonious wine); gravity flow (if there are skins involved it makes sense, after that, it is a trendy marketing talking point); bottling lines (mobile bottling is a great alternative). I have found that, in terms of wine quality, the equipment that pays dividends includes: sorting tables (along with the labor to man them); gentle destemmer crushers (with variable speed and adjustable rollers); flexible, compartmentalized, on demand heating and cooling (chilling white grapes, warm fermenting reds, cool fermenting whites, malolactic warm room, and appropriate storage temperatures for bulk and bottled wine).
  3. Declassification: Just like crop thinning, declassification is not about spending money, it is about forgoing income. Here in the east we have lousy years (2003 in this area comes to mind). Things don’t always work out as planned. This is where we can again take cues from our European colleagues and punt. We shouldn’t always feel obliged to make a “reserve” if the season didn’t cooperate. Maybe the Cabernet Franc was overcropped and is pale and herbaceous. It is a very good idea to have a wine to declassify to. Here at Linden we have Claret. It is a simple red that sells for much less than our prestige single vineyard reds. In some years (like 2003) that is all we made. In other years we take lesser lots that don’t make the cut to blend into Claret. We still make some money with Claret, which is important because it gives us a guilt free place to declassify to. This allows us to “protect” the reputation of our better wines.

In order to declassify, the decision maker must have a finely tuned palate (see #1).

Getting started as a cellar rat (advice to the young and restless)

Not everyone comes into this business with bags of money and a dream of a fast track winery. Every year I interact with dozens of twenty somethings who have been bit by the wine bug and are looking for a way to get into the game. Many contemplate going back to school, but I try to encourage another path. One could argue that if there was a list compiled of the most respected winemakers in the country, those having degrees in liberal arts would far out weight those with enology degrees. I recommend taking tuition money and investing it in developing a palate (buying wines and attending professional tastings), starting a wine library (containing books, trade journals, and wines), traveling, and attending seminars. Even more important: beg, borrow or steal your way into an ‘earn and learn’ job with a winery that you respect. To do all this requires self-motivation, tenacity and intellectual curiosity, which are exactly the same attributes that most of the world’s great winegrowers need to have.