by Jim Law
I can go into a wine shop, randomly pick out any bottle, contact the winemaker, and with few exceptions arrange an in-depth visit where vast amounts of valuable, unfiltered technical information would be available to me. Many folks new to winegrowing find this refreshing, but perplexing. Why would someone share all his or her hard earned experiences with the competition? This unfettered cooperation is not unique to the grape and wine industry. It is a time-honored foundation of farming.
Farmers are by the nature of our work, isolated and introverted. However, the progressive ones get off the farm when possible. Most farming operations are small, without many resources for research and development. We do get valuable assistance from our State coop. extension organizations, but in today’s increasingly specialized world we are on our own. Deciphering complex soil/climate/vine relationships requires intellectual curiosity and the ability to process conflicting opinions. Sure, we now have the Internet, but you can’t see the vines and the terroir from a computer screen. Nor can you taste grapes, or wine in progress from the barrel on-line. Winery visits gives one a certain depth of perspective rather than a cute sound bite.
A professional visit is different than a vacation visit. Contacts and appointment schedules can take months to organize. Just showing up unannounced would be useless. Hopping from tasting room to tasting room tells us nothing. The old fashioned “Letter of Introduction” still exists. Many importers, academicians, and distributors have helped me make initial contacts. Our potential hosts want to make sure that we are serious. In the Washington DC region we have many opportunities to meet visiting winemakers at portfolio tastings and vintner dinners. Like any other profession there is a network to be tapped into.
Three or four appointments a day is about all one can realistically fit in. That may be optimistic. The wineries need to be close together so there is little drive time. In Spain and France two or three hour lunches are the cultural norm, especially when wine and winegrowers are involved.
It has to be emphasized that the visit is technical. The appointment has to be with a production person and not a marketing person. Marketing people are friendly and receptive, but their technical knowledge usually doesn’t have the depth needed to justify a special trip. Technical personnel can be skeptical and evasive at first. There have been several occasions where I have been coolly and almost suspiciously received until the questions start. Once it is established that we share the same challenges, the world begins to open up.
Timing is important. Although in theory, a visit during harvest would be instructive, in practice you are in the way and will only learn at best from observation rather than interaction. In the Northern Hemisphere, August is a great time to visit vineyards as we can see the work that has been done to the vines and inquire about viticultural philosophies and techniques. December and January are good for cellar visits as everyone is relaxed and there is great opportunity to taste the new vintage. Tasting young, developing wines gives us a different perspective, as it is a rare opportunity to get the chance to taste someone else’s wines in progress. Tasting mature wine is pleasurable, but tasting unfinished wine is more instructive.
With experience, one’s line of questioning evolves. My earlier visits involved questions that started with the word “what”. “What” questions are responded with nuts and bolts answers, but often in a vacuum of context. What is your pruning system? What rootstock do you use? At what temperature do you ferment? These questions elicit a simple response that can be deceiving. “Why” questions open doors to philosophies and regional differences. A particular pruning system may be used because of specific growth habits of the variety grown. A rootstock may be the only choice given the alkaline soil in a region. A warmer than normal fermentation temperature may be desired because the goal is to make a wine that needs 15 years of aging until it shows well.
Where to go? It is most helpful to visit regions that have similar climatic conditions. This is why I find Atlantic influenced Europe to be most helpful and California much less so. The mid-Atlantic region experiences similar weather patterns as Bordeaux or Burgundy. Unpredictable rainfall and temperature fluctuations during the growing season, and especially during harvest, require a winegrower’s intuitive senses to kick in. We can learn a lot from our European colleagues when faced with weather issues as they have learned how to change vineyard management practices mid-stream to adapt to a change in weather. Soggy harvests like the one we experienced in 2011 happen with some regularity in Europe. They have learned to adapt and modify appropriately.
The Old World is comfortable with their terroir. We are still unsure of ours. Sometimes we try too hard to copy practices and techniques without fully understanding the reasoning behind them. Information gathering is important, but even more critical is applying that information to our situation.
In Virginia we are lucky to have a significant influence from other regions. We have winemakers from France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Hungary, South Africa, and California. We have progressive winegrowers who make regular pilgrimages to other regions. We now are ‘discovered’ and enjoy receiving professional visitors from Europe and the West Coast. This exchange is arguably the most important quality influence on our evolution as an industry.