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Geyserville, California 95441
The wine mechanics
When there's a challenge, wineries big and small consult with a Mr. Fix-It
Tim Teichgraeber, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, May 4, 2007
In the world of wine, the winemaking consultant is the ultimate hired gun. For the right price, he or she can save a floundering winery the way a new sheriff might restore order to a lawless town in a classic Western.
Often working behind the scenes with a winery's in-house staff, they're brought in to repair defective wines -- other times just to fine-tune them.
Some consultants are so consistently associated with critically acclaimed wines that they've become quite famous in their own right -- none more so than Michel Rolland, the "Flying Winemaker," with hundreds of clients scattered all over the world. In California, Helen Turley is perhaps the most renowned, and Heidi Barrett is almost synonymous with the phrase cult Cabernet.
Top consultants' lavish fees can be justified not only by their winemaking prowess, but also by the buzz they bring by association. They're respected by wine critics, trailed by collectors and adored by their clients.
If to some these consultants are saviors, to others they're black-hatted villains who represent everything that's wrong with the wine business. They're often reviled by winemakers and others who accuse them of making soulless, formulaic wines cynically tailored to seduce certain critics. They draw upon a variety of techniques to manipulate the color, texture and flavor of wines -- and in the view of their critics, turn them into affable but vacant Stepford wines that have been stripped of their sense of place.
Not all consultants make $100 wines for well-heeled clients. Some less famous but very talented consultants, like Kerry Damskey or Barry Gnekow, may have their stained hands in some of your favorite value wines from Hedges Cellars, Hahn Estates or Michael-David Vineyards. Pinot Noir specialist Greg La Follette makes both expensive and inexpensive wines, and mentors novice vintners and nurtures new brands for modest fees.
What separates winemaking consultants from average winemakers is the depth and breadth of their experience and sometimes genuine enlightenment. They've tasted enough wine to know what qualities the best wines have in common, and know how to make wines that have those qualities -- seamless wines as precisely composed as a great painting or a perfect pop tune.
When Nicky Hahn of Hahn Estates in Monterey County hired veteran wine marketer Bill Leigon, first as a consultant in 2000 and then to be president of the winery in 2001, Leigon told Hahn that the winery didn't just have sales problems -- the vineyards and wines needed a major overhaul.
"I went to Nicky Hahn and said, 'Look, we've got some problems here. I know the guy who can fix it, but it's going to cost you a lot of money,' " says Leigon. "He said, 'My name's on the label and we're going to make world-class wines.' The first call I made was to Barry (Gnekow)."
Leigon had worked with Gnekow several times over the years. In the 1980s, he had seen Gnekow overhaul the winemaking program at J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines in Paso Robles. Leigon attributes Gnekow's winemaking acuity in part to his experience working at his family's custom-crush facility in Lodi. Because Gnekow was exposed to good and bad lots of wines from all over California, he was able to hone his blending skills early in his career.
Along with Gnekow, Hahn Estates added another winemaker, Adam LaZarre, and poured more money into its vineyards. Soon enough, its wines had dramatically improved and sales of the winery's new second label, the under-$10 Rex Goliath brand, had skyrocketed to nearly 1 million cases annually as consumers became hooked on the dense, fruit-driven wine style that Gnekow is known for.
It's Gnekow's talent at blending disparate lots to make a single harmonious wine that makes him the Michel Rolland of under-$20 California wines. "He's uncanny," says Leigon. "He'll taste one sample and say, 'You know this needs X ... If we take 600 gallons of this and put it over there, we'll have a really good wine.' "
Gnekow says that his new clients often come to him when they realize they have a serious problem. From there he can diagnose the problem and make the necessary changes. "When I look at a painting I don't know what I'm looking at, but an artist knows what actually physically happened on that canvas -- what chemicals were mixed to make those colors, what's going on with the contrast and what color is likely to fade," says Gnekow. "With my nose I can pick a wine apart and say, "This has got an infection of brettanomyces (a wild yeast that gives wine barnyardy aromas) and they didn't sterile-filter it.' "
Not every wine starts with perfect fruit, and that's especially true with most inexpensive California wines, which are often cobbled together from an assortment of lots. High-end bottles try to justify their price by touting their uniqueness, but to Gnekow a wine's first duty is to taste good -- not quirky. He is unusually candid about his willingness to use any trick in the book to make a wine taste better.
Not everyone likes that approach, especially winemakers who mostly work with prime vineyards and fruit, but it's a philosophy that's quite practical when it comes to making great-tasting $10 wines that emphasize good flavor over a sense of place.
"Most winemakers are lazy," says Gnekow. "There's so much stuff you can do at the last minute to make the wine taste better that they just don't do," says Gnekow. "They'll believe their own press releases and say this is what the vintage gave me and this is the true taste of the terroir and the vintage. If you just did a couple of things -- adjusted the tannin level a little, or put in a little American oak instead of 100 percent French oak -- all those little things you can do at the end can make a tremendous difference in the wine."
Gnekow, formerly a national sales manager at J. Lohr, also helps with marketing advice. He has played a major role in helping grape growing families in Lodi develop their first private wine brands, like Michael-David Vineyards' 7 Deadly Zins and Earthquake brands, and makes the relatively affordable Napa Valley wines of Calistoga Cellars and red wines for Leigon's own Napa-based $15-to-$20 Huntington brand.
It takes a lot of energy and enthusiasm to constantly shuttle between clients, tasting barrels, solving problems and teaching winery staff. Kerry Damskey has it.
Damskey has been making wine for more than 25 years and not only has a degree in fermentation science from UC Davis, but studied business at Stanford and is a Master of Wine candidate as well. Through his consulting company, Terroirs Inc., Damskey offers everything from grape growing to winery design. His clients include Charles Creek Vineyard, TR Elliot, Dutcher Crossing, Godwin and Huntington across Sonoma and Napa counties, and Hedges Cellars in Washington state -- a winery that has consistently made some of that state's finest wines and best values.
Damskey says that doing the job right can mean tasting every lot of wine almost every day. "That means I drive 8,000 to 10,000 miles a month. But I wouldn't sleep if I didn't do that." Damskey also maintains elite frequent flyer status by consulting with Sula Wines, one of India's largest and most highly regarded wineries. Rather than catching high critical scores for his clients, Damskey aims to teach his clients how to fish for themselves.
"Your job as a consultant is to be a good teacher. Not browbeating people, but telling them and explaining to them, showing them examples and saying, 'This is where we're trying to go,' " says Damskey. "As a consultant, you'll go away. If you base the relationship solely on the time that you're there, you're not going to be successful."
In some situations, he may be asked to be more personally involved in day-to-day winemaking decisions. Other times he just gives occasional advice for an hourly fee.
Damskey says that depending on what a client needs, consultants will usually charge a monthly retainer of between $500 and $3,000 a month, but that sometimes they also receive an equity stake in a business in lieu of all or part of a fee. He says hourly rates are typically $100 to $200 an hour, occasionally more.
When Boisset America acquired Russian River Valley's struggling DeLoach Vineyards in 2003, Jean-Charles Boisset doggedly pursued Pinot Noir specialist Greg La Follette to overhaul the Russian River Valley winery's winemaking program.
As a consultant, La Follette concerns himself less with marketing and branding, but he's a double threat in the winery: an adept molecular chemist with an exceptionally well-trained palate. He learned the craft from such California winemaking icons as Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards and Zelma Long (an influential consultant herself) at Simi, then set out to taste as many of the world's great wines as he could. "I tried tearing them apart on an intellectual level so I could kind of think about where the soul was and understand the language of wine," says La Follette.
After studying winemaking techniques at UC Davis, La Follette built a reputation as a top Pinot Noir maker at Flowers Vineyard and Winery and then for a time owned a custom crush facility in Sebastopol where start-up brands could rent space and pool resources under expert supervision.
These days he has pared down his client list and divides his time between his own Tandem brand, DeLoach Vineyards in the Russian River Valley, a couple of boutique brands like Middle Ridge Ranch in Anderson Valley, plus Ablington Estate in Australia and Vina Casa Marin in Chile. At Tandem, La Follette makes small-production, moderately expensive wines ($25 to $60) from select vineyards, but the widely available DeLoach Vineyards California and Russian River Valley designated wines ($12 to $20) showcase his blending skills and good taste at a price anyone can afford.
"For me sometimes the hardest winemaking is not just taking trophy grapes and turning them into wine," says La Follette. "When you've got marginal grapes and marginal conditions, like this past year where there was a lot of rot, that's really the hardest winemaking and takes a lot of skill."
For La Follette, great vineyard sites and other workers are more instrumental in making great wine than one winemaker with an inflated ego. His view is very much the opposite of consultants like Gnekow, who believe they should take an active role in tweaking and improving wines.
"If you want to get a 95 from Parker, you definitely don't hire me. I'm very terroir-driven," says La Follette, who says he avoids using much new oak or relying on notoriously popular consultant prescriptions like micro-oxygenation, which Michel Rolland was seen frequently recommending to clients in the documentary film "Mondovino." "I really try to let the wine find its own soul and to help it go there," says La Follette.
La Follette says that courage and vision, not technically focused winemakers, make great wines. "I think a lot of winemakers get bad raps quite deservedly. I don't think that winemakers should be trusted. Asking a winemaker to come and take care of your wine is like asking a pirate to look after your buried treasure," says La Follette.
"Who is the winemaker at Mouton Rothschild, or at Lafite? In Europe, you don't see so much about who the winemaker is -- it's all about the land. I'd like to see the culture of the rock star winemaker go away."
La Follette has made time to mentor less experienced winemakers at the custom crush facility in Sebastopol that he owned until 2004 and where he makes his own wines. Providing expert supervision to other tenants of the facility at affordable rates, he has helped several fledgling labels, like Bevan Cellars, get off to a blazing start.
Russell Bevan buys, drinks and talks about wine more than the average person. An obsessive wine fan and collector who made friends with many California wine industry players over the years, including Greg La Follette, Bevan returned to his native California from Minnesota in 2000. Bevan always swore he'd never make any wine himself, but when a friend offered him a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the 2004 harvest of Showket Vineyard in Oakville, he couldn't refuse.
"I had helped out friends at wineries here and there, but I had never made a wine from start to finish," says Bevan. "I went to the person who knew chemistry and winemaking better than anyone else I could think of, and that was Greg."
La Follette helped Bevan develop a program to craft the wine Bevan wanted to make, and Bevan sells his meticulously made Bevan Cellars Cabernet for $150 a bottle and Syrah for $70 a bottle.
"Greg mentored me as a friend," says Bevan. "I would take him bottles of great Bordeaux and Burgundy and some of the best Australian wines as thank-yous, but he never asked me for a single dime... He never even asked for any of the wines that I gave him."
By the next year Bevan was also making wines for Dry Stack Cellars in Sonoma County's Bennett Valley, where Bevan Cellars' own vineyard is now planted. Just three years after his debut vintage, Bevan replaced Heidi Barrett as consulting winemaker for Showket Vineyards.
Despite his disdain for rock star winemakers, La Follette may just have created his own monster in Bevan. Then again, maybe Bevan had the skills all along. Some say rock star winemakers are like rock stars -- they're born, not made.