Wine Maker of the Year

Wine Press NorthwestMarch 7, 2013 

In 1989, while I was wine columnist for The Los Angeles Times, I began to name one person as Wine Maker of the Year for exemplary work.

Though this was welcomed in some quarters (mainly at the honored winery), I always felt I was leaving something out. Two years later I began to see how such an idea was shortsighted – because others are always involved in making great wine. Here are just a few of the people who come in for rewards beyond the man or woman who is recognized.

The Vineyard Managers: Great wine comes from great grapes. The vineyard manager is the person who must assess the sort of wine his or her winery wants to make, then carry out a strategic plan to let that happen. This means picking the right rootstock, trellising system, and watering regime. This person also deals with clonal selection, soil additions, pesticide management, and such esoteric concepts as cover crop versus disking.

It means working closely with and setting up a perfect system for harvesting. If vines will be mechanically harvested, are harvesting machines properly maintained and ready to go when the weather changes? If it’s to be hand-picked, will crews be available on the date(s) when grapes must be picked?

The Cellar Rats: These people do the mundane work in the winery, topping barrels, hauling hoses, cleaning barrels, and generally making sure that sanitation is maintained at all times. (One thing I learned at a short course in enology I took in 1976 at UC Davis: winery sanitation may well be the most important aspect of making wine.) These tireless people often work when the wine maker is hosting a black tie dinner. They rarely get recognition, but can play a vital role in maintaining the health of the wine during its aging period.

The Grape Buyers: What unseen heroes! In wineries that don’t grow all their own fruit, these people deal with independent growers and ask lots and lots of questions to make certain that the fruit they’re going to get meets the wine makers’ demands. This person must look at a vineyard and assess how much fruit is growing; which areas of the vineyard are worth picking and which are not, and even such esoteric concepts as whether there is a nutrient deficiency in part of a vineyard! And they must deal with prices for grapes, which means knowing economic conditions in both the grape market (grape contract parameters as well as the spot-market) as well as the bulk wine market. What a multi-faceted job!

The Bottling Line Operator: This person must make certain wines from prior years are bottled, freeing up barrels and tanks in time for this year’s crop to have a physical home. I’ve heard horror stories of wineries having trucks full of grapes waiting under shade trees while tanks of wine remain unbottled because someone forgot to free up enough tank space by bottling in a timely manner. This person also must deal with inventory storage, transportation of wine to market, and often is involved more in repairs of the bottling line, a nasty and aggravating bit of business.

(One wine maker told me that early in his career he was interviewing for a job as head wine maker. The interview wasn’t going well when the bottling line manager popped his head into the office to tell the owner that bottles were breaking. The job candidate ran downstairs to the bay, spotted the problem, grabbed a wrench, and got the line up and running in 10 minutes. He got the job.)

The Office Manager: This person is a Jack of all tasks: dealing with the logistics of getting new barrels delivered and dozens of other things. Are printers and fax machines running? Is the air conditioning contractor on time? This person also deals with trucking companies that ship wine; invoices clients and wine wholesalers and deals with coffee venders (there are a lot of very early and very late hours at wineries), and employees’ health insurance and injuries. A breakdown here and quality can deteriorate. Such as a shipment of barrels winding up in St. Helens, Oregon, when it should have been sent to St. Helena in Napa Valley.

In small wineries, much of this work can be done by part-time or temporary employees, but this merely means that a spouse often gets involved to keep costs down, so that person too deserve a major pat on the back.

As you can see, a lot more people are involved than just the wine maker. I learned this in 1991, after I named Paul Dolan of Fetzer Vineyards Wine Maker of the Year. Before I wrote the article, we got together for lunch and Dolan brought along Dennis Martin, his assistant.

“Denny is the guy who does most of the work,” said Paul. “He deserves as much credit as I do.”

Martin, who is still chief wine maker at Fetzer, is one of the most respected wine makers in California and has been since his boss won the title.

Sure, Wine Maker of the Year is a valid award. Just don’t forget all those other people who help make the wine maker as great as he or she is.

Dan Berger is a nationally renowned wine writer who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. He publishes a weekly commentary Dan Berger's Vintage Experiences (VintageExperiences.com).

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