why making wine is making me a better critic

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

I’ve been writing about wine for more than 25 years, studying it for much longer. The realities of my profession, tattered and under fire though it may be, are that I am immersed at all times in a fertile, non-stop series of events, tastings, conversations and close encounters that all contribute to my wine education. And yet, there is always more to learn.

When I embarked upon the adventure of actual wine making, it was principally because it was yet another opportunity to learn. It was a chance to draw my own pictures with someone else’s really big crayon box. To see if I could make – with great professional assistance – some of the wines I’d dreamed up or hoped that someone else would make so I could taste them.

It’s been a year since I first set down some ideas for the Waitsburg Cellars Three – a blend of Merlot, Malbec and Mourvèdre. I’d barrel tasted before, but never with the goal of assembling potential components for an actual wine. That was the first big lesson. Tasting 60+ barrels, from three different grapes, multiple vineyards, and varying barrel treatments, to pick out the ones that might – that might – come together into a workable blend.

Once the first winnowing was complete, the second lesson followed. 14 barrel samples were set in front of me, along with a wine glass and a measuring tool. You just dive in at that point, and make a blend. And another and another and another. Happily, a wine started to take shape. The blending became more subtle. Add a couple more percentages of this, take away a couple of that. Try and try and try.

Once a first blend was settled upon, we just waited awhile. This was very young wine, and who knew what it might decide to do? So a few weeks later, a tasting session was re-convened, this time with several Precept winemakers, the same 14 barrel samples, and my original blend as the base. Many hours and much tweaking ensued, and we all came to agree that the first blend, with a very small adjustment, was the one.

At that point the barrels were combined in tank, and more waiting ensued. Another lesson – wine making is a bit like movie making. There is a whole lot of hurry up and wait.

Sometime in July we met again, to see if the blend was working. Did it need an acid adjustment? Did it need more aggressive fining or filtering? Should we tweak it further? Was it ready to bottle?

It went to bottle in August, with no further adjustments or tweaks. A dozen shiners came fresh from the winery, and I settled into a routine of tasting it once a month. Another lesson – worrying about every little hitch in the wine’s get-along; every little change that might turn into a problem. Things I’ve often heard winemakers fret about, but this was my wine. My fret.

While Three was doing flip-flops in bottle, we set about designing the white wines. That’s another long and winding road. But there were more lessons to be learned there, about picking decisions, fermenting decisions, label design and other packaging, bottling dates, marketing plans, and on and on. All things I’d never had to consider before, when finished wines just showed up at my door.

Now after a year of work and planning, these first Waitsburg Cellars wines are being released. More lessons await, especially as they get tasted and reviewed. I have skin in the game now. And yes, I am still reviewing other wines. But I promise you, I am approaching them with more appreciation, heightened sensitivity, and a much broader understanding of all that goes into making any wine before it is released. I have always been respectful of the talent required to make good wine. Now more than ever.

Could I have learned as much as an amateur winemaker? I don’t think so. The commercial wine business is the big leagues. As the Mariners are finding out, it’s a lot different from spring training.


Ron Washam, HMW said...

Your story is sort of a George Plimpton-esque tale, a "Paper Lion" for the wine business. I think it's interesting, and all the self-righteous "conflict of interest" crap being hurled at you just makes it more compelling. Your scores for WE will really be scrutinized now. I suggest giving every wine you taste for the next six months "92."

Now I'm wondering if becoming wine critics would make winemakers better at their jobs--God knows a lot of them need the help.

Calamityville said...

I'm rather surprised at all of the uproar over your venture. The wine industry world wide has a long history of brokers, dealers and winery owners acting as wine critics and authorities. Michael Broadbent and Robert Parker are two among many that come to mind.

Good luck with your new venture. I look forward to an opportunity to try the wines. The Chenin Blancs are especially intriguing. I've often thought it's misused grape in this country.

PaulG said...

Ron, maybe I'll just go to the 110-point scale. I know the trade would love it. Calamityville - thanks for the vote of confidence. As long as I've pushed the envelope this far, I'll probably go a step further and publish some wine book reviews. Since I've written several wine books myself, this would seem to be another clear breach of ethics. Mr. Graybachev, tear down those ivory towers!

Robert said...

I think that all writers and critics need to make a commercial bottle on their own. It was once said by Goerge Burns that critics were like eunics at an orgy. They see it being done every way it could be done but they couldn't do it themselves. I sometimes feel there are critics and bloggers out there who do not understand what it takes to make a good bottle of wine. It takes big cajones to make wine on your own in a commercial setting. With this experience you don't just have a taste of winemaking and it's challenges but have eaten the whole buffet and I think it will make you a better writer for it.
I wish you the best of luck and hopefully I can taste the fruit of your labors soon.

PaulG said...

This comment came in from "Unknown" and was inadvertently scrubbed while I was attempting to post it. So here it is, unedited:
From "Unknown" ---

"Dear Paul,

With all due respect, and as a proud Washington winemaker, I must correct you in that although you are indeed contributing to the creation of wine, you are not a winemaker, at least from our understanding of the word winemaker here in Washington. Traditionally, and based on your written descriptors, you are a blender and/or negociant of wine. I must admit through, that at that limited task you are probably better than most of us.

I only ask that you acknowledge this fact clearly and thus give us, the struggling winemakers, credit for the number of years spent concocting Washington blends all the way from the vine to the table. A true winemaker (again from the Washington understanding of the word) must be able to perform and understand numerous tasks. These range from how vineyards respond to canopy management and what pest treatments are doing to your fruit, to how to stack bins with a forklift, how to troubleshoot your pump or glycol chiller or understand how a vacuum pump retrofit to your corker will affect the finished wine. You are not quite there, and it will take you many years to acquire that knowledge if that is indeed the direction you are taking."

PaulG said...

My reply to Unknown - I totally agree, and I never intended to pass myself off as a winemaker. When presenting the wines I always make it clear that they were my design, that I did the blending, and had final approval on everything. That said, I totally understand that there is a lot more to being a winemaker than what I have done. I apologize if I did not communicate that clearly in the blog; I do so at every opportunity when presenting the wines.

Unknown said...

I think it's great that you are doing this!
While you may not be a "winemaker", I think you have jumped in to what may be the harder part of it all (according to a number of winemakers I know): You now have to figure out what you want your wine style to be, what the consumer wants, what the market will be like when it comes time to release your wines, and perhaps the hardest part of all: how to sell it!
This will make you a more sensitive and ultimately better reviewer..
Good luck to you, and I hope to try your wines someday.
Mary Rocca
Rocca Family Vineyards

Bob Henry said...


Picking up on Ron Washam's comment:

"Now I'm wondering if becoming wine critics would make winemakers better at their jobs -- God knows a lot of them need the help."

Too many West Coast winemakers I've met are too provincial -- having little or no experience tasting wines outside of their backyard appellation.

California winemakers are unfamiliar with Northwest wines. And the obverse is true.

Chardonnay winemakers are unfamiliar with white Burgundies. Pinot Noir winemakers are unfamiliar with red Burgundies. Syrah and Grenache winemakers are unfamiliar with red Rhones. And Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot winemakers are unfamiliar with red Bordeaux.

Their winemaking "recipe" is the conventional wisdom handed down by enology professors from UC Davis and Fresno State.

But how many of those professors are practitioners, who own a vineyard or make wines for a brand you can actually buy -- and judge for yourself?

(Aside: In my profession of marketing, we "champion" practitioners over ivory tower academics. We subscribe to the evidence-based management notion that a fact beats a theory everytime.)

Asking wine reviewers and the reviewed to exchange roles for a day – better still, for a week during harvest and primary fermentation -- would benefit both professions.

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t do or teach, write.”

~~ Bob

PaulG said...

Bob, thank you for your thoughtful comments. Somehow your simple logic seems unfathomable to those who claim the high moral ground exclusively for themselves and those who agree completely with their principles. God forbid we should have a little room for discussion, let alone enterprise. Those who can't do or teach often do write, but writing and criticism are not always the same thing. Nor is all good criticism dropped down from on high in protected, unassailable ivory towers. Personally, I would be delighted to have some winemakers review my Waitsburg Cellars wines. And yes, tasting more widely inevitably makes one a better winemaker.

Bob Henry said...


Joe Heitz matriculated at U C Davis . . . and was tapped to launch the enology program at Fresno State.

[Source: "Joe Heitz - Heitz Cellar" http://www.heitzcellar.com/legacy/founders.cfm]

A true "hero" in my eyes: an academic-cum-practitioner. A pragmatist who turned out legendary wines.

What contemporary West Coast enology professors come to mind who have walked in Joe's shoes?

~~ Bob

"Full disclosure": the Jesuit president of my alma mater Santa Clara University was a student of Joe's at Fresno State. Father Terry concurrently served as winemaker at Novitiate Winery located in lower Silicon Valley -- tasked with making wines used during Catholic mass services.

One of Joe's sons was a classmate in the business school.

Unknown said...

To start with, Ron's comments are pretty much spot on & in reference to the eunics, so true. Thanks Robert. (Disclosure, Robert was a classmate at Fresno State).

I spent 5 long semesters in Fresno, studying chemistry, viticulture & wine in post-baccalaureate studies & graduate courses. My bachelor's degree is in Economics & Sociology & I spent 7 harvests in California (including one fall in the cellars at Fresno State). Thought I was well prepared & knew a lot. Then I worked for Clark Smith at Vinovation for 3 years, realized I didn't know all that much. Blindly started making old vine Zinfandel. Nice wine, maybe even great but marketing...didn't study that enough.

Fast forward, I've now made just as many vintages abroad (Bordeaux & Mendoza), and oui, I'm still learning. No longer exponentially each day, but every once in a while I get a day of exponential knowledge of greater clarity.

It's a long road you've begun, it will require patience. I see NO conflict of interest as you are gaining innumerable insights into making a bottle of wine. How many Supreme Court justices DIDN'T go to law school?

Admittedly, I've always thought Mourvedre & Bordeaux varietals could "play well" together...so I'm a little envious.

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