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On “flying winemakers”: Are they good or bad for wine?

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One of the most interesting and controversial topics of the modern wine industry is the phenomenon of the “flying winemaker.” This is the term, which I first heard in the 1990s, that refers to a class of men and women who hire themselves out to wineries as consultants; they are “flying” because their preferred mode of transportation is of course the jet plane.

But they are much more than mere consultants. Their name, attached to a wine on a press release, automatically confers prestige, the way, say, Steven Spielberg’s name as producer of a movie is a sort of guarantee of the film’s pedigree.

The name most often conjured up by “flying winemaker” is that of Michel Rolland. I knew he consults for a lot of wineries around the world, but I never knew that the number was up to two hundred, according to this article in Harpers. Among his Napa Valley clients, current and/or previous, I’m aware of are Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Alpha Omega, Dancing Hares, Staglin, Dalla Valle and Sloan—in other words, absolutely the peak of Napa Valley (if not the New World) in terms of price and quality (at least, as judged by the top critics). These are the famous “cult wines” that define a region’s reputation and in fact establish its upper or outer limits of quality and perception by the wine world’s cognoscenti.

This would be all well and good, except that over the last fifteen years or so—let’s say, roughly from the start of the new century—a certain drumbeat of criticism has arisen among some critics, to the effect that an increase in the activities of these flying winemakers has resulted in a standardization or sameness in all the wines with which the consultant is associated. In fact, this critique goes even further: it says that all flying winemakers bring a similar approach to all their client wines, making these wines all taste similarly to each other, regardless of who made them or whether they are from Napa Valley or Pomerol or Chile. This sameness has been referred to as the “globalization of wine” or “the international style,” terms meant to suggest that all wines of the same varietal type—most usually, Cabernet Sauvignon and its allied varieties—smell and taste alike. In the eyes of the critics of such globalization, this is tantamount to a crime, since it obliterates the notion of terroir.

This is a serious debate and a good one to have. I’ve never been one to take an extremist position one way or the other, as some American critics and newspaper columnists do in utterly condemning these “international” wines. Their criticisms usually also have to do with what they perceive as excessive ripeness, over-oakiness and an alcohol level (often approaching if not exceeding 15%) which, they claim, elevates technique over terroir.

My reluctance to join these reporters has been based on the simple fact that many of the Cabernets associated with Michel Rolland and other flying winemakers are, in fact, gorgeous. They are among the richest, most sumptuous wines ever produced in the history of the world, and it is churlish, if not somewhat childish, to object to them based on some philosophical or ideological notion. This deliciousness seems to be what Rolland himself referred to when he told Harpers that all he strives to do is to produce wines that are “intense, full bodied, balanced, harmonious, with delicate tannins and a long finish.” This description certainly fits the Napa Valley wines I’m familiar with that Rolland consults for, but the problem, which you see is obvious by now, is that the same description fits all of them, which seems to hoist Rolland on his own petard. He has provided us with the template for an international style of Cabernet Sauvignon. And here, I must say that, in California at least, there is an ersatz style that mimics the international style on the surface, but that on closer examination results in lazy, flamboyant but eventually tiring wines. One has to be very careful in approaching the international style, lest he throw the baby out with the bathwater!

Harpers headlines their article “Michel Rolland defends his ability to manage wines on up to 200 wineries around the world,” and while the word “defends” is perhaps hyperbolic on Harper’s part, Rolland no doubt feels a little beleaguered. He must be aware of the criticism (although one suspects he cries all the way to the bank). Supporting the critics is the commonsense notion that one can only be in one place at a time, and even in this age of the jet plane, to have to be in so many places all over the world, having to apply one’s conscientious attention to so many properties, especially at the harvest, must be challenging to say the least. Heidi Barrett, herself one of California’s most famous flying winemakers (although she more properly might be called a “driving winemaker,” for she only accepts clients that are “within a half hour” drive of her Calistoga home), notes that she limits her number of clients for the most pragmatic of reasons. “Realistically, when things are fermenting I must taste every tank, every day, and so I’m going to four locations, and that maxes me out. Some days I barely get everywhere.” (These quotes are from my 2008 book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff.”)

Historically, we are at a point now where there is more or less an equilibrium between the international or global style, which admittedly is a ripe, expressive one, and a more restrained (one could almost say timid) approach, encouraged if not caused by the critics of the international style, who tend to have big platforms and the egos to fill them. I said we’re at “a point,” not “a tipping point.” I don’t think the balance will alter anytime soon, one way or the other. The wine market is simply too big and fractured for any large-scale revolutions to happen, despite alleged claims from some quarters that one is underway now. In the midst of such a complex market, winemakers hedge their bets; better to stick with a style that’s worked for you up to now, than to throw the dice and risk unnecessary changes that might alienate your customers. Finally, we come to the cases of new entrants to the production game, a younger generation that’s decided to live the wine life. They have, it seems to me, two choices, in the widest sense: to appeal to the international style, or to make wines more severe and that will, they hope, win the praises of the newspaper columnists who like that streamlined approach. They might as well flip a coin, given the standoff, and follow their hearts—always the best thing to do.

  1. Bill Haydon says:

    “encouraged if not caused by the critics of the international style, who tend to have big platforms and the egos to fill them.”

    I think that’s a little unfair if not totally one-sided since few will dispute that the biggest platform and greatest ego of them all was held by the tribune of the international style himself. And while that platform certainly seems to be fading by the day, his increasingly frequent and histrionic meltdowns indicate that the ego hasn’t receded one bit.

    The Fat Man aside, what this really comes down to for Napa is do they want to cling to their glory years and refuse to see the writing on the wall (or in the market, I should say) or do they want to adapt (and in a sincere, meaningful way….not simply labeling all of their releases 14.1%)? At long last, is it finally time for all the Naked Emperors in Napashire to take a hard look in the mirror? Adapt and survive or cling to their egotism and slide further into irrelevance because what happened over the last half-dozen years in markets like NYC and Chicago is now filtering out to the rest of the country. It may not happen overnight, but change will come, palates will mature and people will move on.

    Napa should look closely at the revolution occurring in Chianti Classico (a great European wine region that almost ruined itself chasing the international style) where the tide led by small, family vintners such as Maurizio Castelli, Niccolò Montecchi, Roberto Stucchi, Sebastiano Capponi, Tommaso Marrochesi Marzi are leading a revolutionary backlash against the modernistes, and winning resoundingly in the market.

    The international style of wine had a good run. It was all the rage for a decade at least. It was viewed as the height of cutting edge, revolutionary fashion. Then again, so was the leisure suit. But a funny thing happened along the way. People woke up. Their tastes matured, and they looked in the mirror and recognized the grotesque silliness of it all. They moved on.

  2. It may be tiring to you, Steve, to taste several dozens of wines made in full-bodied, balanced, flavorful, mannerly style and it may be anathema to Mr. Haydon to taste even one of them, but the buying public will never tire of that style because the wines taste good and the majority of the audience for wines in the upper-priced tiers does not have our good fortune to taste them by the basketful or have Mr. Haydon’s delicate palate.

  3. I consider those consultants to be more like teachers than winemakers. They will swing through your winery, give you some advice, then head off to the next multi-million dollar operation. I think there’s nothing wrong with doing something like that if you can afford it (which the cult wines clearly can), but hopefully those places have enough trust in their full-time winemakers to take all those suggestions with a grain of salt.

  4. Thank you, Gabe. That is really the point, isn’t it. Staglin does not taste like Screaming Eagle and Alpha Omega wines, with their several provenances do not taste like one another or rate more or less equally.

    To be sure, they are made in similar styles, but, then, so too are the wines of Melka, Welsh, Erickson and lots of other wines all over the world. It is not so much a globalization of style resulting in a loss of individuality so much as the realization that people like a certain style. Ask Mr. Peynaud for confirmation.

  5. Matt Zinkl says:

    Mr. Braydon, you make some excellent points, but I think your idea that the end of the “international style” is coming, is wrong.

    I can’t afford to drink the cult wines of Napa Valley, but if given the chance, I know I would love them and will always love them simply due to my inability to drink them often. Would you not tire of any style that you drank all the time? Might the taste’s of those in New York and Chicago change again? I think it quite arrogant to assume they won’t.

    To use your example of the leisure suit. Did it go out of style because our taste in clothes “matured”, or was it because the “style makers” decided to yell about how uncool they’d become? And does this mean that leisure suits are bad? Do we know for sure that nobody misses the leisure suit, or is it that you assume your tastes reflect everyone’s tastes?

    Please don’t tell what I’m supposed to like and dislike, it’s rude.

  6. Charlie, perhaps if you say that people like this style and will continue to buy it long enough (perhaps clicking your heels together at the same time) it will come true.

    Wishful thinking aside, very few people outside the bubble of the California wine industry (Napa particularly) believe that to be so. The wealth of market date and trends has been firmly against these wines for several years now and is only picking up steam. Just because something dare not be spoken of on the verandas and cocktail-wine parties in Napa does not mean it is not happening.

    Rumors of cult wine backing up in warehouses is not myth just because nobody dare speak of it. The wine world is changing, and if Napa refuses to change with it it’ll be cast upon the ash heap of history. I could care less either way.

    There is a vanguard of producers in the California wine industry who recognize this and are attempting to save it from its own excesses. You know who they are, and they are rightfully getting a lot of press for their efforts. And then there are the more cynical breed who are probably too arrogant to ever put their Michel Rolland cookbook down but nonetheless recognize perception is becoming a problem and have suddenly started to label everything 14.1% The alcohols have all grown lower overnight….with apologies to Mr. Townsend. I defy you to send a salesman out to a dozen random Michelin starred restaurants in NYC, Chicago or SF) with a sample of any one of those Chianti Classico traditionalists that I mentioned above and a sample of Kongsgaard or something similar. I have no doubt which wine will rack up the orders that day.

  7. Matt, I’m not telling anyone, on an individual level, what they should or should not like. I’m discussing the macro trends in the market, the almost tectonic shift of the last half-dozen years, and where things are headed next. Any individual is free to keep on drinking what they like, but enough of them clearly are not or the market would not have moved in the direction it has. There always needs to be one person left to turn off the lights. Somebody out there had to purchase the last Members Only jacket, and I’m sure that there will always be a core group of (ageing) guys in some country club on the outskirts of Omaha drinking hedonistic fruitbombs.

    As for, “could the pendulum swing back again in favor of the international style?” Perhaps, but I doubt it. It’s been a truism in the industry for a long time that as individuals’ palates mature and start drinking less fruitbomb and more nuanced wine, they don’t eventually lose interest in the latter and go back to fruitbombs. Now, this is happening on a large enough scale that is impacting macro trends in the high end wine industry, along with the millennial phenomenon where they are going straight to classically styled wines and not even bothering with Calijuice phase. Unless high end Cali wineries do something significant to actually reach out to those they lost and those they never had, they’re not coming back despite what some of the kool-aid drinkers desperately want (need) to believe.

  8. For a different perspective on flying winemakers, I thought it interesting that this month’s edition of Decanter included the following reader’s question

    “A few years ago ‘flying winemakers’ were everywhere in articles about wine. Now I never see the term used at all. What happened to them?”!

    I won’t type out the entire article, but the response from Justin Knock MW was interesting too. I must admit I related to this question (and the answer). Perhaps the flying winemaker trend is not universal or not so strong as it was.

    On the more general seemingly perennial question of international v terroir style wines, at least writing from here in Australia, there does seem to be a trend away from richer styles towards cooler climate styles and individual vineyard expressions in more marginal climates. The passion that this excites suggests an over-correction may be inevitable the other way. My view is that these are all valid styles and it’s then a matter of personal preference among them. Personally I enjoy having the choice.

  9. I am rather late to this posting, but I think there is more to be said. To some extent the 100 pt. scale is part of the phenomena of the international style, as some critics reserve the highest ratings for wines that demand attention by virtue of their intensity and power–the style that Bill Haydon often rails against on this site. Steve H. was an exception, as he took a more ecumenical view, rewarding wines that demand attention by virtue of their harmony and balance. I will be self-serving here by pointing out that not every label in Napa has embraced the uber-ripe style in the chase for points. Don’t forget about those of us who keep plugging away in the pursuit of making wines in the classical style.

  10. Bill Haydon says:

    Bill, I don’t think that the 100 point scale per se is to blame. While I’m not a fan of it, it is just a tool, and it’s the misapplication of that tool that is to blame. As the fat man himself memorably said in the infamous 60 Minutes interview, “a wine tells me everything that I need to know in 5 seconds.”

    Now imagine lining up 30, 50 or 100 wines and going down the line giving each one 5 seconds to impress or be discounted as unworthy as you make your way down the gauntlet. It’s almost inevitable that the things one would notice under such ridiculous conditions of evaluation are the things that make your senses jump back…an almost smelling salts effect. Low and behold, what did the fat man love? High alcohol, comically overripe fruit, massive amounts of slathered on new oak laying on top of the bouquet not to mention his well documented fondness for excessive levels of Brett and VA in reds and excessive lees contact in Chard.

    And I agree with you that not everyone a decade ago was chasing benediction from the fat man. I love and always will love wines such as Edmunds St. John, Stony Hill, Havens (what ever happened to that winery?) and Hanzell. It’s just that they were very much outliers who too often got lost in a wave of excess, short sightedness and bad taste.

  11. Dear Bil Dyer, thanks for the comment. Best of luck.

  12. Bill Dyer makes a great point about continuing to create wines in the classic style. Tasting every vintage in a 15 year vertical from his property last year proved a remarkable consistency unique to the site. Other object lessons may be found at Corison, Togni and Lang & Reed.

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