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Secrets from the cellar

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As an old karate hound, I stay in touch with my senseis. One of them recently sent me an article about a very great aikido sensei who refuses to demonstrate any technique more than once, “because if I do a technique twice, it will be stolen!”

For a martial arts student, that’s pretty funny; the dojo is a place for study and learning, passed along from teacher to student. It is not a place for secrets. This instantly made me remember a quote from an older winemaker who was interviewed by Robert Benson in his 1977 book, “Great Winemakers of California.” Benson, as was his wont, was asking the winemaker some technical questions, when the winemaker answered, “We’re very jealous about certain things, quite frankly, and I hope you wouldn’t be insulted, I’d simply tell you I’d rather not answer that question…Look, my dad taught me this stuff and some of it I don’t tell anybody but my kids.”

Back in the day, secrecy was fairly standard in the wine industry. Yes, winemakers have always collaborated, to some extent, but an older generation, who had been taught by their fathers (who in turn might have been taught by their fathers) was less inclined to share trade secrets with the young whippersnapper next door who might be his arch-rival. This mindset affected many older California wineries. It was part of the California culture immediately after the Repeal of Prohibition—maybe because consumers were few and far between, and the wineries were under tremendous pressure to differentiate themselves from the competition.

When a younger generation in California—the so-called boutique winery founders—arose in the 1960s, there was less guardedness and more openness. It was partly a matter of generational attitudes. The Benson book shows a spirit of sharing among younger winemakers, like Warren Winiarski and Jerry Luper, and even André Tchelistcheff, who was 76 when “Great Winemakers” was published, showed not a hint of reticence when it came to divulging his techniques, which might have been due to his European upbringing.

Today, there are few, if any, secrets among winemakers in California. Nor would many winemakers refuse to answer a technical question from a journalist. Even if they wanted to (which is unlikely), the lure of publicity is too strong. The wine industry has many symposia and conferences, from WITS to the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium to smaller get-togethers, and most winemakers are part of local tasting groups with their peers, where they share techniques and freely borrow from each other. So the information is out there: you can’t keep it bottled up.

One complaint you sometimes hear about this Kumbaya closeness is that it has resulted in wines that taste more and more alike, and less and less of their native terroir. Even if that’s true to some extent (and I’m not sure it is), the genie is out of the bottle: we live in an open, transparent, communicative world. Two or three hundred years ago, wineries were far more isolated from each other than they are today. Nowdays, information is open, free and universal, which is how it should be. In fact, far from fearing that information-sharing is detrimental to the individuality of wines, I would suggest it gives winemakers a wider spectrum of approaches (in both the vineyard and in the winery) to choose from, in order to learn how to make the best, most expressive wines they can.

  1. As a consumer, I’ve always been struck by the collegial relationships in the world of winemakers. The only noticeable exception seems to be those few winemakers with oversized egos and even those seemed to have their circles of support. So I was shocked a few years ago when the owners of a well known Oregon winery, the producer of beautiful pinot noir and chardonnay, sued their former winemaker alleging he’d taken advantage of trade secrets upon his departure. The whole concept that they have some “secret” in their winemaking is bizarre to me and, in my mind, I thought of this as The Evil Empire attempting to destroy the citizen who dared to walk away. The lawsuit was eventually settled, I suspect on terms to save face for the winery owners from embarrassment at what they’d done. I’ve never understand why any employers in any industry do anything but wish good employees well when they leave to pursue other opportunities. In my first job in my profession, I listened to the owners talk about how they were going to trash an employee who had received a job offer from another employer. I was shocked and wondered how they talked about me when I wasn’t there. Similarly, I wondered how secure the employees at the Oregon winery felt when they saw the lawsuit filed and how their employer was treating their former co-worker. Ouch. My business doesn’t survive if I don’t have the full support of my employees. My success depends on their success.

  2. I am eternally grateful to the handful of winemakers who taught me how to make wine. Far from keeping it a secret, they taught me everything I wanted to know and more. I quite literally could not have become a winemaker without them

  3. When you think about all of the name recognition and accomplished winemakers that André Tchelistcheff mentored, it is a staggering legacy.

    Wine writers and reviewers likewise have a legacy: educating the general public, and encouraging them to embrace wine once again as a beverage of pleasure following Prohibition.

    But who today remembers André Simon and Harry Waugh and Robert Balzer and Robert Finigan and Roy Andries De Groot and Frank Prial and Nathan Chroman and (Canadian) Andrew Sharp?

    Self-evidently you do Steve, by citing the “canon” of wine writing that marked the second half of the 20th century.

    Words worth reading today. (Such as Bob Benson’s interviews — a person I was proud to call a friend and work colleague.)

    Will the ephemera of wine blog “content” be remembered — and authoritatively cited — even a few years from now?

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