Blockbusters in the wine world talk climate change, apartheid, and running a family business.
by Virginia Philip
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing several winemakers and owners from the portfolio of Maisons Marques & Domaines. The discussion took place at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) in April. Although you may not be familiar with the companies, you will recognize the names of the wineries they represent: Louis Roederer Champagne, Domaine Schumberger, Delas Frères and Domaine Ott of France, Pio Cesare and Querciabella of Italy, and a host of others. These blockbuster estates are some of the best in the world. The anecdotes below are some of my favorite parts of our three-hour long session.
Vice President and Cellar Master
Roederer Estate, Anderson Valley, California
VP: What are you doing differently today than 10 years ago due to climate change?
AW: The interesting part of being in California and in the Anderson Valley is — how can you find a cool climate in the Anderson Valley when your latitude is the same as the South of Spain? When you grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, how does it work? Because we are located close to the Pacific Ocean, it is very cold. No sunbathing. This mass of cool water acts as big, natural air conditioning. Whenever it gets hot inland, you will have that marine layer or the breeze that comes from the ocean — which keeps the air moist and helps to cool the air down. The warmer it gets inland, in fact, the cooler it gets towards the coast. The coastal areas get cooler in summer as it gets warmer inland.
It rains in the winter and is dry in the summer. So you have to collect the water and store it for irrigation and frost protection. When rain is scarce, you miss the water — not so much for irrigation because you can do dry farming, but for frost protection. So here is the sticking point with global warming: Even though summer may be cooler, it seems like winters are slightly warmer. Bud break is now March to mid-March. In fact, this year is the earliest ever — mid-February – three weeks early. If water is scarce, frost season can be the factor that may make you lose part of your crop or all of it. So that is the factor we need to use to decide how to adapt. Being a good steward of the land, as we are, I think this is the only thing we can do.
Owner of Meerlust Estate
Stellenbosch, South Africa
VP: What challenges and opportunities have you faced? How does it tie in with apartheid? Where do you think the future of South African wines is going?
HM: My father starting making wine in 1975. (The family) had been at the farm since 1756. We were always producing wine, but it was a mixed farm. My father consolidated the farm and planted red noble varieties. Our first wine was made under our own label in 1975. It was very difficult to build a brand and to compete on an international level. In 1994, it was a big relief when Nelson Mandela was released and became president and the dreaded Apartheid era came to an end. When I took over from my father in 1988 after he died, what I did was to build the brand internationally. We are already placed in the market internationally. It was easier to build the brand than in his time. Back then, no one wanted to write about us. There used to be these encyclopedias on wine without any mention of South African wines — not even on the back page. It was very frustrating. My father used to say it was like being in the boxing ring with one hand tied behind your back. I knew if we kept producing the quality wines at reasonable prices, we could do it.
VP: Currently we do not see it happening — especially in your case as you’ve owned the winery for years — that there is that draw or allure to sell. What is it about the place in your heart that says “I am never going to let it go?”
HM: It’s a very emotional thing to talk about because I really love the place. Every day when I stand outside the house, I cannot believe it is me living in there. We are a liberal family, and we like to share it. I like to dress her up — the old girl. I like to bring people to look at it. We are an old wine country already. Because it is a national monument — the house was built in 1693 — anyone can visit us on week days and take a look. It really is an extraordinary place. There is nothing more that I would hate than to leave it. It is my home. I would like to leave Meerlust feet first.
Owner of Pio Cesare
VP: 2002 was a very difficult vintage for many in the Barolo and Barbaresco areas with rain and hail. You have been here through generations. What do you do in your business every day to make sure your business gets through difficult times?
PB: The area that we are in is made of several different terroirs and very drastic different climatic conditions. The real bad weather event that happened to us in 2002 was a big hail storm in the commune of Barolo. And luckily, we don’t own any square feet in Barolo. One thing we know is that we must have our feet in vineyards, locations, and in many different spots. We believe in the exact opposite of the single vineyard theory — that better Barolo and Barbaresco can be produced from taking advantage of different terroir and locations among the Barolo and Barbaresco zones. Only by mixing the different terroirs and picking the Nebbiolo grape from different locations can we really represent in our wines the essence of the zone of Barolo and the zone of Barbaresco. That is also a financial and economic key point because our interests are not represented in just one spot.
VP: Is it possible today with the cost of vineyard land, the cost of planting vines, to build a winery for someone to start off in the business and carry on with it for centuries over the years as your family has done?
PB: If someone does not consider the wine business as a way to make money, I would say it is possible.