Forbes calls him the “Steve Jobs of wine,” and Robert Parker named him Wine Personality of the Year–twice. Winemaker Paul Hobbs is one of those rare kingmakers of the wine world who brings good fortune to any estate. He introduced Robert Mondavi to new oak aging techniques, he brought Argentinian Cabernet into the spotlight, and he was an instrumental part of Opus One’s success. More recently, Hobbs has been hard at work with Armenian wine, bringing modern techniques to wineries in the region. He tells Forbes, “That’s the joy, solving the problems, taking the risks, finding the people, and figuring out how to work with what you’ve got!”
When we talk about what makes a great wine, we rarely give enough credit to the best winemakers in the business, like Hobbs. After all, you can have an ideal terroir, old vines, and perfect weather, but that will only take you so far if you’re not sure how to bring out the best qualities of the wine. The best winemakers understand both the artistic qualities of wine and its real worth on the market. These visionaries can tell you what collectors are craving right now, and they know how to craft the perfect wine to meet those needs. In short, a winemaker’s vision has the power to bolster or destroy an estate’s reputation for decades.
The Best Winemakers Are Philosophers
If you want to have a top-tier estate, it’s not enough to churn out wine every year; you need to have a goal, or a philosophy, that holds your team together. This is the supervising winemaker’s role, to give the winery a purpose that goes beyond day-to-day tasks like racking off the lees or checking the barrels. A great example of a winemaker who stuck with a single, unifying philosophy is Sine Qua Non’s Manfred Krankl. When he founded the winery in 1994, he had a simple idea that few winemakers before him had successfully implemented: unique project wines for every vintage. While other winemakers were obsessing over perfecting one blend and touting iconic flagship wines, Krankl was like a mad scientist, never making the same wine twice. This visionary idea, coupled with expert winemaking techniques, earned Sine Qua Non a stellar reputation. As Krankl once said, “People buy Sine Qua Non. They don’t seem to give a toot where it’s from.” In this case, a novel idea was better than focusing purely on terroir.
Visionaries Who Saved Ailing Wineries
To further prove that the best winemakers are an essential part of what makes a wine great, look at the reputation of Chateau Ausone after winemakers Pascal Delbeck and Alain Vauthier came into the fold. For centuries, this Bordeaux estate had a reputation as one of the finest producers in Saint-Emilion, until its quality plummeted in the 1950s. In 1976, Ausone asked Delbeck for help, and he overhauled the entire estate, down to every grape. With Delbeck’s belief in the natural quality of Ausone’s terroir, he brought the estate back from its third-rate reputation, and the wine’s worth skyrocketed.
Ausone is the ideal example of terroir sometimes mattering less than the winemaker. As one wine expert points out, “When you ask almost any Bordeaux winemaker or Bordeaux chateau owner to name the best terroir in Bordeaux, the overwhelming majority say it belongs to Chateau Ausone.” When Delbeck left the estate in 1995, its reputation improved even further under the guidance of Alain Vauthier. He noticed three things that Ausone needed: a second wine, better fruit ripeness, and pickier selection standards. The result was a denser, more complex wine, and more labels for collectors to choose from on the market. Under Vauthier’s watch, Ausone finally produced two 100-point wines, one in 2003 and one in 2005. The terroir always had this legendary potential; it just needed a couple of visionaries to see it through.
A Study in Biodynamics
Some of the best winemakers in the modern world refuse to label themselves as “winemakers” at all. The biodynamic wine movement, largely spearheaded by Coulee de Serrant’s Nicolas Joly, combines philosophy with an emphasis on terroir. Joly’s business card reads, “Nicolas Joly, Gerant de la Societe, Nature assistant and not winemaker.” Unlike winemakers who constantly tweak the way they process their wines, biodynamic visionaries like Joly scale back to the natural growth patterns of the grapes. Although Joly refuses to take too much credit for the work of the terroir, his ideas have had a major impact on his wine and the wine market as a whole.
Since 1984, all of Coulee de Serrant’s wines have been made biodynamically, and Joly is still the go-to expert on the subject for wineries hoping to get involved in the biodynamic movement. Working primarily with Loire Valley Chenin Blanc, Joly believes that the natural state of these grapes is bone-dry, and that if wineries focus on bringing out the best qualities that are already in the grapes, rather than forcing them to be what they’re not, the wine will cellar longer and taste better. Chenin Blanc in particular has fallen victim to too many winemakers adding excess sugar in an attempt to tame this naturally acidic varietal. Now that visionaries like Joly are taking a second look at this grape, collectors are more open to investing in dry versions of the wine. People like Joly have changed not only their own wines, but the culture of the wine world.
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