What Happens When Flying Winemakers Are Grounded?

Winemaker Rebecca Wineburg talks with Michel Roland in front of rows of sample wine glasses
Winemaker Rebekah Wineburg consults with Michel Rolland during the Quintessa blending process / Photo by Emma K. Morris

Olivier Trégoat traveled roughly 100 days per year before the pandemic, dividing his time between Asia and South America.

As the Bordeaux-based technical director for the Domaines Barons de Rothschild Lafite Group, Trégoat oversees Long Dai winery in China’s northeastern Shandong Peninsula, as well as Los Vascos in Chile’s Colchagua Valley and Bodegas Caro in Mendoza. But the last time he traveled to South America was in February 2020, just before France’s first lockdown. He hasn’t been to China since October 2019.

Not being able to participate in the 2020 growing season or supervise cellar operations in China has been frustrating, as Long Dai is a young vineyard that requires frequent attention.  Trégoat is familiar with the vineyards he planted in 2011, and frequent Skype exchanges and remote monitoring have helped to in the gaps. Still, it’s not the same.

“Technical and analytical data is one thing, and the feeling of the field is another,” says Trégoat. “The fact remains that it complicates things not to travel.”

Olivier Trégoat sampling wine from the barrel at Château L'Évangile
Olivier Trégoat at Château L’Évangile / Photo by Danon Boileau

Trégoat is what’s referred to as a “flying winemaker,” a consultant who visits estates around the globe. They provide viticulture advice, vineyard management, show techniques and offer blending artistry, either as an independent agent or as an employee of a winemaking conglomerate.

It’s a career that requires flexibility, astute organization and the ability to multitask. Since early 2020, that adaptability has been put through the paces. Hands-on responsibilities like inspecting budbreak, canopy management and barrel samples to determine maceration times have been impacted due to travel restrictions.

As owner of Lado Wine Consulting, Lado Uzunashvili has been a flying winemaker since he launched the company in 1998. He’s crafted red sparkling wine in Australia, established Les Cépages de Meknes winery in Morocco and consulted on estates in France.

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Uzunashvili also serves as owner and chief winemaker at Mukado Wines in Georgia, and he promotes the Eastern European country’s 8,000-year winemaking history around the world. He’s also embarking on a project to make the one of the first Australian wines aged in qvevri.

His responsibilities range from the selection of vineyard sites and varieties, to terroir analysis. He also tries to modernize clients’ facilities, oversees wine aging and facilitates seminars. A huge part of his role is collaborative tasting, accomplished of late by mailing samples and tasting with the team via video conference.

Lado Uzanishvili tasting at Australia's Saperavi Symposium
Lado Uzanishvili tasting at Australia’s Saperavi Symposium / Photo Courtesy of Lado Uzanishvili, Wines of Georgia

Many aspects of his job can be managed remotely—what Uzunashvili refers to as his “intangible world”— but winemaking is a visceral experience that goes beyond taste.

“The biggest thing I had to adjust to was making decisions about a very physical thing without physically touching or seeing the other side,” he says.

This could mean having to determine phenolic ripeness without the ability to chew seeds from a grape. Uzunashvili also has checked color extraction during maceration via texted photos and replied on a remote video feed to monitor yeast in the tank for stuck fermentation. And then there are the logistics around approving a new bottling line or production site.

“Flights change or are canceled, and booking tickets became both a science and a gamble,” he says. “What if you go somewhere and suddenly new rules emerge forbidding your return?”

Alsace winemaker Julien Schaal, owner of Julien Schaal Wine, fell in love with South Africa while he worked harvest in Hermanus in 2003. The next year, he partnered with Paul Cluver Wines on a new venture and has shuttled between France and South Africa ever since. He and his wife, Sophie, make grand cru Riesling in Alsace in October, and cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Elgin, Walker Bay and Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in February.

Though Schaal would fly to South Africa every six to eight weeks normally, he’s only traveled there twice since March 2020.

Julien Schaal in his cellar in Alsace with ancient fourdes wood casks. Photo courtesy of Julian Schaal
Julien Schaal in his cellar in Alsace / Photo courtesy of Julian Schaal

“Whenever you can see a small window to travel, you have to jump on it quickly,” he says. Before restrictions set in, he moved logistics and labeling duties to a third party. Andries Burger, winemaker for Paul Cluver, has also stepped in to assist with operations, which Schaal says has been key to survival. Trust and delegation has become paramount, particularly with blending and bottling.

Wineries that rely heavily on flying winemakers have faced similar challenges. Quintessa in Napa Valley supplements its team with international consultants like Italian master pruner Simonit & Sirch, Chilean-based terroir expert Dr. Pedro Parra and Bordeaux-based oenologist Michel Rolland, who consults for hundreds of clients.

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Before the pandemic, head winemaker Rebekah Wineburg would join Rolland and the team to review 80 to 150 individual lots, discuss the character of the vintage and craft the blend. Now samples are sent to France for Rolland to taste and discuss over Zoom.

While Wineburg admits that these new methods of communication are here to stay, she laments the loss of the casual and spontaneous conversations that happen face-to-face.

“At its most fundamental, wine is meant to be shared with others, and that personal connection cannot be replicated virtually,” she says.

Trégoat on location in the vineyard / Photo by Richard Haughton
Trégoat on location in the vineyard / Photo by Richard Haughton

Once Covid-19 is under control, flying winemakers may find their role changed for the better, says Uzunashvili.

“The pandemic has taught us new flexibility and compassion, as well as given us a more clear vision of what is important [and] gratitude for intent,” he says.

Trégoat points to the need for smarter travel.

“Priority should be given to trips at key stages of the growing season and winemaking [process to] reduce our carbon footprint,” he says. “I realize that the number of trips were perhaps not essential.”

Published on March 29, 2021
Topics: Winemakers