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  • Robert Mondavi made a name for his winery and Napa Valley with his promotional efforts
  • Nigel Dolan, Wyndham Estate, Hunter Valley, Australia
  • Michael Hatcher, Hungerford Hill Wines, Hunter Valley, Australia

Double Take

Daenna Van Mulligen examines the cult of the celebrity vintner

Modern winemakers have a new job description. Not only do they have to be proficient in winemaking, they also need to be able to pull off a little marketing magic.

Without doubt, the wine world has changed. Wine is no longer an elite product for the affluent to stock their cellars with. Over the past decade, there has been an incredible increase in winemaker’s dinners and public tastings. Not a week goes by without a visiting winemaker gracing Canadians with a stopover as they jet around the world. Travelling winemakers who preach their vinous gospel have, effectively, become celebrities to wine enthusiasts. If movies make stars why shouldn’t winemaking?

The increased awareness of winemakers as personalities can be traced to iconic Napa Valley vintner Robert Mondavi. Mondavi, who loved to talk, was, as his book Harvests of Joy states, “preaching the gospel of Mondavi wines and Napa Valley everywhere he went” from the late 1960s until his passing in 2008. Mondavi travelled so extensively and talked so much that he successfully generated enormous awareness for Napa and its wines. So much so, he earned the title ambassador-at-large and unwittingly set a precedent for the future.

Today, many winemakers are better recognized than the winery owner who signs their cheques. Peter Gago, chief winemaker for South Australia’s iconic Penfolds winery is a perfect example.

Gago, a soft-spoken winemaker with a serious obsession for Champagne, is a wine lover’s celebrity. Gago became Penfolds Chief Winemaker in 2002 and for this former schoolteacher, talking to a group of eager punters at a wine dinner or one-on-one with a journalist comes easily. He seamlessly shifts from vineyard and cellar to black-tie dinners and public tastings where he’s called upon to entertain the wine troops.

Nigel Dolan, currently chief winemaker at Wyndham Estate in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales, says he started out in winemaking 30–odd years ago because he needed a job. Dolan was essentially a cellar rat, and said making wine was physical, dirty work. Now, with technology, making wine is less physically challenging but it is still a combination of art and science that needs constant attention.

The day I met the somewhat reserved Dolan, he had flown up to the Hunter from his home in Barossa to check the status of the vineyards and ongoing harvest. Afterward, he proceeded to spend an entire day entertaining and chauffeuring about a visiting journalist from Canada (that would be me). That’s quite a change in duties from his original job description.

Another Hunter Valley winemaker, Michael Hatcher from Hungerford Hill, who does a lot of public speaking says winemakers run the gamut from “average to bloody awful” when it comes to public relations. In fact, he says he has seen some fairly prominent winemakers “physically shaking” while they do presentations.

Hatcher has some marketing and public relations in his background and loves being in the public eye, but he confesses that he’s not the norm. “Winemaking doesn’t necessarily attract outwardly confident people,” he says. “By its very nature of being chemistry- based, the role attracts a breed of introverts who are keen to analyze every manageable detail in the make-up of wine and consequently hide in their big winery sheds.”

Fortunately there are schools in winemaking regions around the world that offer wine marketing courses for those winemakers who find themselves hiding in the cellar to avoid the public. But taking a class does not make one a people person, nor does it make it easier for a shy winemaker to speak to a hundred people at a dinner.

An example of a gregarious wine ambassador is winemaker Jane Ferrari from the prominent Yalumba in South Australia’s Barossa Valley. At 160 years old, Yalumba is Australia’s oldest, family-owned winery and yet owner Robert Hill Smith entrusts Ferrari to travel the world and spread the gospel for him.

Ferrari explains that Hill Smith read an article by Robert Mondavi years before, promoting the power of “the wine evangelist” specifically for family-owned businesses. Mondavi could foresee a future of corporate-owned wineries and felt the only way to compete was to have an ambassador (or as Ferrari calls herself, a “talking head”) to advocate what makes them special. And, with the amount of competition out there, people like Ferrari are, without doubt, very important.

For the past seven years, Ferrari has put aside her winemaking hat and packed her bags in order to make friends everywhere she goes. And in this role, Ferrari, a witty and somewhat raucous sheila, has done exceedingly well. I have yet to meet a journalist or Australian wine enthusiast who does not get excited at the prospect of Jane Ferrari coming to town.

Lest you think winemakers with the gift of gab is merely an Australian condition, may I introduce you to Sergio Cuadra, who makes wine at Caliterra, a winery in Colchagua, Chile that was initially started by friends Robert Mondavi and Viña Errázuriz’ Eduardo Chadwick in 1996.

Cuadra is part of a younger generation of winemakers who understand you must have a willingness to travel and talk to people. He only travels about eight weeks per year but finds it essential to “get to know individual markets and what people think” of his wines. He’s not alone.

Most winemakers I have spoken with during the past year recognize how important that feedback is. It’s imperative for them to see what consumers around the word want and what they are drinking, rather than letting that information trickle back down the pipeline to them.

Consumers are travelling more and visiting wine regions around the globe. Wine store shelves are lined with wines, not only from traditional powerhouses Italy, France and California, but from India, Mexico, China and Greece.
Journalists are writing more, tasting more and travelling more to assuage wine lovers’ ravenous thirst. And after all, if you love a wine and have the opportunity, whom would you rather talk to or read an article about, the person who made it or the person who is selling it?

After all, it only seems fair that the men and women who make the boozy elixir that we all love should come out of the cellar, dust off and take a bow.