American wine exports are booming, with foreigners purchasing 50.6 million cases last year, bringing in a record $1.39 billion, according to the Wine Institute, a California advocacy group. But it’s not only our wine that’s going abroad. American winemakers are also plying their craft in South Africa, Israel, Spain and even France.
Zelma Long was the chief enologist at Mondavi in the 1970s and then at Simi in the eighties. These days she often finds herself in South Africa, where she and her husband, winegrower Phil Freese, are partners in the winery Vilafonté; or Israel, consulting for the Golan Heights Winery (known in the U.S. for Yarden, their flagship brand); or Provence, where she advises on a new project called Chêne Bleu.
Consulting abroad is the most common reason American winemakers reach for their passports. Long’s schedule — five days in Israel and Provence, two times a year, and four months annually in South Africa — pales in comparison to other winemakers. The industry has a term for vintners who really rack up airline miles: “flying winemakers.” The Frenchman Michel Rolland, perhaps the world’s most notorious flying winemaker thanks to his unflattering portrayal in the 2004 documentary Mondovino, has over 100 clients on five continents, some of whom he visits four times a year.
Seasons help Aussies pave the way
Peripatetic Australian winemakers were among the first to work abroad. In the 1980s, the government Down Under supported huge technological leaps in making wine, giving the Aussies skills that appealed to struggling wineries. Exporting this talent was easy because of the timing of the harvest in the Southern Hemisphere. When vineyards in Europe, California and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere needed new techniques, the Aussies had downtime.
Nowadays, though, even being on hand for a harvest isn’t crucial. “I don’t really make wine for people,” said Long. “I advise them on whatever it is that is their interest. So when I started at Golan Heights, theirs was focusing on the vineyard and working on improving the winegrowing and educating the people who are managing and owning the vineyards.”
Long: “I’m very vineyard-focused…”
During a 1990 visit to South Africa, Long and Freese were impressed by the Cape’s vineyards, which have some of the world’s oldest soils — de-composed granite quite unlike the clays of Napa and Sonoma — and excellent, cooling winds off the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. In 1997, they and a local partner bought 100 acres of land and began planting. In 2003, they released their first commercial vintage.
In Long’s own vineyard, each area has its own personality.
“The first thing you learn when you work in another environment is that you can’t take the techniques that work for you in this area [California], for example, and apply them in an area that has different climate and different soils,” says Long. “That’s what makes it interesting, the learning curve to figure out how you work in a new environment and how you optimize your vineyards and your wines.”
Abe Schoener, owner of The Scholium Project, a boutique wine brand in California, found that working in France forced him to develop new skills rarely required in the Golden State.
The experience occurred when a friend hired Schoener as a consultant on a project to replant an old vineyard in Roussillon, in the south of France. “What I saw was a vineyard that was well over 100 years’ old that hadn’t been pruned in two years, and probably hadn’t been farmed well for about ten years,” he said. “But was not in the least dead and was way too wonderful and too valuable to replant. So I convinced him we had to figure out how to rehabilitate the vineyard.”
Old vines, new tricks
Old vines — 40, 50, 60 years old or more — are less productive than younger vines but often produce much more intense, complex wines. Vines as old as those Schoener faced in Roussillon were a new challenge for the veteran winemaker, so before he began he spent about a year researching how to work with them in places like Priorat in the Catalonia region of Spain, where winemakers in the 1990s had resuscitated formerly abandoned vineyards. But once the grapes were harvested he was on familiar ground.
He liked what he saw enough to start his own project in southern France, Clos Thales.
Alex Gambal had similar revelations when he was living in Burgundy, a French region renowned for its winemaking tradition. After a career in real estate in Washington D.C., he and his family moved to Beaune— the winemaking capital of Burgundy — in 1993.
When Gambal moved abroad, he wasn’t a winemaker. But in Beaune he began to meet local winegrowers and, in the late 1990s, he took a yearlong winemaking course. In a sense, Gambal “went native” well before his name ever graced a label. But he thinks being an outsider gave him some advantages. “As an American, I can pull myself back and look with a little more distance” and see if a property is over or undervalued, he said. Nonetheless, he had to proceed diplomatically: “If I had come in like a gunslinger with the hat and the boots those doors would have closed so fast!”
Long would appreciate Gambal’s sentiment. Working in a different culture is an important part of the experience, she said. “You’re not just doing winemaking and winegrowing, you’re working in a different cultural environment where people have different work habits, they have different points of view,” she said. “Success in working overseas and really the pleasure of it is the opportunity to learn a new human environment as well as the new winegrowing and winemaking environment. If you don’t do that, it’s really a tough road.”
Gambal’s production is pretty typical for Burgundy, as many as 5,000 cases per year, making 20 different wines from different vineyards. Juggling a lot of different wines like that is already a handful, but might Gambal be interested in making wine elsewhere?
“I have this fantasy of being a consulting winemaker at Chalone,” he said.
Where’s that? California.