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Winemaker Challenge

Arts & Crafts
By Gerald D. Boyd
Aug 9, 2011
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Winemaking is an endeavor that merges the creative expressions and efforts of an art form with the technical skill of a craft. The skillful part of winemaking draws on certain practices and techniques that are common to winemaking everywhere.  Winemaking becomes an art when a winemaker applies passion and intuition to develop and nurture the symbiosis that occurs between grape and terroir.

A blending of skill and art demands balance and agility, but is often elusive.  Occasionally, though, two winemakers, with different backgrounds and from different parts of the country, make the same styles of wine from the same grapes, using similar techniques and approaches.

Only by coincidence do Bob Betz and Tor Kenward share a winemaking symbiosis, as they are distant colleagues, knowing each other’s names through the close fraternity of winemaking. Bob Betz, 63, is owner and winemaker for Betz Family Winery, in Woodinville, Washington.  Tor Kenward, 63, is founder and “winemaking assistant” for TOR and ROCK wines, from Tor Kenward Family Wines, St. Helena, California.  Through conversations with both winemakers, it became apparent that their approaches to winemaking were part art and part skill and craft.

Both men arrived at winemaking as a second career after serving in an executive position with a major U.S. wine company and both decided that their personal choices as a winemaker would be expressed through Bordeaux-style and Rhone-style wines.

Kenward, the former Beringer Winery Vice President and Public Relations Director, opted for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon under the TOR label and Napa Valley ROCK Syrah and Grenache.  Betz, the former Vice President Winemaking Research for Chateau Ste. Michelle (“I had one foot in marketing, one foot in operations and a third in management”) decided on “Bordeaux-inspired” reds from Columbia Valley and “Rhone Inspired” reds from Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley and Red Mountain, all in eastern Washington.

Why the Bordeaux and Rhone inspirations when there are so many wine styles to choose from?  “We make what Washington grows best, based on our affection for red wine and wines from the two classic areas,” says Betz.  Then as an afterthought, he adds, “At this age, winemakers probably make what they enjoy drinking.”  
Kenward agrees that it is important for a winemaker to work with the time-proven grapes of the area.  “If you are to make Napa your home I think you need to consider Cabernet Sauvignon as your friend.  This is an extraordinary appellation (Napa Valley) for the Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon in particular.”

To add weight to his belief, Kenward recalls the words of one of his mentors, former Beringer Winemaster, Myron Nightingale: “If you reversed the histories of Napa and Bordeaux, would Bordeaux be doing as well as Napa is now?”   More personal than geographical are Kenward’s affection for the wines of the Rhone Valley.  “I have always loved Syrah and Grenache and how they express themselves in North and South Rhone.  I feel we can make Syrahs very similar to those of the northern Rhone in cooler North Coast sites, while great Grenache is more of a challenge.”

How does one go from winery spokesman to winemaker?  “Curiously, part of my agreement with Beringer was to allow me to make a barrel or two of wine myself each year,” recalls Kenward.  “I chose a vineyard, picked the grapes, hand crushed them with my own equipment, tended fermentation to dry and selected the cooperage.  I knew what I wanted to do and how to do it.  The transition from making wine at Beringer to making my own wine was seamless, easier than I thought it would be and more rewarding than I envisioned.”

For Betz, making the move from winery executive to winemaker was a step by step process over a number of years.  “Vineyards and winemaking were always the basis of my interest and involvement in the wine industry. Without a degree or formal background in winemaking, my early work at Chateau Ste. Michelle was a means to an end,” he explains.  Betz has always wanted to make his own wine and cites working with Ste. Michelle’s winemakers and grower staff, plus his experience with the Antinori and Ernest Loosen teams as invaluable experience, as well as preparing for the Masters of Wine program, which he successfully completed in 2003.

Unlike Kenward, who found the transition easier than he thought it would be, Betz is still not sure.  “We knew it would be hard and it was.  I continued my work with Chateau Ste. Michelle for the first six vintages of Betz Family Winery.  Vacations, weekends, evenings (and very early mornings during harvest) were challenging, but so rewarding.”  The first release from the Betz Family Winery was the 1997 Alpha.

The skillful transition from one aspect of the wine business to the other can be easy or difficult and there may be unforeseen obstacles.  Kenward says the hardest part was finding the right venue to place his wines.  He got a lot of support from the noted Napa Valley restaurant, French Laundry and sommelier Paul Roberts, as well as other restaurateurs and chefs, but when you are a small new wine brand, locking in a distributor can be a challenge.

“The hardest part was finding the right distributor partners and still is, so I evolved into 75% of sales direct from the winery.”  Looking back, Betz doesn’t remember any unexpected obstacles or problems.  “We had a pretty clear picture of what was involved and we stayed small enough until we could really jump in.”

An old wry joke among wine people suggests that if you want to make a million dollars in the wine business, start with two or three million and build a winery.  Betz knows the joke but for him there was never a question about going to a contract winery to make his wine.

“We knew we needed to have a winery that we had designed from the ground up, a winemaker’s winery, with those physical traits that allowed us to do things we hold sacred, making small lots of high quality wine.”  Kenward’s view on having your own winery is more collegial and less expensive.  “My wines have been made at Laird Family Estate in Napa since the beginning.  My neighbors there are good friends and colleagues and I own several of my own tanks, which helps.”

In a more practical vein that touches both on the art and craft of winemaking, I was curious if two winemakers with so much in common held differing opinions about the use of American oak and French oak, and also how they felt about high-alcohol wines.  “Cooperage was always a favorite area of interest and influence.  In fact, I did my MW dissertation on the interaction between barrels and wine,” says Betz.  “A mountain of sensory work at Chateau Ste. Michelle and Betz Family Winery led me to use French barrels exclusively.  Over the years we have noodled with American, Russian, Hungarian and Slovenian barrels, but I always return to my sensory preference for French (oak).”

Kenward’s oak journey traveled more-or-less the same route.  “I experimented with both U.S. and French coopers while I made wine at Beringer.  We had a very extensive experimental facility at Beringer.  I also spent a lot of time picking Ed’s (Ed Sbragia, former winemaker for Beringer) brain on oak, so with all that, I have ended up with only French oak for all my programs.  I wish I could integrate U.S. oak for allegiance and cost savings.  I am tasting wines that other winemakers are making with American oak barrels…almost but not there yet.”

Concerning the controversial subject of high alcohol levels, Kenward has mixed feelings.  “Our wines are not high alcohol wines, not because I want alcohol to be the deciding factor.  I don’t like overripe flavors and obvious heat in any wines, and guarding against these maybe gives my wines lower alcohols then some of my peers.  But when you go one cluster per shoot, you get more concentrated riper grapes without shriveling and in some years wines in the low 15s (percentage of alcohol) that don’t taste hot, just dense.” 

Betz agrees, adding: “I wish we could all make lower alcohol wines so we could drink more.  But the density and richness of the wines we want to make demands greater hang time, and along with that comes more sugar.”  For the record, the four wines, two each from Betz and Kenward that I tasted for this article, range in alcohol from 14.1% to 15.2%.  My notes on these four wines can be found in Wine Reviews. 

Small wineries face many obstacles today in a highly competitive market, so is it getting easier or more difficult for the small independent winery?  For Kenward, it’s “easier for us as we evolve as more of a direct sales winery.”   However Betz views the question more from the perspective of market pressure. “Tough question,” he admits. “On the one hand, the proliferation of brands makes the market more congested and competitive.  But that demands us to continue staying small, focused and prioritized.  With a strong focus on wine quality and customer service we can weather the storm.” 

All things considered then, would Betz and Kenward recommend starting a small winery today?  “I’d have to think about it long and hard as a new start up,” admits Betz.  “This is our 15th harvest and clearly the congestion, price points and startup costs are different from back then.”   Kenward feels the same.  “The landscape presents a harder trek than it did 11 years ago when I started my brand.  I think new dream chasers should ask themselves why they want to start a wine brand; is it to have their name on the label, or because they truly love grape growing and winemaking.  If the latter pushes their buttons, and the former is an add-on and they are well aware of the risks; I say go for it!”

The bottom line is there are no pat answers about any factor that makes up today’s practice of winemaking, including the question of whether winemaking is an art or a craft.  This answer, however, may work until a better one comes along.

A few years back, Jeremy Clarkson, host of the British television automobile program “Top Gear,” was musing whether or not a car is art or just a mechanical means of transportation.  So, he talked with a curator at London’s famous Tate art gallery and got this opinion:  “A car cannot be art, because for something to be art it can have no purpose other than itself, no function.”   Indeed, wine has no other purpose other than itself and that’s why we love it.