Fishing for winemaking advice

Fly fishing at Steamboat

Nigel Greening, who wrote the popular Don't drink your own wine, on the importance of a confessional retreat for winemakers.

One of my first journeys after acquiring Felton Road in Central Otago took me to the west coast of America, and to sleeping on the floor at Stephen Cary’s house in Yamhill, Oregon.

It was that sort of house: something of a hub for winemakers passing through. There were normally more bodies than beds and I have fond memories of helping with cooking and of a barbecue heaving with rare and coveted bottles. I imagine LA’s Laurel Canyon in the 1970s had a similar vibe for the fortunate musicians there.

Cary was not one of the most prominent Oregon luminaries. Like many of his generation he was a Vietnam veteran, arriving at wine after a general disillusionment with the greed and disregard he found in much of American established life. Starting as a sommelier, he moved to selling wine, before establishing himself as a specialist distributor of Oregon’s new Pinot Noirs. Inevitably, his involvement with many wineries led to a closer relationship and he became winemaker at Yamhill Valley Vineyards in the Willamette Valley. That winery became his work life until shortly before his death in 2018.

It might be pertinent to compare Cary to Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara. While Clendenen had more prominence as a winemaker, both wineries were places to hang out, laugh a lot, drink serious bottles and both men were champions of their region and their chosen grape variety as much as of their own wines. Any table at which both men were seated (normally on the lawns at Linfield College for the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon) was one that you wanted to be invited to.

But, while never a rock-star winemaker, Cary was recognised by the winemaking community as one of the most significant figures on the west-coast wine scene, because, in 1979, he and a couple of friends had a terrific idea. Fine Pinot Noir was just emerging in California and Oregon and those few pioneering winemakers who had picked up the baton were engaged in a lonely struggle to master the famously reluctant grape. Cary conceived of an annual retreat for the Pinot Noir winemaking community; a place where they could go to exchange their ideas and share what they had learned. He was a devoted fly-fisherman and so chose a hot-springs fishing lodge, Steamboat Inn, on the Umpqua River in southern Oregon, as the venue. Thus was ‘Steamboat’ born.

A few rules quickly evolved. Everybody should bring wine they made and also wine that inspired them. But one idea was revolutionary: this was not to be a place to parade one’s victories, but rather something of a confessional. Success can come by accident, but failure always has a reason, so this would be a place to lay one’s failures before one’s peers, seek absolution and discuss, with no holds barred, how to not make the same mistake again. The doors would be sealed. Proprietors were not invited, nor were journalists or critics. The Chatham House rule applied: what happens at Steamboat, stays at Steamboat. In the evenings, attention turned to appreciation and discussion of the great Pinots of the world, accompanied by a fine dinner. More than 40 years later it still takes place each year.

An early attendee was Larry McKenna, now of Escarpment, a winemaker often referred to as New Zealand’s father of Pinot Noir. McKenna came away inspired to recreate the idea for the new Kiwi Pinot winemakers enduring the same learning curve. It is interesting that Hamner Springs is also a hot-springs resort. But the recipe was identical and, for the last 30 years, Hamner has been a rite of passage as well as a source of lifelong comradeship for the New Zealand winemaking community, or at least for the substantial cohort who make Pinot Noir. Of course, as a proprietor and not a winemaker, I have never been privileged to attend either event. (I believe that Steamboat have relaxed their attendee protocols somewhat in recent years).

It is impossible to overstate how instrumental these two retreats have been in shaping the wines of the US West and New Zealand. Similar events have since spawned in other Pinot Noir regions around the world. Which raises the question: why Pinot Noir? Why are there no Syrah or Chardonnay confessionals? There have been attempts to recreate the model, but it doesn’t seem to gain the same sort of traction. I think it may be that ‘especially’ thing of which Jancis has spoken in the past: any general statement made about wine can have the words ‘especially Pinot Noir’ added to the end of the sentence. Pinot hates being forced. It bites back if pushed. It is all about nuance. And failure, even for the best, is never far away, as witness the famous historical unreliability of burgundy. It is not pretentious to talk about the ‘zen’ of Pinot Noir; it is intrinsic to the beast.

And it is important to talk of the relationship winemaking has with failure. Most wine enthusiasts have no idea that winemaking, even for the celebrity names, can be a thing filled with fear. I sometimes hear winemaking compared with the work of chefs. It is a poor parallel: a chef burns a steak and they pull another from the fridge and get it right. Make a mistake with wine and there is no fridge. It will be a year until more grapes come around, maybe a year with no wine to sell, or the humiliation of putting one’s failure into the gaze of the marketplace. A better comparison for a winemaker might be a surgeon: mistakes are the stuff of terror rather than terroir. Even the most long-serving winemaker has only 50 vintages or so in them: not many attempts to nail it, nor to practise getting it right.

So it was that a few weeks ago I was at a small event where we raised the idea of creating such a retreat for the emerging UK wine industry. It would not need to be restricted to Pinot Noir, though pretty much every winemaker in the UK does work with it. It would need to be a proper retreat. In the early days of Steamboat, attempts were made to hold it in Sonoma. People went home in the evening, or were called back to work for some ‘crisis’. The ethos just wasn’t there. Retreats have to be far enough away that the attendees are left in isolation for the three or four days required. But it is possible that it could combine the acceleration of expertise with fusing a community at a critical and exciting time for UK wine.

Winemaking will never be without fear if it is to be at its best. I am not a winemaker, but I know the feeling; every vintage brings a moment when one tastes the results for the first time as the wine reaches a critical point in its élevage. It is a day filled with both excitement and trepidation. I think every good winemaker ends it with one thought: ‘bring on the next harvest. I can do better… I know I can’.

Image of Steamboat Inn fly-fishing courtesy of Holloway Bros.