Winemaker as performer


Amazingly, this article represents the 10,000th published on since its tentative beginnings in late 2000. It would seem we really are mad enough to publish an average of more than two articles a day. Do keep coming back for more.

The abrupt departure of Mathieu Kauffmann from Champagne Bollinger last April threw into sharp relief the existence of a new sort of responsibility in the world of wine. As Bollinger's CEO Jérôme Philipon explained to me soon afterwards, with the merest hint of embarrassment, although Monsieur Kauffmann was presented in public as Bollinger's chef de cave, in fact someone else (Gilles Descôtes since named officially as M Kauffmann's successor) had been in charge of the nuts and bolts of the winemaking process for some time (which may well have been a factor in M Kauffmann's decision to leave). M Kauffmann's job was to travel around explaining to the wine trade and media the Bollinger philosophy, the vagaries of each vintage and to lead tastings. (For what M Kauffmann is up to now, see Pfalz mourns loss of benefactor.)

I was reminded of the possibly erroneous but entirely believable fact I was once told that cruise liners have two captains: one to sail the ship and the other, presumably the more handsome and sociable one, to greet the passengers and dance with the dowagers. Here in London we are visited so frequently by some winemakers from Champagne that I began to wonder just how many of them actually did the biz and how many were more treasured for their public-relations skills.

The most obvious candidate for someone who might be more at home in a salon than a blending room would be Richard Geoffroy, the worldwide ambassador for the luxury brand Dom Pérignon and, incidentally and no small feat, Director of Oenology for the whole of Moet & Chandon. He seems to be on a perpetual glamorous world tour, introducing the well heeled to his bubbles in ever more exotic locations. As described in Truly, madly DP, Richard Hemming was shipped out to Rheims's smartest gastronomic establishment recently with a dozen others to try 1996 Dom Pérignon at eight different serving temperatures one degree apart, if you please, to experience the wine 'rising from the depths of the ocean, penetrating the earth's rocky crust to soar to the lunar zenith'. If I heard he was leading a pack of huskies laden with Dom Pérignon to the North Pole, I would not be remotely surprised. 

I thought I'd ask Richard Geoffroy for his schedule last year just to check how much time he spends in Épernay and was rather surprised to learn that he was on the road for 'only' seven weeks last year, most of them in the first six months. He went to each of Hong Kong/China, the US and UK twice because they are such important markets for Dom Pérignon, travelled round France three times and visited each of Japan, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and Brazil once. That sounds an awful lot to be squeezed in to seven weeks but he does say about the second half of the year, 'I usually travel very little in the second semester since it is aIl committed to winemaking. Still I had last year to go, in and out, to Shanghai, New York and Jodhpur [in India] for special events (based on collaboration with such creators as Lang Lang, Alexandre Desplat, Bob Wilson, Han Lixun and Jitish Kallat)'.

This year he has been concentrating on launching Dom Pérignon Rosé 2002, first in Istanbul (where else?), then the UK, Germany, US, then Hong Kong and China – all of this over a total of 18 days. He spent three days in South Africa in May and devoted much of May to July to the launch of Dom Pérignon 2004, 'then close to nothing till the end of the year'. Hmm, so although he does seem to be ubiquitous, it would seem that he certainly does oversee the harvest (currently migrating from September to August in the Champagne region) and the subsequent winemaking decisions.

Richard Geoffroy does not take the prize for the most peripatetic media-friendly winemaker, however. That crown is surely worn by the personable South Australian Peter Gago (pictured above with eucalyptus and vine carefully in the background), who circumnavigates the globe in his role as the acceptable human face of the somewhat faceless corporation that currently owns Penfolds (see Treasury to destroy £35m of 'old' wine). He answered my request for his annual timetable thus: 'Just a touch ironic that I reply to your request whilst working across China! The countless 000,000's of kms/flights/cities/hotel rooms of the last 12 months have literally been put to bed. Now but a memory.' He went on to spell out his 'only 80% complete' travel plans for the next 12 months. 'I await the 20% balance …!'

He cited April/May as his 'international no-fly zone' while he oversees ferments, but I see that during those two months he visited China twice (including a Shanghai recorking clinic – I'm surprised that Chinese cellars have any sufficiently mature Penfolds Grange), Singapore, and both coasts of the US. June was devoted to Europe: much lushing up of traditional wine merchants in the UK, smart wine dinners, Vinexpo and what he quaintly calls 'European technical visits' in Burgundy and the Rhône Valley. He is spending an unusual proportion of July and August in Australia with Treasury Wine Estates requiring his presence in the boardroom and at various interstate banking events, but that isn't stopping him from slotting in VIP dinners in Bangkok, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. (It is clear where Australian wine exporters' focus is today – just where it was for the Bordelais a few years ago.)

September sees Peter Gago at events all over the US and Canada while in October he'll be back in London then Switzerland, Germany and Dubai. November and it's China and Singapore. For December on his schedule he has marked down not just the Grange Yattarna Growers Luncheon (in South Australia) but 'Completion of 2013 Trade & Media work across Australia'. Don't you believe it, Peter. They'll surely try to squeeze in just one more winemaker dinner before New Year's Eve… For January he has 'Annual Leave … in Australia ? Probably not' and then, indefatigably, 'Possibility of International travel – Australia Day Tastings … UK or LA?'

But in the major harvest month of February, 'Vintage 2014 unfolds. Winery work laced with a continuum of vineyard visits/assessments across South Australia – happily with only the odd overnight hotel booking. 2014 Bin Launch activities – a few intermittent interstate flights/overnight stays. Possibly, like in 2013, a speedy mid-harvest visit to Singapore to spread the word to Asia.' Is there no limit to this guy's desperate quest for air miles? And finally, 'Global webcasts out of Adelaide – masterclass tastings targeting global audiences, with only a fraction of a second delay. No air miles, plenty of coverage. No interruption to day-to-day winemaking.'

Well that's reassuring anyway.

It is certainly true that now that wine buyers are so curious and so well-informed, and have become accustomed to winemaker dinners and tastings with wine producers, the job specification for an all-rounder of a winemaker has to include the ability not just to do but to communicate – and be prepared to travel.