Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
July 16, 2010
Over the last few years many winemakers have become bigger-than-life personalities.
While they have yet to achieve the superstar status accorded to chefs in this media-fueled age, many people choose the wines they drink by who the winemaker is rather than by, say, the grape or the region.
I was struck by this over a glass of Champagne (a Ruinart Rose) in the St. Regis lobby during a recent conversation with Peter Gago, the winemaker from Australia’s Penfolds. For those who read this column regularly (Hi Mom!), I wrote a story in May about Gago and the release of the 2005 Penfolds Grange, Australia’s most iconic wine. Gago is just the fourth man in history to make Grange (a Syrah noted for its boldness and silky texture) and that, in my book at least, is enough to qualify him for immortality. Of course, as a fan of Gagos, my opinion is certainly colored. Probably purple.
Anyway, Gago has become the de facto face of Penfolds globally. And not just for his winemaking prowess, but also for his engaging, vibrant personality, which this year has been on display on at least three continents. Since I last saw Peter at the end of April, he has traveled to England, France, Italy, New Zealand and God knows where else, pouring wine, charming people with tales of Australia, and establishing a face for, dare I say it, the “brand.”
From trade shows to press interviews to private tastings, Gago uses his engaging personality and infectious enthusiasm to spread the word about the wines he makes for Penfolds. And for anyone who has broken bread and shared a glass with him, Penfolds and Gago are forever linked in their minds.
That is not to say that Gago is selling himself. Quite the contrary, Gago is always on point emphasizing that Penfolds wines are all about maintaining a tradition and a winemaking style rather than creating a wine in the image of the winemaker. He focuses on each Penfolds wine, from the renowned St. Henri to the Bin 389 “baby Grange” to the entry-level wines, and notes how both the company he works for and the wine drinkers for whom he also toils have expectations. His goal is to meet those expectations, not alter them.
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Gago was here to pour wines for a certain music journalist who covers the Aspen Music Festival for The Aspen Times and moonlights as a wine writer for another publication. The fact that he flew from Sydney to Aspen to show the range of Penfolds to a music writer and have a glass of Champagne with me … well, it indicates just how far he will go to spread the word.
Gago is certainly not the only winemaker who includes Aspen in his travels. In this month alone I have said hello to, and tasted wines from, Spain’s Alvaro Palacios, Jean-Louis Chave from France and, another of my favorites, Merry Edwards from Sonoma County. These are all legendary winemakers, at least for those who appreciate such. And one part of their wine equation, arguably the one that they love least, is getting on a jet plane to visit a foreign land and pour wine for journalists and sycophants who all ask the same questions and frequently drink too much free wine.
But in this day and age of building the “brand” – there’s that four-letter word again – is frequently about establishing relationships with the media and getting consumers to see the face of the winemaker when they look at the label.
Earlier this month The Wine Spectator posed the question on their cover, “Who is America’s Greatest Winemaker?”, adjacent to a photograph of Helen Turley, a woman who, as a winemaker for both herself and for others, has produced many of the Napa Valley’s finest wines. The fact that the question was asked and the story focused on her work has cemented her reputation forever. That is not to say that the recognition is more important than the actual success she has achieved through years of hard work. To the contrary. But the media validation and exposure will ensure that Turley will be able to name her price with future clients.
Whether a winemaker is ensconced in the comfy confines of an established company, growing grapes and making wines for an eponymous winery, or selling services on a consulting basis, the game today requires a daily dose of promotion.
It is how winemakers become bigger-than-life personalities.