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The Winemaker As Heroic Figure

By Charles Olken

It is hard not to see the best of the winemakers as celebrities, as leading lights, as superstars whose talents allow us to drink great wine when otherwise, all we would get is plonk. When I was entering the wine scene, with my few dollars’ worth of my early collection, the names of the day were Andre Tchelistcheff and Myron Nightingale and Robert Mondavi. I managed to miss the heyday of Martin Ray and Dick Graff, but it was not long before the names of Heitz and Draper and Swan and Lee Stewart were added to the list of folks whose brilliance had me and hundreds more like me scurrying around wine country trying to connect with their best bottles.

It’s a funny thing, this hero worship. No matter how good a vineyard site may be, not matter how hallowed its dirt, ultimately it is the hand of the winemaker who transforms mere fruit into ethereal beauty.

Lately, that equation has been challenged by arguments in favor of terroir as the overriding determinant in wine quality. And, there are those learned figures who tell us that believing in Michel Rolland or Aubert de Villaine, Oliver Humbrecht or Celia Welsh or Phillippe Melka or Andy Erickson is to chase after a false god. “Worship the dirt”, they tell us, not the person.

It’s easy to see the logic of their argument, but I respectfully disagree. It is no more right to believe in the dirt or the process (see Biodynamics) or the barrels or the yeast or “nature” than it is to believe in the person. The equation for fine wine involves all of those aspects, and rather than worship any part of them, I prefer to worship the finished wine.

Once greatness is in the bottle, then we can start analyzing all of the bits and pieces, examining the viscera of its making, ascribing brilliance to this or that or the other—or all together, which is my ultimate preference.

The cult of the winemaker as hero has recently been described as a new phenomenon. I think we all know better. It did not start with Michel Rolland or Joe Heitz or Andre Techelistcheff or Martin Ray or Paul Masson (yes, that Paul Masson who once was a winemaking hero). Maybe it started with Dom Perignon, but I am not sure because I am guessing that the wealthy classes who raised wine into a product to be worshipped probably had their heroes back as long as there were people who believed that they had to have the best wine.

I can stare with wonder at Le Montrachet or Hermitage Hill or the To Kalon Vineyard. They are my heroes too. That, for me, is the beauty of wine. There are heroes of all kinds and stripes, and we need them all in order to make the kind of wine that turned me into a collector so many decades ago and even now, continues to hold me in its thrall.


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