Flying Winemakers and the Glocalization of Wine

Glocal is one of my least-favorite words – it’s part of the standard vocabulary in the globalization literature, which is where I spend my time when I’m not working on wine.  Glocal is a combination of global and local and is meant to describe the exchange between global flows and powerful local influences.  It hurts me to say it, but wine is increasingly glocal and the flying winemaker phenomenon is a good illustration of how it works.

Aero Merlot?

Flying winemakers are winemakers and consultants with clients and interests on several continents.  They are the part of a longstanding global exchange of human capital in the wine industry. It is very common, for example, for young people in the wine business to take jobs in several regions or countries, building up a portfolio of experiences, expertise and network connections before settling in to work back home.

Flying winemakers are both an obvious extension of these initial connections and the logical consequence of global wine investments, which see Champagne makers, for example, producing sparkling wines in France, California, Argentina and Australia.  It makes economic sense that high level expertise would be exploited globally, especially as the winemaking seasons are reversed in the northern and southern hemispheres.

The flying winemaker process takes Michel Rolland, the most famous wine consultant, all over the globe, but it also brought Katherine Williams, who I met through my research assistants Michael and Nancy Morrell, to Tsillan Cellars in Lake Chelan, Washington.  Katherine and her husband Adrian Lockhart are Australian winemakers who, having made reputations in Oz, now work abroad.  Adrian is head of Tohu Wines, New Zealand’s Maori-owned winery.  Katherine divides her time between New Zealand and Lake Chelan. Tsillan isn’t a high volume operation and Lake Chelan is what you might call an “emerging” wine region, but it’s linked in to the global wine network and can take advantage of international winemaker resources.

The Long Shadows Experiment

I began thinking about flying winemakers at a wine tasting at a local shop on Friday evening.  The wines were from Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla and a roomful of happy wine enthusiasts paid a tasting fee and queued up patiently to receive tiny tastes of five wines made from Washington grapes by some of the most famous winemakers in the world.  Long Shadows, you see, is the ultimate glocal wine experiment.

Allen Shoup, former CEO of the Chateau Ste Michelle group (and a legend in Washington wine), got the idea to use flying winemakers to draw global attention to Washington’s terroir. He built a cluster of wineries, hired Gile Nicault to be resident winemaker, and arranged for esteemed figures from the world of wine to fly in to Walla Walla and make one wine each. The tasting began with Poet’s Leap Riesling, which was made under the direction of Armin Diel of Scholssgut Diel in Nahe River Valley – a German take on Washington State’s bestselling varietal wine.  Next was Pedestal, a mainly Merlot blend by Michel Rolland.  Pedestal was followed by Pirouette – a classic Bordeaux blend by Agustin Huneeus and Philippe Melka – then a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon by Randy Dunn called Feather and a Syrah named Sequel by John Duval of Penfold’s Grange fame.  All the wines were from the 2005 vintage except the Riesling.

There are two other Long Shadows products that we didn’t get to taste.  Chester Kidder Red wine is an eclectic blend make by Giles Nicault and Saggi is a supertuscan blend made by the Folonari brothers, who should know how to make such a wine.  Poet’s Leap sells for about $20 and the red wines go for $45 to $60 per bottle according to my copy of The Wine Advocate, although the winery’s website says that they are sold out.  Tasting some famous “impossible to get” wines and the chance to buy a few bottles – that’s what drew a big crowd to the shop on a July Friday evening.

Blend it like Beckham

Big name flying winemakers like Michel Rolland are controversial because they are associated with the homogenization of wine – “international styles” are said to replace distinctive local wine qualities. That’s why Rolland is cast in the role of the devil in the film Mondovino. Long Shadows, however, aims to reverse the flow, to use global wine celebrities to highlight the quality of local terroir, so it is kind of a natural experiment in glocalism.  Which feature will dominate – the global or the local, or will some synthesis emerge.

Bringing Michel Rolland to Walla Walla is a lot like hiring the soccer star David Beckham to play for the  Los Angeles Galaxy.  The idea is to draw attention to the local team and help establish its domestic and international credibility, but it doesn’t always work out that way.  You’ve got to bend fan attention around the international celebrity back to the local product so the reputation eventually transcends the famous flying foreign connection.

I am not an expert wine taster (and this was not a good tasting opportunity), so I am not drawing any strong conclusions just yet.  The Riesling and the Syrah did impressed my research assistants (Sue Veseth and Anne and David Seago) as successful glocal experiments  - distinctly Washington wines but with an appreciable stylistic twist.  The other wines? Well, it is too soon to tell, in terms of the wines themselves, but they are obviously successful in drawing attention to the region and enhancing its reputation.

Note:  I’ll have a chance to meet a number of famous flying winemakers (and explore glocalization) next week at the Riesling Rendezvous meeting in Woodinville, Washington, which will bring together Riesling makers from all over the world  Watch this space for my report.

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3 responses

  1. What a wealth of information you are and right in my own back yard… we need to have more discussions. I want to see research on: families that drink wine at dinner vs. those that don’t… cross corrolate against various family problems. Theory:drinking wine at dinner slows down and civilizes the meal(old world style) allowing for nice family discussions…thus: fewer social problems incl. teen drinking (problems, not drinking with family). We’ll talk more. Allen

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