“In your life you have pages, chapters, and books. I’ve been in the wine business for over 40 years, and this is a new book I’m starting,” says Michael Richmond, winemaker and general manager for Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros.
Richmond will be retiring, and the Wine Industry Advisor had a chance to talk to him about Pinot Noir, Carneros, the business of wine and the Renaissance Palate.
What will you miss the most when you retire?
What I will miss the most about the wine business is the wine community. The wine community is one of the things that sustained me throughout 40 years; the sense of camaraderie and mutual support that exists at the production and grape growing levels. It’s the most candid industry I could ever imagine. There are no trade secrets in the wine business – in the artisanal end of it anyway.
I’ve been a beneficiary of the benevolence of that community all my life, and I have hopefully participated equally and reciprocated to provide and share knowledge with other winemakers, and with young people coming up.
What are you happy to leave behind?
The wine sales and compliance climate are one of the reasons I’m happy to get out of the wine business. It’s not as much fun as it used to be.
Winemaking is where the romance is, wine sales less so. The sheer population of wine labels, and along with that the consolidation and corporatization of the distribution system. It now rests in half a dozen national distributors, and they can’t represent that many wineries. Furthermore, distribution is strangled by the state laws that impede interstate commerce. Whereas it was ridiculous to think that you could go direct to consumer to sell your wine 20 years ago. Now it’s mandatory.
Also, what has been discouraging to me is the rise of corporate structure, where they’ve learned to masquerade as small artisanal wine. You have this cancerous blossom of labels that mimic the small boutique winery, and it clutters the landscape for a lot of the small producers.
You’ve been making wine in Carneros since its formation 30 years ago
Carneros was the first sub appellation. The appellation that was Napa Valley was meaningless, because it went from sea level up to 1,200 feet. So Carneros seceded from Napa valley and became an appellation that spanned two appellations, Sonoma and Napa, and later a portion of the Sonoma Coast. Carneros is really distinctive. Areas like Sonoma Coast and Russian River are too broad. They require sub-appellations, Carneros doesn’t require sub-appellations for its identity.
Carneros was maybe the first region to become recognized for good Pinot Noir potential in California. Carneros was briefly superseded by other places, mainly because of new plant material and new understanding of wine and Pinot Noir. Carneros, however, was established with what was current at the time, so the new regions came in with the new understanding.
Carneros had to redefine itself about 10 years ago, which it did. Carneros slid into a slump, but it came out on the other side with the new viticulture and plant material, and has become a world class region like Sonoma, some parts of Sonoma Coast and some parts of Russian River, certainly Santa Lucia Highlands.
Tell us about your journey with Pinot Noir
In 1979 circumstances conspired to allow me to start Acacia Winery. We cast our lot with Pinot Noir in Carneros, in the face of much criticism that Pinot Noir would never be viable in California. In my youth and cockiness I thought that I could do that, and that I could be a big fish in a small pond if I could be successful making pinot noir.
We were imitating Burgundy in our packaging, in our wine style, everything. We went to Burgundy and learned what they were doing. That became our point of departure. We were one of the first to do individual vineyard designated wines at least on such a scale. That coupled with understandings that came to us through our Steamboat conference community, started to put Pinot Noir on the map.
The Steamboat Pinot Noir conference has loomed large as one of my favorite contributions. I was one of the founders of it 35 years ago with Stephen Cary. I think it put a face on Pinot Noir internationally, I’m very proud of that. Stephen Cary is the one that carried the weight for it all, but I think the whole community in Oregon and the international awareness in many regards can be attributed to the candor of this ad hoc gathering that began 35 years ago to talk about pinot noir.
Pinot Noir has become an international grape variety since then. Back in the 70s Burgundy had a franchise on Pinot Noir. It was widely ridiculed if anyone thought they could make Pinot Noir outside of Burgundy. You never hear that anymore.
Tell us about the concept of a Renaissance Palate
There are two aspects to it; one is the eclecticism. It is recognition that every region of the world that makes wine, can make good wine. It’s a palate of acceptance and inclusion. It also encapsulates the goal of ever being a student and always challenging assumptions.
Here I am ready to retire, and some of the ideas I’ve held, I’m having to scrap and start over. I wish I had another lifetime to develop them. Some of the preconceptions I’ve had that have guided my principles, I’m realizing: Maybe, maybe not?
I went through a period when I hated Chardonnay – how naive. Then I became a student of Chardonnay again, and now I think it is one of the greatest grape varieties in all the world, and it bears it ubiquitous acceptance.
Pinot falls in that same category. There’s never been two pinot noirs that were that same – almost not similar. Whereas Cabernets are quite similar as a group, Pinot Noirs are really different. The renaissance palate is being a student and being open minded and accepting and forgiving.
I tell people it’s like raising kids. With Chardonnay, it’s like I was raised; by using different yeasts and different production protocols you mold and model your Chardonnay, and when you’re finished with this creation, you’re very proud of what you’ve created, and that’s how my parents felt about me – guiding me through my religious and collegial upbringing.
Pinot Noir is the modern way you raise kids, just try to keep them out of jail, and if they turn out okay, it’s not pride in the product, it’s relief.
Keep enjoying wine and keep an open mind.
By Kim Johannsen