Home Wine Business Editorial Eastern U.S. Wineries Attract International Wine Talent

Eastern U.S. Wineries Attract International Wine Talent

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By Paul Vigna

Mazza Vineyards several months ago hired Ana Trigo, a winemaker from Portugal. That in itself is a story, given the track record that the winery aside Lake Erie has established going back to the early 1970s.

Ana Trigo Mazza Vineyards

Ana Trigo, photo courtesy of Mazza Vineyards

The international lineage at Mazza Vineyards started almost 45 years ago with a young German winemaker named Helmut Kranich, a graduate of the world-famous school of enology at Geisenheim who came to Mazza from Henkle and Sekt Co., one of the largest wineries in Germany. At 23, he was a groundbreaking hire for the East Coast, both because of his age and his previous address.

So Mazza is familiar with the learning curve that awaits its new hires, both in adapting to the American culture and the Mazza expectations, and Trigo becomes one of a number of internationals who have transplanted successfully to wineries in the mid-Atlantic.

Trigo is no stranger to new work environments, with previous tenures at wineries in New Zealand, Australia, France, and at Niepoort Vinhos in Portugal, spanning Old World and New World wine regions. She said in an interview that it was a curiosity and a willingness to learn about wine that first drew her interest. “There was even a possibility of specializing in in wine marketing [perhaps it was an attempt to link my first two backgrounds, biology and graphic design],” she said. “However, after my first job in Duoro Valley, I knew exactly that wine production would be my career path.”

She credited Dirk Niepoort in Portugal as having the strongest influence on her. “However, I see all the winemakers to whom I worked with as mentors,” she said. Now she in the midst of wrapping up her first harvest at Mazza Vineyards, one of the region’s biggest producers that feeds multiple businesses (Mazza Chautauqua Cellars/ Five & 20 Spirits and the South Shore Wine Company, in addition to the main winery). She’ll work under Mario Mazza, the company’s general manager and vice president as well as its co-winemaker and someone who knows something about working in a foreign land: He studied enology in Australia and worked in wineries in the Adelaide Hills and Barossa Valley.

Trigo is the third recent international hire, following Peter Szerdahelyi from Hungary and Carolina Damiano Cores from Uruguay. Yes, there are the anticipated issues that involve visas and immigration and, as Mazza put it, the nuts and bolts of it. And, yes, that first year can be tough.

Bob and Mario Mazza

Bob and Mario Mazza, photo by R. Frank Photography 

“It takes them [that long] to get acclimated truly to the variety, the styles, the things we’re doing here in the East, and admittedly our operation is sizable enough now with three different brands, so we have a lot going on,” he said. “It’s a lot for somebody to wrap their heads around their first harvest. But they’re able to make an impact, and the key I found is them having had experience in a good range of operations, both large and small, and at least five different vintages before they join us, preferably in at least two if not three different countries.”

That, he said, shows that they can be versatile and can adapt, two qualities essential for East Coast winemaking, he said.

Gabriel Rubilar has some idea of what Trigo will encounter during these first 12 months. Born and raised in Mendoza, Argentina, he studied winemaking, food and beverage preparation, and oenology at Universidad Technologica Nacional. He spent the 2010 harvest in California, returned home, and two years later was settling in at a new winery in Pennsylvania’s Chester County called Paradocx Vineyard, owned by two couples, all physicians.

He said it took him a month to get comfortable with the job, maybe a year to mentally transition from tourist to resident, and a longer time than he would have liked getting over the migraines he suffered from translating the language word by word. He called the experience “a roller coaster of emotions,” one that found level ground once he met his eventual wife. They now have two children, and he is the head winemaker at Paradocx Vineyards.

Learning the grapes, well, that’s the same everywhere. Understanding the vintages. That was another story. “You need some data coming back to you,” Rubilar said. “In California, that was something I had. What was the worst vintage? What was the best vintage? Here, I didn’t have much. I pretty much started to gather the data myself.”

Asked for advice for newcomers such as Trigo, he didn’t hesitate. Accept things as they are and take the best from what you can of it. “That’s what’s going to keep you moving forward. It doesn’t mean you won’t be homesick, because you will be. I haven’t been back home in three years. We’re [finally] going back in December. You need to just focus on short, medium, and long goals, and that will keep you going through it.”

He meets occasionally with a few others who have made the same switch, Jacques van Der Vyve, a South African native who oversees the cellars at 2-year-old Chateau Bu-De Winery in Chesapeake City, Md., and Davide Creato, who left Abruzzo in Italy to join Penns Woods Winery in Pennsylvania’s Chester County. Creato, like Rubilar, married a local girl who just gave birth to their first child a few weeks ago. He is that producer’s assistant winemaker alongside owner Gino Razzi.

Davide Creato with his dog Harper at Penns Woods Winery

His first two vintages were 2011 and 2012, the first as bad as the mid-Atlantic has had in the past 15 years. “I wasn’t really sure you could make wine here, but I didn’t give up, on the belief it was my call and the right things to do.” Admittedly, he added, “I finished university and when I came over here, I thought I knew everything – actually, I had to learn some things.”

Trigo called Lake Erie an exciting and challenging wine region. “Its long Labrusca native grape hybrid’s growing heritage allows the production of unique and diverse wine styles,” she said. “Additionally, I believe the vinifera varieties that have been planted have the potential to produce high-quality, cold-climate wines.” Beyond that, she said she has nothing in her past to compare this experience to, although ‘I do see some similarities in terms of wine style with some New Zealand regions [aromatic white wines and cold-climate, elegant reds].”

Mario Mazza likes Trigo’s chances, for sure. He said, if nothing else, this process of interviewing job candidates overseas has helped him develop a “more rigorous kind of interview” that’s applicable to talking to potential employees by Skype or phone. “I can’t really test for palates per say, but I can really kind of understand how they think about the winemaking process, how they make the decisions given different scenarios. That process, I think, has been hugely helpful in recent years in capturing individuals that are going to do well and succeed here.”

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