By Paul Vigna
For years, Matthieu Finot was explaining in a phone conversation, a number of winemakers connected to the Monticello Wine Trail were experimenting with everything from styles to techniques.
But there was a problem. Finot, the head winemaker at King Family Vineyards near Charlottesville, and his colleagues were trying things, he said, “but we were never sharing it with the neighbor wineries and also very often the experimentation of the wines was being done in a very scientific way, and so there was nothing really to get out of all this experimentation.”
So, four years ago, they located some funding and brought their individual projects into a group tasting that yielded discussion and feedback. That was deemed so successful that the program eventually was expanded to the entire state, under the direction of coordinator Michael Attanasi, who will moderate a discussion about the Winemaker’s Research Exchange during the second day (Feb. 22) of the U.S. Wine & Beverage Expo in Washington D.C.
The idea of winemakers sharing notes is certainly nothing new, if only informally as friendships with peers lead to sit-downs to critique each other’s wines. Occasionally those relationships lead to something more formal: In central Pennsylvania three winery owners have combined talents and grapes on a red blend they’ve made several times in the past five years; in New Jersey, four wineries formed a Winemaker’s Co-Op in 2016 to improve their collective quality and enhance their profile. Both are examples of strength in numbers and templates for ways that East Coast wineries can move toward the excellence they seek.
Virginia’s Winemaker’s Research Exchange (WRE) brings the partnership to a higher level, developing a research cooperative for winemakers to experiment with various styles and vineyard practices and share the results with their colleagues.
“Academic research can only get people so far before they have to try things out on their own to see if the academic results apply to their particular situation,” Attanasi said. “The Research Exchange is just a way for people to share the things they are trying out with each other, help each winemaker to standardize their studies more rigorously and get more exhaustive laboratory data, and educate each other.”
That was the purpose of the original idea, said Finot, who noted that winemakers from different-sized wineries attended, including those who didn’t have the capacity or money to experiment. He will join Attanasi on next month’s panel. There was no right or wrong, he said of those Monticello-area winery sessions. “I prefer this style, you prefer this style. That’s fine. We’re two different winemakers.” The point was to give each the truth to make his or her own decision.
Enough was learned from the Exchange in 2014 that it received money from the Monticello Wine Trail and the Virginia Wine Board the next year, allowing for more standardization of experiments, an improvement of the laboratory analyses and overall more projects to be performed and tasted.
In 2016, the Virginia Wine Board decided to fund the WRE enough to expand statewide into five regions while creating a position of coordinator to be responsible for its day-to-day activities. With Attanasi aboard and the state on board, many more winemakers got involved in what has grown to include 65 projects and 10 tastings.
“Since the people who are performing these projects are often neighbors, what one person does is often directly relevant to a neighbor, in a way that academic research [most often performed in other regions] is not,” Attanasi said. “Further, the ability to actually taste experimental wines can sometimes be more valuable than just reading how experimental wines taste in a scientific report.”
Wine Business Monthly liked the program enough to bestow it last year with an Innovative Product Award under the category of “Research Cooperatives.”
Attanasi said he hopes to use his USBevX session to convey to the audience that this kind of practitioner-based research can easily result in interesting and practical projects that will excite the participants and create a more supportive climate within the industry.
“I hope that people walk away from our sessions with a desire to start similar Research Exchanges in their own states or regions,” he said, “even if it is as simple as five or 10 wineries in a given region planning out with each other that they will do some projects and meet up later to taste them all together.”
For more information and conference registration, go to www.usbevexpo.com.