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The Curious Vintner

Winemaker Eric Miller is a mostly jovial fellow who has not outgrown his childhood curiosity and is constantly asking, “Why?” even when prudence would dictate looking thoughtfully into one’s wine glass or suddenly discovering something amusing on the far side of the room.  And, as he has grown older, he has also added companion question, “Why not?”

I have known Miller and drunk his Chaddsford wines – some of which I’ve liked better than he did – for 25 years, so his answer didn’t surprise me when I asked him the motivation in writing his new wine book, The Vintner’s Apprentice (Quarry, $24.99). “I found out all these famous winemakers couldn’t turn down my request for an interview because I was writing a book,” he says, somewhat astonished.

And a very good book it is.  What Miller, with assistance by his wife, Lee, did was quite simple – put together a list of topics about making wine that might interest professional and amateur wine people alike and then draw up a parallel list of winemakers he would like to chat with about those topics.  Often, he says, he nailed his first choice.

It’s an impressive list.  Among the stars: consultant Lucie Morton on vineyard site selection, Gary Pisoni (Pisoni Vineyards) on planting the vines, Aljoscha Goldschmidt (Corzano e Paterno) on the vineyard year, Eileen Crane (Domaine Carneros) on harvest decisions, Marc Kent (Boekenhoutskloof) on fermentation, Pauline Vauthier (Château Ausone) on blending, Peter Gago (Penfolds) on the aging cellar, Aurelio Montes (Montes) about bottling and bottle aging and Johannes Selbach (Selbach-Oster) on the importance of laboratories. 

Having done dozens of these interviews myself during years of writing, there are times I want to insert myself by urging Miller, “Ask this!” but mostly he gets to what’s important. Of course, Miller himself provides much of the content, explaining the basics of winegrowing in between the Q’s & A’s.

“Peter Gago blew my mind,” Miller says.  “I felt like I was talking to Jesus!”  Then Miller discovered he had somehow lost the interview tape and had to re-interview Gago.  “To make it worse, he was in the middle of harvest.  But he was very gracious and accommodating.”

Those who know Miller well know that – for all his curiosity – he is very opinionated, and it shows in some of his questions.  “But I bit my tongue a lot,” he admits, “and Lee was here telling me to shut up.  They were great conversations.”  Of course, some of the best interviews, whether the subject is politics or wine, come when there is some tension between the person asking the questions and the person responding.  You can hear that when Miller, who never met a lab test he didn’t want to perform, talks to the somewhat younger Vauthier at Ausone.

Miller: “Do you use laboratory tests to help make your decisions?”  Vauthier: “To determine the final blend, I work with my father [Alain Vauthier] and my cellarmaster.  We have all the barrels, we taste, and we make the mix.  We try it, and we decide.  There is no laboratory.”  Miller: “I’m surprised.  At my winery, we do analysis of every lot.  We know the pH, we know the TA, we know everything.”  Vauthier: “It was like that in South Africa before I came [back] to Ausone.  All the time, all those samples, measuring the pH and the alcohols – we did all that but we didn’t taste the berries – and for me that was very strange.  So if that analysis was good, we would begin the harvest but without tasting the berries!  At Château Ausone, the most important thing is to taste.  We have no lab at the château! Nearby, yes, but just for a few analyses, such as pH.”

When I talk with Miller months later, he still seems befuddled by the conversation.  “She really knows her soil and how the grapes respond.”  He pauses.  “When I asked her these questions, I could hear her thinking, ‘It’s all so simple!’”

And there is always one that got away, and Miller regrets that he didn’t get to interview Gina Gallo. “I finally gave up,” he says.  “I couldn’t get through all the layers.”  Which, for those of us who have important questions we want to discuss, must be a bit like turning over in bed to talk with one’s wife and finding that she is already asleep – or pretending to be.

But then there is Gago, who, in discussing his vetting for what goes into the fabled Penfolds Grange, perhaps better than anyone else sums up the winemaker’s annual challenge:

“I make that decision after fermentation,” Gago explains.  “A wine either has it or it doesn’t.  There is no fixing or changing it to be more like that it needs to be on paper.”

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