The Secret Musical Powers of Winemakers

As a sommelier music surrounds me, and fortunately, I can't escape it. As I scan the chef’s pass from the hot pink ices of garde manger down to the perfect medium rare at Ben’s meat station, I count one, two cooks who are fluent in bass or guitar in addition to cheap beer and bonded whiskey.  Sommeliers, including myself, we’ve got undisclosed musical abilities. I pick-up my cell phone and peruse my wine-o contacts – I’ve already got 6, 7, 8 (sing, play, compose)…. and I’m just at “Martinez.” It's obvious there is a food-music-wine love connection and as legendary sommelier and musician Tim Gaiser noted, “We could spend a lifetime discussing all that.” Amidst this wired and overexcited phase of the world, most chatter glosses the frontline (our chefs and sommeliers), but what about the supermen behind the scenes, the winemakers?

My first impression of Daniel Chotard I could easily coat in one word, “jolly.”” His Sancerre Blanc is one of the best values in the market, thick with mineral and just ripe fruit that the wines have a pleasant extra layer of texture and cream.  Possibly his wines are like his melodies; he masters the accordion, the odd but charming wind instrument invented in Berlin in the early 19th century.  Have you listened to the sounds of an accordion lately? Animated, zippy, and sharp – feels like a cool climate chalky white wine as opposed to a warm climate irony red. Andreas Hütwohl has multiple big titles at one of Germany’s most acclaimed wine estates, Dr. Deinhard/Von Winning (An estate of dual personalities, Dr. Deinhard is the label for fruity styles of wine; Von Winning is the label for dry styles of wine). He is one of three winemakers as well as the deputy general manager and export manager. When I asked Andreas if he considered himself a musician, he modestly replied, “No,” yet he was the lead singer in a rock and roll band before he went to enology school. He naturally groups wine with music, a categorization tool that helps him to evaluate wine when he is making decisions in the cellar. Equally impressive as Von Winning, one can’t discuss the best wines of the Kamptal in Austria without discussing Schloss Gobelsburg. Fifty miles northwest of Vienna lives another renaissance soul, Michael Moosbrugger, head winemaker, owner and CEO of the Gobelsburg estate. He started playing guitar when he was nine, formed his first rock band when he was thirteen, and because he couldn’t find a drummer, began teaching himself how to play drums. At eighteen he took-up piano and considered enrolling in a conservatory, he still excites the black and white keys an hour everyday.  “As a musician you learn that if you want to master the instrument you need certain skills in your craftsmanship. This counts in the same way for winemaking.” I recommend buying a bottle of Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner from the Renner or Lamm vineyard; the translation is palpable.

 And the tempo moves west. Log onto Arietta’s website and you are lulled by Beethoven’s Opus 111. The musical inspiration behind Arietta in Napa Valley is Fritz Hatton, founder/owner with two degrees from Yale, and a classical pianist, by the way.  At Dunn Vineyards, tucked away on Howell Mountain, we are familiar with Randy, but there is Mike Dunn (his stepson) who considers himself the “cellar grunt” and then replies, “Well, I guess I’m the COO after seventeen years.” He sings in a cover rock band called, “The Last Resort.”  Before that, he sang in a vocal jazz ensemble for six years, and the notes continue-on in the Dunn family, his kids sing and play guitar. Living in the Bay Area, I’m constantly amazed by the quality of wines coming from the chilly and nonchalant vineyards that connect the dots from Santa Barbara to San Francisco. Last week I tasted a red wild and floral Pinot Noir from the Kevin Olson Vineyard in Prunedale. Where the heck is Prunedale? It’s in Monterey. Who’s the winemaker? It’s Ian Brand (who also has his own must seek-out labels, Le P’tit Paysan and La Marea).  His father, a guitar player, groomed his children with an appreciation for American folk, blues, and rock. By circumstance, Ian learned guitar and performed with “a couple of pretty ugly bands” in Santa Cruz. Even though he chose winemaking as a professional career, the music endures. He’s experimenting with how many watts he needs to do his bâtonnage with ratty power chord licks. So far he’s found that 100 tube watts isn’t quite enough to shake some lees without knocking down a few barrels. So if someone wants to sell one of those Peavey or Hiwatt 400 watt numbers… don’t rule-out a winemaker, I know Ian Brand is looking.