Sometime around midnight, not far from Salamanca on an overnight train from Bordeaux to Lisbon, I took a moment to reflect on the fact that I’ve never been to a wine conference. I bookmarked this thought (for later self-recrimination), because my final destination on that sleepless, half-moon punctuated evening was MUST Fermenting Ideas in Cascais, which by most accounts is a wine conference.
I was about to break my streak of non-attendance. Why? What made me want to do this?
Most conferences, I was led to believe, are snoozefests with a bunch of suits talking up demographics and innovation with charts and graphs to underscore already boring presentations. (Not to mention the inevitable fumbling with unfamiliar Powerpoint devices that are the most memorable part of any boring presentation.)
If you know me, you know I’m not a numbers guy — I don’t care about markets and marketing, trends or innovation. I don’t worry about millennials and what they drink and I can’t stand concocted flavors and the stupid ideas they generate to create more of them.
I care about wine, how it tastes and who makes the best stuff.
Well folks, I’m happy to say there was none of what I don’t like at this conference and a lot of what I do. This was a first-class event, in a first-class venue, in a first-class beachfront town. It was all good, and I recommend you break your maiden here next year, should you feel you need to.
MUST is the brainchild of two Portuguese journalists, Rui Falcão and Paulo Salvador. They conceived of the event as ” . . . a think-tank wine summit where leading speakers, experts, journalists and guests from all over the world gather to discuss what unites us all: wine.” The stated goal of the conference — “To Change the World” — may have seemed lofty at first, but then I realized many of the invited speakers are already well on their way to making that happen, at least in their little corners of the world.
On the same train ride, a little later in the evening (remember I didn’t sleep), I began to wonder how I should cover things as a journalist, since I managed to wangle a press pass. I considered that not all attendees would be looking for the same thing, so I decided to allow myself enough room to absorb it all before deciding on an angle.
It turns out, as the sessions unfolded, the clues were all around me. Presentation after presentation referenced climate change, the environment, biodiversity, terroir and traditional winemaking — subjects I frequently deal with in my own writing.
From then on I felt plugged-in — a feeling that almost always involves goosebumps.
For purposes of this piece I divided all the presentations into three categories — all of them related to wine, of course. The talks were presented in no particular order, so by some clever rearranging I managed to tie several threads together to more easily reference common themes. My unofficial categories break down as follows:
(1) aspects of production, viticulture and terroir;
(2) personal histories, commentary and opinion;
(3) business and marketing.
Within each category are a variety of topics. For instance, Category 1 included presentations devoted to specific regions, trending styles, viticultural advances, bio-diversity and terroir.
Category 2 offered personal histories, wine writing and criticism, and climate science.
Category 3 included presentations on marketing, tourism, statistics and industry innovation.
Speakers and Their Presentations
(1) Wine and aspects of production: Gaia Gaja, Pedro Ballesteros, Rui Falcão, Simon Woolf, Antonio Graça, Isabelle Legeron, Lenz Moser, Pedro Parra
This is the category and the group of speakers I came to see. From the discussions of terroir by Pedro Parra to the biodiversity initiative underway in Portugal, as explained by Antonio Graça, I was mesmerized.
Pedro Parra is a world-renowned terroir expert and a somewhat controversial figure for his provocative, some would say unsupported pronouncements — there can be no terroir without stones, is one; I have no science to support my argument, is another. Nevertheless, his consulting business is fabulously successful and his clients, some of them heavyweights in the industry, hang on his every word.
His methodology is simple enough — deep pits (calicatas) of at least two meters are excavated in several areas of the particular vineyard under study. The exposed layers of sub-soil are then analyzed and a judgment is rendered — if it contains stones, good; if not, bad.
This rudimentary practice has evolved and is now supported by topographical studies, vigor maps and a suitably scientific sounding technique called Electrical Conductivity Technology, which is borrowed from the mining industry. The goal is to educate his clients about the geology of their land and which varieties will succeed in each location. He has a startling rate of success, offering much needed advice, where, before, there was none.
Parra is also putting his own money on the line with investments in old-vine vineyards planted on granitic soils in his native Chile. What’s most interesting is his belief in the lightly regarded país variety. Early results are encouraging, if a consistently sold out portfolio is any indication.
Antonio Graça, on the other hand, exudes nothing but science. His work for the Portuguese Association for Grapevine Diversity (PORVID) aims to combat the genetic erosion of native varieties through enhanced biodiversity. In this case, the random selection of clonal material gathered from existing vineyards.
The real innovation of the PORVID methodology, however, is that the assortment of selected clones, once propagated and distributed to interested farmers, provides consistent yields across divergent sites. Not the highest yields, per se, but the most consistent across a variety of climatical, geographical and geological parameters. (Interestingly, two of the other speakers favor alternate routes to clonal diversity — Isabelle Legeron prefers massale selection while Gaia Gaja selects from among vines that have successfully recovered from disease and other hardships.)
Whatever the path, there is money in consistency. Senhor Graça estimates that PORVID’s efforts have added a net value of ten million euros to the Portuguese wine sector, with more to come.
Gaia Gaja, the successor to her legendary father Angelo, spoke of her family’s efforts to future-proof their vineyards. Like many forward thinkers the Gaja’s have invoked a holistic approach to vineyard management. Of the several initiatives underway one of the most interesting is the engagement of a science department’s-worth of consultants with specialties outside of wine — to date, geologists, climatologists, entomologists and arborists — each lending their expertise to supplement the Gaja’s own beliefs about viticulture and to help the family cast a critical eye on currently accepted practices.
Central to the plan is the increased biodiversity of their vineyards. Tall grasses are encouraged between the rows; native compost is made on site — with the help of red worms imported from Russia — manure is no longer used; pests are controlled via sexual confusion techniques rather than with pesticides; cypress trees are planted to diversify habitats; and bees are cultivated for pollination. It is a whole vineyard approach that is rooted in the uniquely Gaja philosophy of doing things differently.
Next up was a bit of philosophy from Pedro Ballesteros MW, a Spanish wine expert and member of the EU Energy Commission. In his presentation he alluded to a long-debated philosophical question (If a tree falls in the forest . . . ) to make the point that a great terroir becomes great only after it acquires an audience. Thus, Bierzo developed because nearby miners needed wine and not because it was perceived to be a special terroir. Similarly, Rioja came to prominence only after the railroad arrived and not because its wines were universally appreciated. Ballesteros’ shorthand message is that wealth, supply and demand, and human intervention begets terroir. For some, it’s a message that sublimates the romance of long held beliefs into the everyday and matter of fact. So be it.
In a bow to his home country, Rui Falçao, one of the event’s organizers and a Sintra native, gave a beautifully evocative talk on the rugged bit of coastline that characterizes the Colares DO. According to Rui, it’s a foggy, windswept area with sandy soils and century-old vines that have proven resistant to phylloxera. The reds are famously acidic and staggeringly tannic when young but after considerable aging, ten years or more, one can begin to discern nuances akin to nebbiolo and Barbaresco. The native grape ramisco (there’s a white grape called malvasia de Colares) is one that PORVID has catalogued and subjected to its selection process. Because of its scarcity and the likelihood that it cannot expand much beyond its current footprint, Rui touts Colares as a future candidate for cult status.
Falcão had everyone drooling at the prospect of tasting two examples at an after-hours masterclass that I stupidly neglected to register for. Tant pis.
In separate but overlapping presentations, Isabelle Legeron and Simon Woolf debunked the trope that orange wine and natural wine are one and the same. They can be, but quite often, they are not.
Woolf argues that the color orange belongs on the spectrum of white, red and pink. He pointed out that orange wines are the result of process — white grapes fermented on their skins, like red wine — with a resulting range of colors from barely tinted to brown.
The title of his talk, “Has the World Really Learned to Love Orange Wine?”, was only partially answered because it’s still too early to tell. He did provide compelling evidence that the category is growing and the number of producers and countries of origin have greatly expanded but there remain pockets of resistance among skeptical members of the trade. Next time you go to your favorite restaurant, check to make sure it has an orange wine category — Simon points out that many of the best already do.
For Swiss wine enthusiasts Woolf mentions the Valaisan winemaker Amédée Mathier of Salgesch in his excellent book Amber Revolution — How the World Learned to Love Orange Wine. Amédée’s wonderful amphora-fermented orange wine, Amphore, is based on the rare Swiss native réze and the more common marsanne (ermitage). I’ve had it a number of times and agree that it’s excellent.
For the next edition Simon might want to include orange wine versions from Paul-Henri Soler of Geneva, The Domaine de la Ville de Morges in Morges, Markus Ruch in Klettgau and the publicity-shy, hyper-biodynamic Mythopia in Arbaz.
On the heels of Woolf’s talk Isabelle Legeron argued that natural wine is a philosophy (that orange wine producers may are may not subscribe to) and not a style of wine. Her expansive presentation included detours into monoculture, organics, biodynamics, minimal intervention, carbon footprints and health; all to make the point that natural wine producers and consumers should consider more than what’s in the bottle.
Her current investigation into carbon accounting (measuring the carbon footprint) is especially revealing. Organic and biodynamic practices are a small part of the overall sustainability of a particular activity. Her goal is to review every single aspect of her business footprint including personal travel, the carbon impact of the numerous fairs she organizes, the impact of thousands of attendees, the impact of her vendors from bottle weights to air travel, and many other seemingly insignificant inputs. It’s not a coincidence that Miguel Torres (see below) is on the same track.
I was especially interested in how the crowd would receive her message that natural wine is a healthier alternative to conventional wine. She cited a study that shows blood alcohol is more quickly metabolized when it is derived from natural wine, which indicates a slightly more benign impact on the relevant internal organs. Time and more studies will tell.
Also interesting were two high-powered microscope images she presented to make the case that natural wines are alive — a characteristic some like to dispute. One, an image of a natural wine, was teeming with organisms; the other, an image of a conventional wine from the same appellation, was completely blank. It was dramatic if nothing else.
Isabelle’s campaign for transparency was summed up at the conclusion of her presentation: “Younger consumers don’t want tasting notes, they want authenticity and transparency.”
(2) Commentary: Lisa Perrotti-Brown, Eric Asimov, Miguel Torres, Ntsiki Biyela
The Wine Advocate’s Lisa Perrotti-Brown took the assembly through a history of wine writing and the evolution of the tasting note as a form of communication. She presented at one extreme the sterile WSET methodology with its clinical shorthand and somewhat technical jargon. Somewhat more advanced is the work of mid- and late-20th Century British critics Harry Waugh, Michael Broadbent and others who wrote in a mostly spare, sometimes poetic style common to those in the wine trade at the time. (In Broadbent’s case he supplemented words with a five-star system to denote quality). The inevitable endpoint, of course, is the authoritative, persuasive and sometimes bombastic prose of Robert Parker and his acolytes. I couldn’t help but think her talk was as much an apology for the hundred-point system as it was a plea for more substantial engagement with language. Hear, hear.
Speaking of language and its power to persuade, Eric Asimov, wine writer for The New York Times, offered his personal history and the inspiration that guided his initial forays into the world of wine. He cited Kermit Lynch’s seminal Adventures on the Wine Route as his road map for finding the types of wines he loves today. He spoke sensibly about the tension between traditional styles and modern techniques and cites as examples many of the producers Lynch first brought to America.
The eighties-era Gang of Four is a great example of Lynch’s philosophy and Asimov’s admiration for it. The excesses of the Duboeuf decades and Beaujolais nouveau were, paradoxically, a marketing success story and at the same time a near death-knell for Beaujolais. It was the embrace by a few traditionalists of the old way of doing things that has brought the region full circle to the success it enjoys today. Asimov sees this repeated in other areas as well but his main point is that modern technology should be used in service to tradition.
Ntsiki Biyela was the last speaker in the conference and her tale of struggle and self-doubt in the face of a white, mostly Afrikaans, wine industry was a story of inspiration. Her unlikely path to Stellenbosch University and into the classroom was very nearly scuttled on several occasions. Through persistence and courage she left with a degree and now enjoys a blossoming career with her own label, Aslina, and a collaboration with cult California winemaker Helen Keplinger. Her next move: working with local youths to prepare them for jobs in the South African wine industry and, with any luck, her own vineyards.
Perhaps the diversity of ideas espoused by the organizers was best exemplified by back-to-back speakers on the last day of the conference. The magisterial and iconic Miguel Torres, now approaching eighty, spoke passionately and eloquently about climate crisis; what his company is doing in response and what it must do better. He cited Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth as a touchstone and inspiration for his family’s current path.
Like Isabelle Legeron he has subjected all of his activities to a carbon accounting and invests a significant percentage of profits into green practices in pursuit of published carbon emission goals.
He’s already ahead of the game (as if there are winners in this losing battle) with shrewd purchases made over the last twenty years in cooler sites within Spain (the Pyrenees) and outside it, in southern Chile. As part of his commitment he is planting trees in a significant portion of his holdings where deforestation has disrupted the balance.
On a personal note, I was angered by accounts from other journalists who, last year, misrepresented Don Miguel as anti-organic. His warning that organics are not enough to compensate for non-sustainable practices elsewhere is another way of saying that greenwashing needs calling out.
It took me to visit this conference, to hear his own words, to set things straight.
(3) Business: Paul Mabray, Adam Lechmere, Felicity Carter, Daniel Mettyear, Rodrigo Sepúlveda Schulz
(Now, I’m the first to admit that marketing, even as it relates to wine, bores the hell out of me, so I anticipated tuning this part of the conference out, but both Felicity Carter and Paul Mabray are gifted speakers who are very much worth listening to.)
Don Miguel’s measured presentation was followed by the shot of adrenalin otherwise known as Paul Mabray, a digital marketing guru and a fixture on the wine conference scene.
Mabray’s talk focused on the success of digitally native vertical brands (think Warby Parker and Allbirds) in reaching millennial consumers and, by extension, the lessons it can teach to the wine industry. Such companies are adept at consumer engagement, mainly through social media. Their success is attributed to a maniacal focus on the customer experience and carefully constructed relationships. The company benefits from vertical integration — controlling the message, responsive supply chains, direct distribution and other cost efficiencies — and the consumer benefits from shared values, convenience and cost savings. Mabray suggests the wine industry is well behind the curve in how it communicates its relevance to the millennial cohort and some within the wine industry now agree. As always with thorny problems, solutions are hard to come by. How DNVB can be integrated into winery marketing is the challenge of our time.
Felicity Carter, the editor of Meininger’s Wine Business International, is, like Mabray, a polished speaker with an engaging style. Her talk focused on gender marketing and the industry’s newish campaign to target non-wine drinking men with macho themes and messages. Brands such as 19 Crimes, Carnivor and bourbon barrel-aged reds are the male-directed equivalent to women-only brands SkinnyGirl and Little Black Dress. Ironically, these brands are particularly adept at the very strategies Mabray promotes with significant on-line presences, dedicated web-sites and big-bucks backing.
As her presentation indicated to me, marketing to stereotypes is the downside of this regrettable form of targeting. But hey, it’s about the SKUs.
Carter’s topic could hardly avoid the greater issues of gender equality and opportunity within the wine industry, a topic she handles adroitly, but I would have liked to hear more about it from her perspective. A topic for another time, perhaps.
Incidentally, her one liner at the very opening of her talk — “Let’s talk men and how they taste” — was one of the comedic highlights of the event.
Another high-energy speaker with a lot to say about innovation in the wine business was Rodrigo Sepúlveda Schulz, a venture capitalist based in France with a WSET diploma earned, as he said, for the hell of it. He described his business as an endless stream of start-ups seeking capital and spelled-out the criteria he uses to fund them.
One of his firm’s biggest deals is with Spire, a satellite company based in San Francisco, with a network of purse-sized “Lemur” satellites (seventy-six of them) set upon grid-like orbits that pass over every point on earth hundreds of times each day. The implications for weather forecasting, especially for the world’s vineyards in this time of climate crisis, are huge. Real time climate data may well have a role to play in mitigating the risks of climate change. Keep your hail nets ready.
What I found most interesting from all the presentations was the sense of urgency they conveyed. Whether the topic was climate change, diversity, tradition, tourism or marketing, I was left with the impression that things have to change — and quickly. Consensus is useful, but action is paramount.
Graça, Legeron and Gaja described different paths to clonal diversity but all agreed on its importance. Torres and Legeron agreed that organic practices alone are not enough if other elements of sustainability are compromised or neglected. Follow-through seems to be the watchword.
I was amazed that by the end of the conference, instead of feeling closure, I felt as though I had received marching orders. Orders to bring the topics encountered to the fore and to highlight those people seeking to achieve common goals. Apparently, closure is sometimes a beginning.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly (at least from my stomach’s perspective), I ate one of the greatest dishes of my life in Estoril — a pristine shellfish stew that would have made the cooks of Chez Panisse (my alma mater) proud. It was at a place no more than a hundred meters from the venue and fewer than fifty from the sea.
I also drank a bottle of Vinho Verde in honor of the occasion.
As Hemingway might have said (and I paraphrase): the cold white wine left only the sea taste and the succulent texture.
I wondered if Hemingway had ever taken an overnight to Cascais.