Laely Heron's life reads like that of a character in a James Bond flick. Raised by adventure seeking parents, Laely spent her childhood moving from one exciting place to another -Algeria one year, Singapore the next- with over a dozen different places of residence by the time she graduated high school. College found Laely at the University of Colorado but wanderlust soon took her to Bordeaux to study oenology. The end result was a young woman with a nose for the unique customs, flavors, and scents that differentiate cultures. Not surprisingly, a wine career ensued. Adventurous, entrepreneurial, talented, ambitious and, let’s face it, stunningly beautiful, the only thing missing is a secret identity and a pistol in her boot and Laely Heron could very well be a Bond girl.
Action flicks aside, today Laely Heron is pushing the envelope in the wine industry as she endeavors to reshape the image of the “cult“ winemaker as one who makes high quality, ambitious, and affordable wines. Thanks to Laely for chatting with IntoWine.
What prompted you to pursue winemaking as a career?
Here's the short story:
I fell in love with wine when I studied and lived in Bordeaux, during my University days. Almost every job after that was in different areas of the wine business, all over the world, and my curiosity led me to begin studies for the Master of Wine. In the early 90's, when I was broke and looking for a job, a friend told me to start my own business. We figured out the humble beginnings of Heron Wines on a napkin! My passion just evolved into winemaking, it was never planned.
Now here's the long story:
Fortunately, I was raised by very unconventional, young parents (they were only 17 years old when I was born). My dad was a mining engineer and we moved around, all my childhood. We lived in about 10 different places before I was 8. At one stage he got the bright idea that we should move to Algeria so he could do a mining project there. We lived in Algeria for years, and the exposure to different flavors, smells, and new interesting things made an impression on me. Not going to school all those years was another plus- I never learned to do things "by the book". My parents were very open minded and adventurous, so after awhile they got another bright idea... that we should travel around the world until their money ran out. So, we were a family of 4, we each had only a backpack, and we traveled until I was a teenager. Again, this was great exposure to the world, and exotic smells and tastes fed my hedonistic curiosity.
When we came back to the US, I was a confirmed victim of wanderlust. I had also been exposed to many different languages. In high school I took advantage of the study abroad language programs, and traveled to France. I realized then that my Arabic/French dialect from Algeria needed to be cleaned up. So to perfect my French, I chose to do my junior year of university studies in Bordeaux.
When I got to Bordeaux, I was very, very fortunate to meet some of the most amazing people in the business… people who exposed me to wine and encouraged me to study at Bordeaux's famed Institute of Enology. That was an incredibly lucky, life changing experience. But I still never meant it as a career; that just sort of happened later on. But the exposure to Bordeaux, before I could even legally drink in this country is what did it for me. That never would have happened without my childhood experiences overseas.
Tell us about the people who influenced or mentored you as a winemaker.
I think, in a way, it began early I was strongly influenced by my Mom- when I was little, she'd open up the spice jars in the kitchen and we'd play a guessing game where I'd identify the spices. That MUST have been the early influence on my future. She's also a great cook and that touched my palate. My parents contributed to my big "worldview", which very much effects my wines, by showing me the world and helping me erase borders. That's why I'm comfortable making wine in different countries, and being open to learning.
About real winemaking... I've been so fortunate to have many winemaking mentors, all over the world. I can't think of one who would be happy seeing their name in print! These people know how much I appreciate them.
Describe your winemaking philosophy:
Balance, balance, and balance. I'm a firm believer that "less is more" if you start with great grapes, grown in the right place, for each varietal or wine. If you start with high quality "raw product" (just like cooking) there is less need for manipulation, and the grapes can do the talking. People ask me all the time if my philosophy is more French in style because of my background there; and my answer is "no", my philosophy is BALANCED in style.
Your wine Sexto was featured in a recent episode of IntoWineTV (view video here). Tell us about Sexto:
I make Sexto in Terra Alta, Spain, right next to Priorat. From a bunch of old vineyards, I get Carignan, Tempranillo, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and lastly, the 6th grape, Lleudoner Pelut Noir. Sexto means "sixth" in Spanish, my tribute to this spicy blend of 6 grapes. For the long story on Sexto, see www.sextowines.com. This is a great project in a wonderful area of Spain.
IntoWineTV's most recent segment focused on wines made by women. As winemaking has historically been a male dominated profession, how has opportunity changed for women in winemaking today?
I think that today, women make their own opportunity. What may have been more difficult a generation ago is no longer the case (think Obama's Race Speech). Women a generation ago paved the way for it to be possible for me today. It's true that I'm still a minority, but that's changing all the time. I even see it internationally – this stage of the game, it's up to the individuals to make their own way.
You are the rare "cult" winemaker that focuses on affordability alongside quality with most all of your wines selling in the $10-20 range. Share with us your thoughts on the challenge of marketing wines in this price range.
It's this very challenge that keeps me on my toes. The price point you mention is, in some ways, the scariest in the world. There are a lot of big players with many more resources than we have. We are an alternative to the huge companies that tend to dominate this price range.
I was just having a conversation with Mark Tarbell about this (he owns Tarbell's, an amazing restaurant in Arizona). He said that the reason he uses Heron Wines is that we "are doing something with integrity, in a market that has very little integrity." My goal is to make wines that always shock people when they taste the quality and see the price. It is possible, and I want to continue to over deliver high quality, handcrafted wines at fair prices.
Rising wine alcohol levels are a hot topic in wine circles these days. What are your thoughts on the subject?
Yuck. Unbalanced wines don't make sense. (I get an image of red hotrods and the "overcompensating" jokes). I think enough people are complaining about these over-alcoholed wines that we hopefully will see an end to them in the future. They really detract from the beauty and balance of wine, and certainly don't go with food.
Much is written and debated concerning the ubiquitous 100 point rating scale, made popular by Robert Parker and emulated by seemingly everyone. Some say it has empowered the consumer, others claim it has distorted wine prices, while still others say it has gone much further and actually changed the quality of the wine being produced. What do you see as being the long-term impact of the ever-so-powerful 100 point rating system?
I absolutely agree that it has actually changed the quality of wines being produced, and that can be a sad thing. It's also true that it has empowered SOME consumers, and that it also helps/hinders wine sales. It is what it is... I'm not so sure it'll hold the long-term power it has now.
What advice do you have for today's aspiring winemakers?
Get a big worldview; it only helps your wines. Taste from every region you can, see what people are doing internationally. If you want to make a Sangiovese, go hang out in Italy and LEARN what people do there, and then check out other places too. Learn first, and then do your own thing.
Where can your wines be found?
We have distribution in almost every state, so check out our website, www.heronwines.com, and www.sextowines.com. We can also help you find a retailer or restaurant near you. The wines are always available to order online, too.
What's next for Heron wines?
I am making wines in the Priorat in Spain and new wines in California. I'm always learning, seeing what else makes sense for the future.