IntoWine recently caught up with Duckhorn Wine Company's Migration winemaker, Neil Bernardi to discuss wine making and his thoughts on current trends in the wine industry.
What prompted you to pursue winemaking as a career?
I got into winemaking very early, almost out of sheer luck. I attended UC Davis intending to study Italian, without any knowledge of its reputation in the wine industry. On the first day of freshman orientation, I was walking through the halls of the Winkler Building, which I would come to know and love, and met Jim Wolpert, then chair of the Viticulture and Enology department. I must have looked lost because he struck up a conversation, and suggested I take a look at studying wine. I was intrigued, and was impressed by the major’s field of study. I was attracted to the diverse and extensive coursework, including plant biology, fermentation science, microbiology, physics, economics, business, and foreign languages, and added V & E as a double major. I was hooked after my first harvest internship at Gundlach Bundschu and knew that wine would be my life’s work.
Describe your winemaking philosophy:
Wine is many things to many people. To me, the most sublime wine experience is cerebral as well as physical, when an understanding of the land, varietal, vintage, and winemaking practices come together to heighten the organoleptic experiences of taste and smell. As I see it, winemakers are storytellers, giving voice to the soul of the land for a particular growing season. Therefore, it is our responsibility to allow the vineyard’s voice to be heard in the bottle. In practical terms this means adhering to practices that allow the best aspects of a vintage to shine, and restricting our influence to a bare minimum, giving support only when necessary. Thoughtful viticulture, judicious use of French oak, and gentle winemaking practice are all-important parts of achieving this goal.
What are you most proud of so far in your winemaking experience?
I am proud of the people and organizations for whom I have worked. I have been so fortunate to have had some of the best winemakers in the business as my mentors.
Tell us about the people who influenced or mentored you as a winemaker?
Zach Rasmuson, Goldeneye winemaker and good friend, has had an incredible impact on my career and philosophical approach to wine. In 2005 he hired me as his assistant winemaker, and we worked together to craft the Goldeneye wines from the 200+ estate acres in the incredible Anderson Valley. His approach is at the same time very pragmatic and deeply thoughtful, yielding excellently crafted wines which speak to his vision of the Anderson Valley.
In 2007 I had the opportunity to work with Ted Lemon, of Littorai. During my time as associate winemaker at Littorai, Ted had a profound impact on almost every aspect of my understanding of wine, farming, business, agroecology, and management. It is hard to overestimate the debt I owe him for his tutelage.
Tell us about your wines:
I couldn’t be more excited about the most recent release of Migration wines, and the future of Migration as a whole. We make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Anderson Valley and Russian River, focusing on the best cool-climate vineyard sites. Between our beautiful estate vineyards in the Anderson Valley, and our diverse grower vineyards located primarily in the southwest portion of the Russian River Valley, we strive to make wines that are elegant, balanced, and reflect the character of the vineyards.
In addition to these appellational blends, we also have the distinct privilege of working with small lots of some of the most highly acclaimed vineyards from across California such as Charles Heintz Vineyard, Split Rail Vineyard, and Dierberg Vineyard. As the name indicates, Migration’s goal is to make wines from vineyards that eloquently express their particular place, whether it be Santa Maria, Anderson Valley, or the Sonoma Coast.
What is next for Duckhorn Wine Company?
It is an exciting time to be part of Duckhorn Wine Company. For my part on behalf of Migration, I am looking forward to continuing the search for great vineyards, and making the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir I can. I am especially excited to work with Bien Nacido, Searby, and Durell Vineyards over the next few years.
When it comes to winemaking, what's one thing you know now that you wish you had known before you started?
People often say that it takes a lot of beer to make wine. While this is certainly true, I think another, perhaps more boring derivation of this could be “it takes a lot of accounting to make good wine.” I wish I had taken more accounting classes!
A hot topic in wine circles is the "Parkerization" of wines. Some people claim his 100 point scoring system has been an enabling factor for consumers as they navigate the endless array of brands from which they can choose. Others claim his influence has negatively impacted wine quality as producers are increasingly crafting their wines to earn a high score from Parker at the expense of making the best wine they can with the fruit and resources they have available. Given this, what are your thoughts on Parker and the 100 point scoring system?
As you indicate in your question, the issue of single powerful critics and their effect on wine is complicated. I think the wine drinking public has benefitted enormously from critics such as Robert Parker, or publications like the Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast. Given the incredible amount of choice the consumer has, it is no wonder there is a need for insightful, educational commentary to help make the choices consumers have to make less challenging. It is reflective of this consumer demand for information that Parker has found such success, and the extent to which his publication can affect wine sales for any given wine. Furthermore, that wineries would actually change the way they make wines to capture some of those sales is natural, and follows the law of the market. This seems somehow disingenuous when placed in the context of the wine industry, as many of us pride ourselves in being craftsmen, true to our craft and not the almighty dollar.
Personally, my only gripe with the Parker effect is that it reduces the great diversity of wine styles being made around the world. With many vintners focused on satisfying a single palate, some of what makes wine so infinitely fascinating can be lost.
As to the 100-point scoring system, it is unequipped to convey the complexity of wine, reflects the preferences of only a single individual, and doesn’t reflect that wine evolves over time. That being said, its prevalence reflects consumers’ need for a simple, easy to understand metric to assist them in picking a bottle of wine in the absence of first-hand knowledge as to the qualities of that wine.
Given the increased access to peer reviews that the internet is affording wine consumers through sites like Snooth and Cellar Tracker, the explosion of the blogosphere, social media, and the rise of the millennial demographic, I would guess that the age of the all-powerful critic is waning and a more democratized system is on the rise. My hope is that this more diverse system better reflects the subjective nature of wine appreciation and that individual consumers can find wine criticism that is perhaps more closely akin to their own palate. With more outlets for wine information and fewer extremely influential individuals, wineries will be less incentivized to pander to any specific palate.
How have the points systems like Parker’s impacted you as a winemaker/producer?
The presence of point systems has not changed how I think about wine or how I make it. We have however benefitted from some good scores.
Rising wine alcohol levels are a hot topic these days in wine circles. What are your thoughts on the subject?
The rise of alcohol as a heated subject of debate has been interesting to watch. For my part, I enjoy wines with obvious alcohol notes less than those without. However, I think it is an oversimplification to pick a certain alcohol percentage and to state unequivocally that wines above that level are not good or out of balance. My experience has been that the perception of alcohol in wine, like many other flavor and texture components, depends on the nature of each individual wine, and not the absolute value. For example, two Pinot Noirs with the exact same alcohol percentage can be perceived very differently, one having obvious alcohol and the other not. I think it is important to redirect the conversation towards balance, and away from any absolute chemical parameter.
Lastly, where can your wines be purchased?
Migration wines, along with the rest of the Duckhorn Wine Company Portfolio (Duckhorn Vineyards, Paraduxx, Goldeneye, and Decoy) can be purchased from our website Duckhorn, or at any of our three tasting rooms.
Because many of the Migration single vineyard wines are extremely small production, they are almost exclusively available to Migration club members. We encourage you to sign up online!