What makes a Winemaker?

Occasionally, when I am asked what I do and I respond, “I’m a winemaker”, I still get asked what it is I do?  I always respond, a little perplexed, “I make wine.”  It seems to be so simple in my mind but perhaps it is not to everyone.  So when this month’s cover of Wine Enthusiast showed up in my inbox, I had to rethink my simplistic definition.

Is this a winemaker?

Now I know what I think the definition of a winemaker is but I’m very interested in hearing your opinions.  What is a winemaker?  Is it different depending on what part of the industry you are in?  What if you are not in the industry? What is that person’s definition of a winemaker?  Does it bring to mind the farmer type walking down foggy vineyard rows at dawn or does it bring to mind celebrities such as Kate Hudson, who graces the cover of Wine Enthusiast this month?  Do you have to actually be pulling hoses or can you be a consultant who drops in 3 days a year to check on things to be a winemaker?

In my opinion, a winemaker is the primary person making the day to day decisions about the winemaking process.  However, I could see how the person who owns a small winery would think of themselves as a winemaker even if they are not trained and working as one.

Please leave a comment to let me know what you think a winemaker is.  I can’t wait to see how you, my readers, define this.


Winemaker 2 Winemaker: A Conversation With Tony Bish, Chief Winemaker for Sacred Hill

This month’s Winemaker 2 Winemaker interview stays in New Zealand but travels north to Hawk’s Bay to speak with Tony Bish, the Chief Winemaker for Sacred Hill Winery.  With 30 years in the wine industry Tony has 31 vintages under his belt and this year alone he and his team have produced 15 gold medal wines. Tony studied a degree course in wine making at Charles Stuart University in Australia while gaining practical experience working on vineyards in New Zealand and Australia. He joined Sacred Hill in 1985, managing the estate vineyard for the Mason family and was there at Sacred Hill’s inception a year later. He then departed to further his vineyard and winery experience offshore, returning to his roots at Sacred Hill in 1994.

Tony is very much a “vineyard” winemaker, putting into practice the old adage that the best wines are made in the vineyard. To that end he has worked closely with the viticulture team to develop new vineyards, on better sites, in the best grape growing areas in New Zealand.


NC:  You’ve been in the industry over 30 years now.   What initially drew you to winemaking?

TB: Initially it was the need for a job after running out of money living on a glorious beach in Gisborne.  The long hours were great for saving money, which then funded ski sojourns to the South Island, so I kept doing vintages, and fell in love with wine along the way.  After a few very enjoyable years with this lifestyle, I took the plunge and enrolled in a Bachelor of Oenology Degree in Australia.

NC: When you were starting down the path of winemaking was there a single person who you felt was an important inspiration for your style or did you pull from multiple sources?

TB: Definitely pulled from a wide range of sources.  I try to glean or learn something from every wine I taste. Like many winemakers of my generation, we were taught to be technical winemakers. As I gained more experience, I learnt it’s just as important to know when NOT to intervene as it is knowing when and how to intervene. I know employ a wide range of winemaking strategies that embrace new world science and understanding, with old world sensitivity and “gut feel”.

NC: I don’t know how it goes in NZ but in the US, SB is a very difficult variety to keep from producing sulfides even under the best of circumstances.  Do you see that in NZ as well?

TB: Despite high juice nitrogen status, we find we need to supplement juice nutrition fairly proactively, or else sulphides rapidly form in ferment. We now get our retaliation in first, and add complex nutrients as soon as the ferment is underway, and a repeat ferment feed at about 17 Brix. We assess every Sauvignon ferment twice daily, and if any sulphides appear, we add more food. We are fermenting at relatively low temperatures (10-12C), so this no doubt causes some yeast stress, but this is the best way to preserve desirable volatile aromatics. The key is to have clean ferments as they finish, as any remedial treatment on Sauvignons strips aromatics and the palate.  As an aside, just adding DAP is not the answer. This can just stimulate bigger yeast reproduction, so you have more cells needing feeding, and more sulphides, in a chase your tail cycle of doom.  We recommend complex nutrients that may include a percentage of DAP, but importantly will contain yeast cell wall derivatives and thiamine.

NC: I’ve read about your Sauvage Sauvignon Blanc.  How do you manage a native fermentation in Sauvignon Blanc?  Is there anything that you have to look out for that is different than any ferments using cultured yeasts?

TB: Sauvage is handled very differently in that it is hand picked and whole bunch pressed. We don’t clarify as much, taking more fluffy lees into ferment. We chill our barrel room to manage temperature peak to under 20C in barrel, and this is important. These barrel ferments seem to need less nutrition, but the same proactive approach is taken, with frequent monitoring.

NC:  So many people in the US think of New Zealand as only Marlborough but Hawke’s Bay is one of the warmest areas in New Zealand with a diverse range of varieties growing there.  What are the key aspects of this region that make it unique?

TB: Hawke’s Bay produces most of NZ’s finest wines. We have outstanding Chardonnay, very elegant yet powerful. Our blends made with the Bordeaux varieties have been extraordinary, and many times have sat comfortably along side First Growth Bordeaux’s from great vintages in internationally held blind tastings. These wines are seriously good, and represent great value in the context of global fine wine prices.  Syrah is the most recent star, and has become the darling of the UK wine critics. Distinctive, profound, yet fresh and floral, the best of these are good enough to take to bed!

NC: Is there a vintage in your career that you would like to experience again?

TB: Oh yeah, 2013 was a dream run! But fortunately 2014 was very nearly as good, and arguably even better for Chardonnay. The best years here are defined by long dry warm summers and settled autumn weather for harvest. The hottest years are not necessarily the best; it’s the consistently warm but not baking days that produce our best wines.

NC: What was one of the most memorable winemaking mistakes you ever made that you still think about to this day?

TB: Prematurely opening up a white juice drainer as a young vintage intern and watching 25 tonne cascade on the floor. It was scary (nearly got sluiced into an inclined de-juicer in the process), and the clean up was epic in magnitude.

NC: If you could share only one or two things with younger winemakers, what would be the most valuable piece of knowledge or experience that you pass on?

TB: Well after over 30 years winemaking I feel I am starting to get the hang of it. So be patient, trust your instincts, remember numbers are only a guideline not a philosophy, and sometimes less is more.

NC: Can you describe your philosophy on red wine extraction in haiku?

Glistening black grapes

Like love need oxygen

Or bitter will be.

NC: I checked out your blog at and was very excited to see you are a fellow blogging winemaker.  What got you started?

TB: After just launching my own “indie” wine label, I felt a need to express my voice by blog, to build context and a sense of truth about my wines, but also to bring my consumers along for the ride. It’s fun after all!

NC: In addition to Sacred Hill, do you have any other projects that are very exciting right now?

TB: Between Sacred Hill and my own family label, four kids two dogs and eight chickens, life is busy! But my lovely wife and I have just purchased an acre of coastal land with the most incredible views in the world. So the next project is to design and build a home that does justice to the views and the location. East coast beach magic!




A Winemaker’s Request: Please Don’t Sell Solely on Scores

Before we left California, I did one final sales trip for my previous winery.  It was a week long and we were really doing well in the market.  People loved the wines.  They commented on the flavors and the value.  They were impressed with the work, care, and dedication that went into making each blend once I was able to describe each step of our winemaking and blending process.  I even heard sales people that were working beside me starting to adopt the story of the wines, not just pouring them.  From my view, it was going very well.

Then it happened…

A score came out…

92 from the area’s top critic.

The salespeople were, of course, ecstatic.

I was excited as well.  It’s always exciting when someone likes your wines enough to give them a high score and write about them.  I don’t care who you are or where you fall on the 100 point debate. Maybe you love or hate certain critics?  Maybe you think the day of major wine critics are over or if you think they will have influence forever? Regardless of all of this, if you are a winemaker, you want people to like your wines.  A high score is validation that you have done a good enough job to have someone notice and single it out.  As a winemaker who hovers around in the low 90s for a score average, I know how exciting a higher than average score can be.

There is a downside however.

As soon as the score came out, the story shifted from the actual story behind the wine to quoting the critic’s score.  Granted, this could be because I had different people with me every day and maybe these new folks weren’t as well acquainted with the story as those who had stood by my side listening to me repeat my winemaking for several hours.  I am certain they didn’t even realize the shift.  The customers were impressed but at that point I worried that they forget the story behind the wine and only remember the score.  Other consumers though, didn’t know what the score meant.  Others just walked away after that.  We missed a critical opportunity to connect and inspire customers with our story.

So I have a request to all wine sales people and wine merchants.  I don’t mind you telling people the score.  I would probably tell the score myself to the right customer.  Just don’t let it be your lead punch.  Tell the story of the land, the people behind the wines and the care they put into each bottle, the significance of the label design, the time taken to make sure everything is perfect for them, and after all that and ONLY after all that, then bring out the score.


There is too much that goes into each bottle to distill that hard work and passion down to a score and have the average consumer understand what that means.