What to ask a winemaker

Virginia has a growing number of vineyards. This one is located in Purcellville. Sunset Hills Estate Club Rose coming off the bottling line. Photo by Jim Hollingshead
Virginia has a growing number of vineyards. This one is located in Purcellville. Sunset Hills Estate Club Rose coming off the bottling line.
Photo by Jim Hollingshead

The Wine Nerd: Jim Hollingshead

I get asked a lot why I use the term “Nerd,” as opposed to “connoisseur,” “enthusiast,” or even “geek.” When I began my tumble into the rabbit-hole of the wine world, my friends started calling me ”the wine guy,” but that always seemed too bland or generic, like a plot device. While there are other terms to describe passion and expertise, I find that “Nerd” most perfectly encapsulates my obsessive-compulsive nature. It’s the kind of obsession that will halt a conversation as my eyes glaze over with visions of Austria or South Africa, until I start scrambling through research on why Carmeñere is nicknamed “The Jurassic Park Grape,” or why wines grown on Mount Vesuvius are called “The Tears of Christ”(both great stories, of course). It’s not so much an interest or even a passion as it is a fundamental need to know each wine, from the setting to the story to the scent. Thus, I am The Wine Nerd.

Fortunately, we live in one of the most exciting places to be a wine lover. Virginia is plodding towards having 300 wineries, and more acres are being planted than ever before. While spending afternoons at these idyllic scenes, you might be lucky enough to run into the winemaker himself. I have been fortunate enough to work for two such winemakers, and have met, chatted with, assisted and even worked on projects with countless more. I’m even bringing 10 talented winemakers to Culpeper for my Winemaker Wednesday series. There is rarely a better fount of wine knowledge than one of the artists themselves. After all, it takes more than a year, often several, to make each wine- these men and women devote their whole lives to it!

While there are countless technical questions that you can always ask, I find that there are a few that tell me the most about a winemaker’s artwork.

Where do you get your grapes?

Not all wineries grow everything; when a wine has only grapes grown by the winery itself, it is called “Estate.” Many winemakers will buy grapes from other vineyards to augment their own, whether from other parts of the state or even from California or Washington State. While outsourcing much of the growing certainly does not mean a wine is of inferior quality, Estate wines will present the specific character of the one piece of the planet where it was grown and made.

How do you feel about vines and barrels?

Some winemakers do as little as possible to the grapes- they want the wine to express the natural tones of the fruit the way it grew in the vineyard. Others will do more with their winemaking technique, in order to craft the wine towards the particular profile that they desire. Think of a crisp stainless-steel Chardonnay versus an oaky, buttery one. Asking about this will generally lead to a discussion of their personal philosophy of winemaking, and will tell you what to expect from their wines now and in the future.

What is your favorite grape to use?

This is a good one to get a winemaker excited. Whether it’s the versatility of blending Merlot, the unique challenge of Petit Verdot, or the high acid and sugar of Petit Manseng, everyone has a favorite toy. It’s a great way to get an idea of his or her signature wines, and maybe even get you a taste of something not on the regular list.

What do YOU drink?

Every winemaker has a wine that they are jealous of. Most have a pretty hefty international collection. All are passionate about others’ artwork. This can spark a lively monologue on the wines that brought them into the industry, or the masterpieces that they hope to compare to.

Though winemaking is a technical, chemical process, it is best when driven by passion. These questions and others can get you to the soul of the artist, and that passion unlocks the heart of the wines themselves.

For a chance to ask these questions to a winemaker, meet Jim at the Culpeper Cheese Company on May 11 to chat with Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards at their Wednesday Winemakers Series.

Jim Hollingshead is a rabid oenophile who was born in Wisconsin, grew up in Texas, and has fallen in love with the rolling hills of Virginia. He is The Wine Nerd at the Culpeper Cheese Company, and occasionally pretends to have other interests. You can reach him at 540-827-4757 or jim@culpepercheese.com

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