John Bookwalter says his winemaking style reflects the consultant’s but remains his own.
The Bookwalter family has been making wines in the Columbia Valley for 25 years, selling them from a pleasant tasting room just off Interstate 82 at the south end of Richland, Washington. For years, the business held its own, bottling small lots of high-quality, predominantly white wines. But, in 1997, a revolution began inside the winery, transforming it to a highly respected producer of high-end, premium wines, with a heavy emphasis on red.
What happened to change the course of Bookwalter’s business? When founder Jerry Bookwalter retired, he convinced his son John to take over, and then he urged his son to contract with international wine consultant Zelma Long to guide the winery into its next phase.
Winemakers have long taken advantage of the expertise of their peers, whether through mentoring, informal apprenticeships, or more formal business relationships. Winemaking consultants can offer advice and assistance on everything from vineyards to labels to barrels, and can help a winery define its identity.
Jerry Bookwalter instigated his winery’s relationship with Long two years after his son took over operations.
He had heard the consultant speak at a Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers conference.
John Bookwalter said that when he joined the winery, his direction was to make more red wines. "My father thought, wisely, that we should begin working with a red-winemaking consultant. It was really his idea. I would have just plowed into it and made even more mistakes than I have. We wanted to craft a very high-end winemaking program here for reds, and we felt that we could find that with somebody who had been doing it for twenty or thirty years."
Long’s career had included posts at Robert Mondavi Winery, where she was chief enologist, and at Simi Winery, as well as at a vineyard and winery she and her family started in the Napa Valley. After hearing her speak at the WAWGG conference, the senior Bookwalter approached her about consulting for them as he and John moved their winery into its next phase.
Long launched what John calls "an extensive interview process," dealing with topics like the Bookwalters’ winemaking style, their vineyard sources, and other resources. The three met in Napa, where they tasted and discussed barrel samples of Bookwalter wines. When they finally inked an agreement with Long, they put her on retainer for eight to ten days a year, time devoted to advice and instruction on everything from viticultural practices to equipment to blending. "We’ve got a 40-page working document that spells everything out, and we add to it all the time," John said.
Bookwalter now has worked through eight vintages with Long, and she has had a distinct influence on the winery. She has instructed them on viticultural practices for high-end wine grapes, for example, identifying standards for shoot management like 24-inch shoots to support one cluster and 36 inches to support two. She has guided them to a more tightly focused group of vineyards, advised them on new equipment, moved their wines into 100 percent French oak barrels, and helped them refine their processing. In fact, Bookwalter predicts the ’07 vintage will be the winery’s best ever.
"I’m learning a lot, and I feel like we have our legs under us now," he said. "The question we ask ourselves every day is whether we are moving in the right direction. From what I’ve seen of the last two vintages, I think squarely so."
While his winemaking style reflects the consultant’s influence, it remains his own.
"Some consultants are retained because they make a certain style of wine and the client wants that style," Long explained. "My approach is to find out what the client wants, in terms of wine quality, style, price point, reputation, and help their winemaker to achieve that. I believe it’s important that each winery have wines that are unique and relevant to them. Consultants come and go, but the winery and its wines are for the long term, and what its reputation is built on."
If you want to continue to improve as a winery, having outside counsel is very helpful, Bookwalter said. "We have so much to learn as winemakers and about viticulture in this state. I like learning from other people. Its fun, it’s exciting, and it’s energizing. When Zelma decides to retire, we’ll probably grab somebody else."