Consulting for wineries helped Charlie Hoppes establish his own winery.
The benefits from consulting often go two ways, according to experienced winemakers who work as consultants.
"One of the things I enjoy about consulting is that you get a little broader exposure to what’s going on in the industry," said Brian Carter, co-owner of Brian Carter Cellars. After working in a few California wineries, Carter started making wines in Washington State in 1980 at Paul Thomas Cellars, and quickly earned a reputation as a leader in the industry. He began consulting in 1988.
"Obviously, you’re being paid to give your opinion, but at the same time you get something back," he said. "You get to taste other wines and experience what other winemakers are doing. Being a consultant is both learning and teaching."
It also can be the springboard a winemaker needs to finance his or her own winery. Wine consultant Zelma Long consults with clients around the world, from Washington State to Israel, while also working on her South African venture, Vila Fonte, where she is the winemaking partner. Carter said consulting provided an income for him in the late 1980s when he transitioned from working full-time for Paul Thomas to managing his own ventures. And custom-crush guru Charlie Hoppes said his consulting work was an important part of the business plan that established his Fidelitas label. Hoppes is the consulting winemaker for Goose Ridge Vineyards, Gamache Cellars, and Cañon De Sol.
One of Carter’s earliest clients was Doug McCrea, owner of McCrea Cellars. "I loved the way Brian was making Chardonnay," McCrea said. "I felt at that time that he was one of the finest Chardonnay producers in the state, and I was curious to see what I could learn about his techniques."
McCrea was just entering the business, with little formal training. Carter steered him to some high-quality vineyards, and advised him through the microbiological challenges of winemaking. Other early clients include Hedges Family Cellars and Silver Lake.
Carter turns the majority of his attention now to Brian Carter Cellars, devoting only about 5 or 10 percent of his time to consulting. But the issues he deals with today are the same he encountered in the late 1980s, when the most common problems he addressed with his clients were the quality of grapes, as well as technical winemaking issues like volatile acidity, fermentation techniques, or oxidation levels. ever, consultants and their clients all say the relationship can be as individualized and unique as a winery’s wines.
"Everyone I consult for has employed me for different reasons," said Long, whose clients include Bookwalter Winery at Richland, Washington. "A consultant can provide advice in many areas: a winemaker change, a family generational change, desire for a new style, quality and technical issues to be resolved, to bring a new perspective or a global view of the market, to help with development of a new wine or winery project, or help with blending. As a consultant I feel my role is to help my clients achieve their goals."
Contractual arrangements are also usually flexible. "I recommend a simple written contract that lists the client’s goal for the consultant, the time frame for the work, the compensation and the method of compensation, and protection of intellectual property if either party desires it," said Long. "The simpler the better. ever, I have found that getting the key issues in writing always helps avoid misunderstandings."
Carter has helped clients with everything from designing their facilities to selecting equipment to managing growers, as well as winemaking decisions like which yeast to use, when to press, or when to bottle.
Long works on retainer for Bookwalter Winery, although some consultants charge by the hour. Carter said he’s done it both ways, but prefers an hourly arrangement. "Otherwise, it eats up all your time," he said.
For Mike Haddox, the opportunity to share his expertise is a core piece of the business of the Winemaker’s Loft in Prosser, the studio-style winemaking and tasting room facility he opened in the fall of 2007. He divides his time between three efforts. He produces two labels of his own, the Winemaker’s Loft series and his premium Michael Florentino wines; another third of his time is devoted to custom crush—working for winemakers who book his equipment and services but oversee the winemaking themselves; and the last third is custom winemaking, working for clients who contract with Haddox to produce their wines from crush all the way through bottling. He works with around a dozen winemakers. Including the wines produced by the loft’s tenants, in 2007 he produced or helped with the production of some 27,000 cases at the facility.
Haddox learned the winemaking craft on the job, beginning in the cellar at Columbia Crest. After several more years working for Silver Lake and Glen Fiona, he recognized a large market among young wineries for advice and assistance. His guidance is included in the lease agreement, but extra services often fall into the custom-crush category. Both Haddox and Hoppes charge by the case for custom work.
Because tenants at the Winemaker’s Loft are limited to 30,000 tons of grapes at crush, they are likely to move on to larger facilities as their businesses grow, although Haddox is exploring the addition of another building for more barrel storage. But with new wineries opening across Washington at a heady rate, the Loft’s target market seems assured. And the market for consultants will probably remain equally strong, both from new winemakers and those with decades of experience.