Olivier Tragoat traveled about 100 days a year before the pandemic, dividing his time between Asia and South America.

As technical director of the Domaines Barons de Rothschild Lafite group in Bordeaux, Mr. Tragoat oversees the Long Dai winery on the Shandong peninsula in northeast China, as well as the Los Vascos winery in Chile’s Colchagua Valley and the Bodegas Caro winery in Mendoza. But the last time he visited South America was in February 2020, just before the first French lockout. He has not returned to China since October 2019.

Not being able to participate in the 2020 growing season or follow the work of the winery in China is frustrating because Long Dai is a young vineyard that needs a lot of attention.  Tregoat knows the vineyards he planted in 2011 well. Frequent exchanges via Skype and remote monitoring helped him fill in the gaps. However, it is not the same.

Technical and analytical data is one thing, but knowledge of the field is another, says Tragoat. Fact is, it’s harder not to travel.

Olivier Trégoat at Château L’Évangile / Photo : Danon Boileau

Trégoat is a so-called flying winemaker, a consultant who visits vineyards all over the world. They provide advice on viticulture, vineyard management, exhibition techniques and assemblage, both as independent agents and employed by the wine conglomerate.

A profession that requires flexibility, intelligent organization and the ability to multi-task. Since the early 2020s, this adaptability has been in full swing. Because of movement limitations, practical tasks such as kidney inspection, crown maintenance, and barrel sampling to determine maceration time were interrupted.

 

As the owner of Lado Wine Consulting, Lado Uzunashvili has been an unstable winemaker since the company was founded in 1998. He created a red sparkling wine in Australia, founded the winery Les Cépages de Meknes in Morocco and was a real estate consultant in France.

Mr. Uzunashvili is also the owner and head winemaker of Mukado Wines in Georgia, promoting 8,000 years of Eastern European winemaking around the world. He has also embarked on a project to make one of Australia’s first quavers.

His duties range from vineyard and grape selection to terroir analysis. He also tries to improve the premises of the customers, supervises the maturing of the wines and organizes seminars. Much of his work involves collaborative tastings, most recently by sending samples and tasting with the team via video conference.

Lado Uzanishvili during the tasting at the Saperavi Symposium in Australia / Photo courtesy of Lado Uzanishvili, Wine Georgia

Many aspects of the process can be controlled remotely – what Uzunashvili calls his immaterial world – but winemaking is an experience that goes beyond taste.

I especially had to get used to making decisions about something very physical without physically touching it or seeing the other side, he says.

This may mean that phenolic ripeness is determined without the need to chew grape seeds. Uzunashvili also monitored color separation during maceration using text photos and responded to a remote video feed to check the yeast in the tank for stuck fermentation. And also the logistics of getting approval for a new bottling plant or production facility.

Flights change or are cancelled, and booking tickets has become both a science and a gamble, he says. What happens when you go somewhere and suddenly there are new rules against your return?

Alsatian winemaker Julien Schaal, owner of the Julien Schaal winery, fell in love with South Africa when he participated in the harvest in Hermanus in 2003. The following year he joined forces with Paul Cluver Wines to create a new company and has been commuting between France and South Africa ever since. With his wife Sophie, he takes a big Riesling cruise in Alsace in October and a cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir cruise in Elgin, Walker Bay and the upper Hemel Valley in February.

Although Shaal usually visits South Africa every six to eight weeks, he has only been there twice since March 2020.

Julien Schaal in a cellar in Alsace / Photo courtesy of Julian Schaal

As soon as you see a small travel window, you have to jump on it quickly, he says. Prior to the imposition of the restrictions, it had outsourced logistical and labelling tasks to a third party. Andries Burger, Paul Cluver winemaker, was also involved in the work, which Schaal said was key to survival. Trust and delegation have become important, especially in the area of mixing and filling.

Wineries that rely heavily on flying winemakers face similar challenges. Quintessa, in Napa Valley, supplements his team with international advisors such as Italian cellar master Simonit & Sirch, Chilean terroir expert Dr. Pedro Parra and Bordeaux oenologist Michel Rolland, who advises hundreds of clients.

Prior to that, chief winemaker Rebecca Wineburg will join Rolland and the team to assess 80 to 150 individual lots, discuss the character of the vintage and put together a blend. Samples are now being sent to France for Rolland to try and discuss with Zoom.

While Wineburg acknowledges that these new methods of communication are here to stay, she laments the loss of informal, spontaneous personal conversations.

Most importantly, wine is meant to be shared with others, and that personal connection cannot be duplicated virtually, she says.

Tregoat on site in the vineyard / Photo: Richard Haughton

Once Covid-19 is under control, growers of flying grapes will be able to see that their role has changed for the better, Uzunashvili said.

The pandemic has taught us a new flexibility and compassion, and given us a clearer sense of what is important [and] gratitude for the cause, he says.

Tragoat emphasizes the need to travel smarter.

Priority should be given to travel during key stages of the growing season and winemaking [the process of] reducing our carbon footprint, he says. I understand that the number of trips has not been significant.

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