Michel Rolland's Pedestal
French Flair Comes to WA State, by Jean Yates, March 2007
Michel Rolland is one of most recognizable names in winemaking today. He may also be one of the most misunderstood. The movie "Mondovino" and industry gossip have presented a distorted picture of the man. In researching this article, and talking to the winemaking crew at LongShadows, what comes through is this: Michel Rolland is, before all of his other wine industry roles, a scientist, with a long history of innovation in vineyard and winery techniques developed from his early training at the side of fermentation scientists. Those scientists' ideas in the late 1960's and 1970's were considered at least radical, and possibly even heretical to the traditional methods of winemaking in Europe at the time. Rolland learned from, and contributed to, revolutionary research that transformed winemaking and contributed numerous fundamental improvements to the industry.
Born into a Bordeaux based winemaking family, Michel Rolland attended Tour Blanche Viticultural and Oenology school in Bordeaux and then the Bordeaux Oenology Institute. Rolland studied with legendary Oenologists including Pierre Sudraud, Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon, Jean Ribéreau-Gayon, and Emile Peynaud, and says that they were a big influence on his winemaking methods today. The oenologists of Bordeaux from the mid-20th century are considered the founders of modern scientific Oenology and Viticulture as we know it today.
Not only is Michel Rolland a scientist/oenologist, his wife is also, and she heads up their laboratory in Bordeaux, testing samples for hundreds of wineries each year. The couple are now joined by their two daughters in the family business. The lab has been credited with, in combination with Rolland's consulting, improving the quality of dozens of Bordeaux wines. Rolland's work contributed in a major way to the so-called "Bordeaux Revolution" of the 1970-1990 timeframe.
Whatever criticism is made of Rolland (and he seems to be a positive lightning rod for critique, criticism, and outright anger), one has to acknowledge his dedication to the use of science and advanced technology in winemaking to improve the quality of wine.
Rolland's consulting work is notoriously far-flung, with over 100 clients all over the world. He recently announced that he is cutting back, eliminating about 20 clients from his list. He's 60 years old, and even with a famed high energy level, might be wanting a bit less time in airplanes and different times zones.
Michel Rolland in Washington State
The Pacific Northwest is fortunate to have Rolland as winemaker at Pedestal, one of the wineries of LongShadows Group, a consortium of small wineries founded and managed by Allan Shoup, formerly CEO of Chateau Ste Michelle Wine Group. Allan had the idea to solicit top winemakers around the world to come to the Pacific Northwest and make small amounts of wine, combining their skills and Washington State's grapes. Rolland's Pedestal is one of seven small wineries within the Longshadows group, and is arguably the most in demand.
"Heavy on the fruit and oak influenced" - such is the description of Michel Rolland's style in the press. Famed critic Robert Parker also prefers the style, and Parker's enjoyment and big scores for Rolland's wines has undoubtedly contributed to Rolland's fame. (Parker gave the 2003 Pedestal 94 points.) He's been accused of promoting the creation of red wines with higher alcohol and riper fruit flavors. The resulting bigger, more massively sweet fruit and soft tannins character pleases wine drinkers but eliminates nuances of flavor valued by winemakers.
Some of the herbal, tannic qualities that some winemakers value as nuance, or varietal character, qualities that set the grape apart from all others, are eliminated or downplayed in wine made in the Rolland style. Blog "The Wine Cellar" says: "Rolland is driving out the individuality and local essence of wines...Rolland makes wines that strive for excellence on the same dimensions resulting in global variations on the same theme (i.e. his wines are "Pomerolled" or "Napa-ized")".
And what does Rolland have to say about all the controversy? In a recent article in the NYTimes (10-11-06), Rolland responded to a question about the less opulent, more austere style of winemaking (wineries Clos du Val, Corison) that emphasizes terroir over accessibility with a decidedly marketing rather than science oriented answer:
"Are they as successful in the marketplace? No," he said, warming to the subject. "Wine is done for what? The public! Wine is a business. They want to make wine to sell wine. In the U.S. they are honest enough to tell you they want good ratings. They don't want loser wines."
"Mr. Rolland expresses astonishment that some people are nostalgic for the leaner, less ripe California style of the 1970's. There were good bottles then, he allows, but very few. "I came to the U.S. in 1984 or '85 and I did a lot of tasting," he said. "Now a young guy like me coming couldn't taste all the good wines in a week. Back then you could in an hour."
So Rolland may depend on science to create quality wines, but he's clearly quite the savvy businessman as well. And the Pedestal Merlot 04 shows both his genius level winemaking skills and his marketing prowess in equal amounts.
Pedestal's 2004 Vintage
Second vintage for the winery, the 2004 Pedestal is true to the spirit of Rolland, with a touch of restraint in its flavors compared to the 2003, a lush crowd-pleaser from the moment it was released. The 2003 vintage came from an unusually hot summer, even for Eastern Washington, and the extreme ripeness of the fruit made an immediately ready to drink wine. The 2004 is still changing from week to week (as of February, 2007), says Longshadows assistant winemaker Andrew Wilson. He's been re-tasting the wine and finds that it continues to evolve, improving from week to week.
2004 was a small vintage, with many vineyards damaged from extreme cold in January 2004. The composition of the Pedestal Merlot 04 was changed from the 03, as some vineyards did not produce fruit. Well prepared for the grape shortage, Longshadows had already made plans to purchase fruit from new sources whose vines made it through the winter.
The grapes for the 2004 Pedestal Merlot came from:
Weinbau Vineyard, located on the Wahluke Slope, a remarkable new appellation as much in the middle of nowhere as you can get. Who would have thought such great grapes could be produced here? This is the area where Fielding Hill's vineyard is located. We've sent many of the Fielding wines to the Avalon Wine Club over the years. The lush, deeply flavored, quite extraordinary Cabernet Franc grapes that went into the Pedestal came from this vineyard;
Alder Ridge Vineyard, on the cliffs above the Columbia River;
Candy Mountain Vineyard, in the Tri-Cities area near Red Mountain; and
Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, source for the 1% Petit Verdot grapes in Pedestal, an intense, black wine, extremely limited and hard to obtain.
Rolland's Winemaking Methods for Pedestal
Michel Rolland visits the LongShadows facility where Pedestal is made two or more times a year. His most important visit each year, from a winemaking standing, is in the summer, when he tastes through the previous vintage's barrels and selects the blend for the new vintage. He also visits the vineyards, selects the fruit sources for the coming vintage, and evaluates the grapes in the field. He specifies all the details of the vineyard management and winemaking on an ongoing basis throughout the year. Rolland also visits the winery in January, to try the new wine, tasting it for the first time and making decisions about the way the wine is to be aged.
Fruit maturity and gentle handling are two of the main thrusts of Rolland's instructions to the crew at Pedestal. Rolland likes the fruit he makes his wines with to be very mature and extremely soft. Great care must be taken in processing the fruit. Sorting, de-stemming, and handling of the young wine are all done as much as possible by hand. The wine is never pumped through tubes, even the mixing of the wine in the fermenter is done by gently carrying over.
For the 2004 vintage, the gently handled fruit was partially crushed before fermentation in stainless tanks. 30-40% of the fruit was crushed, with the rest being whole berry clusters in the fermenter. Fermentation took about 15 days, and the wine was fermented to dryness. Moved to 80-85% new French oak barrels made by a variety of coopers, the wine aged quietly through the middle of 2005, at which point, it was tasted by Rolland and his crew, and decisions were made about the blend. Rolland gave instructions for each lot before moving to barrel, specifying the cooper, type of barrel, etc.
Assistant winemaker Andrew Wilson, when I inquired about the infamous "micro-oxygenation" Rolland was accused of using in Mondovino, said that Rolland has never so much as mentioned it to the crew. He did mention that Rolland has the crew monitor the juice coming out of the wine press very carefully, to be sure that the juice that comes out towards the end, which can be coarse and tannic, is not allowed to get into the wine that is out into barrels for Pedestal. Rolland sought structure and intensity for the Pedestal, power without roughness.