The globetrotting consultant explains his philosophy of viticulture and winemaking.
Michel Rolland is one of the most sought-after and yet one of the most divisive figures in the global wine industry today. His knowledge is immense, his client list studded with some of the top wineries in the world. Intimidating? Yes. Formidable? Yes. Yet when he came around a table of Master Sommeliers to guide us in our blending exercise during a program at Simi Winery a few years back, he was “just one of the guys.”
Like Max Schubert and Robert Mondavi, Rolland was greatly misunderstood and criticized early in his career. Like them, he has stuck to his guns and followed his vision. I, too, was in the critical camp. It wasn’t until I had tasted several hundred wines on a whirlwind tour of Argentina, and later had a revealing conversation with that country’s influential Laura Catena, that I finally understood just how Rolland operates. He grew up in a winemaking family in Pomerol and studied at the Bordeaux Institute of Oenology, where he met his wife Dany. The couple opened their lab in Libourne in 1973, and their consulting firm took off from there—now employing seven assistants and numbering more than 100 clients in 15 countries. As his mentor, Émile Peynaud, did in Bordeaux, Rolland has promoted better viticultural techniques and cleaner winemaking methods around the world.
I have learned over the years that the most significant people in the world are often the most humble. When I wrote an article on glassware for this magazine (February 2009), I was thrilled to include the stems designed by Dany Rolland. She was as accessible and gracious then as her husband has been in answering questions for this interview over the past several months.
CATHERINE FALLIS, MS, ACWP
How important was your childhood at Le Bon Pasteur in shaping your later career?
I think it has been very influential, because when I was very young, my world was the vineyard, the seasons, nature. I was born in 1947 at the hospital in Libourne, only 400 meters from the Pomerol appellation—a very auspicious beginning both in location and vintage! All the family was at Maillet, now Le Bon Pasteur. I grew up there, played with my brother, walked through the vines with my grandfather—all the unforgettable childhood memories of tastes and smells and day-to-day life in a family environment in the countryside. As I got older and more involved in school, I worked in the vineyards during summers and holidays. It was a very carefree time for me, but I remember my parents worrying all the time about frost, flowering, rain, rot, which I now know are common problems for grape growers.
What were the key factors in your early wine education?
I spent all my childhood and adolescence with my grandfather and my father, for whom the vine and the wine was the sole preoccupation. So I was aware very early of their world of viticulture and of nature. I was very drawn to the outdoors, to the fields, the insects, birds, and flowers, and was unusually focused on this bounty of colors and aromas that was all around me.
How would you describe the role of Émile Peynaud in changing the French wine industry?
As a young student, I found him so interesting to listen to, very straightforward and easy to follow. Professor Peynaud was the first who understood that wine had to evolve to remain attractive and cultural, and he initiated the current process of the quest for quality. He was the first great field expert and enologist with great sensibility and clearsightedness, besides being an eminent scientist. He was and stays my mentor, in his approach to enology and his philosophy; it’s clear that without the evolution of the science and the knowledge of terroirs, we cannot speak about the application of common techniques today. His approach, his sensibility, his intuition, the way he practiced enology, and the way he tasted and spoke about wine make him the most important man who enlightened and guided my career.
How did you and your wife Dany expand from an enology laboratory into consulting?
It was the time when people in viticulture began to realize that the science of enology could help them. It was not so easy; it took 20 years to establish this activity. At the beginning of the 1980s, after the hardly mediocre 1970s, I thought that it was necessary to evolve in the cellars, in the vineyards, and in the mentality to optimize wine quality. Some vintner friends in Bordeaux played the game, and it was the beginning of a constant quest of self-reappraisal, observations, and actions in the course of the vintages. The 1982 vintage was a good triggering factor.
If Bordeaux reds have become bigger and more fruit-driven over the past 30 years, what are the reasons? What do you think has been your own role in this development?
Wine is a consumer product and must respond to consumers’ tastes. We must wonder all the time what is perfectible and, by the way, check where we have to evolve. That’s what I’ve tried to do for 30 years. My goals include watching to obtain a good sanitary state of the raw material, sustainable production, ripening grapes, soft extractions respecting the fruit, meticulous aging, less manipulation and treatments, more attention to the vineyard, less vigor, and better knowledge and preparation of soils and grape varieties that will allow us to overcome the harmful and very influential climatic variations in Bordeaux. I introduced the first thinning-out of leaves and green harvests at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, always looking for the best potential. I was a field enologist and one of the first to taste grapes by going through miles and miles on foot in the vineyards.
You’ve been associated with interventionist winemaking techniques such as microoxygenation. Is that fair?
The lack of culture and stupidity are journalism’s interventionism. I have never been a fanatic of microoxygenation, which can have good efficiency in certain cases, but not systematically. Only [Jonathan] Nossiter in Mondovino, by a truncated editing, in a particular vintage, ascribes these intentions to me. I’ve never been a tireless interventionist in new technologies; everything has to adapt to the conditions of the sort of wine to be produced. On the other hand, I recommended manual destemming and banished all the materials, techniques, and treatments that are stressful for the grape, or the wine, and often not justified. But once again, we do not vinify a grand cru the same way as we do a $5 wine. My job is to adapt to my customer’s market request in his particular terroir.
How did the Rolland Collection develop?
The Rolland Collection is still a young company in the wine business, as we began in January 2007. My daughter Stéphanie and my son-in-law David Lesage are doing a great job. Today, we are selling the wines in 35 countries. Both our actual clients and our prospects are very interested in working with a 100% family company that built this incredible collection of wines from Bordeaux to the 6,600-foot altitude in Argentina, white and red, different and typical grapes. They also like the way we sell our wines directly, not only through the Bordeaux négociants (except for Le Bon Pasteur and Fontenil futures), and the way we are managing the prices, our communication, and support by dealing directly with the estates—no more intermediates—being able to send an order from the entire range of 17 wines in four countries from one place, as we have all our stocks in Bordeaux. We have new cuvées coming from Mariflor in Argentina, one of our biggest projects, with the winery just built and ready: Bodega Rolland in Clos de los Siete, Vista Flores, Mendoza.
How did you get involved in Argentina?
Arnaldo Etchart asked me to consult at San Pedro de Yacochuya in 1988, and it has been the beginning of a nice story with Argentina. At that time, the wine produced in this region was not so good—too much production, too much water irrigation. Now, Cafayate is considered one of the most interesting wine zones in this country.
How do you see the future of the wine industry in South America?
As everywhere, there are very good wines, and the South American market, including Brazil, is tremendous. There are certainly good possibilities for the wines in South America—good projects, good terroirs to be discovered.
How did you get involved in California wine?
Zelma Long, the winemaker at Simi Winery, came to meet me in France in 1986, on Bob Parker’s recommendation, and that was the beginning of my career as an international consultant.
What are your most significant projects in California and Washington?
Harlan Estate in Napa has been one of the most exciting, with a success never before seen in the United States. I now have 15 clients in California. In Washington, I make the Pedestal Merlot for Long Shadows in Walla Walla.
Does your approach to winemaking differ in the New World?
In my opinion, a winemaker has to first adapt to the grapes he has to vinify. Grapes are the reflection of the place where they are produced. Winemaking cannot be the same in the New World and Old World; however, in both, it is important to be attentive to the customer and to his market. I think that the philosophy is the same, but the raw material is different.
Could you describe some of your other consulting projects around the world?
I’m working in Bulgaria with Telish/Castra Rubra, a magnificent project; Monteverro in the south of Tuscany, a small project, but very exclusive and sophisticated; and one in Israel, Amphorae. In South Africa, I consult with a collaborator at L’Ormarins for Antonij Rupert, which is a nice project. We are also working in Chile, Brazil, Spain, Croatia, Turkey, and India.
How do you see the French wine industry evolving over the next 30 years?
It is very difficult to give perspectives over 30 years in terms of production and consumption. The future will be more in the vineyard—the respect of nature—than in the cellars, where today we know how to work well. Also, if the visions of global warming are confirmed, Bordeaux, among other French areas, will be well situated. The respect of nature is an obligatory orientation.
What will be the impact of changing wine styles on restaurants and sommeliers?
Nobody decides about the style. There are only two important factors: the terroir and the consumer. They are both giving their success to the wine.
You’ve been cutting back in recent years to support your family’s other ventures and careers. Are you enjoying that role?
I do what I like, and it suits me very well. My main activity is enology, but today, it is necessary to speak about wine, and I gladly help the children to speak about our family history and about my own experience.
Do you ever foresee yourself retiring entirely from the wine industry?
Are you in a hurry? Personally, I am not. Wine is a passion for life, and I am going to be too old to become good playing golf!