June 2006 Archives

Rolland

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Just read the Spectator piece on Michel Rolland. Biggest take-away was the answer to a question I’ve had for years: How in the world could the guy have 100 clients in 10 countries?

I met Rolland the first time in Mexico of all places, at Chateau Camou in the days when it was convinced it had made Mexico’s best wine ever. Their models were good – Bordeaux, specifically Cheval Blanc and the left bank first growths – but they were emulating wines from 20 or 30 years ago. The wines were going to be nice 15 years after their vintage, but they were too astringent to give any pleasure on this August day in Valle de Guadalupe.

Rolland and I met in the barrel room, a chance passing that left us two foreign visitors alone for a moment. We introduced ourselves and I immediately asked, What can you do for these wines? He shook his head solemnly and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. Just then both his handler and mine reappeared, each wondering how he had let his guest out of his sight. Rolland promptly said a cheery good bye and went off with his handler. I caught a glimpse of him getting into a car later, but that was it.

His jerk of the thumb? It could have meant the barrels behind him, the vineyards behind him outside the cellar door, the terroir outside the cellar door – or the managing director (and son of the owner) who was with him. I never found out.

The next time I saw Rolland was at Staglin in Napa. I pulled into the driveway behind a long jaguar and parked next to its owner, Bill Harlan. We walked up through the trees and there was Rolland, striding in the front way with his omnipresent briefcase. I noted that it was as full as I had seen it in Mexico.

Knowing Rolland’s habit of seeing all his clients from a particular region at the same times of the year, I guessed that Harlan and Rolland were either finished with their own blending trials or would conduct them the next day. Following jovial greetings, we went in to a 15-year retrospective tasting with the Staglin family, key supporters (including Harlan, a nearby neighbor), celebrity customers (I grabbed a seat across from former major leaguer Rusty Staub) and various winemakers including Rolland and an earlier consulting winemaker, California’s own Celia Mazcysek.

It was a great tasting and Rolland was a great addition to it. He didn’t hog the conversation, even though everyone wanted to know what he thought of the older vintages. He told good stories: brief, funny, and self-deprecating. Everyone had a good time.

Last time I was in South Africa a local winemaker I was driving with pointed to the Rupert & Rothschild winery as we went by and said, “Rolland’s here.” I pictured the briefcase and knew its owner was not on vacation.

So the answer to the question is that 60 of Rolland’s 100 customers are in France. For the great majority of them, in Bordeaux, he just drives around some of the world’s most manicured countryside, visiting his clients’ (and friends’ and neighbors’) chateaux and geting paid for his advice on blending.

Does that sound like work to you?

If it is, I'd like to volunteer. Unfortunately, I don’t have Rolland’s intuitive, literally life-long immersion in wine blending experience. Few people on earth can do what he can. Robert M. Parker, Jr. has the palate and the memory to do it, I believe, but from what I’ve read he may lack the social dimensions that make Rolland so successful: the ability to persuade with as much charm and pleasure as reason and conviction. But I digress.

A big slice of Rolland's non-French clients are still in Europe, so he can hop on a morning flight offered by one of the dozens of new regional low-cost airlines in Europe, put in a full day “abroad,” and be home the next morning.

If you haven’t read the story, it’s worth looking at (not as gushy as some Spectator profiles, but as usual it’s written as if they discovered this guy themselves).

The pseudo-documentary "Mondovino" portrays Rolland as bad for wine, such as by making all his clients' wine taste the same. This at least I can shed some light on. I have tasted dozens of his clients' wines and can say from personal experience that there are all kinds of differences between them, even when they come from neighbors like Harlan and Staglin.

As for the other criticisms, people need to get some perspective. Rolland is a bumblebee that’s clearly getting into more a whole lot more flowers than the other bees. According to nature’s ineluctable laws, this radically improves the chances that his clients will produce more flowers of greater beauty and complexity. And I’m down with that.

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