Wine is diverse—it’s why we love it so. It encompasses concepts that otherwise seem worlds apart: business, art and science among a myriad of others. Winemakers use art and science to make wines but maintain an eye for the bottom line. Jean Hoefliger, who planned for a career in international finance before beginning in wine, has been described as “part artist, part mad scientist,” and is the embodiment of a winemaker who exists in the space between the business, science and art of winemaking.
“In the beginning, working on multiple projects was mainly a way to work faster,” he explains, as we discuss his career in his Alpha Omega office. “I could follow the vegetative cycle of the plant with multiple sites, equations and variables. You can learn more by following the cycle this way.” Over the years, he has been able to apply lessons learned from one country to another—like using knowledge of the low-pH, slatey soils of Priorat to maintain acidity in his Napa Valley wines.
Is it possible, working on so many projects, to have one overarching philosophy of winemaking? “A winemaker who says ‘always’ is a stupid winemaker,” Hoefliger tells me. “My role is purely to translate the site with my philosophy, which is: who do I make wine for?” Here the intersection of art and business becomes apparent. “We never have the power to erase the characteristics of an appellation or terroir, and that’s the greatness of wine. But when you’re making large amounts of wine, you have to accommodate your customers’ tastes. When I worked at Newton, I was aware that most people drink the wines within 48 hours of purchasing them. I have to accommodate that. I don’t take the same risks with larger projects that I do with smaller ones. With smaller projects, you can play with the variations. So you have to adapt.”
“My motto in life is that without struggle, there’s no glory,” he continues. I don’t want to make wine like everyone else. Wine is diverse, and that diversity should be maximized and expressed—that’s the difference between art and manufacturing.” Hoefliger explains the intersection of science and art through the act of blending. “Decisions need to be made by a nose and a palate, because that’s where the wine ends up. You can’t apply a recipe because when you do that, it becomes manufacturing and not art. For me, manufacturing and reproducing takes away the ability to adapt, which is a winemaker’s job—to adapt to what nature throws. Science can confirm things, but the only way to adapt is to smell, feel and taste.”
Michel Rolland has become an important relationship for Hoefliger. The two met when Hoefliger worked at Newton, and they have been friends ever since. Michel currently consults for Alpha Omega, coming in to taste the wines and assist with blending. “Michel is a doubter,” Hoefliger says. “Other consultants I was exposed to in the past would always tell me the wines were great. But Michel won’t sugarcoat it. He will tell me from an outside perspective what a wine needs. We grow much more from criticism than from praise.”
While science can confirm the physical aspects of a blend and provide analytics, Hoefliger points out that blending is still an art. “I learned to blend through time, experience, guts and passion. You don’t learn this at school. It’s a touch and a feel and that’s a true form of art, that’s not science. I blend every wine several times over the course of its life because I’m always trying to find the crack to fill it up,” he explains. “I blend purely on structure, and it’s like sculpture. You are constantly readjusting and at some point you just have to let it go.”
“One of the greatest risks of the modern knowledge of science is to forget the art,” he tells me. “Wine is structural and aromatic. If you cannot taste multiple aromas and textures, it’s a problem. The interaction of multitudes is much more interesting. I fell in love with that depth—the depth of the spectrum and the endless possibilities of the equation.”
Portrait of Jean Hoefliger by Suzanne Becker Bronk.
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