Have you heard the story about the family from the United States who moved to France, bought a vineyard and started making wine? And did I mention they didn’t have any winemaking experience? One might think that story ends badly – either in vinegar or bankruptcy. But thanks of a few Angels – angel investors – this family and 50 other winemakers are seeing success in a crazy, competitive industry.
For the last decade I’ve been doing marketing work for tech start-ups. Many have been successful, more have failed. Which is why I was intrigued when I met the folks over at NakedWines – and even more so when I had the chance to interview Ryan O’Connell, the winemaker who moved to France and bought a vineyard. Think of NakedWines as a Kickstarter for good wine. Angles – everyday people who like wine – invest $40 a month into NakedWines winemakers, helping further their chances of success. In exchange for their investment, the Angels get preferential prices on the wines they produce (for example, a $20 bottle of wine would be $14 for an Angel). Not a bad deal. You help invest in a “startup” and get wine in return.
I was in the process of researching Ryan O’Connell and writing questions for my Interview With a Winemaker series when The Husband poured me a glass of wine. I looked to see what we were drinking, low-and-behold it was one of Ryan’s wines, which I had never tried before. I love how Fate plays her cards sometimes. Here’s more to Ryan’s story and how his French winemaking is unfolding in the United States with the help of NakedWines. Oh, and if you can try his Kid Cab, decant it for 10 minutes, then enjoy. Cheers!
Interview with a Winemaker: Ryan O’Connell, NakedWines
What was the impetus for your family moving to France and starting a winery?
Dad was drinking so much wine it just became cost-effective! Seriously though, my mom and dad are very hands-on people and their love of wine has always had an undercurrent of, “What if we sold everything and bought a vineyard?” It seemed like a crazy pipe dream up until the day when we were standing in a vineyard with a nine-fingered grape grower and a very eager realtor.
We set up Domaine O’Vineyards in 2005, with 25-year-old vines that were being wasted on a local cooperative. We had a hunch that if we built a winery on the property and put our nose to the grindstone, we’d be able to make something very special there. So we took the leap!
Did you have any experience in the wine business before you moved to France? Did your family? How did you learn the winemaking business?
Just on the drinking end. None of us had been in winemaking or wine sales. We read a lot of books. My high school chemistry teacher would have been proud. We hired a consulting oenologist for the first couple years until we realized we could fly on our own. You learn very quickly in the field, and in the cellar. The trick is to keep your eyes wide open and any time something is different (smaller fruit clusters, denser clusters, bigger leaves, browning leaves, more snails than usual, anything really) you make a note of the observation. And hopefully you start to notice patterns between the observations during production and the way the fruit comes into the cellar or the wine comes into the bottle.
How does your background with French winemaking influence your winemaking here in the United States?
I’d like to think it is a strength. I don’t want to start a war between Old world winemaking and New world (old would win ;D) but I think we can all agree that the more experience you have to draw from, the more open-minded you are, the more interesting your winemaking will be. In practical terms, I was a little lost when I first landed in Napa and everybody talks casually about 110R rootstock and Carboxymethyl cellulose stabilization – and I was like “Umm…I grow grapes. We use sunshine and whatever rainwater we happen to get.” But we’ve got a great team of winemakers at the NakedWines.com winemaker studio in Kenwood and they helped me start talking about wine like an American.
What are some of things you’ve learned or noticed about the differences in French winemaking vs that in Napa? Are any better? Not?
It’s the typical old world vs new world stuff. In France, we don’t even irrigate, and those who do are sort of ashamed of it. When I tell the French that there are giant fans in the vineyards in Napa designed to blow morning air around, they laugh. Why would you plant vines in a place where there isn’t enough water to feed them naturally? Or the right temperatures to avoid frost naturally? May as well plant on the moon. Californians on the other hand embrace the changes. They could dry farm (no watering) but irrigation gives them a lever to pull if there’s a particular moment in the plant’s life cycle where it could use a drip irrigation. This fundamental difference I’m describing isn’t limited to the field; it goes through every step of the winemaking process.
Do you consider yourself more of a French winemaker or a California winemaker? (Is there a difference?)
I’m a French grape grower. I’m a Californian winemaker. I really want my fruit to come from a great vineyard. If you start off with unique grapes grown the right way and tended to correctly, then you can make fantastic wine. And then in the winery, I prefer to be hands-off, but I’m not afraid to use the tools at my disposal to bring out the best of the fruit. Although it is a shame if what you do in the winery overwhelms the fruit, or hides any part of it.
What would you hope people say about your wine?
The best is when the wine isn’t the subject of conversation. People just have fun while drinking my wine. Then I’ve achieved something. I’ve provided the thread that pulls people together to have fun. And if they ask for another bottle, then I’ve done a very good job.
What types of varietals do you grow? Produce? How many cases?
In the United States, I made a small lot of Sonoma Coast Pinot (2,000 cases), a larger lot of Sauvignon Blanc (2,600 cases) and a big batch of juicy Lodi Cabernet (5,000 cases).
My parents continue making wine in France and we’re bringing the Trah Lah Lah over to the U.S. (2,600 cases) – that’s a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and sometimes a touch of Grenache or Carignan.
What grape varietals do you get most excited about to drink and to produce? Why?
Favorite drinking wine depends on the situation. I have party wine and food wine and thoughtfully sipping in my study wine (I don’t have a study, but I have the wine ready for when I do get one.)
Where do you come down on the cork vs. screw top debate? Why?
I love the debate because while everybody is arguing, they’re too distracted to notice me drinking all the wine. I think every winemaker should get to choose their closure and it’s ridiculous that we usually base the decision on “marketability” rather than our own good sense as artisans and artists.
How did you get involved with NakedWines?
They rescued my family’s vineyard and winery. Around year five, we were starting to face serious financial difficulties. We were spending more time and energy selling our wine than making it and this causes a vicious circle of runaway costs, increased prices, and lower sales. Naked Angels saved me from all that.
Where can people taste your wines and buy them?
At NakedWines.com – they sell out quickly so you’d best follow me to receive updates about when wines come in stock. And if you’re an Angel you’ll get a spectacular deal.
How else can you find Ryan???
Disclaimer: I am an affiliate with NakedWines. In other words, if you click on a link from CarpeTravel back to their site and sign up for the Angels program I get a few a bucks. (Click away – it’s a great program!)
Elaine Schoch (pronounced the German way – Shock) is the editor and founder of Carpe Travel as well as an award-winning travel writer, wine judge, certified by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 and certified American Wine Expert. She is married to The Husband and has two kids, Princess One and Two – who’s interest and knowledge in wine is quite extensive. Not to mention the stamps in their passports.