This is the original, pre-edited version of the article I wrote for The Honolulu Advertiser on February 4th, 2009. Who says I’m long-winded?
On Wednesday, January 28, 2008, Hawaii welcomed world-renown, consulting winemaker Michel Rolland. Mr. Rolland’s first stop after arriving in the state was here on Oahu to promote his wines during a seminar held at The Honolulu Design Center and Stage Restaurant.
Immediately afterwards, he was to jet off to the Big Island, before heading off to South America and South Africa. Mr. Rolland spends the majority of his time consulting with clients overseas, so we were indeed lucky for the opportunity to have him here for a formal, yet personal seminar.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Mr. Rolland as far as his personality was concerned. His accomplishments and influence in the wine world are so wide-reaching and impressive; it was hard for me not to be intimidated. Upon meeting him though, I was pleasantly surprised at his charm, wittiness and most importantly, his sense of humor. His world-wide fame was certainly confirmed, when twenty minutes into our interview, a fan came over to ask Mr. Rolland to autograph a bottle from a producer that Michel actually consulted on. Of course there was no hesitation on Mr. Rolland’s part.
Mr. Rolland is the world’s most famous, independent wine consultant. He is often hired to lend his expertise in winemaking and winegrowing to wineries in France, California and to places even as far flung as South Africa, India, and South America.
The hope for the winery is that with the help of Mr. Rolland’s expertise, the estate is able to put together a better finished product than what was there before he arrived. There’s no question that his consultancy is the bread and butter of his multi-faceted business operations. “First and foremost, this is my primary job,” he states.
With over 100 clients spread out over five continents, Mr. Rolland and his wife Dany still find ways to maintain their oenology laboratory in their home city of Pomerol, France. The two also own or have an interest in various wine estates in France, Spain, South Africa, and Argentina.
The wine estates are organized under the Rolland Collection of wines and along with the lab, Michel states “are my second jobs.” He does have help through the family though, from his eldest daughter Stephanie and her husband who help manage The Rolland Collection.
The Early Years
Mr. Rolland, born in Pomerol in 1947, was the younger of two sons. He grew up in the winemaking business where his father ran the family estate, Chateau le Bon-Pasteur, a highly esteemed Bordeaux wine estate.
In middle-class French country families, it was commonplace for the elder son to pursue a more professional track and career, while the younger son; Michel in this case, was expected to take care of the vineyards.
When I asked Mr. Rolland if he regrets not having a choice in the early days and what would he be doing now if he weren’t in the wine business, his reply is this: “It was written in the books for me even before I was born, my destiny.” His brother eventually became a lawyer. “Nobody is perfect,” he chuckles.
Michel promptly enrolled at the University of Bordeaux in 1968, where he eventually met his future wife and business partner, Dany, who is also an oenologist herself.
“You see, he said, looking at her lovingly, it’s not so bad,” in referencing his destiny to study oenology. When they first met though, “Dany was not even studying oenology. I had to convince her.” It’s easy to see that Michel’s salesmanship started at an early age.
Shortly after graduating in 1971, Michel and Dany interviewed with laboratory owners, Mr. and Mrs. Chevrier in 1973 for a potential partnership in their laboratory. The couple had no children and was looking for someone to take over for them.
Dany and Michel joined the laboratory as partners shortly after what was asuccessful interview and eventually became full-time owners. The laboratory allowed them to study the grape growing and wine making processes of chateau owners who sent in their wine samples for analysis. It is here where the seeds for Mr. Rolland’s consultancy were planted.
When his father died in 1979, Mr. Rolland had the tough task of balancing the demands of managing the family estate and his desire to develop his consulting business. He chose to run the estate, but eventually got his first true consulting gig in California with Simi Winery, in Sonoma in 1985.
He was asked to study how to optimize the region’s potential. The rest they say is history. Mr. Rolland’s client list in California includes wineries whose wines are highly sought after such as Araujo, Harlan Estate, Bryant Family, and Screaming Eagle.
The Quality Factor
So why are wineries lining up to obtain the services of Mr. Rolland? It may be in his mantra and straightforward goal of improving the overall quality of wine. “How can we make the wine better?” he always asks.
When wineries eventually meet Mr. Rolland, the first thing they ask is – Do you think we can do something to improve quality? “Of course, my first answer is always yes!” he laughs. “There is always something to do.”
“In the beginning, no one spoke about quality. Nobody really thought about what the definition of quality was, the way we talk about it today.” The definition of quality was – without problems. There was nothing spoken yet about good length, good fruit, silky tannins,” terms commonly used today to describe the feel of a wine in ones mouth.
“It is easy to make good wine. To take it from good wine to better wine, there are a lot of details. There is no formula or checklist. You have to look at the entire process and step by step you get there. That’s my job. I’m working mostly in the details.”
So what region excites Mr. Rolland the most as far as potential is concerned? “Napa Valley, California,” he answers without hesitation. In Napa he considers the wine making community to be very professional and open to trying new processes. It seems that he sees Napa as the quintessential example of a region whose eye is always on improving the quality of the wine. Sound familiar?
Although Mr. Rolland has had undeniable success with his business, there also comes the ironic negativity often associated with success. Prior to interviewing Mr. Rolland, it was not hard to find negative press on him that usually revolved around the styles of wines his clients produced..
You see; one of the captivating things about the wine world is a grape’s fascinating ability to capture the unique sense of place in a finished product in the form of wine. Mr. Rolland is often portrayed as a maker of rich, high alcohol, homogenous tasting wines that taste the same no matter where they are made. Because of these criticisms, I was hesitant to ask him anything related to the outside pessimism he is often a target of.
When I asked Mr. Rolland however, what he wants people to know about him, he didn’t hesitate in speaking to the subject about the negative perceptions people have about his consulting practices. “You see, he said people always have these misconceptions about what a consultant does. People are always referring to a Rolland style.”
“We are always looking to improve the wine first. We are not looking for one type of wine, nor is there a recipe or formula. We are just trying to understand which way to go in order to improve the wine. I have 100 winemakers in front of me, and we are always in blending sessions together.”
Mr. Rolland states that if they are not comfortable with the final blend, they will often go back and try to improve it and make a wine that everyone in the winery is happy with, even the owner who often tastes with them.
He is also quick to point out that other outside influences such as weather, soil, and geographic location; all have a lot more influence on the finished product than the consultant. “It is very important for people to understand that the consultant is not the Ayatollah giving advice. We are merely engaging in dialogue between winemaker and consultant.”
We tasted a series of wines from France, Argentina and South Africa during the seminar. I personally found that many of the wines exhibited unique and interesting characteristics across countries. Some were elegant and some were powerful, or as Mr. Rolland mentioned, “a blockbuster wine; the kind that I like.”
Unbridled Work Ethic
His lifestyle is often the envy by many who consider him lucky, but Mr. Rolland is quick to point out that this “lucky” view does not sit well with him. “I hate when people tell me I am lucky. In life we are not lucky. We have to work, first of all. Where I am lucky is that I actually have the ability to work and that I have the ability to travel. I don’t know what jet lag is,” he states frankly. His brass tacks work ethics have certainly helped him get through an otherwise demanding schedule to the average traveler.
Although he always seems to have the pedal to the metal, he still doesn’t forget to dream of a future where his business carries less demands than they do today. Mr. Rolland dreams to one day own properties within three countries he enjoys the most. They would be France, where his roots are; Argentina, where he already owns vineyards and properties; and finally Napa, California. “I am getting old,” he states simply; a surprisingly very human statement from what seems to me a super-human man.