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Vineyard consultants seize the spotlight

Napa Valley is seeing a rise in vineyard consultants, who are challenging winemakers when it comes to allocating credit for the region’s top-scoring wines.

This shift has been preceded by a steady uplift in the profile of the vineyard manager. Although when a wine goes cult or when a top score in a wine magazine is achieved, it is the winemaker who is credited, these vineyard managers are now frequently interviewed and written about in wine publications, with people eager to hear what they have to say.

For the moment at least, few vineyard consultants, with the exception of power consultants such as David Abreu, are receiving the same level of attention. However this may be set to change given the rise in vineyard consulting services in the Napa Valley over the last few years as a number of highly talented individuals employed by top wineries have stepped out on their own.

The drinks business spoke to several vineyard consultants and took a look at their businesses.

Remi Cohen is one of the go-to viticulturalists for sustainable vineyard management and grower relations, but she has the added expertise of wine marketing and sales, brand management and strategic business development. Cohen has extensive experience with top wineries including Merryvale, Cliff Lede, Bouchaine and Saintsbury and has kept a watchful eye on grapes that have gone into many a 90-plus score wines.

Cohen has an MBA in Finance from Golden Gate University in addition to a Masters Degree in Viticulture and Enology from the University of California. She lectures, appears on television, speaks on radio shows – Cohen gets around. And all around her, vines seem to snap to attention.

Cohen held the position of vice-president of operations at Merryvale before turning her consulting business into a full time career. Merryvale retained Cohen’s services through her company, Vines to Wine, and Cohen then added new clients such as Saintsbury and Cliff Lede. At each, she is responsible for managing the vineyards and their grower relations programmes.

“For Cliff Lede and Saintsbury, I am more of a contractor than a consultant,” Cohen explained. “I am considered part of the management and production teams.” Her name appears in some of the marketing materials produced by these wineries providing her with due recognition.

On the rise of vineyard consultants, Cohen stated, “I think the proliferation of vineyard consultants is mostly due to wineries and growers wanting to take their vineyard to the next level. That may be somewhat related to the economy, in the sense that if a grower does their best, they are more likely to have their grapes sold with a fair price during the recession.

“In some cases, full time positions are being offered to consultants [as opposed to employees] as a means to cut back, but more often than not my clients have hired me in a new role to enhance the operations that are already in practice at their organisations.”

Kendall Smith is another name known around Napa Valley for her work in viticulture. Smith was a viticulturalist with Pina Vineyard Management prior to starting her own business. She now provides varied services to a long list of stellar clients like Duckhorn, Groth and Shafer.

Smith attended Boston University and received her Masters at UC Davis in Horticulture, which is part of the school’s famous Enology and Viticulture program. She is particularly passionate about organic and biodynamic farming.

Leaving Pina in 2008, Smith is now proprietor of Kendall Smith Vineyard Services. In order to run her business, she obtained her Farm Labor Contractor licence. With this, Smith explained, “I am able to fully manage and develop vineyards as well as consulting”.

Consulting is not new to Smith; she had several clients prior to working for Pina including Ryan Wines and Neiman Cellars. With her Vineyard Services company, she manages a number of vineyards year-round, provides labourers for clients, and consults with winemakers on purchased fruit.

Not happy to stop there, Smith added the title of Master Gardener to her repertoire several years ago. In addition to viticulture, cultivating native plants for landscaping and vegetable gardening are two other of her passions. On top of her vineyard clients, Smith professionally consults on several landscape and gardening projects. She balances this all with the up-bringing of her two daughters which, she quips, “is the hardest job of all.”

Mitchell Klug started his consulting business in December of 2008 after resigning from a full-time position with Premier Pacific Vineyards. Premier Pacific develops premium vineyards which have provided grapes to over 80 fine wine producers. The company farms or supervises over 30 vineyards in three different states: California, Oregon and Washington.

As part of Premier Pacific’s business plan, some of the farmed and developed land was to be sold after development. Klug’s particular role as vice-president of operations was to participate in the acquisition process and then create and implement the vineyard planning.

The economic crisis put a crook in the company’s development and sales plans and Klug decided to start his own business. He did not however, stop working with Premier Pacific. Upon his departure, he was hired as a consultant.

Today, Klug works with several top names in the industry, including Joel Gott Wines and Continuum Estate. He has a handful of other clients, both wineries and growers, that he regularly works with as well. The Mitchell Klug Vineyard Consultant company specialises in development, farm planning, grower and winery relations and high density plantings.

Klug makes sure he keeps the number of clients in check, since he visits each weekly or bi-weekly, and has a list of detailed items he does for each client. Giving each client adequate time is highly important to Klug.

Before Premier Pacific, Klug was director of vineyard operations at Robert Mondavi Winery. Here he was leader of the vineyard team and responsible for the farming of ultra-premium grapes for all of the winery’s Napa Valley vineyards, including Opus One. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Viticulture from California State University-Fresno and an AA in Crop Science, Field Crops from Hartnell Jr College, Salinas, CA.

Klug enjoys running his own business for several reasons, observing: “Most companies overload management with administrative work and meetings. And most mid and high level managers don’t get into the vineyards as often as I like to, through no fault of their own.”

Klug also mentions that he is interested in partnering with someone or working for a company where he could have an equity position in exchange for offering expertise, but he realises that is hard to find.

Asked what he is most proud of, Klug mentioned his accomplishments as a grower and on the production side of the process with all of his previous employers.

“I have had the chance to lead and be involved in great projects with some very motivated and highly creative people over the years and together we have done progressive things in the areas of vineyard development, management, and in team building,” he outlined.

Numerous other newer consulting businesses have been started in Napa Valley in the last few years, and they all seem to be thriving. There certainly is something in the air and we hope these consultants get their just rewards when a beautiful wine is made and accolades pour in.

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