Michel Rolland is a Bordeaux-based winemaker and consultant with a global client base. Liv-ex Director Anthony Maxwell recently caught up with him to find out more about his work and views on the world of wine. In the first part of the interview, published below, Rolland discusses his career and winemaking philosophy. The second part of the interview will be published next week. To view the interview in French, please click here.
Can you tell us about your background in wine? How did you become a consultant?
I grew up in a family of winemakers – I didn’t consider anything else. I started in the laboratory, as was done at the time, and eventually became a winemaker.
When I grew tired of this, I thought I could give advice to others. So I worked hard, and then consultancy work came gradually.
How many producers are you currently consulting for?
I work with seven employees and we manage a total of 230-240 accounts.
In how many countries?
My team advises in 14 countries. I have personally made wine in 21 different countries.
When consulting for a producer, what is your end goal?
To make my client happy! Like everyone else.
And what makes a customer happy?
When their wine sells. You know, we can approach wine as a cultural form – like poetry or music – but nobody makes wine because they are an artist. Even if I am an artist, it doesn’t make my clients happy. They are happy when they sell their wine. They spent money on producing it and want to maximise their profits. This is business.
And how do you achieve this? How do you increase the price of a wine?
There are several scenarios.
When a client comes to see me because he wants to get into the wine business out of nowhere, I give him various options then the choice is with him because it is his money.
Initially, it is only the quality that matters, and it is often necessary to invest in improving it without expecting immediate returns. We also consider where its fits into the market – positioning is essential. We make the wine with this in mind, and how this enables us to finance the operation. We mustn’t forget that wine is business!
We also look at marketing, though if the quality is not there, it’s not worth doing the marketing.
Take the case of Harlan Estate: we were making great wines before we were asking big prices. This has taken 25 years, but the potential was there originally.
So you knew that the potential was there from the beginning for Harlan?
Yes. I thought the potential was there but that the wines weren’t that good at the time. Then, fortunately, 1990 came along. This wasn’t a great vintage in Napa, but I thought that we could make good wine. Then 1991 and 1992 followed. These were two good vintages in Napa – relative to Bordeaux
Are you able to be objective in the qualitative evaluation of a wine?
I would say that I have my own objectivity. Quality is not the same for everyone: there are opinions that you share; others that you don’t share. My personal objectivity is a relative one in some ways. I do not take a wine and say whether it’s good or not: I try to make a wine that will achieve a goal. The goal is the market, the customer – in one or more countries.
You have previously said that your job is 70% psychology and 30% oenology. What does the psychology involve?
The psychology involves convincing people that they will get there one day. This isn’t easy – there are all sorts of obstacles, climate and otherwise. For example, the press response to the wine is not always what you expect. These are unknowns that we can’t predict, so you have to stay in touch with people and reassure them of the purpose of their work.
Take the Bordelais. Historically, they all thought that they were making the best wine in Bordeaux. Yet 40 years ago, there was more bad than good. I had to succeed in telling them that, maybe, the wine could be better but without saying that it was bad. These ideas could sometimes cause them to become frustrated. So early on the psychology and relationships were very important – but later we had to prove to them that what we said was verifiable. The psychology is very important.
Are you a businessman or an artist?
I’m certainly not an artist! It’s not a job where you can be an artist because success is too dependent on realism. There are many small organic wineries that I work with because I have a very open mind, but it’s not my main focus. My job is to work with people that are not necessarily artists.
Parker clearly admired the style of your wines. Is your influence affected by his retirement?
So far no clients have told me that I’m not needed now that Parker is retired!
Certainly a positive note from Parker can make life easier – even if it isn’t everything – and it was a useful point of reference. However, Bordeaux continues to sell today even without Bob Parker: 2015 saw a successful En Primeur. I think it was a great vintage, though not the most homogenous – there are good, so-so and, frankly, bad wines. Still, sales were made fairly and correctly at satisfactory prices.
Why do you think some critics they say there is a ‘Rolland style’?
What bothers me with the ‘Rolland style’ primarily is that I have trouble defining it. If I look at ten bottles of wine that I make from Bordeaux, Italy, Spain, South America and North America, I can’t identify a common style. It is true that when you drink the young wines, you can detect the oak. However if you put them side by side – wines that were made in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 – you will find that the Chilean are often Chilean, the Argentinians are very Argentinian and the Bordeaux are Bordeaux.
Jancis wrote in a report that she could detect the clarets that had seen your influence…
I have invited her to taste them blind several times but she has not accepted. If she would like, I would be ready to offer again. It is almost certain that the wines will deceive.
What are the most common errors made by winemakers?
Not to go all the way – and this is perhaps what is lacking in the wine market in general. In general the winemakers do not make a lot of mistakes but it would sometimes help to be stronger commercially or with marketing. Some think that as soon as the wine is sold to the merchant, they have done what they need to do. This is not the case, as the second part begins – you need to strengthen the brand.
The disadvantage of this profession is that you need to know everything: the vine, the wine, bottling, selling, marketing… It is therefore a relatively complicated business, but some do it very well.
Apart from that, there was once the issue of excessive production, which has now disappeared.
You are in favour of using technology. Where will it stop? If we could produce Lafite Rothschild in a laboratory, would that be a good thing?
Technology isn’t everything, but it has allowed us a lot of progress. We have never before drunk wines as good as we do now. Today, even the wines that we say are bad are still good. This is similar to the history of the car: we can’t say that technology has damaged the car industry, just as it hasn’t spoiled wine.
You said that nobody wants ‘loser wine’. What is a ‘loser wine’?
As I said earlier, wine is made to be sold. If it does not sell, this reveals a problem. In my experience, I have never met anyone disinterested in selling their wine – even among the richest people.
In Bordeaux, there is a petit château called Château Pabus owned by a wealthy and friendly American. It has five hectares of vineyards and a fantastic cellar. But his goal is still to sell. He was happy when I told him that his wine is exceptional, but he will not be happy if it doesn’t sell.
How have your preferences and the preferences of consumers evolved over the last 20 or 30 years?
Consumer preferences, not my own, are important. I don’t work for me, even though I know what I like – indeed, I have done for 20 or 25 years. In a business like mine, it is necessary to have an eye on what the consumer enjoys. In the world of wine, the consumer is like the labour code in employment: when a new law passes, it must be taken into account. Similarly, when consumers’ preferences change, it is necessary to change the wines slightly in terms of fruit, acidity and alcohol.
Are you a trend setter or trend follow?
We must remain modest: one is never a trendsetter. I am a follower of trends. The market is always right.
The second part of the interview with Michel Rolland will be published on the blog next week.