Interview with winemaker David on his European travels
Updated: Mar 13, 2019
I met David when I worked at Saviah Cellars in Walla Walla and he was making wine at Forgeron Cellars. As often happens in Walla Walla (particularly in the wine industry, which can feel like a smaller town inside a small town), we knew each other in passing and saw each other at industry networking events, but we didn’t know each other particularly well.
When he started posting on his facebook and his blog about his world wine adventure, I was hooked. He and his wife Christina gave up their lives in Walla Walla and embarked on a trip across Europe to explore different wines and different winemaking philosophies. They kept a blog to document their experiences and the things they were learning along the way.
Since I’ve been so impressed by Dave’s thirst to always be learning more about wine and winemaking, I caught up with him to hear first-hand about his adventures and find out what he’s up to now.
What got you started in the wine world?
I have always been fascinated with wine and winemaking. In my 20's, I would try different wines and varietals, but the industry in Washington state was in the infancy stage back then so it was mostly cheap California stuff or Columbia Crest. I remember driving to Walla Walla in 1994 with my very pregnant wife and she needed to use the bathroom. We were in the middle of nowhere, but I saw a small winery called Woodward Canyon and it was open. While there the lady asked if I wanted to try some wine. I didn't know anything about wine tasting or that it was even a thing, but I agreed. It was the very first time I had tasted really good, barrel aged wine and I was stunned at the difference. That experience planted a seed.
What has been your wine journey?
My wife's uncle Bob had worked in the Cali wine industry for year part time (Teacher by trade), and had shared his wines with me and challenged me in tastings since my mid-20's. By the time I was mid 30's, I was passionate about wanting to be a winemaker. I had been in concrete construction for 14 years and ready for a change. At 38 my wife and I both quit our jobs, moved from Kennewick to Walla Walla, and I entered the Enology program at the WWCC. The rest, as they say, is history.
What made you decide to leave your job and travel?
In 2008, Uncle Bob opened a bottle of Flaccianello from a Tuscan winery named Fontodi. We sat, sipped, and raved about that wine for several hours, easily one of the best wines I have ever had. It opened my eyes to Italian wines and I wanted to learn to make wines that good. About that same time I took a job at Forgeron Cellars with Marie-Eve Gilla. There we made world class Barbera and Primitivo, which continued my love for Italian varietals. My wife and I made the decision that when the kids were out of the house and we were financially capable, we would do everything we could to work in Italy for up to a year. For our 25th anniversary in 2014, we spent 15 days driving through and exploring Italy, from Umbria up to Milan. By far, Umbria stole our hearts. The wines were fascinating, the history, art, medieval towns, castles, and cathedrals were something out of movies. We knew right then it was where we wanted to go. For 2 years we downsized, scrimped, saved, and planned. We sold a car (79 Mercedes convertible), sold much of our furniture, and started the process.
Unfortunately, finding a job in central Italy is quite the challenge. There were no job postings, no employment agencies, and no FB posts of people looking for full time employees. So I went for plan B: direct contact.
I began every day by looking up wineries from town to town. I would find their email and send them a message with resume, saying essentially I was looking for a 1 year work visa. This went on for weeks, and I sent nearly 100 emails to wineries throughout Umbria before getting a positive response. It was a winery called Castello di Montegiove, and he was happy to accept. I sent him my information, and contacted the Italian consulate in SF. A week or so later Lorenzo (Montegiove) said his request for visa had been denied. He tried again, asking for an exchange / educational visa for me but that was denied also because he was not an educational institution.
I then tried to get a long-stay visa, showing financial capability to be self sufficient for up to 12 months, but the consulate in SF denied that. 3 strikes and I was out I thought. Speaking with Lorenzo, he said I could stay up to 90 days on a visitor visa, but it would be unpaid labor. He was willing to give us an apartment and a food allowance. He also mentioned a program called Workaway, which we could use for our 90 days outside the Shengen zone. (After being in the EU for 90 days, you had to be out for 90 before re-entry). We explored that option, and accepted his offer. At that point, we both informed our employers we would be leaving in late August of 2016.
Did you learn the languages before you left?
Well, I have an advantage in this area. When I was in the Army, I was a linguist, and knew German and Russian. Knowing I was going to Italy for several months, I spent 7 months learning Italian through an online program. It was one of the single best decisions I made, because it changed the way I interacted with locals and was received by many. Even though my Italian wasn't perfect by any means, it was enough to communicate effectively.
How long were you traveling?
We ended up spending a total of 9+ months overseas, 3 months in Umbria, 2 months in England, a month on the Dalmatian coast (Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro), Piedmont Italy for a month, 5 weeks in Portugal, and then the final 5 weeks back in Umbria, Italy.
How much of your trip was planned vs spontaneous?
We knew we had the first 5 months covered. Really 6 with our month on the Dalmatian coast, although we didn't know exactly where yet. We were spending 90 days at Castello di Montegiove, and had 2 workaways planned in England, then had a rental car from Zagreb, Croatia for the month of Feb, 2017. Not knowing the costs of things, not knowing how it would go and how much we would miss home, we left it at that. We knew we wanted to see Mostar, Bosnia, Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Kotor Bay in Montenegro, we left the rest up to our whims.
Once we realized how affordable things were, we set up workaways in Piedmont,Italy for March, 2017 and southern France for April, and were invited to spend May back at Castello di Montegiove in Umbria. Along the way we heard negative reports about the winery in France, so we quickly set up a workaway in Portugal for the month of April to replace it. It was a great decision.
I don't know that you can really plan something like this too closely. There were so many places we visited and wished we could stay, but already made other arrangements. Leaving days open for spontaneous decisions is a great idea.
Which countries were your favorite? The most challenging? The most different?
Great question. After traveling most everywhere from Rome up to Lake Como, we honestly believe Umbria, Italy is the most beautiful, authentic place we have ever seen. I cannot say enough about it. So many medieval towns to explore, so many histories and artists and cathedrals and wines and foods... Even after almost 4 1/2 months there, we didn't see everything we wanted. A close 2nd would be the coastal towns of Croatia, especially Zadar and Split. Just stunning, pristine clean, friendly people, very affordable, and oozing with history.
Interestingly, probably northern Italy. We signed up for a workaway near Gavi, but within a few days realized it was more isolated than we expected. It was one of the first times in our trip we were without a rental car or available transportation. The nearest train station was several miles, and there were no real restaurants or businesses nearby. On top of that, 1 other worker didn't show up and another left after a few days, so Christina and I worked many more hours than expected to try and pick up the slack. It has to be expected that not EVERY place will go as expected, so keep that in mind.
The most different?
Probably Bosnia, but not for normal reasons. First, it was still showing the scars of war, with constant reminders of burned or destroyed buildings, bullet holes in statues and city walls, and piles of rubble where structures once stood. The rebuilding is slow and steady. But with that, it was also one of the most welcoming. In the town of Bihac, a Muslim leader saw us photographing their medieval mosque, so he invited us in to look around and spoke to us about how the building evolved. We were shown a war video in Mostar from a teen museum worker that showed the destruction of the historic bridge, and treated like royalty at a nice restaurant where we had one of the most amazing meals of our trip.
A close 2nd would be Montenegro. It is a young country, a former partner of Serbia, and is still trying to garner international attention. The coastline and coastal towns are world class, the city of Kotor is like a postcard, the landscape is beautiful, and prices are more affordable than you can imagine. On the other hand, the far southern part is more like a 3rd world, with garbage piled along the road and minimal infrastructure like drains and city cleanup. I would stay in the city of Bar (Which is beautiful) and anywhere north, but south of there it is not as nice. One of the most odd sights of our trip was a massive 21 story high rise hotel along the coast just north of Petrovac that was only a shell. It still had concrete mixers and cranes in place, but looked like it had been abandoned for years. The story we were told was that it was Russian investors that were building a resort, but when Montenegro became their own country in 2006 work stopped. All the contracts and agreements were between the Russians and the Serbs, but Montenegro wanted to re-negotiate the contracts. They and the Russians couldn't agree on terms, so the Russians just walked away and left it.
Can you tell me a bit about the differences in winemaking and vineyard practices between the different countries?
Here is where I was able to geek out a little bit. Christina would just roll her eyes when I would use the camera to take pictures of rocks and dirt. But it was really fascinating to see the obvious differences in soils and how vineyards were managed because of it. The question should be split up into 2 parts.
First the viticulture. In Italy, viticulture seemed similar to here in the NW, with standard posts, wires, and training systems. The biggest problem was wild boars that would tear through everything, dig up large areas, and wreak havoc, so electric fences had to be used to try and keep them out. They are very numerous and destructive, but on the positive side we had fresh boar meat quite often!
The other awesome thing about vineyards in Umbria is they almost always have olive trees alongside the vineyards. Most wine tastings include an olive oil tasting of their private label oil. This is every bit as interesting as the wines, because you quickly learn that the oils over there are taken seriously. Some are separated by tree varietal, by aspect, some are specific blends of varietals, while others are everything blended together. We are forever spoiled, our store-bought olive oil now tastes bland and uninteresting.
Douro valley in Portugal was the most different, it was incredible with the terracing and how they grew grapes on such steep hillsides. Much of the work was done with horses and manual labor, because you could not drive a tractor or other equipment down those narrow rows. We consistently felt like we were on a Hallmark movie set with the views and flowers and sunshine... Coastal Croatia was the most unique, because the "soil" was beautiful crushed white gravel (Mostly limestone). It didn't seem possible that vines could grow in that rocky terrain, but thrive they did. The wines were deep, ripe, and very good. In Montenegro, the wine scene is emerging, and a good portion of all vine acres are in a single vineyard called Plantaze. It is Europe's largest privately owned, continuous vineyard at almost 6000 Acres! The vineyard is on an inland plain just outside the capital city of Podgorica, and it seems to go on forever. The wines are made, at least partially, in a massive underground airplane hangar, simply one of the most impressive tours I have taken anywhere in the world. In the attached photo, you can see a scaled mock-up of the vineyard, and it shows the nearby airport which gives a sense of scale.
Now on to the wines... Portugal was obviously all about Port. The process is different from winery to winery, but generally the grapes ferment only a few days on the skins in giant open concrete "Lagar". Afterwards they are pressed and fermentation stopped at the right moment with the addition of alcohol spirits, and then aged in large oak casks. In Italy, the trick is to calm the tannins of both Sangiovese Grosso (Brunello) and the amazing, heavy, wildly tannic Sagrantino. This is done with long aging (2 to 3 years) in large format Slavonian oak botte. Slavonian oak is sourced from NE Croatia, and is the traditional choice for many areas of Italy, although you are starting to see the standard French or American oak barrels from place to place. The large format barrels reduce oxidation and formation of volatiles over the long aging period, while giving the wine a chance to soften before bottling.
Montenegro seemed to follow the Italian model, but their main varietal was Vranac, a relative of Primitivo, Zinfandel, and Croatian Crljanek. To me, Vranac seemed more structured / tannic than Zinfandel, less on the anise and dates and more towards dark red fruits. I found they also made a very good Cabernet and Chardonnay, surprisingly good actually. Walking through the underground winery with these giant 500 -1000 gallon oak casks stacked on top of each other was impressive. The Croatian wineries we visited were not as well off, and barrels were either older and neutral or minimal, which was a surprise considering the volume of oak and barrels made there. Many of the red wines were a combination of tank aged and neutral barrel aged, but were still well made. Crljanek (Father of Zinfandel) is their pride (At least along the coast), and usually commanded the best barrels they had. It is dark, rich, and the highest alcohol we found anywhere on our travels at 15%+.
What was the most unexpected experience you had?
There were so many to list, but I will throw out a few. First of all, Christina and I consider ourselves "Bad tourists". With not over-planning, having a rental car, and being willing to chat with locals, we were able to see and experience a lot of things most tourists would never get to do. One of the things we discovered was not to go by tour books for places to go. We would ask store clerks, bar owners, and the hotel owners, and their advice was fantastic. Other experiences we just stumbled onto out of dumb luck.
While in Zadar, Croatia, we decided to take a trip and explore the nearby islands. While checking out some castle ruins on the island of Vir, we heard loud music, so we got in our car and drove towards what looked like a small beach town. We discovered they were preparing for a regional carnival, so we found a cafe and watched. There were dozens of groups from the area, each with costumes and themes preparing for a parade through town. Many if not most were drinking, so we knew it would be good! Once it started, Christina found a stone wall to stand on to get pictures. Little did she know the group of "Bats" noticed her and were scheming against her. One bat came up and distracted her while another large one came behind her, put his bat head between her knees, and lifted her onto his shoulders. They gave her the banner and she suddenly was part of the parade! You haven't lived until a bunch of drunk Croatians in costumes make your day.
On another level, the small, medieval towns of central Italy were surprising in their own right. Each had a distinct personality, many had their own wines and olive oils, some had specific foods named after them, but each were memorable. In one small hilltop town called Montecastllo, we stumbled across what they claim is the smallest theater in the world. Another had a church called Madonna dei Bagni, where people made ceramic plates to commemorate any miracles. The church walls were covered with hundreds of ceramic plates dating back centuries. We were invited to the "Wine club" in a place called Castel dei fiori, where the homeowner made "peasant food" in clay pots in an open fire while sharing wines he makes out of his small vineyard. These and many more experiences cannot be done following a tour guide and visiting big cities.
The final one I would mention was how emotional Mostar, Bosnia was for us. Listening to how devastated the city was and how hard everyone was working to return life to normal afterwards. We watched a film from a Muslim teen showing mortar fire and the destruction of local sites, and talking to her afterwards, you could hear how much it still impacts their lives. The motto you see and hear all over is "Don't forget 93".
Is there anything you would do-over or do differently about your trip?
Yes and no. Because it isn't normal to do what we did, you don't really have a playbook. I wish I would have visited more wineries in Portugal and Croatia. I wish I would have taken the time to go to France. I wish we would have reserved more days along the Portugal coast, it is stunning. It is easy to look back and go over what you wish you could / would have done...
As far as do differently, I would have worked in France instead of Portugal. As fantastic as the Portugal coast is and how I loved visiting the Douro valley, France would have been a better choice from a winemaking and viticulture perspective. I had several options in the Rhone valley, Languedoc, and one near Bordeaux, but I decided on Portugal. I missed the chance to explore France for a month and regret it.
On another vein, We would have packed lighter. So many towns had either thrift stores or traveling markets where you can buy cheap clothes, we found a lot of what we brought was overkill. I also think I would try do visit fewer countries overall, we were a little travel weary by month 9.
When it comes to do-over, I would go back to England in a heartbeat. I could have listed it as one of my surprises, but England small town pubs are like nothing I have experienced before. I want to go back!
In your opinion, what makes a good wine?
I am old school and old world, so I tend to go towards medium body, lower alcohol, complex wines. Although I do have a degree, and learned the complex chemistry of ionic bonds, pigmented tannin chains, thiols, and much more, I would never claim to be a wine chemist. To me, it is more important to know how everything impacts the final product. Focusing on balance, taste, body, and authenticity is most important for me, so when people mask fruit with big oak, color enhancers, fake tannins, or so much blending it destroys varietal character, I am turned off. The beauty of authentic central Italian wines is their straightforward personality. They don't try to be anything they are not, are rarely over-oaked, and show amazing terroir. You have thousands of small producers showing off what their small hillside, their "piece of paradise" gives without too much pretence. That is the type of winemaker I want to be.
What an incredible trip to take, and thanks for sharing!