Cellar Wisdom from Jean Hoefliger – In Pursuit of Wine Happiness
Don't wait for the storm to pass, learn to dance in the rain - Paige Toon, The Longest Holiday
I first met Jean Hoefliger, Alpha Omega’s winemaker, at a wine event. A tall man of great, yet not intimidating physical stature, he turned out to be a self-deprecating, soft-spoken fellow with a broad smile and infectious laughter. He’s a teacher and a mentor, yet always a student first.
When I finally got a chance to sit down with him for an interview, I didn’t arrive with a list of questions. I was excited to get to know the man behind the brand he built from the ground up. Jean is part philosopher, part artist and an intensely practical, hands-on business person, a rare combination.
The world is Jean’s canvas. His personal values are interwoven with everything he does.
His philosophy is an impassioned ode to the art of living:
Learn to earn, not expect. No sense of entitlement.
Be grateful, appreciation of everything you have is key.
Learning is crucial; knowledge is power when shared.
The more risk you take, the more satisfying the results.
Be true to yourself!
Live life to the fullest.
Make yourself vulnerable, emotionally available, open.
Embrace criticism as an opportunity to grow.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
There are no great wines, only great bottles at a moment in time
Jean deeply believes that our society is lost, people are not connecting to themselves.
Food is fast, entertainment is even faster. Wine is the last bastion, the last tool in human arsenal. Wine relaxes, put us in a different frame of mind, connects and unites us.
Hoefliger grew up with American mother and Swiss father in a middle class family of entrepreneurs. He went to law school for two years, and pursued a career in wealth management, but neither held his interest. Adrift, he consulted his godfather who owns one of oldest European wineries, located in Epesses, Switzerland, founded in 1536. He suggested that Jean spend some time working at the winery. After tasting sixty-two lots on his first day, Jean fell in love with wine.
The combination of extremely rational, scientific process and the creative artistry that characterizes winemaking, fascinated Jean. He soon started traveling the world, from Europe to South Africa, learning the craft of making wine. He wondered whether he should stay self-taught or get a formal degree. In the end, that he earned his degree in fermentation science and viticulture from Federal Institute of Winemaking and Viticulture in Changins, Switzerland. Yet, in his own estimation, he only uses 5% of his collegial knowledge. Experience and instinct rule his winemaking.
Upon graduation, he sent his résumé to the top twenty Bordeaux and Burgundy wineries. The first response he got came from Lynch-Bages, where he ended up working for two years.
Despite a prestigious job, Jean craved an opportunity for growth and evolution; so in 2001, Jean and his wife packed their bags and moved to San Francisco. In August of that year, Jean joined Newton Vineyard where he stayed for five years, making some of the most famous domestic Chardonnays. While there, he met his long-time friend and mentor, Michel Rolland.
Hoefliger left when the acquired Newton corporation made a decision to increase production over forty thousand cases, a threshold that didn’t sit well. Volume compromises artistry. Jean wanted make wine based on emotion, not figures.
Founders Michelle and Robin Baggett tapped Jean to start Alpha Omega in July 2006. He was tasked with building the brand from the ground up, picking his own team, supervising the vineyard’s re-plant, and overseeing cellar construction. He crafts a number of terrific reds, several stunning Chardonnays and sublime Sauvignon Blancs, that, in line with the cornerstone of his philosophy, will age gracefully.
Jean oversees every step of the winemaking process. Being a perfectionist, the practices are in constant state of improvement. From barrel to bottling, which Hoefliger compares to “a child going to college,” the process is a very collaborative. Everyone is involved, from viticulturists to cellar rats to owners, take part in the process. At the helm of it all is Hoefliger, making decisions on picking, extraction, fermentation, and that sweet agony of blending. Sometimes he re-blends 2-3 days before bottling, and if it weren’t for the arrival of the bottling truck, he would likely do it again and again.
He doesn’t believe that great wines can be produced by recipe. Despite earning three 100 point scores from Robert Parker, there is no such thing for Jean as memorizing the perfect blend. Maximizing the wine’s identity and potential, each and every year, is his goal. The job of a winemaker in pursuit of perfection is widening the window of drinkability, which he takes very seriously.
When Jean is sad or depressed, he wonders into the cellar and tastes; sharing a dialogue with his barrels. He compares them to humans, some skinny, some voluptuous, some somber, some playful, each with a distinct personality. Much like people, they are each unique. If they were all uniform, what fun would that be? Dialogue with wine clears his soul.
Human life cycle mimics that of wine. Time changes a person and transforms wine. Disasters and failures contribute to character development.
Same with wine.
People finish life calmer, sedate, and wiser.
Same with wine.
Humans mellow out, reach a balance and achieve a middle ground.
Same with wine.
Each vintage is like life, some years are good, some challenging.
Jean is serious about his wine habit. He has collected over nine thousand bottles that he refers to his “liquid asset retirement.” His passion is age-worthiness, from the bottlings he collects to wine wines he produces.
He believes that truly great wines stir emotions. They reach deep within your soul and release your passions. Young, warm climate wines are one-night stands, says Hoefliger. A noteworthy wine is a life long partner. It is all about depth, experience & complexity.
These days Jean makes wine in several countries, including Argentina, France, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. One hundred and ten labels in total, a staggering number.
He also sources fruit for his domestic projects from several stellar growers in Napa, Sonoma, and Edna Valley. Rather than getting one shot per year with a single harvest, cumulatively he will get dozens of shots at making great wine. Multiple regions are powerful teachers.
All those labels later, he is still an eternal student of wine.
His favorite wine region? Napa Valley, without question. Having traveled the world, he believes that Napa has the most consistent climate and growing season. It offers the highest diversity of terroir, making it an intense and exciting winemaking playground. The tannin and acidity of Napa fruit are virtually unmatched. This makes for a perfect framework for flavor extraction. The only things missing are age, historic context. Therefore, it is his personal mission to make age worthy wines in order to showcase this region. Any legacy is judged by time. Jean believes that Napa Valley will ultimately be known as the world’s greatest wine region. Jean’s love of life and winemaking is contagious. His soul is vibrant, courageous and generous. He is an active participant in life, not a spectator, as authentic as they come.
I drove away from my interview humbled, inspired and enriched. I found myself exposed, vulnerable, enthused, disconcerted…yet joyful.
Like Jean, I realized that when I am off my game, I crave equilibrium. He finds it in his talks with wines; I find it in people like him.
Meeting winemakers like Jean make me a better human being. I call that wine happiness.