Wednesdays with Winemakers – Ben Cane 19 min read
Why did you become a winemaker?
I originally became a winemaker as a vehicle to see the world. I always had a love of seeing the world from a young age as my folks took me all across Australia as a kid, and when I had the opportunity at 17 to go oversees by myself I jumped at the chance, although admittedly with some trepidation.
I worked for the Forestry Services rebuilding trails as a volunteer in Alaska for a couple of months in 1992 and then travelled coast to coast across the USA and even down to Mexico. This opened my world right up and I knew I wanted to see as much of the world as I could.
Wine has always been in my family as both my parents are great cooks in the kitchen and loved great wine. I always associated wine with laughter and fun as my folks would throw great dinner parties and have wonderful people to share our table. We would visit many wine festivals and would regularly visit the amazingly diverse and beautiful wine regions both in South Australia and across the country. One very dear family friend of mine, Peter Draper, was a major influence for my joining the wine industry. Peter had worked at some of the most acclaimed labels across Australia and my family would join his for Christmas every other year. One such occasion saw me sitting in his kitchen and he had asked what my plan was now that I had finished my double major in organic chemistry and psychology. I remarked that I had no idea. He asked me three questions:
1.)Do you like wine?
2). Do you like to travel?
3)Do you like to meet and work with eccentric people?
Yes, I think I do!
Well then, the wine industry is for you! Travel the world, drink wine and meet great people!
Ultimately, what I love about winemaking is the unique combination of creating art, agriculture, chemistry and science, sensorial application as well as marketing, sales and even showmanship! A winemaker’s role these days is not only to grow amazing grapes, make fantastic wine, but to sell it and be an entertainer. I love that I can travel the world, get paid to eat and drink with fun people who adore what I am passionate about and entertain as well as educate.
If you weren’t a winemaker what would you be and why?
I think it would either have something to do with travel, such as luxury end guide or to take a leaf out of Chef Anthony Bourdain’s book and do a travel show focused on eating and drinking. There has to be a combination of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, with the British Top Gear program out there for me to host, combining cars and exotic places with food and wine (obviously not together, but done responsibly…I should probably think this through a little better)? Any producers ready to take a chance?
My other great love is music, so creating music and touring the world playing to the masses sounds like great fun. Winemaking is such a personal expression of art and I see music in the same way. I muck around on a guitar but have not dedicated myself nearly as much as with winemaking but could draw just as much pleasure from this pursuit.
What is your greatest strength as a winemaker?
Attention to detail. I like to try and think about every little detail and how that could all contribute to creating a great wine. Whether it is in the vineyard and deciding how best to set up a canopy, or the timing of operations, to the cellar and how to be gentler, more refined and more sanitary. I try to control my environment so I can practice minimum input and intervention. If one is extremely detailed in the harvest and sorting/selection of fruit to go in the tank, I will have the confidence that with careful guidance those wines can rest on their lees without fear of developing off characteristics or spoilage. I also know I can extract the maximum detail and site expression from that wine.
David Ramey, who is working with me on the Westwood wines, has brought an incredible in-depth understanding and technical comprehension of all that is wine.
He brings to the table protocols developed from rigorous in-house testing and experimentation spanning his 40 years in the industry worldwide. Coupling this with a great palate and focus on making truly great wine, David has challenged me to be even more detail oriented, with a keen understanding of the process, and has inspired me to be open to new ideas. He is expanding my horizons with new varieties and new techniques which ultimately will add to my strengths, and more importantly, add to the quality of Westwood wines. Being willing to learn at every stage of your career is terrifically important in keeping you reaching ever forward to make better wine each vintage. It is exciting and refreshing, all at the same time. It’s an honor to work with such a progressive, experienced winemaking mind like David’s.
What is your biggest weakness as a winemaker?
Trying to be patient and keeping my hands off the wines. It’s not an easy thing to do. Elevage is the French term, expressing an approach that is essentially like raising wine as one would a child, knowing when to step in and when to keep hands off and trust in the process. It’s one of my biggest challenges.
Being open to making better wines every vintage, even when it can take you out of your secure knowledge base and make you experiment with new ideas Ñ this is a key advantage of working with David Ramey. It has certainly allowed me to strengthen and tighten my knowledge of winemaking, addressing my weaknesses and refining my style.
I am always the biggest critic of my own wines and try to hold myself to the highest of bars of quality by tasting wines and learning from those that truly humble me. One thing I have taken from many of my influential experiences in the wine world is to have patience, and given that I am very passionate about my craft, I can get ahead of myself. So taking a breath and measuring twice before cutting once is what I keep telling myself.
What’s the one mistake you made in the cellar you would never repeat?
Becoming too disconnected from the wines and not being in the cellar myself doing most of the important operations. A winemaker is often demanded in the market for sales and marketing duties so much that some duties are left to cellar staff. However fastidiously trained they may be, nothing can prepare another person in the same way as when you bring your own experience and focus on detail to bear on your own wines.
It wasn’t so much that there were mistakes made, as every little detail is being watched, but having the experience to correct issues on the spot to avoid any loss in quality, that’s the missing link when a winemaker isn’t right there.
There is also the fact of truly knowing your wines from grape to bottle and the authenticity that this brings. When you have been involved from pruning through harvest and fermentation to maturation and bottling, you really understand your wines completely and absolutely. This will help in how they are presented to the world, how authentic one can speak of them and predict where they will go in development too. So, long story short, I like to be involved with every step of the process.
What is your proudest achievement?
I would have to say my proudest achievement is uprooting my life in Australia and coming to the US with an aim to be one of the very best Pinot Noir winemakers in this country.
I wanted the ultimate challenge as a winemaker, and chose Pinot Noir to focus on as nothing delivers more ethereal experiences as when a great Pinot passes your lips, in my experience anyway.
I came here not knowing much about the climates and terroir of the great Pinot sites in California and set about exploring and trying to make the greatest wines from those sites. I felt there was a niche here I could focus on as in my opinion the best wines had not been made in this country.
In Burgundy, some of the greatest ever wines have been indeed made there and the US presented a pioneering front where so much discovery and realization could yet be accomplished. My ten years have been a self tutored and mentor guided education of the variety and the multiple great regions from which Pinot Noir is raised, and I continue to do this, believing I have definitely not made my best bottle yet.
One of my proudest moments was presenting my first vintage of Twomey Pinot Noirs to Martine Saunier (of Martine’s Wines) and a group of Burgundian producers at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon in 2008 at a dinner, somewhat sheepishly. I knew the wrath one can incur from the French, especially when it comes to new world upstarts showing Pinot Noir to the great originators, and yet I wanted an honest opinion of where my wines were going. One thing can be guaranteed, you will always get an honest answer from the French winemaking community! So I presented her with my wines amongst the 80’s and 90’s Burgundies on the table and she looked at me, and then at the wine.
“Did you make this?”
“Yes I did,” I replied!
“Finally an American Pinot Noir I can drink! Fantastic work! You could have pushed me over with a feather. Very proud! Not a bad start!”
What was your scariest vintage to date?
That would definitely be 2008! What a bloody headache that was! Drought season, so fruit set was all over the place, then massive frost which took yields down to 30-50% in some vineyards. This gave uneasy, uneven ripening, low crop yields and pile on top of that, a hot growing season. So hot that there were wild fires in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley and along the Sonoma Coast which created major smoke issues during the ripening period.
Even though hailing from one of the worst countries for fires (we call them bushfires) in Australia, I had never had to deal with the problem directly. I didn’t know what to do with the Anderson Valley wine in particular; it smelled as if someone had stubbed a cigarette out in my wine and then sat next to a bonfire for 12 hours while smoking a Cuban cigar!
There had to be an answer as the wine underneath all the smoke was really attractive. So I ran some fining trials and spoke to a broad range of others on what worked for them but ultimately did not do anything with the wine until August, when I racked it off lees and put it through a reverse osmosis filter. To my amazement the wine bounced back and was fresh and lush, removing the smoke to the point where it appeared only as a smoky oak character which was quite pleasant. It went back to barrel for another four months and, once lightly touched up again by the same filtration went to bottle as a good full, rich example of Pinot Noir.
That 2008 vintage was an intriguing vintage in bottle as they were very complex from the start. It reflected a warm harvest, but was varietally correct and had great secondary characters across all four Pinots I made that year. Though not as long lived as other vintages, the wines were delicious and I considered it a success considering the trying conditions.
What is your favorite word? Saying?
Moist! Can’t get enough of that word. Actually that is a lie. It’s my wife’s most hated word and seems to be well despised across the female population in general. I’ll probably get myself in trouble with that one, so let’s say….
“No Worries”! No matter how bad things get, what challenges we face in the wine world, there is a solution. So “No Worries” is as much a calming for those around me as it is for me. “We’ll get it done and solve the problem” is what I’m really saying.
What is your most prized possession?
My Ducati 996 motorcycle! That beast keeps me alive and allows me to escape any issues by giving me my freedom. It’s quite an effective sampling machine too. One of my great joys is to ride up to Anderson Valley and look at our vineyard up there. Maybe ride back along Highway 1. Don’t worry, I’ll be back in a few hours!
What’s the oddest thing about you?
Hmmm, I think there are few of those. One thing is I like to break out the break-dancing at random moments. Especially the worm, love to surprise people when a 260 lb guy breaks down into the worm.
I did almost break my nose on my 30th birthday when I got a little carried away. Unfortunately these days the body can fail me with a bit of a sore shoulder, so I have not done it in years. And I like LYCRA®! Heading out on the bicycle to ride allows me to spandex-it-up like an 80’s big hair rocker!
What song best sums you up?
Now that is a hard one! There are so many but maybe Jammin’ by Bob Marley. Not only is he one of my all time favorite artists but one of my best mates always calls me Ben-Jammin!
I think the song has many meanings. I do have incessant energy for things, and have been known to head to music gigs and festivals while in the throes of a crazy harvest. I think the song encapsulates friends and fun times and just Jammin’ to get things done. It embodies getting through big harvests and powering on to achieve your dreams, but also has a relaxed, simple quality that appreciates just sitting around and being able to rap with friends, whether it be over a meal or just a bottle of wine on the deck watching the river float by.
What is your favorite memory?
This too is a tough one. I think my trip around the world in 1999-2000 for a year is definitely up there. I worked my first US harvest in the central coast and then was set loose upon the world. My trip took me to the Caribbean, South America, Europe and Asia for a full year on the road. I made lifelong friends, saw mind-blowing scenery and experienced a myriad of cultures, all in quick succession unlike any other time in my life. I would like to become that globetrotting nomad once again as there is just too much to explore and experience in one’s short existence.
Which of the five senses is your strongest?
Smell. I would say taste, but all the intricate details of taste are made up of aromatics so I think smelling for me is my strongest and most important, especially coming from a love of varieties such as Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo and Syrah. I think our tongue gives us all the basic elements of taste but our noses give us all the intricacies. Taste is a close second, with mouthfeel such an important part of great wine.
What is your biggest motivation?
Drinking great wine. Old Barolos and Burgundies amongst others, plus visiting and beginning to understand where they come from is my biggest motivation. Being struck dumb in awe of a beautiful wine humbles me and gives me a deep drive to make something even half as good as that.
Meeting some of the personalities behind these wines and their humility gives me a framework of what to reach for, and I know I will always be reaching up every vintage to make something better than the last.
Which bottle of wine would choose to be stranded with on a deserted island?
Hmm, tough one there. Would probably be eating fish so a white would be great. Ramonet Montrachet or Cotat Sancerre, something like that from a great vintage.
What is the difference between a good and a great wine?
A good wine is balanced, varietally correct and delicious, but may not remain in one’s memory for too long. A great wine is all of the above but also has depth and complexity and can speak of place and a moment in time. I think a great wine tells a story. Sometimes you don’t know where it’s going with its story, but it enthralls you and demands your attention as it tells its tale.
I think a great wine lets you in slowly on the secret and opens over time to let one know much about it, but it may just hold something back. I find great wines keep you coming back to the glass to discover something new, to unfurl slowly and show a vast array of aromas, flavors and textures. By the end of the bottle, you are not only satisfied and spellbound on the palate, but also in the mind. That’s what lives with you; that memory of having the fortune of experiencing something great.
Name three individuals you would like to have dinner with.
Madame Bize Leroy, Henri Jayer and Charles Rousseau (in the wine world at least!) It might be a little difficult as one has already passed and the other two are somewhat of enigmas, but if I was to line up three who I think I could learn a lot from, who would be really interesting to talk to, and three whom would bring some crazy wine to drink, this would be them.
I actually met Charles when I first visited Domaine Armand Rousseau in 2000. He was a lovely, gentle man, still cut from the farmer cloth who sat in his small office at the Domaine chatting with another old wizened farmer. I didn’t realize how my mind was about to be blown tasting in the cellar for the first time with his daughter. When I came back from the cellar he had already left and I never got to speak with him again.
Who is your winemaking hero?
Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac. I may have worked with many other great winemakers for a longer time and in more depth, but there was something special about working with Jacques. For one, I did get to have dinner nightly with he and his family (and the other lucky interns), and we would play the option guessing game for dusty old wines that came from his cellar.
This blew my mind considerably, and I was quite often the last one at the table madly scribbling notes and returning over and over to my glasses of wine.
He was extremely generous to me, very accessible with all his experience and knowledge and was a great mentor for anyone with a love of wine.
Taking some of the greats such as Christophe Roumier and Dominique Lafon under his wing, always being able to answer questions and solve problems, lending equipment and personnel when needed was a very rare thing in Burgundy, which was a fairly closed and secretive place for many years.
The wines of both his Domaine and those he admired flowed very generously on the table and he spoke at great length of his trials and triumphs in those years, always being very humble.
I liked his can-do spirit not shirking any responsibility within cellar or vineyard and I really liked his sense of humor and sense of mischief! There were many practical jokes to be had, especially with Australian Gary Farr returning with his son Nick. Harvest was a time of celebration and hard work, and 2002 was one of sorrow for the Seysses family as they had lost their chef de caves and viticulturist Christophe Morin. His deep connection with his staff and their strong loyalty struck a deep chord with me. Overall, I loved his use of whole clusters in the ferment creating wines that could be accessible when young but that would bloom and age gracefully into amazing examples of their terroir. Truly a legend and unsung hero.
What does the concept of “balance” mean to you?
Balance to me is the harmonious marriage of all the important facets of wine: aromatics, flavor, alcohol and texture, with harmony and finesse. No one element should stick out and be dominating but instead all interweave within each other to elevate and emphasize. I think wine should have an element of richness and an element of freshness as it is a living thing that will grow and develop. Working with such an aromatic variety such as Pinot Noir, one needs not to focus not only on aromatics and the palate, but it needs to framed in fine tannin, with the alcohol bringing richness without warmth and acid bringing freshness without angularity. It’s hard to achieve harmony but it is always such a worthy goal to strive for.
What is the one thing you want people to remember about your wine?
Balance! My wines should keep you coming back with a certain “moreishness” where one finishes a glass and immediately reaches for the bottle again. I would like people to remember the fine tannin structure, the fresh, fine yet rich fruit profile on the nose and the palate and velvety tannin structure that remains in your palate and you mind long after the liquid has hit your stomach. I would like people to experience the wine, be taken on a journey that tells a tale of what the vintage was like, the place the grapes were raised and the perfect picture of what that place in time looks framed in the glass. The wine should draw you in, evolve in the glass and not only deliver deliciousness but keep unfurling to show complexity and detail that satisfies the taste buds and engages the mind. Ultimately I want folks to remember how good the wine made them feel, how good their company and food was that accompanied them and how fantastic life is with great wine.
Best comment made about your wine? Was it by a consumer, trade or press?
“Finally an American Pinot Noir that I can drink!” from Martine Suanier. I hold her comment very dearly as it meant the world to me. Thanks Martine, you continue to be a great influencer and true legend of the industry!