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“Fun and Messy and Wonderful” – An Interview With Buehler Vineyards’ Helen Buehler | 1 Wine Dude

“Fun and Messy and Wonderful” – An Interview With Buehler Vineyards’ Helen Buehler

Vinted on January 20, 2010 under California wine, interviews
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Earlier this month, a guest on Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV caused a bit of a stir.

That is, if you consider over 550 comments and an eight-page forum thread devoted to the episode “a bit of a stir.”

The guest was Helen Buehler, who is a member of the family behind Buehler Vineyards, whose 2006 Napa Valley estate Cabernets have become members of the ‘90+ point review club’.

I missed of all the Wine Library TV hoopla involving Helen, as I’m not a regular viewer of Gary’s show – this has nothing to do with Gary, and everything to do with the fact that I’m borderline ADD and can’t watch any on-line video that’s over 3 minutes long.  In fact, I hadn’t seen the episode until Helen contacted me asking if I’d seen it, and generally wondering what my impressions were about the whole thing (my response, in a nutshell, was “I don’t think it’s a big deal.”).

Not one to miss an opportunity to selfishly capitalize on a prominent media event gain insight into the winemaking world, I thought it would make interesting reading to see what Helen had to say about the WLTV episode, get her take on what it’s like to grow up around wine, and see what changes she thinks the Millennial generation will bring to the wine market.  Helen agreed, and kindly accepted an interview invitation.

It seems ironic to me that one of the criticisms laid out against Helen from her WLTV appearance was that she lacked passion; while she may not come off on video as being passionate about wine tasting, she certainly comes off as passionate when she’s discussing winemaking.

If you’ve seen Helen’s WLTV appearance, then this interview will give you another perspective on Helen’s place in the wine world; if you haven’t yet seen it, then you can check it out at the end of this interview, formulate your own opinion on Helen’s representation of Buehler Vineyards, and (as always) share your thoughts in the Comments…

1) Okay, let’s acknowledge the virtual ‘elephant in the room’ and get this one out of the way right off the bat: Your appearance on Gary V’s recent Wine Library TV episode caused quite a lot of reaction, ranging from (I’m paraphrasing) “She represents the future of family winemaking in CA,” to “She has no idea what she’s talking about,” to “She’s totally hot, I’d have a drink with her!” Give us your reaction to all of the hooplah.

Ahhh… the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Well the most important thing I want to clear up is that my “I don’t pay for wine” obviously came off wrong. I meant “I don’t pay for these wines.” I was being honest, not snobby. I do pay for wine- Guenoc sauv blanc at Safeway usually- great deal.

“She represents the future of family winemaking in CA”

There are far better representatives than myself. Would love to introduce them to you. Will be doing so via video blog in the near future on www.smellslikewine.com (I couldn’t help myself).

“she has no idea what she is talking about”

I am very green when it comes to tasting notes- I know what I like, I know whats good, I don’t know what currant and “chewy” taste like. I was just keepin’ it real. It was a very Miss Teen USA-esque situation (NOT equating myself to a beauty queen in any way) – a very intimidating situation ( off a red-eye from SF and I had never seen WLTV before, shame on me) where I blanked. Of course I know the ballpark figures on the wine, but I didn’t want to give false info and prices vary depending on where you are making your purchase.

One of the great aspects of wine critique is the language, it’s so descriptive and influential . That being said, I didn’t want to use adjectives that I didn’t identify with. If I’d talked over my head just to pander to an audience I would have come off at best pretentious and at worst a phony. My relationship with wine is emotional and enjoyable.

“she is totally hot, I’d have a drink with her!”

I’m in. If you are ever in the valley, tweet or facebook me- we can cruise up to Buehler and drink there.

2) Is there anything that you want to say to Gary and his viewers?

I love you guys, thanks so much for watching! Endless thanks and respect for the constructive criticism and positive reinforcements. One thing I would like to make clear is that I don’t work for Buehler- I went on my own as a next gen wine kid basically, not as a Buehler sales rep. I would love to hear more from you guys, please share your thoughts and ideas with me! Don’ be shy…. (empirical evidence would suggest that you are not so I have nothing to worry about).
3) Has your mom challenged any of Gary’s readers to a duel or other form of physical combat yet?

Midnight tonight- corner of Grand and Ohio.

4) Tell our readers about Buehler wines and the winery – what’s a typical day like there?

It is a very fun environment run by a small and incredible staff that is like family (or is family). Everyone does a bit of everything… David Cronin is our long time winemaker and Page, my eldest brother, racks wine and also does tours. Misha does sales and marketing, but sometimes jokes that she is in “shipping & handling today”. She has been with Buehler for 13 years. Raul Gloria, the vineyard manager, is like a second father to me and has been here 25 ish years, so has Lorri. Chava has been here 17 years, Sergio and Pavelle, 10 years. My younger brother Joe is the ultimate gardener and wine box-taping master. It’s so casual and unpretentious there… A typical day varies, of course, from season to season. As far as the wines go…

2006 Papa’s Knoll Cab… Named after the block planted in front of the home of my grandparents just up the road – only sold direct from winery or via wine club, 100% cab, only 500 cases made. From our oldest cab vine block which only yields about two tons per acre.

2006 Estate Cab…100% estate grown fruit and our most age-worthy wine.

2007 Napa Valley Cab… 30% our hillside cab fruit with grapes from Napa vineyards that are high quality-low yielding

2008 Napa Valley Zinfandel… Dry farmed, 37 year old vines, blended with some Petite Sirah- made for immediate enjoyment and purple teeth.

2008 Reserve Russian River Chardonnay… limited production, traditional Burgundian techniques.

2008 Russian River Chardonnay… sourced from two Russian River vineyards- techniques include lees stirring, full malo fermentation and sur-lie aging… very velvety.

I didn’t list prices because a) my purpose here is not to sell wine and b) I want you to visit the website! =)

5) When you first contacted me, you mentioned that “my life has ALWAYS revolved around wine – but 99.9% of the time its the part before it gets bottled and labeled. I grew up in the dirt- we are farmers- wine is not glamorous to me- it is fun and messy and wonderful.” That’s a really personal and kind of a beautiful statement; tell us more about that – what’s it like growing up ‘on the farm’?

Meanwhile, back on the farm… Riding the forklift in my dad’s lap, my grandmother making sure I didn’t get my fingers caught in gears, best time of the year: Harvest. Got to stay up late with the crew, eat pizza and stick my coffee mug under the press to drink fresh grape juice. The smell in the air during harvest… pungent and unmistakable. Putting foils on the bottles on our old bottling line (not good for an easily distracted 6 year old), climbing stacks of barrels, discovering the wonders of the wine thief, forgetting to replace the bung and creating Buehler vinegar, killing rattle snakes ($60.00 bounty – sorry PETA), riding my dirt bike through the vineyards, propping up vines I knocked down with rocks hoping Raul and my Dad wouldn’t notice, and (once of legal drinking age of course) drinking lots of great wine and running through the mustard flowers taller then I was…

I think the most influential part of my youth was the cultural learning from our amazing crew. I learned to speak Spanish when I was a toddler, got to listen to stories and cook carne asada on chicken wire and a makeshift fire with lime, salt and Budweiser, delivered beer in the vineyards on the Gator on hot harvest days (admittedly, some beers didn’t make it out of the parking lot), and listening to the best Mexican banda, merengue and baichata you have ever heard. Lots of life lessons learned. Also our dogs – dogs everywhere. No vineyard is complete without dogs. And no, they aren’t Chihuahuas and I don’t put them in my purse =)

6) Do your parents listen to Canadian prog-rock icons RUSH? Because they totally rock.

Who doesn’t?

My dad is the man. Super down to earth, incredibly funny and LOVES his miniature poodle, Bandit (sorry dad, I had to). By far the hardest worker I have ever met. Really recommend visiting the website www.buehlervineyards.com to get the story on how my father and grandfather started the winery. Both incredible men. My mom is the smartest woman in the world- some may disagree but in regards to her WLTV lash out: she is a better mother than a business woman, and I can’t find anything wrong with that.

7) On your WLTV episode, you mentioned a few wine regions outside of CA that you liked. What are your favorites (and why)?

“Wine is not like your wife where you wants someone else’s, but like your son where you prefer your own” – Italian wine dude I met.

I drink local because there are so many amazing wines here and I love to support families I care about and know well- however I love Sancerre because its sauv blanc Mecca, and I’m a fan of Super Tuscans, like Sassicai, because they are born out of the winemakers creativity and passion and embody that as they are combined with tradition- new world/old world techniques. which I find intriguing and delicious. Spent a lot of time in Italy and really enjoyed wines from Montepulciano- classy yet approachable, nice soft tannins. And best of all, it tastes like wine.

8) There seems to be more talk *about* the Millennial generation and their potential impact on the wine market than there is *coming* from Millennials. As a member of that generation who is in the wine biz, what do you see as the changes that Millennials will bring to the market for wine?

New life, vigor, and ideas. There is always a generational ‘changing of the guard’ but it seems like there is a lot of emphasis placed upon the millennials. Honestly I don’t forsee a difference in winemaking or grapegrowing. Rather, I think that the change will be most noticeable in the realm of marketing and the stigma that has been attached to wine for the past 25 years.

Millennials seem a bit less stuffy about things, and the obvious and frequent use of the internet and social networking will definitely play a major role in the future of the wine industry. Some wineries have tried to take this step already (Roshambo comes to mind), but DTC sales and online marketing in particular are still in their infancy. I think that the legacy left by the millennials will revolve around that. I also see a shift from the traditional three-tier distribution toward DTC sales which will open up the market to many small, unknown labels (like Goodfellows, Reynoso and their offshoot Long Gamma) to break in to the market. It is so hard to get noticed by large distributors if you don’t already have a large distribution; it is a sort of chicken and egg situation generally resulting in smaller wineries getting ‘lost in the book’. In a sense, DTC sales through online marketing will help democratize the sales process as a whole.

Our age group is eager to learn about wine, and buy it (44% of millenial buys are $20+ wines compared to 34% of Gen X and 22% Baby Boomers). We want it- we would just like it demystified. This week I begin my classes on the sensory evaluation of wine, fundamentals of enology and fundamentals of wine chem. & microbiology so I can figure things out myself (so begins my Rocky-esque wine trainging montage). This is what the millennials will bring to the table.

9) What do you feel you’re bringing personally to the family business?

Apparently: trouble. Just kidding. I aspire to work at Buehler but need to get my feet wet first, so I work for a start-up wine marketing company. One commitment to the winery I made was I am taking classes in order to get a degree in winemaking, and getting hands on experience as well. My dream is to make my own wine someday and my quest has just begun so I would love to keep you (and anyone who is interested) up to date along the way.

10) Does this shirt make me look fat? (There is a correct answer, so consider your response carefully!)

“No, your face does. Oops, that was the champagne talking” – David Spade in Tommy Boy

[Editor’s note: that is the CORRECT answer!]

Cheers!

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