March 2009

Bernard Lacroute: WillaKenzie Estate

Author: Paul deVere

Bernard Lacroute labels himself as co-owner and wine drinker of WillaKenzie Estate. He grew up in a small village on the eastern edge of Burgundy, France, where wine making has been going on for 20 centuries. As a young engineer, Lacroute came to the U.S. on a fellowship from NASA. Timing is everything, in both the IT world and wine making world. In the late 1980s, Lacroute retired as executive vice president of Sun Microsystems. During his tenure, the company went from a $4 million startup to a $2 billion dollar major player. Lacroute and then wife, Ronnie, (they still co-own and operate WillaKenzie Estate) bought a 420-acre cattle ranch in Yamhill, Oregon in January 1991, in the Willamette Valley. Yamhill, southwest of Portland, has a population approaching 1,000. Just when Lacroute was planting his first “clones,” the wine world was discovering the extraordinary wine produced in America’s northwest. In 2008, WillaKenzie Estate was named one of the top 100 wineries in the world by Wine and Spirits magazine. Timing. WillaKenzie, named after the soil of that region, is a glorious mixture of soil types, elevations and sundry other attributes that lend themselves to the production of fine wines. The winery specializes in Pinot Noir. CH2’s senior writer, Paul deVere, had the pleasure to talking to Bernard Lacroute about WillaKenzie Estate and about the art, science and marketing of Oregon wines.

CH2: The first question is a softball. Is there any truth to the perception that the movie Sideways increased sales of Pinot Noir?

Bernard Lacroute: Yes it did, absolutely. It created awareness. That’s the way it works. It did make a difference that actually lasted for some time. For the average consumer, it brought up a level of awareness (for pinot noir).

CH2: One important word, terroir, seems to be interpreted somewhat differently in the “Old world” of wine (Europe) and the “New World” (U.S.). In the Old World, “terroir” suggests something mysterious. In the New World, it seems to have a more scientific use. You come from both worlds. Could you tell us what the word means to you and how you interpret it at WillaKenzie Estate?

BL: There are several definitions of terroir. There is the narrow French definition, which is not shared by everybody in France. The narrow definition, everything depends on the ground. That’s why burgundy cannot be emulated anywhere else because that is a unique piece of land. That is why the French go off and justify what they do for their wines. My own view of terroir is somewhat different. Clearly the place, the ground the soil, that’s extremely important. Because that’s the sense of place. That’s what defines where you are, what defines the growing conditions. But I see two other features to it. It’s the soil, but also what you plant in the soil. There are different types of pinot noir. To me, that is part of the terroir too—what do you plant on that piece of ground? Because if you have a great piece of ground and throw in lousy material, you’re not going to get good results. So the clones—the plants—is the second concept that, to me, constitutes terroir. The third piece is people. The people or tradition or way of doing things. In the region of Burgundy or Bordeaux, they have been making wine for hundreds of years. There is a certain way of doing things that you can apply to people to make wine in a certain fashion. To me, that really is part of terroir. The place, what you grow and what you do to the plants. In the vineyards, we touch the vines about 24 times a year. That’s people. Different people are going to do different things. That’s going to generate different results. More elastic and more comprehensive than just a piece of ground. That, to me, is really terroir. That really reflects to me the overall sense of place.

CH2: All of your wine is made only with your grapes. Does this present more of a challenge? BL: Owning your own vineyards, that, to me it’s really a fundamental way to go and manage your overall quality. Because we absolutely control how we grow those grapes and we control how we make the decision. That’s controlling your own destiny. If you look at the great vineyards, the great wines of Europe. Either the winery owns the vineyard or they have extremely long-term leases which fundamentally allows them to manage the vineyards.

CH2: You are known for your innovation in the process of wine making. For example your punch down robot, “Big Foot.” Could you talk about how you came up with the idea, how it affects the wine making process?

BL: When you make wine, the juice settles at the bottom of the tank and the cap, which is made up of skins, seeds and stems, if you’ve left any, and floats on top of it. In a large tank it’s not unusual to have the cap being a foot to a foot-and-a-half thick. You can literally walk on it. A lot of the good things in the wine are actually found in the cap. So you want to mix the juice with the cap, and you want to do that very gently. In the old days, people used to push it down with their feet. That is an extremely dangerous process, because CO2 is released during fermentation and people died doing that. But some other techniques. There are little gizmos used that took like a jackhammer. You basically push the cap down. I looked at all those things and said there has got to be a better way. Big foot is a version of that. It basically applies the same amount of pressure as a human foot. It pushes the cap down very gently. You can move it from one tank to the other. It gives you consistency. In our case, where you have 25 tanks, if you do that by hand, the quality of the work at the beginning of the day is not the same as it is at the end of the day. What’s the end up? We are using very Burgundian techniques to make wine. But I will look at everything in technology that can help us make better wine. I will try them and, if they work, I will use them; if they don’t, we’ll throw it out. I mean you have to continue to improve what you’re doing.

CH2: Another innovation, bottling with screw cap closures rather than cork. How did that come about? How was it first accepted, bucking centuries of tradition in what some see as a very traditional business?

BL: Today, I believe the screw top is probably the best technology to bottle the wine. We still bottle one third of our wine with corks. But the decision was made to use screw caps because we believe today it is the best closure that exists. You look back at the history of wine. They closed the containers with straw. Greeks were closing containers with straw and cloth. Cork is great, except it can introduce TCA (cork taint) into the wine. When you go and step back and think about it, it is fairly well recognized that somewhere between three and 10 percent are corked tainted throughout the wine industry. Ask yourself the question, how many other industries would tolerate that kind of failure rate? Imagine going to the store and getting milk. Every 12th gallon of milk you get is bad. Why are we willing to tolerate that kind of stuff? It’s crazy, it makes no sense. The good news is that in the past few years there has been a vast improvement in the quality of cork. You know why? Because there is competition. What a novel idea!

CH2: Understanding the caring for the land that provides your harvest is part of the investment for healthy vineyards, you seem to go the extra mile is caring for the soil and vines. Is that just good business or part of your passion for wine making?

BL: You’re going to see a new logo, starting in the next few months, which is Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine. We are part of a pilot program to have the winery certified. It’s a brand new initiative coming out of Oregon where there is a serious body that certified the vineyards, the winery and the wine. Winery inspection was done by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. There are 70 or so points you have to go through and demonstrate you are sustainable. I believe in it. Why is it important to me? One has to respect the environment. One has to respect the people. But it’s also good business. You can grow grapes using all kinds of chemicals, but you know what? Twenty, 30, 40 years down the road, your vineyard is going to be depleted of the characteristics that add this particular flavor or aroma to the wine. So you will have screwed up big time by not respecting your soil and not respecting your environment. Fungi colonize around the roots of the vine. You put a lot of chemicals in the ground, those things are gone. The plant will grow, but it’s not going to absorb the micro-elements that give the particular flavor and characteristics to the wine.

CH2: In your online biography, it says “WillaKenzie Estate is his dream to make great Pinot Noir in an environment relatively unencumbered by bureaucracy…” Do you mean the Oregon way of life, or the life of owning a winery—or both?

BL: I come from Burgundy. I toyed with doing something in France. Since I was partial to pinot, that’s how I grew up. I said maybe I should take a look at it. That didn’t last very long. I’d been in the U.S. a long time. I’d built computers and companies and so forth. I’m used to having a lot of freedom in doing what I want to do. When I looked at the vineyards in France, I said this is ridiculous. Burgundy? If you are not AOC, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, then your wine is two thirds (in price) less than the guy next to you. If you are AOC, the government tells you what to plant, where to plant, when to plant. You cannot irrigate, you cannot do this, you cannot do that. Even today, there is the window in which you must harvest. This is crazy. It did serve a useful purpose, once upon a time, to bring quality. Today, consumers are sophisticated enough to know if they like your wine or not.

CH2: What does it feel like to be selected as one of the top 100 wineries IN THE WORLD by Wine and Spirits magazine last year, plus have six of your wines score 90 points or above in Wine Spectator?

BL: That’s great. I like it! I would be lying if I said I was not proud of it. But does it mean I’m not trying to do better tomorrow? No! I really want it to be the best wine we can produce. Absolutely. No question. We are working on that every year, and we are going to continue to work on that every year.

CH2: You were a top executive in one of the most successful high tech, IT industries before you created WillaKenzie Estate. Have you left all of that behind?

BL: We built great companies; I enjoyed that work. Very challenging, lots of very smart people. It has been a fantastic thing. But I have a very nice life. But I am not driven by ostentatious money. I don’t need a jet. I don’t need a yacht. I always wanted to do something I enjoyed. I enjoyed the high tech world for a long time. At some point it was just doing more of the same. Let’s go do something else I said. I always liked to grow things. I’ve always enjoyed wine. I was not ready to do nothing. The winery sounded like a good thing to do. The vineyards, the winery, being close to nature again. I was born in a rural community. That sounded like a nice thing to do. I am a U.S. citizen by choice. I came to the U.S. well equipped (master’s degrees in physics and electrical engineering). I didn’t come empty handed. But on the other hand, I could never have done what I have done if I had not been in the U.S. I was given the freedom to do the best I could.

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