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An Alchemist of Sensory Experiences: Spotlight on Hal Landvoigt of Precept Wine

Ever since Hal Landvoigt had his first sip of wine, he was determined to learn more. He started volunteering at a wine shop in the hopes that they would teach him about wine in return– and he got just that.

Now the Director of Winemaking at Precept, Hal loves innovation, smart packaging, and the science behind winemaking. As a true alchemist, he’s not afraid to push wine to new categories. He’s the mastermind behind a chocolate-flavored red wine called Chocolate Shop, which is the top-selling chocolate red wine in the U.S. today. He was also an early adopter of new packaging formats, including boxed wine, keg, and canned wine, finding how to blend and finish wine optimally for each format.

Hal joined the Precept team more than 18 years ago, and he was able to take part in their first investments into brick-and-mortar projects, winery acquisitions, and vineyard developments. This has allowed him to work with and in wineries that are as small as 500 tons per crush up to wineries that do 25,000 tons per crush.

What did your journey into winemaking look like?

I initially got interested in wine sort of accidentally. I was working at a bakery and someone gave me a bottle of wine and I took it home and as soon as I had a sip, I wanted to learn more. I thought: this doesn’t taste like what I remember from my uncle’s big five-liter Franzia boxes or the Chablis he would drink at Thanksgiving.

I started volunteering at a wine shop just to learn about wine. I knew they wouldn’t hire me because it was a small town and jobs are hard to come by, but I figured if I just offered to come in for free and do anything that they needed, sweeping, breaking down boxes, washing the windows, then they would at least teach me about wine.

What I didn’t know was, when I started, the guy I worked for had an incredible wine collection. So, by the time I was 21, my perspective on wine was very different from most college-aged wine drinkers. After I graduated, I continued to find work in wine shops and always managed to find ways to volunteer at wine events. At the time, I was also a partner in a tech company during the dotcom boom and when that company sold, I just decided I didn’t want to be in tech anymore and I came to work for Precept, which, at that time, was about 14 months old. I came in as the manager of the IT consultant, but pretty quickly got moved over into the winemaking team when our winemaker left.

What is the most rewarding part of your career?

One of the most rewarding parts of my career was a project I worked on when I first started with Precept: a wine that retailed for five dollars a bottle for the brand Pine & Post. It really shaped my attitude about winemaking and what wine should be.

Premium, single-vineyard winemaking is rewarding in a different way because you get the opportunity to taste the place and terroir of the wine. But, it doesn’t present the same challenges you have to overcome with lower-priced wines. If you have good quality grapes and resources in the winery for high-quality winemaking, creating a high quality product will fall into place. Buying bulk wine, or, in my case, using wine that is leftover from blends and figuring out how to incorporate those wines into an existing program and making those programs consistent from vintage to vintage is much more challenging.

Navigating the bulk market is a rewarding challenge in and of itself. I think wineries are hesitant to invest in wines they know won’t have a home in their flagship labels. For example, a lot of Chardonnays on the bulk market haven’t gone through malolactic fermentation or received any oak treatment. I have found that making something drinkable out of the bits and pieces found on the bulk market can be extremely challenging but also extremely rewarding.

When I’m building wines, I’m not really thinking about flavor. Instead, I focus on the physical perspective in terms of whether or not there are flaws, if it tastes good as a whole, and if the wine is balanced.

The first time I met with Katerina was one of the first conversations that I’ve had in a long time where I felt like we were finishing each other’s sentences in terms of understanding how to build a wine, and how we think about making wines. Ultimately, if you make alterations to your wine, it won’t be to the flavor. It’ll be adding tannins, gums, polysaccharides, or mannoproteins.

When I send samples to Tastry, I already have an idea of what I should do with the wine in regards to additions in my head. Nine times out of ten, we’ll have the exact same additive recommendations at the exact same ratios, so I use Tastry as a verification that my expectations are correct.

I don’t use additives as a way to solve problems, I use them as a way to round off the corners and fill in the holes to turn a rough product into a smooth finished product and to create consistency across multiple vintages. I’m not a numbers guy who will, for example, analyze the R.S. numbers year by year and perform sugar trials to get a similar product. What’s interesting about Tastry is the degree of visibility they have into the different types of acids and all these different things to help me see what is missing that I might not think of.

I also think that, with some five-dollar bottles, consumers can get the short end of the stick. Since it is just a five-dollar bottle of wine, it is easy to think that as long as we add sugar, it doesn’t matter what the end product will be. As a member of the wine industry, I feel a responsibility to grow the industry.

For someone who purchases a five-dollar bottle of wine because they want to become a wine drinker, it is important to make them a good quality wine for that price point so they continue to explore other wines. These are the consumers that deserve the most attention because we’re trying to nurture them into becoming the next premium consumers.

What sets your winery apart from other wineries?

We own and operate three wineries and also work with outside custom crush facilities. Each of our three wineries has evolved to focus on a specific purpose: whites,small single block lots, and a larger scale production. One reason for having a separate white facility is the distinct advantage of not having to do color changeovers on our equipment which makes life a lot easier. But, the initial reason we made that change was because our location’s proximity to the vineyard allows us to go from picking to juice conversion in less than 30 minutes. For whites, this is very important because you get much cleaner juice and don’t have to deal as much with pinking and extractive winemaking to clean the juice. Our winery for single-block production is designed to keep and maintain vineyard separation for 50 blocks during production. Also, our large facility can handle 7,500 tons.

How has your winemaking process changed over the years?

Our initial strategy to make a $10 bottle was to make it taste like a $20 bottle. What we’ve found as we’re trying to grow our appeal to more consumers is that there is a limit to how far you can stray away from the typical style of wines that consumers who gravitate towards $10 bottles prefer before you miss the mark.

If I make a $10 bottle of wine that is a great value because it tastes like a $20 bottle of wine, it may not meet the customer’s expectation of what the wine should taste like based on their other wine experiences and their palate.

Our strategy now is to figure out how we can differentiate ourselves from other competitors while still staying in balance with the characteristics of wines that these customers are accustomed to.

To accomplish this, we’re looking at every tool available to us. That’s where I think Tastry can give us more insight.

Tastry can provide data that is parsed enough so that we can look at it and easily make assumptions and learn things about our consumers based on other wines out on the market. That gives us the ability to look at a broader population because having 10,000 people all taste my wine and tell me how it was going to perform would be great, but it wouldn’t be realistic without Tastry.

However, to assess this ourselves, there is always the challenge of developing a house palate where we make what we like and we drink what we make because we can generally get it cheaper than any other wine. Since we grow so accustomed to our wine, when we try a wine that doesn’t fit our mold but might be a great performer on the market, it is difficult to understand when it is so different from what we do. Since our company works in so many different spaces and so many different regions across the world, it’s important to look at a broader market segment and understand their preferences.

What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from winemaking?

Just trust your gut. Many young people who come to work for us know what they like, but they are reluctant to express it. From my perspective, no opinions, and no wine pairings, are wrong. As long as you put wine and food together and it creates a better experience for you, then it is a great pairing.

Whatever wine and food pairing makes your palate happy is what you should have.

Do you have any advice that you would pass on to a new winemaker or someone who’s just entering the field?

Don’t be scared to ask questions. I don’t know a winemaker who doesn’t want to talk about wine. I think the problem is that they don’t shut up once you get them started talking. Learning from winemakers that love to talk about what they do is the best way to learn as you go. When you see something you don’t understand in a winery, just ask questions. Most winemakers have very well-reasoned explanations behind how and why they are doing each process.

If a consumer doesn’t like one style of wine, there are about 10,000 more out there for them to try. It is the most crowded category space in the grocery store, so there is wine for every single person to enjoy.

Another thing to remember is, at the end of the day, we’re still dealing with Mother Nature. It’s not like beer where we bring in the same batch of grain every year and it turns out the same way. We have grapes that come in that may have been affected by fires or mildew. They may not get as ripe this year as last year. So chemistry can tell us a whole lot about what’s different. You have to have that baseline understanding of “where do I want to get to” and then “what are the tools that are available to me to get me from here to there?”

That’s what I like about Tastry’s Compublend. There are multiple different options that allow me to decide on my own which of those options resonate with me the most. It’s a tool to help get your wine where you want it to be and can help establish a baseline for the years to come.

Tastry helps you understand what your baseline wine is and how to bring your wine to that same place.

Ultimately, you learn from being curious. The more you know as a winemaker, the more you can turn yourself into a Swiss army knife. Asking questions will help you in the long run because if you learn to understand the reasoning behind every process, you will know how to adjust your processes for any circumstance.
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