Winemaker Spotlight: Juan Munoz-Oca of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates

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Hailing from Mendoza, Argentina, Juan Muñoz-Oca knew from a young age that the wine industry was where he belonged. His family members worked in wine, and he often found himself in the cellar alongside his grandfather.

Now, Juan is the Chief Winemaker for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. It’s an incredible responsibility stepping into that role at such an important winery. Ste. Michelle’s collection of winery estates produce at least 50% of wine that comes out of the state and scatter the West Coast in Washington, Oregon, and California.

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To Juan, wine is a creative outlet, a passion, and a lifelong commitment. His work ethic and commitment to his product and team exemplifies this every day. We had the pleasure of catching up with Juan for this edition of our Winemaker Spotlight interview series to talk about his background, Ste. Michelle, and their current innovations.

What did your journey into winemaking look like?

I always knew that I would be working in wine, but I didn’t know where I would land. My father and grandfather worked in wineries where I lived in Argentina, so I grew up surrounded by the industry.

I have memories of my grandfather working in the cellar, where I mostly remember him drinking wine, yelling at people, or both. In winemaking, the product you are creating from vineyard to bottling cultivates experiences, community, and beauty. For me, wine is a passion driven business that is a labor of love. It’s a creative outlet, passion, and a lifelong commitment.

What is the hardest thing about winemaking?

As a winemaker, I consider myself a farmer at heart. With this, there is tension. Tension between your plans for the wine and mother nature’s. And, tension between what you feel is best for the wine and what is best for the consumers. Sometimes, these components are aligned, but sometimes they are not. Nevertheless, navigating these challenges every year makes me the most excited.

What is the most rewarding part of your career?

This business creates beautiful experiences for the people involved in it. Through these experiences I have crossed paths with many others following their paths in wine. Watching them grow along the way is a beautiful journey, because it provides an outlet for people to develop their passion.

This business creates beautiful experiences for the people involved in it. Through these experiences I have crossed paths with many others following their paths in wine. Watching them grow along the way is a beautiful journey, because it provides an outlet for people to develop their passion.

The people that touch you in the industry shape you and your career. Learning from mentors and mentoring others along their journey have both been some of the most rewarding parts of my career.

What sets you apart from other wineries?

Many winemaking practices are derived from learning from what others have done before us for hundreds of years of harvests. On one hand, this is beneficial because it gives you the opportunity to accelerate your winemaking by using others’ wisdom. On the other hand, it creates guardrails to only do things that have already been done.

At Ste. Michelle, we foster a community that prioritizes innovation. We give ourselves permission to be playful with the grapes we are given, and we have a safe space where we don’t run away from failures.

How have you incorporated modern technology into your winemaking practices?

In the spirit of being innovative, we have to think outside the box. The only way you can expand your horizons is if you are open to new techniques and new technologies. The only way for you to know if the traditional techniques are the best practices is to seek new technology. This is crucial to what we do at Ste. Michelle.

What specific results have you seen from some of the new technology you have implemented?

We have learned that bringing a data gathering systematic mindset to the way in which we grow grapes, transport grapes, and make wine has made us better winemakers. We are more in tune with the needs of the vine and the wine. Information is the only way to be better at what you are doing. You cannot be better at something you don’t measure.

Instead of gut-feeling, we are measuring. We think about that in regard to growing grapes and then that translates into putting the wine in front of the consumer. I love opening a bottle with a corkscrew, I love the pop and the whole experience, but can we just put some data into questions like, “Is that the easiest way of opening for the consumer?” “Is that the most environmentally conscious selection?” The only way for you to know these things is to gather data and analyze that data.

This is ultimately what we are trying to do. Another amazing part of making wine is that a handful of people sitting around a table decide the style of wine, but thousands of people will consume the wine. These thousands of people have different tastes and will drink it on different occasions with different foods. Having the winemaker be the one that told consumers what they should enjoy worked for a while. Now, consumers are savvy, they have everything on their smartphone.

Paying attention to what the consumer wants and how they perceive the wine is very important. Any information I can get on how our wines are perceived and enjoyed, I will dive into. And if that information can come with actual analytical measurements of compounds that create these experiences, how can you not want to learn more about that?

That’s what brought me to Tastry. When Tastry associates the chemistry and resulting experiences, it tells me, “People enjoy your wine in a certain way, and you can quantify that, and I can tell you if they will like it or not.” I couldn’t get results on our wine fast enough.

Wine is a passion-driven business, and you recognize yourself in people who feel the same way.

With Tastry, I found people who recognize the passion I have for winemaking, and share this passion in what they have created. On top of all of this, Tastry had an incredible depth of expertise behind the offering which is another component that is very important when you are deciding who to get into a professional relationship with.

What is one of the biggest lessons you have learned in your winemaking career? Any advice you would like to pass onto newer winemakers and wineries who are just entering the field?

Mother nature knows best. We must do our part to protect the land in which we grow our grapes today. We can have all these plans, but ultimately weather and climate will decide how those grapes end up and you have to have patience. The only way for you to have a sense of control is to collect the data, analyze, and hold onto it.

Do you want to share anything exciting you’ve been working on?

I’ve been trying to understand what consumers find attractive in a bottle of wine beyond what we present…if you strip the label. I wonder how we perceive tannins and how much we like what we like because we are told what to look for and how much because we actually like it. All of this is incredibly hard to quantify. Is it too sweet or not fruity enough? Is it because of our mood that day? It’s hard to create a link between the two.

Now, all of a sudden, we have Tastry who can help us analyze the composition and associate it to preference. It’s so great to be able to shed light into that. We are using that to learn how it is that we like to drink our wine so we can steer our wine into a more enjoyable experience, and a more authentic experience, where you like it because you like it and not because someone said you should.