Winemakers, cellarmasters, vignerons and the like

It was an interesting but potentially misleading newsletter from Delheim that started this little cultural-linguistic quest. Wrote Delheim, “It is winemaker Altus Treurnicht’s 1st season at Delheim, and we checked up on the harvest progress with him”. Said I and Angela Lloyd pretty simultaneously, “Oh dear, what’s happened to winemaker Reg Holder who’s been doing such excellent things with Delheim recently?” Turns out, however, that Reg is not the Winemaker, but the Cellarmaster (and MD too).

The use of “cellarmaster” to indicate the person who’s in overall charge of winemaking, including the aesthetics of it – style, fundamental choices, etc, and therefore also in charge of any (assistant) winemakers, seems to be unique to South Africa, at least in the New World. Australian sommelier and wine distributor David Clarke tells me he’d never heard the phrase before coming to the Cape. In his part of the world, winemakers are, er, winemakers, though with different degrees of seniority. I know that Peter Gago, for instance, is Chief Winemaker for the substantial Penfolds – and I rather doubt if he’s recently done anything so mundane as lugged a pipe around or added a dose of tannin or acid to a tank of wine. Probably many senior winemakers – and South African cellarmasters – are more directly involved at the policy-making and blending stages of getting the juice into the bottle.

Winemaker Francois Haasbroek (who has his own label, Blackwater, and consults here and there, but is not a cellarmaster…) says that in the US they use “cellarmaster” and “winemaker” in a very different way from what is common here. Quite the opposite way, in fact – something confirmed by the Wine Enthusiast’s online guide to wine careers: leading the hierarchy in the cellar is the winemaker, but a little lower down is the cellarmaster, in charge of the day-today work in the cellar, working with the winemaker of course: the cellarmaster is “Responsible for every facet of production from the time the grapes arrive at the winery to the time the bottled wine is shipped out.”

But, of course, Americans, fond as they tend to be of grand titles, don’t always rest content with mere gradations of winemaker. South African Graham Weerts, for example, is not only a Senior Vice-President of Jackson Family Wines, he is also its Winemaster, and that’s a title that seems to crop up now and then.

Francois Haasbroek suggested that probably the local use of “cellarmaster” relates to German practice, given the strong influence of Germans and German-trained winemakers here in the 20th century. In fact, I think it likely that Günter Brözel, Nederburg’s famous cellarmaster was the first to use the translation of “Kellermeister” here. Current Nederburg cellarmaster is Andrea Freeborough, who works with a few winemakers and no doubt, at lower rungs of the ladder, quite a host of lesser cellar-workers – “cellar rats” they’re often known as. But interestingly, Nederburg’s bigger-volume range is not called “Cellarmaster’s Reserve”, but “Winemaster’s Reserve”; while the overall winemaking boss at Distell is Razvan Macici – known as Chief Winemaker (who does occasionally even get his hands sticky making wine). So Distell manages to make use of just about every available title….

I tried to find out (with the help of Michael Fridjhon) what happens in France where, as the French proudly tell us and we tend to humbly believe, they have no word for “winemaker”. In fact they seem to have quite a lot of relevant words, in region- and class-specific diversity. The literal translation of cellarmaster is widely used, especially in larger establishments. In Champagne, it’s chef de cave, as the leader of the winemakers, providing overall direction.

The non-Champagne translation of cellarmaster (especially in Bordeaux) would generally be maître de chai, but in fact it appears as though this is not quite as grand a position as that of chef de cave in Champagne. One reputable source I found by googling in French suggests that when a maître de chai has an oenology diploma (en poche – in his pocket!) he (or she) can aspire to the position of directeur technique, equivalent to the champenois maître de chai.

This is getting a bit exhausting – but I think the position is clear: in its use of “cellarmaster”, as in some other happy ways, South Africa is closer to European tradition than some of the more “independent” New World countries.

One final thought. When the French deny they have an equivalent of “winemaker”, they often adduce the term vigneron – to indicate someone involved in both the vineyard and the cellar, recognising the fundamental unity of both. Vigneron is much used, of course, in areas less dominated by big wine business than Champagne and Bordeaux – including Burgundy, and much of the rest of the country where the older more peasant tradition persists. English now often uses, as a translation, “wine-grower” – which is slightly unconvincing and clumsy to me: you don’t “grow” wine.

But it’s a nice thought, as Michael Fridjhon suggested to me, that there is a good South African translation of vigneron – or there was one, at least, in the earlier 20th century. How about wynboer?

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