Last fall, I accidentally met the wine industry's version of the wizard behind the curtain. Driving into the foothills of Napa Valley's Vaca Mountains, my girlfriend and I came upon the entrance to a boutique winery I had read about--David Arthur Vineyards. The sign on the gate warned "Visits by Appointment Only," and we had none. But the gate was open, so I floored the gas pedal and sped up a long, winding road to a mountaintop winery. Reaching the summit, we noticed a man sitting by a mechanical grape crusher. At first, he acted like an aloof bouncer at a hip New York club. But we started chatting, and he soon warmed up.
His name was Robert Egelhoff, and he introduced himself as a wine consultant who has been working with David Arthur for the past few years. Before long, Egelhoff invited us into the cellar to do some barrel tastings of the 1999 vintage. The cellar was cold and barely lit, and oak barrels were stacked up the ceiling. Using a baster-like device called a "thief," Egelhoff drew wine from several barrels and poured it into glasses. We tasted a cabernet sauvignon, a merlot, and a petit verdot. Although the wine was still a year from release, it wowed our taste buds.
Months later, our hunch about Egelhoff's magic touch was confirmed: Wine Spectator gave David Arthur's 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon a rating of 99 (out of 100), making it the No. 1 1997 California cab. Since late October, when the Spectator ranking came out, Egelhoff has been offered 10 jobs. He has turned them all down to focus on his six current clients. The other guys are "basically buying your name when it's hot," he says.
WHEN TO PICK. In the wine biz, a name is worth its weight in platinum. Consultants, or "flying winemakers" as they're sometimes called, craft their own wines and zip around vineyards helping others make the best vino possible. About 100 work in the industry, and some 20 have attained star status, commanding annual fees of up to $100,000 per client. Although consultants have been around since the 1960s, only in the past few years have wine lovers recognized their importance. Now, when some aficionados select wine, they look at the consultants involved as well the vintage and the winery.
These winemakers for hire "are costly, but they easily pay out because they consistently create top-quality wines," says Jon Fredrickson, president of Gomberg, Fredrickson & Associates in San Francisco, a wine industry research firm. They advise wineries on everything from how to plant grapes and when to pick them to barreling methods, blending, and, of course, tasting. This expertise enables the small wineries to compete against the bigger establishments.
The benchmarks for wine are the centuries-old Bordeaux wineries in France such as Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, and Chateau Margaux. Bottles from these estates go for $200 to $300 and more. High-quality California wines made by top consultants can easily fetch $100 a bottle and up, and recently prices have surpassed those of their grand French counterparts. At a charity auction last year, a six-liter bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, crafted by winemaking freelancer Heidi Barrett, sold for a world-record price of $500,000. "It's wild," says Barrett. "You drink it, and it's gone. My brain doesn't get it."
Consultants such as Egelhoff and Barrett are both hastening and riding the boom of boutique wineries that tend to make small batches of pricey wine. The largest 25 of California's 1,000 wineries ship 90% of California wine. But roughly half to three-quarters of the 1,000 are boutique operations, or garagistas, which sell fewer than 5,000 cases a year. Consultants enable the garagistas to produce better wines than they could on their own. Full-time winemakers can earn more than $100,000 a year. By contrast, most consultants charge $2,000 to $5,000 a month. "Smaller wineries won't be able to afford full-time winemakers," says Fredrickson.
So how do you find out which consultants are worth tracking? If you've never heard of any, our list of top winemakers and their client wineries should give you a head start (table). Or if you happen upon an interesting vintage, call the winery and ask who made it. The Internet is a great resource, too. Post questions or search for winemakers' names on insider Web sites such as www.wineloverspage.com or http://marksquires.com, which has an active bulletin board that attracts knowledgeable drinkers. Another way is to get friendly with well-connected wine sellers. K&L Wine Merchants in San Francisco is a great store (800 247-5987) that has an appealing Web site (www.klwines.com). "If the wine rep comes into the store and says So-and-So worked on this, you take note," says Lee Reinsimar, a wine clerk at St. Helena Wine Center, a shop in Napa Valley. "People do track the big ones."
GOING GLOBAL. Mia Klein is one of the big fish. Klein, 39, has been working in the wine business since 1983, when she, like many of her confreres, graduated from the world-renowned Viticulture & Enology Dept. of the University of California at Davis. After working on staff at several wineries, Klein started consulting in 1990. Today, she produces her own label, Selene Vineyards, and advises Bressler Vineyards and Dalla Valle, both of Napa Valley. In early February, Klein was getting ready to bottle Selene's new sauvignon blanc and merlot vintages and was putting together the final blends of her clients' 1999 red wines. She wears jeans, work boots, and T-shirts to work and spends a lot of time in her Toyota Tundra shuttling to clients. "It's not unusual for me to put 100 miles a day on my truck," says Klein.
Wine consultants are going global as well. They're working in South America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. Paul Hobbs, a Healdsburg (Calif.) consultant, has clients such as Dolium and Santomo in Argentina and Vigna in Chile. Hobbs's clients value his knowledge of up-to-date techniques.
To be sure, winemaking consultants have their critics. Industry folks say some consultants are arrogant control freaks. Other owners complain that consultants sometimes take on too many clients. Plus, Mother Nature plays a huge role in determining the quality of a wine. Consultants have little control over the weather, soil, and quality of grapes. "If you don't have great grapes, it doesn't matter what you do," says prize-winning vintner David Arthur. Then again, to make a fine wine, the best grapes will always need the touch of a great winemaker. By Spencer E. Ante