No more whining about Turkish wine

No more whining about Turkish wine
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The first thing American winemaker Daniel O'Donnell did as a consultant for Mey Gıda was to get rid of 70 percent of the wines in stock. Such drastic measures, he says, result from placing too much importance on quantity and too little on quality. In charge of the strategic operations and the business-modeling unit of Mey’s wine division, he hopes to help not only Mey but also Turkey’s wine industry to grow to the point where it receives greater recognition

ISTANBUL - Turkish Daily News

 The tall man with a warm smile literally lightens up when he talks about his job, which also happens to be his biggest passion.

 This is Daniel O'Donnell, a world-renowned winemaker from America. His work has taken him to every wine region around the world, and lately to Turkey, where he works as a winemaking consultant for Mey Gıda, the successor of the state monopoly Tekel.

 “Mey Gıda was part of the old Tekel and the job of Tekel was to make a lot of wine. Quality made no difference. So I went through the wines, and I am really grateful to [Mey's majority shareholder Texas Pacific Group] TPG, they allowed me to get rid of the 70 percent of the wine that they had… [It is] a lot of wine, 12 million liters… We essentially just sold it to Russia because there was absolutely no way I would have allowed that to go into a bottle and be drunk as wine. So they distilled it to vinegar, or did whatever,” said O'Donnell. He added: “That was good, because then I knew that the company had made a commitment to do the right thing.”

 The TPG, after having acquired the majority shares of Mey Gıda in Apr. 2004, called upon O'Donnell to help improve their wine division. He has been working as a consultant for winemaking, while he trains the winemaking and viticulture staff for Mey. He also selects vineyards both in Turkey and abroad, develops strategic partnerships with them, oversees the growing and caring of Mey's vineyards and makes wines in other countries for Mey. “So I deal with the strategic operations and the business-modeling unit [of Mey's wine division],” said O'Donnell.

 O'Donnell has also applied his global knowledge and experience of wine to his work with Mey. “Mey has some wines from France, which I made this last year and now I am working in Turkey, in France, in Spain, in Italy, in Chile, and in California for Mey,” he said.

 O'Donnell is passionate about his job and is happy to be working with Mey in Turkey. “One of the cool things about Mey is that, it is such a big company that it has the resources to allow the wine division to explore its possibilities. And that's a rarity. That certainly will not last forever but it is nice to have all those resources and the commitment from the company to allow you to explore your potential,” he said.    


Turkey a pilgrimage for a winemaker

 It has been 18 months since O'Donnell moved his base to Turkey and he considers his experience in Turkey wonderful. “It is like a pilgrimage for me [as a winemaker] to come to Turkey because it has been going on here for 6,000 years. In CA, it has been going on for 200, in Chile it has been going on for 150, but really 40, and in France for a couple hundred, in Italy for 2,000-3,000. But it really was born here,” he said. He considers the being in the place where something one is passionate about was born a life experience. “It is like seeing the Mona Lisa in the artist's studio when he was painting,” he said.

 “And I am grateful for the opportunity to come to this ancient wine place and taste the wine and meet the people and try to help, not only Mey, but the wine industry of Turkey grow to the point where they can get more recognition. That will be fantastic. I think there is great potential here,” said O'Donnell. However, he does see some reasons for the lack of international recognition of the Turkish wine industry.


The Turkish wine industry

 One is impatience. “I think Turkish people are mostly very impatient. Wine is a slow process. When you plant a vineyard and you build a winery, you are doing it for yourself because you love it, but financially, you are doing it for your children,” he said. Yet, it is not the only reason. “It is a governmental thing, a knowledge thing, a patience thing… There is very little experience here as it relates to growing quality wine,” he said, adding that even though Turkey has been growing grapes, wine grapes are different. He said: “If you are growing wine, it takes a little more patience but the result is much more enriching… The result is better for everybody.”

 Yet he is critical of the lack of support on the part of the government. “The government in Turkey is not very supportive of the wine industry. And I think that is important,” he said. He gave the wine industries of Australia and Chile, both of which have boomed in the last couple of decades, as examples of success achieved with sufficient backing from their governments. “When you look at how the government is supporting these guys, it does not look good for Turkey. Under the current political climate, it will be very difficult for Turkey to become a major exporter, or even a minor exporter of wine to the world,” said O'Donnell.

 He believes everyone, including the government itself would benefit from such a support. “I hope for Turkey's sake, I hope for those all people who are passionate about wine, not only for drinking it but also making it and growing it, I hope that at some point the political climate of Turkey understands that this can also bring huge economic benefits to the country,” he said.

 He is also critical of the much-discussed black market in the wine industry… “I do not know how the band-roll will work as of this year but until last year approximately 60 percent of the wine in Turkey was black market. That is an enormous amount of money. The government collects taxes on the 40 percent that is legal and not on the 60 percent that is illegal so it is putting overburden on the 40 percent and there is no burden on the 60 percent so they are losing money,” he said. He added that the government could overcome this by hiring people and controlling the production. “The government could be making more in taxes. And if they are involved in a rational level, by regulating it in a reasonable way, the quality will go up for the end-consumer, and the prices would go down for the consumer, and the government would make more money. And no one can tell me this would be a bad thing,” he said.

 Even though O'Donnell knows very well the enormous amount of work involved in each bottle of wine, he still believes that the market prices for Turkish wine are unrealistically high. “Again with a few exceptions, if you look at the cost of wine in Turkey, it is crazy. You can get fantastic bottles of wine around the world for $10 or less. Very few wines in Turkey that are at that quality exist at that price,” he said.

 O'Donnell has observed that the global trend in winemaking has been towards a monochromatic palate and the largest area of wine growth has been in medium quality and table wine. But he believes that wine should remain in touch with the place it was made. “A bottle of wine is a moment in time with a sense of place. It was picked then, that year, on that day, and it can never be repeated, from that piece of vineyard, with that weather, and how it was pruned before. That can never ever be repeated,” he said.

 He explains winemaking as a mixture of sober science and passionate soul. “There are two sides to winemaking. There is very hard, rigid, definable science that goes into winemaking. Then there is the soulful part. There is the part that you are tasting the wine and it is like the soft skin of a girl's hip. It is the perfect curve, the softness, and the roundness… There is the soulful part of wine and it has to be a blend of the two. Wine is from, it from the dirt, it is from the soil, it is part of life. And that is not black-and-white,” he said, adding the two need to be in balance to create wine.


Digging ditches to start a career

  “It is a pretty simple story,” said Daniel O'Donnell, referring to how he started his career as a winemaker. He had a restaurant, sold it and was planning on opening a new one. “And I had just tasted a bottle of Zinfandel by a company called Ravenswood. It was an eye-opening experience for me,” he said.

  Soon after he visited the winery which at the time was based in a garage. “I volunteered to work harvest. Essentially I just said: ‘I will work as hard as you want. I will do everything you want me. But the harder you work me, the more you must teach me. You don't have to pay me anything.' And the first day, I literally just dug a ditch,” he said.

  But O'Donnell quickly came to love his job. “I had no choice. I am not sure that I chose wine; I am fairly sure that wine chose me,” he said, adding: “I would have never consider doing anything else. I love music, I love architecture, I love all the wonderful things in the world but I could never consider anything else but becoming old and fat and with an old fat dog walking around a vineyard when I am 80 years old. To me, that's heaven.”

Juggling variants

  “Winemaking calls upon all of my resources in order to manage it in such a way that I am pleased with the result,” O'Donnell said. He explained that every year the same grapes from different vineyards create very different wines. “There are 1,500-2,000 different grape types that are wine grapes. And then you take Cabernet Sauvignon that is grown in Çeşme as opposed to Diyarbakır, as opposed Çav, as opposed to Bordeaux, as opposed to California, as opposed to Chile, they are all different, every one [of them].

  The growing conditions are also important. “It rained more this year, the leaves are a not as big this year, it is a little hotter, the evenings are a little cooler, or the soil is a little different, or we planted grass here, or we pruned it slightly differently… All has a profound effect on the wine. So every single lot, vineyard, tank, barrel, bottle is different and every time you learn something. It is fantastic,” he said. “It has been a fascinating ride. It has been a fascinating life, for me.”




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