By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor
Photos courtesy of Heron Hill Winery
Just in time for the riesling rush of harvest, Heron Hill Winery on Keuka Lake has hired a new head winemaker. After an arduous search process, Bernard Cannac of France has landed the job and will arrive Friday to begin work.
Cannac is a native of the Languedoc region of France, but has spent recent years consulting and making wine on Long Island. The 36-year old arrives in the region with his wife, and according to Heron Hill owner John Ingle, they're already looking for a permanent home on Keuka Lake.
Cannac worked with Ingle last weekend as Heron Hill's pinot noir came in, but his full-time schedule will commence this weekend.
Inside the search for a world-class winemaker
John Ingle thought he had wrapped up the search for a new head winemaker very quickly. Heron Hill and former winemaker Thomas Laszlo parted ways on August 11 and Ingle thought there would be a quick and satisfying end to the search for Laszlo's replacement. After hiring a recruiter, Heron Hill received an application from a winemaker in Michigan whom Ingle found to be "outstanding. He came in and it seemed like a perfect match.Outstanding talent and credentials."
But Ingle says the winemaker's family scuttled the deal late in the process. "We were very disappointed, and that knocked us off the horse."
Fortunately, the applicant pool was deep and wide. Winemakers from Bulgaria, South Africa, France, South America, Virginia, and California sent resumes. There were half a dozen local options as well, but Ingle viewed them as a last resort. "When we went through the applicants it was like a world tour," he says. "And we wanted someone who wasn't part of the Finger Lakes industry. We were looking for new blood, new energy and new ideas. Part of what brings progress is bringing in outside winemaking."
Before anyone concludes that Ingle doesn't have faith in local winemakers, he explains that there's more to his thought process.
"We have great candidates locally, but it can be difficult to hire them," he says. "Sure, it's part of the business to have assistant winemakers being hired away to take head jobs. But I didn't want to grab someone else's winemaker. My vision was to go outside if I could."
It came down to Cannac and a winemaker from Virginia. And it came down to one tasting.
"His riesling was a revelation"
Ingle admits that his goals for a new winemaker became cloudy during the search. He wanted a PR force, and he wanted someone with a vineyard background, and he wanted someone with new ideas. Then, about two weeks ago, the clouds lifted.
"I said, 'Enough with all that stuff. Let's taste their wines.' What matters more than anything is the fact that I want to see my wife's eyes light up when I come home with a bottle of Heron Hill wine."
So on Friday, October 2, the Heron Hill staff tasted through the wines provided by the final two candidates. This would determine which man would get the job. And it wasn't easy; the staff thought each set of wines was excellent. They turned to Ingle and his wife to make the final call.
"It was over when we smelled Bernard's riesling," Ingle says excitedly. "We didn't even have to taste it. The bouquet was so impressive. We just knew. His riesling was a revelation, and the job was his."
No hard feelings with former winemaker
Ingle has not been in contact with Thomas Laszlo since Laszlo's departure, but that doesn't mean he doesn't respect his former winemaker.
"He was a lot like a son to me," Ingle says. "But you know, it's rare to see a winemaker stay at the same place for very many years. You look at people like Peter Bell and just marvel, because that's the exception and not the rule. And I think Thomas just lost some focus and lost his target in the last year or so. Trust me, that can happen. He's a very talented winemaker."
But Heron Hill is looking ahead now. "We think and we hope that Bernard is here for a long time to come," Ingle says. There won't be much time for Cannac to relax. He's stepping directly into a vintage that seems destined for world-class riesling, the region's standout grape. If Ingle has made the right choice, well, he figures he'll find out sooner than later.