Joel Watson just wants you to have a nice drink and a good time

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When I first began working in the wine industry, my perception of it was entirely skewed: I naively assumed it operated under a guise of pompousness and exclusivity, predominated by old boys clubs. While a lot of that still exists, the archaic climate is rapidly changing, making room for people of all ages and backgrounds.

It wasn't until I started spending time more closely with winemakers that I realized I had the scene pegged all wrong: the legit, OG folks of the wine industry are some of the most down to earth and enlightened of all. After all, winemaking is just farming - chock full of salt of the earth, painfully real people who pour themselves into their craft (of course I'm talking about honestly made wines, not mass produced, commercial examples).

When I met Joel Watson of Luna Estate Winery (Martinborough, New Zealand) at a wine lunch in downtown Toronto (hosted by Noble Estates) - it felt like catching up with an old friend. Joel's style of describing wine resonated in a familiar and cozy form. He's the antithesis of contrived: his stories, littered with fucks, could be misconstrued as brash by the wrong audience. However, amidst the crowd that day, he permeated a charisma that had every person at the table captivated. His wines are made in a very transparent manner, yet he didn't utter the word "natural" or "minimal intervention" once.

I recorded some of our chat, and followed up with a few questions over email. Here is our conversation.

LM: What are your thoughts on organic vs. biodynamic?

JW: I'm a little too practically minded for biodynamics. I love organic farming - now that I've learned how to do it, I'm really enjoying it. It's far more practical than conventional farming, once you break through all the barriers. I don't know much about biodynamic farming. I struggle to understand the concepts. There's nothing for me to grasp, with having such a strong science background. I did a science degree and you can't help but not be a bit skeptical. Whatever floats your boat. Organics at a very minimum is where I hope and think New Zealand wine needs to go. We've already got a strong sustainability program with 98% of producers registered which is pretty great. It is a bit of a journey to go that extra step.

Ultimately, my philosophy is - what is going to involve the least amount of "bologna" and get me from point A to B? The easiest thing to do is put as little in your wine as possible. If you can figure out a way to do it as simply as possible - then do that.

LM: Some of your wines show a lot of reduction - do you endeavour to make it in that style?

JW: I don't aim for reduction. I don't settle the juice, I go to barrel with cloudy juice directly out of the press. It mends itself in larger format. Sometimes it gets a little reductive and sometimes it doesn't. I don't love it. Some people love it, for whatever reason.

LM: What does the label mean?

JW: The whole moon thing on the label - we get these big massive night skies in Martinborough. All cultures in some respect revere the moon, so it's a bit of a unifying thing. Whether you're north or south you see the same moon. That's why we went for the whole lunar concept. We get these really big day moons as well, which can be a bit spooky.

LM: Your Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc were so expressive, and far more complex than one might come to expect, especially from New Zealand. Can you share why?

JW: Gris and Savvy are throwaway wines for most people in New Zealand, tossed squarely into that cheap white wine bracket. I've actually got three blocks of mature Gris, plantings from the 1980's which give me really intense fruit so I treat it with some respect, pre-soak, barrel ferment to full dryness, which pulls a lot of that flavour out, resulting in a powdery kind of texture. I try to make delicate, lighter, elegant and expressive wines, with purity, vineyard and region being my motivation. I don't want to show winemaking.

LM: We've all heard Pinot Noir described as the heartbreak grape. A better, more recent description I heard was the "hard work grape". What's your take?

JW: Can be both! Very sensitive to climatic conditions at flowering, which in the end affects berry size, bunch structure and bunch integrity, so no matter whether you work hard or not, nature and the grape can often work against you. It's also very disease prone due to thin skins, so once again, wrong climatic conditions at certain times of the cycle will bring dramas! It is in general very unforgiving of any lapse in process or any less than ideal growing conditions. However, if you plant in the right areas (sites within regions are critical) and are prepared to accept that Pinot Noir requires a LOT more work than any other red grape than generally speaking you will harvest deliciousness 9 times out of 10.

LM: Your wines could basically be considered minimal intervention yet you don't capitalize on that for your marketing. Why would you say that is the case? 

JW: In my view, all wines involve intervention minimal or otherwise. I can’t really be bothered trying to explain what exactly entails minimal intervention, I mean, who actually defines what this means? Pretty much all end consumers don’t have a clue and probably don’t care anyways! All they want is a nice drink and a good time. I am happy to talk about how we make our wine with wine professionals if they ask. I don’t set out to use ‘minimal intervention’ - it just happens to be how we go about our practice.

LM: Your two single vineyard Pinot Noir's were absolutely stunning, yet so unbelievably different. Can you go into a little more detail as to how the soil types affect the end result, and how you treat them differently? 

JW: Cheers! Very nice of you to say so. That is a pretty difficult question, nobody that I am aware of is able to conclusively say what affect soil type has on wine and why, certainly I am unable to explain this myself, but there is little doubt from what I have experienced that there is a definite and consistent uniqueness to each of the single vineyard Pinot's. There is no difference in how these wines are treated in the winery plus the oak, maturation and finishing regimes are also the same, so this only really leaves site. Of course terrior (site) is many things besides soil.

LM: Where do you see the New Zealand wine industry going? Will it always be export heavy? Why or why not?

JW: We have no choice but to export! Although New Zealand only produces 1% of the world's wine, this is still way more than we can drink! Thankfully, we produce premium wine and sell to high value markets, like Canada. We must continue to tell our stories and to ram home the fact that we are a very serious wine producing nation making arguably the best wines in terms of quality and value in the world.

LM: Do you think your style of winemaking and the resulting wines you make are a reflection of your personality?

JW: I’m possibly not the best person to answer this question! I don’t really spend much time internalizing how or why I do things. My philosophy is to keep it as simple as possible. Even doing this the job is challenging enough!

Thank you Joel! You can follow along and find out more about his wines @lunaestatewinery


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