A lot depends on the taste buds of Mark Lucci ’04. He’s an assistant winemaker at one of the world’s largest wine companies, and one of his responsibilities is the final say on whether a particular batch is good enough to ship. Lucci, who was a chemistry major at Bowdoin, jetted over from Napa Valley recently to talk to students about the wine making process and all that it involves.
What does your job entail?
I work for Treasury Wine Estates, a global winemaking and distribution business based in Australia, and my main focus is overseeing all the winemaking at one of two bottling sites that we have in the Americas. About ten million cases a year come through the site I oversee in Napa Valley, California. So anything related to wine quality control, taste, mixing and blending at the site, is my responsibility.
Before I joined Treasury, I was what’s called an “end-to-end” winemaker, so I dealt with everything from grape to glass, just for one brand. My current job deals with a number of different brands, and they all have this one exit point, where they are transformed from bulk wine into the finished product in the bottle. We handle about fifteen different brands, each one having different blends, vintages or varietals.
How do you make sure the taste is consistent?
It’s a big challenge but a fun one. One of the cool things I do is taste every batch of wine that’s bottled. The laboratory tells us that the wine has the correct alcohol and pH levels, but we still need to taste it. It’s the final, subjective signoff that says the winemaker has approved the wine to release to customers. On a given day I might taste, five or six or seven wines bottled over the last couple of days..
How much of your job is about science and how much is simply about your palate?
It’s essential for me to have knowledge of the science of winemaking, but taste is a really big part of my job. Apart from the bottling, another thing I do is work as part of a winemaking team developing specific brands. One of them is BV Coastal Estates, which is a wine sourced from all over California. A lot of that job involves tasting components of the blends after they’ve fermented.
Let’s say we’re making a red blend, so we’ll take some Cabernet Sauvignon, some Merlot, maybe some Syrah, or Zinfandel, and we taste them as individuals to get a sense of their quality. All of these have been earmarked at some stage to go into this blend. Then we taste them together and offer each other feedback on how the blend is going, whether it needs changing, and how it might be treated in a way that makes the wine more palatable and in line with our quality target. So the challenge is to produce something of high quality that fits people’s general perception of the brand. If you make something that’s way off-style, consumers who are familiar with the wine will notice straight away.
It sounds like a lot of pressure.
Definitely, And there’s also pressure to deliver things on cost and on time. We might have our own ideas of how to make the wine the best it can possibly be, but that has to be within prescribed financial and time constraints. While it’s high pressure work, it is very enjoyable. Given how competitive it is, the wine industry still has a surprising amount of collaboration between different winemakers. For example, I might call a former co-worker at different winery and say “do you remember that time a couple of years ago when we had that fermentation that got stuck and it didn’t finish? Well how did we go about fixing that?” And generally people are happy to help each other, which is not something you see in many industries.
How did your Bowdoin education help you in your career?
I”m really happy with how Bowdoin prepared me. One of the things I got from here was the ability to think critically and solve problems: to be able to break down data and think about each step in the process. I think this helped make up for the fact that I didn’t have any formal training in the wine industry. As I learned about the winemaking process I analyzed each step we went through. So, for example, I was able to say to myself, “OK they solved that problem using Cabernet Sauvignon, but I’m using Chardonnay so I don’t think it’s going to work and this is why their situation is different from mine.”
I also really benefited from the laboratory courses I took as a chemistry major. My first job was in a wine lab, so having the correct lab technique, understanding how different instruments worked, that really helped me get a start. I think if I’d come in and bumbled through the lab, my career in the wine industry would have been pretty short.