Friday, September 19, 2008

Sugarloaf winemaker: 'Wine was the perfect fit'

There was a time when Carl DiManno had his hands in an industry that powers engines and puts our world in motion.

In his third career now, the 41-year-old winemaker has moved to an industry that powers the imagination and sets our palate in motion. He’s left behind Houston, left behind working for two companies that produce fuel for the car to spend his days mixing the blends that make up
Sugarloaf Mountain Winery’s excellent line of wines.

“It’s my third career,” he said late last week after being asked how he transported himself into this current occupation. “I left Chevron in 2001 to go to UC Davis and learn wine. Chevron was . . . my second career. I made gasoline for Shell, went and got an MBA. Decided I didn’t want to be an engineer, then went ahead and started writing business plans and strategies and found that utterly detestable. So I was looking for something to do, something else where I could get my hands dirty and actually make something at the end of the day, and wine was the perfect fit.”

Going to school on the West Coast placed him in a couple of Napa vineyards, so he knows the pluses and minuses of working that coast. Minuses? Oh, just that it’s not quite the same challenge.

“Sugarloaf works with some fruit from out of state,” said DiManno, who began there in January 2004 and produced his first vintage two years later. “Some of the fruit I’ve worked with actually . . . I’ve thought, some of my peers in California would have been thrilled with the quality of this fruit. The real change is in the vineyard. It’s easy to grow good fruit in California. It’s really hard to grow good fruit on the East Coast, and when I compare notes with people out there, they ask, ‘Why are you bothering? You’re killing yourself. You’ve got the bees that we don’t have and the bugs we don’t have and rain in the summer.’”

What he finds particularly gratifying “at the end of the day when the wine goes in the bottle you’ve got a product that you’ve made sitting in your hand s. There’s a lot of pride and a lot of pleasure that goes into that, and accolades aside, really the highest compliment I can get is ‘Woahhh, this really doesn’t suck for a Maryland wine.’” He laughed on the other end of the phone. “That’s high praise. [You get] somebody dragged into a Maryland winery and they find it to be on par with a lot of things that are coming out of a lot of wine-growing regions. That’s a high point, and I say it like that because I’ve heard it put like that on a lot of occasions.”

In some ways you can call the Sugarloaf line offbeat, both with some of the names (Circe and Comus are Bordeaux blends) and the fact that a light-bodied red called Stomp is the closest thing they have to an off-dry selection. That contrasts greatly with many of Sugarloaf’s Maryland and Pennsylvania breathren, where sweet and fruit wines populate the list. “You go to the wine festivals and you see what sells and you know why people make some of the wines they do,” he said. “Because they pay the bills.”

So the nine awards secured last week in the
Maryland Governor’s Cup competition is particularly rich in irony. Happy, yes, although DiManno admitted earlier in the interview that these competitions can be exasperating. Trot the same wine before a different judging panel and it can be kicked around like a soccer ball, he said, drawing much lower scores. DiManno was asked if he’s been on that side of the table.

“Maryland does something called Maryland Wine Masters, which is actually winemakers who sit around before the Wine in the Woods event, and I sat in on that this year,” he said, “and we sampled wines. When we walked out of there we were pretty happy with the results as judges. We think we got good wines, but we also knew that there were two different sets of judges and one set would give the wine an 8 and the other set would give the wine a 6. Well, the problem is, the people giving the 6 may feel that’s a good, solid 6 and you should be happy with it, but when they tally the numbers it was the ones getting the high scores from the generous judges that went on to the final round. So that’s been my only experience with that side of it.”

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