Behind the wine: Production infrastructure requires healthy vines
Interview with Marco Simonit by Patrizia Marin
Marco Simonit is a master pruner of grape vines, whose advice on how to keep plants healthy is sought by prestigious wineries around the world. In a conversation with Patrizia Marin, he discusses his technique, its underlying philosophy, and its evident parallels with the infrastructure industry and its long-term investors.
Marco, your work is all about the life cycle of a project, in this case vines. Tell us more.
I run a team of 20 or so people called the “Pruning Guys” who deploy our trimming technique for wineries around the world. Wine is a natural interest for me as I am from Friuli, a region which is not always recognized as a superpower but is one. In very many ways, a high-quality agricultural system is quintessential infrastructure, requiring integrated resources and actions much as a transportation or an energy distribution network does.
I was born in 1966 in Gorizia, grew up with my farmer grandparents who had horses, some vines and grew crops- I used to drive the tractor, and remember preferring being around our horses and cows. When I was 22 I started working as an agronomic researcher and sharing experiences with growers in the Collio area. All science has a bit of art, and I actually began drawing pictures of all the physiological oddities I saw in the vineyards. Eventually I met up again with Pierpaolo Sirch, an old school friend, and we started Simonit & Sirch. The great thing about our success is that it allows us to travel to more and more places and encounter more and more specific vine environments, each with their own problematics.
Why compare pruning vines to infrastructure instead of, say, being a doctor?
Let me explain by describing why we do what we do. Our belief is that organisms with fewer wounds perform better, and we apply this to wine culture. When vines are trimmed back after harvest, they are subject to wounds, which in turn affect plant pathology and natural plumbing process. Each cut creates a little dried-out “cone”. Too many of these will compromise the health, longevity and anatomy of a plant. On top of that, they offer entry portals for fungi, which pose a very important risk for any vigneron. That is rather like nursing or healthcare activity. But we don’t treat vines as patients; we try to make sure they function in a productive way, which I would describe as the best and also most natural way.
When we take on a new client, we study how they use their territory and propose ways they can enhance their vines; we also coach them on how to do it so it’s important to realize our work is with both plants and persons. Vine trimming takes place every year after all. The aim, and it works, is to help plants become much more sustainable. They need less irrigation and less fertilizer, and they are more resilient to environmental stressors, both biotic in the form of pests and those related to climate trends. So our pruning paradigm actually shares a lot with the planning and research division of an engineering firm.
In a way you are carrying out infrastructure investments. Those who pay for this must demand some kind of return. Tell us about your clients.
We work all over Italy, and have had Gaia, Ferrari, Frescobaldi and Planeta among others as clients. And in France, with more than a dozen chateaux in Bordeaux. And also in the Champagne region, where Moet Chandon and Roderer are among our clients. We are also now making visits to wineries in Australia, California and South Africa. For the most part these are prestigious wineries, storied names in the business. These are the ones that most want to assure their identity. They want improved styles and above all to bolster their identifiability as icons. To do this they have to be sure of their vines – and that’s where we come in.
Does their investment in your engineering services lead to better wines or higher profits?
There was a period not long ago where investments in the wine sector were really galloping. It seemed like a relatively easy business and markets were recognizing premium prices. That’s basically a cyclical process. We really focus on the longer term, and so work mostly with clients who are in it for the very long run. I’m not an expert on consumer trends. What we do is, as you say, infrastructure, which needs to be maintained to have value. Those who invest in our services are not seeking windfall profits but rather insuring that their assets retain value.
Sometimes I’m asked who my favorite clients are, but that’s not really the way I think. I like wine, but basically I like the vines even more. A master enologist is doubtless a genius and can make a big difference, but what can she or he do without healthy vines? We work to maximize the potential of the people who, along with the plants, ultimately make the wine.
Anyway, I do admire autochthonous types that are somehow more wild, less “domesticated” than others, as engineering a solution for them can be more challenging and creative. I suppose it’s also fair also to say that I like areas that are the most difficult, environmentally speaking. I mean the areas where output can oscillate the most. Road engineers no doubt face a similar situation where terrain and climate require smart rather than off-the-shelf solutions. Champagne and Bourgogne are examples of this. These are environments that do not make a vigneron’s life easy.
That said, we are not out to control seasonal volatility. That probably can’t be done. We rigorously exclude the idea of homologization in our techniques. We study each case on its own. Our whole approach is to find a solution that is intrinsic and internal to the place. Our goal is that the plants – vines in our case – take care of themselves. We help them do that, but they have to know how to adapt themselves. Plants must walk with their own legs.
So you are protecting capital, which is very important to investors today. Does your approach also have a growth focus? For instance, does minimizing “wounds” to plants lead to better-tasting wines?
That’s a hard question. I imagine it does. A branch that has lots of dried-out cones will, due to biological energy flows, produce fruit in less volume and lower quality. Yet my real point would be that a healthy plant is best able to channel the terroir to the fruit. It thus offers a more constant quality over time. And the best way to do consolidate that is to make sure the vines themselves live long lives. To draw out the infrastructure analogy, a road system’s optimality grows as people integrate it into their actual usage patterns, which takes time. New isn’t always better!
The image of the wine harvest is romantic and compelling and very popular; but the biggest event of the year from the point of the view of the vines’ life is the pruning that comes afterwards. If you think about it,that means this phase is absolutely critical for developed winery regions with strong traditional names. Think of Medoc, or Bordeaux.
Such regions are, keep in mind, mostly mono-culture zones. They are not biodiversity hot spots – that’s not the point. Friuli and Tuscany, for example, have more biodiversity, but their wines tend to be less globally famous. Friuli has great wines, but doesn’t have a territorial identity like Bordeaux. This isn’t about taking sides. Biodiversity is important, but there’s something remarkable about the characterization of a place and a lot of that has to do with larger-scale terroirs that are very, very “characteristic.” Conserving that is important.
Are you a revolutionary?
I hope not. What I do is what I have learned to do, and I learned by watching, and by studying, and by trying to recover sometimes ancient knowledge. In early travels to Greece and Spain I found ancient vines that were remarkably productive. I took a close look at them, and noticed that the oldest ones had a lot of branches – some even more than trees – and I tried to understand why that would be. It turns out that making lighter cuts in younger wood does the least harm, and allows the vine to grow to its natural size. We also always make a point of searching out and talking to the people who have been trimming vines for the longest; these are often elderly almost peasant people who in turn learned from their predecessors. Science is important but this kind of vast local knowledge is at least as precious, especially at a time when too often commodified business approaches dismiss the value of technical expertise and focus on the short term. My innovation is, perhaps, in bringing these two strands back together.
You are a business-to-business entrepreneur. Does the ordinary consumer have a role?
It’s true though that people like this. We give courses around the country on our technique, and they are a success. The idea of taking the side of the plants and learning how they grow – follow the sap – is evidently appealing today. We are not out to be proprietary about this; we want to spread our knowledge, and we love the chance to learn more from others. To be sure, it can be hard at first to win the confidence of the staff of famous wineries, but the top managers are pretty quick to convince.
Our approach does of course contrast with the trend towards mechanization that was paramount for quite some time in the wine sector. That’s mostly about cutting costs. With all due respect, our agenda is preserving value. There’s no doubt that keeping a tight budget is essential in a big construction project like building a bridge, but quality and maintenance are necessary to reap the real benefits. That’s why the word infrastructure fits us well. I’d like to believe that we humans will make sure we maintain the skill set to do that. That people – amateurs, not estate owners - show up to our courses suggests many share this conviction.