December 20, 2023
Antonio Palma, Balancing Role Of A Winemaker and Winery Owner
In this interview, we chat with Antonio Palma about how he manages his day as a winemaker and winery owner and grows his business.
Tell us a little about your background and journey into winemaking.
I was born into a family of wine producers, my father made wine, my grandfather made wine and his father before him. Even as a child, I admired my father working between presses, fermentation tanks, bottling and various processes to improve our wines, right up to the best part, the various tastings to decide which wines would end up in the various blends. Growing up, as often happens, I tried to find my way away from that world, perhaps because being practically born into it I did not give it real value and could not see the real appeal. My studies were, at first, articulated in other fields (which I won't go into here) and then, at a certain point, as if I had felt a call within me towards that world that I did not fully appreciate, there was my definitive rapprochement and return to my origins. In 2009 I became a sommelier of the AIS (Italian Sommelier Association) after attending all three levels of study; and after graduating in 'Sport Sciences', I decided to enrol in the degree course of 'Viticulture and Oenology' at the Federico II University in Naples, officially becoming an oenologist in 2016. After working for many years under my father's guidance, in 2018 the family business officially passed under my management, both technically and economically, and from there I have always tried to improve production year after year. During my life, I have been grinding out experience, as a consultant winemaker for various small companies, and from 2016 to 2019 as a winemaker for the company "Wartalia Srl" in Guardia Sanframondi (BN). I have worked with all types of wines, experimented with new personal ideas and loved my journey in this world more and more, accompanied by the first rewards that finally arrived, such as the gold medals at the London Wine Competition, or the astonishing ratings in international magazines, but I mostly loved the continuous improvements and learning from mistakes. I strongly believe that the final quality of the product is always achieved from expertise, experience and quality raw material.
Your current role and what does your day look like?
I am currently the owner and winemaker of the company. My day always starts in a hurry, because some days it is not easy to fit everything that needs to be done into a 10/12 hour working day. In the morning you organise the day's work, then some days you bottle, and label, others you taste the wines to create blends or simply to check how they are maturing, often you carry out the technical processes, such as racking, clarification, blending, stabilisation, filtration, analytical checks, etc. During the grape harvest, there are no hours, you work 7 days a week, and some days even end at 1 a.m., with an early wake-up call the next day. During that period, in addition to the various processes in the cellar, there is the need to monitor the grapes, to control them in order to decide the best harvest time for the various different wines, and with a clear idea of the end result to aim for. It is a job that can only be done if it is supported by a strong passion.
Image: Taurasi Riserva DOCG 2012; Source: Palma Vini
What inspired you to become a winemaker?
My father and grandfather were the first inspiration to start on this path. Another thing that has always fascinated me is the creation of a tangible product, creating something, which after all is a form of art, and creating a wine or a bottle of wine, alive, changing over time, surviving the years, getting better and better, until, at least, a climax before the descent, almost like a metaphor of human life, unique in their being, is something artistic and magical. All this gratifies me and makes me feel good, this is the inspiration that drives me to make wine.
What are some of the most important skills for a winemaker?
I believe an oenologist should have several skills. Certainly one of the most important is to have a very sensitive and trained nose and taste. So much of this work is done with these two senses, they serve both to perceive faults in a wine that is going in the wrong direction and needs to be 'straightened out'. They are extremely important for the creation of great blends, and great wines, that mature, and that through these two senses, are judged if ready for bottling or should be left to age. It is then fundamental to perceive the taste and trend of the market, to know these and to prepare the wines for the sector of the market you want to target.
Another virtue of an oenologist should be objectivity and balance in the evaluation of wines.
It is important to have skills and experience, to make mistakes, to recognise them and to learn how to solve them. If there is one thing I have learnt from working in this field, it is that you should never be too confident, something can always happen that you had not foreseen or that you did not know about. You can never have too much experience.
How do you think a winemaker can help in driving marketing and sales personally?
I believe that an oenologist can help, first of all, by being clear about the processes he carries out in the winery, by making the consumer more familiar with this field, so as to give him more opportunities to choose his product because it is produced in a certain way, or because it has particular characteristics that are different or superior to other products on the market. This can only be achieved by 'educating' the consumer about what he is buying, giving him a greater awareness that what he is buying is indeed a superior product. But this can only be done if the wine produced is really of high quality. And so it is that we always return to the original point, it is always quality that makes the final difference, walking hand in hand with Marketing, providing the latter with a product with a higher plus, providing the necessary information to give to the customer and making the customer more confident in the choice he makes.
What is the hardest part of a winemaker's job?
There are several difficult parts to this job. First of all, I would say understanding the expression of the wine well. It is an extremely complex job, to perceive the quality of that wine and how it is evolving, whether there is a need for intervention or whether everything is going well. Understanding the wine in front of you is one of the most difficult things. In all other cases, the difficulties come precisely because the oenologist has not been able to fully understand its wine.
Another very difficult thing is having to be flexible year after year because so many things change every year. At every vintage, we are faced with a different raw material, and it becomes very difficult if you are not ready to adapt from time to time to what the vintage offers you. These I believe are the two most difficult things for an oenologist, to perceive wine in its complexity, and to adapt to the various difficulties of different vintages.
What do you do when you are not working/making wine?
Well, in my spare time, I have various interests. I love travelling with my partner and getting to know new places, with their own cultures and food and wine traditions. I play sports, I practice football (lately less and less unfortunately), I work out in the gym and I play Padel. I love listening to the music of various types, although I prefer rock as a base, and reading books of various genres, including wine books. I am a collector and board game player, and often together with friends/colleagues I organise wine-tasting evenings to learn about new wines and wine pairings.
What are the current challenges winemakers are facing according to you?
This is quite a long topic, one could talk for hours about the different aspects, so to avoid going into too much detail, I will only mention a few points which we are and must continue to improve.
At present, the most important challenge is environmental and health sustainability; we are moving more and more towards a sustainable production approach, which includes an eye on producing quality wine, but with processes that are increasingly respectful of the environment that surrounds us, and the living beings that populate it. The use of solar panels is as topical as ever nowadays and many wineries are slowly catching up. The use of 'green' products such as, for example, vegetable proteins to replace animal proteins in the clarification process, or techniques to reduce the use of sulphur dioxide in wine conservation.
Speaking of work in the vineyard, thanks to integrated pest management, the use of pesticides and totally chemical products has decreased more and more, in favour of a more natural approach. In addition to that a whole set of actions is implemented to prevent potential problems in the vines, such as the use of plant protection products that are easily denatured by the biochemical action of the soil and air, the fight against harmful insects by inserting others that are their predators but not harmful to the vine, the use of pheromones for sexual confusion, etc. These are all measures used to reduce the use of plant protection products that are harmful to the environment and potentially harmful to human health.
What skill or topic you are learning currently in wine and why?
Apart from trying to improve my oenological culture as a whole, every day I think it is important to compare notes with other colleagues, winemakers, representatives of companies selling oenological products, and winegrowers, in order to be able to increase my knowledge of the entire oenological world around me, which certainly does not end with my personal culture. Lately, however, my focus has been on wine maturation techniques. Lately, there has been a lot of talk about wines evolved in bottles left at the bottom of the sea, and since this is still a process that I do not know in detail, I am trying to increase my knowledge in this regard, and I am studying it. Then I am consolidating the other ageing techniques that I already know and implement in my wines, such as ageing in wood, and in amphora; I like experimenting and testing the evolution of different types of wines, left to age for different periods of time. At the moment I am delving into everything related to ageing wine for long periods, to try to achieve an evolution that makes the wine perfect or at least tries to come close to what a great wine should be.
The motive is, precisely, to create more and more wines of the highest quality.
What is your idea of a good life?
Another complex subject. Everyone has their own different vision of what a good life can be. I think that what counts in life is trying to do what makes you feel good, respecting others, trying to have goals, trying to achieve them, enjoying every moment of this journey, with serenity, doing good for oneself and others, realising that it is not important to do something great to be happy, but rather, understanding that in simple things one lives moments of happiness, albeit brief, but full and deep.
Who are your top 3 sommeliers whose work you admire?
I do not have, specifically, sommeliers that I admire, I have admiration for anyone who tries to give something of themselves to this field, and for anyone who does it with passion, because a successful sommelier or oenologist who gives something to this field, gives something to all of us who work in it.
Your favourite 2-3 wine books?
One is definitely 'Il respiro del vino' (The Breath of Wine) by Luigi Moio, who was also my professor at the University, Federico II of Naples. Then, as a good oenologist, I always love and thank the authors (Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon, Denis Dubourdieu, Yves Glories, Alain Maujean, Bernard Donèche), for the two Treatises on Oenology, both are enlightening books, milestones for anyone who wants to do this job, oenologist or not.
Header Image: Antonio Palma