In a period of pandemia and crisis, when everyone is carried about his loved ones and friends, we have decided to connect our colleagues –winemakers around the world. Well known for someone and unknown for others, they keep the unabated wine spirit and the Bulgarian name around the world. They will share with us their wine experiences and the challenges of the professions enologist, wine technologist and winemaker, which we will summarize and call WINEMAKER.
Asking them our 10 questions, we hope they will get a bit of love from home.
We start our series of interviews with Boris Borisov, who is one of the well-known Bulgarian winemakers around the world, because he spends almost the same time of the year in Bulgaria and in California. He is an agronomist, winemaker, photographer, mountaineer, climber, nature lover and traveler. He takes on challenges with a smile, he loves traveling and only his photography passion makes him stop for a while, to take a deep breath and to capture unique shots in his long and exciting journey.
Many thanks to Ekaterina Gargova, the winemaker and owner of Wine Bridges project for the great idea to meet you with all these winemakers around the world, for making a contact with them and making this interview a reality.
Hello! How are you? Can you please introduce yourself for those who don’t know you?
Hello, my name is Boris and I am one of few Bulgarians living in California and working in wine industry. Wine industry in California is huge, and one of the most important for the international image of the golden State, together with Silicon Valley and Hollywood. California wine industry is responsible for 786,387 jobs in the United States and $34.92 billion in wages as well as $14.14 billion in direct federal, state and local taxes, not including state and local sales taxes imposed on California wine. If supplier chain is included, according to Wines Vine Analytics the total economic impact is 114 billion dollars. If we including the other industries, gravitating and developing thanks to wine production, as tourism, restaurants, hotels, gift stores, transportation probably the impact will be double. Many will say, yes the numbers are huge, but the whole state of California is huge as well. This is true, but the interesting fact is that most of the elite wine production and grape growing is concentrated in two places with size of Plovdiv region, world famous Napa and Sonoma valleys.
Where did you make your first steps in winemaking and what inspired you to get involved with wine?
In a year of 1991 I graduated in Agricultural University in Plovdiv as agronomist and I can say that indirect I got involved with wine industry in year of 1994, as an agronomist for a cooperative in my native town of Veliki Preslav. We were producing wine grapes which was sold directly to a local winery Vinex Preslav. But it wasn’t until year of 1998 when I left my job as an agronomist to take a new challenge in the United States. I arrived in California and started my work for Kendall – Jackson, LaCrema winery. I started from the bottom as a cellar worker, knowing no more than couple of hundred English words. When I say from the bottom I really mean it. My first job in the winery was to clean the pond for recycle waters from the winery, together with a friend-photographer from Veliko Tarnovo. After few weeks, we were cover with fermenting grape juice and wine, fun was incredible. We were still pretty young, seeing the big world for first time, working with young people from around the world, and visiting party after party after work, meeting even more people and learning for their life and culture. The sky was a limit in my eyes.
We know that you have worked in various wineries in United States. Could you tell us about your winemaking journey and share with us interesting and impressive moments from it?
Yes,I have worked for many wineries in both Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Some famous and well-known names are Francis Ford Coppola and Kendal Jackson, where I worked for several years. I can say that I have seen and learn a lot for the whole industry from A to Z. After my first job, I started taking winemaking and vineyard management classes in local college, at the same time I was still involved in the lab at the winery and just a basic work in the vineyards with bunch of illegal immigrants from Mexico. After graduation, I traveled and work for a while in New Zealand. Later on I found a very interesting and well paid job in one of the biggest grapevine nursery in California as a vineyard manager. My work was very detailed and interesting, as we were responsible to supply the wineries and grape producers with clean and virus free grape vines. The place was very close to University of Davis and I had a chance to meet and work together with one of the world top grape vine scientist, prof. Andy Walker. Unfortunately, during the recession, my job position was closed and I decided to use the time and spend some time with my family in Bulgaria and finally to get a diploma for my passion and life, and I got enrolled in University of Food technologies in Plovdiv. During my education, I kept working part time with my friend Miro Tcholakov, who is a winemaker in a midsize winery in Sonoma Valley, Trentadue Winery and who is responsible for at least of 60% of my wine knowledge. When I finished my education in Bulgaria I found a job in a small boutique size winery in Napa Valley, which was in a construction. For few months I worked in the testing room and learn how important is public relations and wine tourism in our industry. Later one, when the winery was build I become an assistant winemaker and worked there for two years. I have been involved in wine production in several more wineries, including consulting for a small family winery.
The most memorable moments in my professional life are very challenging as well. The first one was the earthquake with magnitude of 7+ which hit Napa Valley in year 2014 I believe. We were lucky that the earthquake happened in 3 am and wasn’t during the harvest. When I opened the cellar doors I saw a pile of couple of thousand barrels on the floor, half of them were damaged and wine was pouring freely from them. It was complete mess. Some famous wineries in a valley were heavily damaged from the earthquake. Most important was the human lives weren’t loss. It was very scary event. Another memorable moment were the wild fires, which are starting becoming a new normal for the Golden State. The first one was in year of 2017, when I was working for Francis Ford Coppola winery. We had 30 000 tons of fermenting must and grape, but few people only mainly from the office to do the cellar work. Because of evacuation and road closures 90% of our cellar stuff could not made it to work. Last year happened again, and it was again during the peak of the harvest. This time was even worse, because besides the worker’s shortage, we had a mandatory evacuation for almost the whole region and no electricity for 10 days. The smog in the air was incredible. Me and my friend Miro had to smuggle illegally into the winery to do some of the most essential operation, just to keep fermentation safe. We were lucky to find a couple of humongous electro generators to keep the pumps running and chiller system in action.
As far as we know you have never practiced in Bulgaria, but you are in friendly relations you’re your Bulgarian colleagues. Where do you think winemaking is more challenging and is there a difference in practicing the profession of winemaker in Bulgaria and the country you currently work?
Each place has its own challenge. Remember that 70% of wine is made in the vineyards, under open sky and on the mercy of mother nature. In California is easy to produce organic grapes, because the climate is very dry. We have no rain from June till end of November. Vineyards have to be protected from powdery mildew, which take a few Sulphur applications only. 90% of the time grapes are in perfect condition when arriving in the winery, because we can wait for the perfect phenolic development. Most of the cases grapes has been handpicked during the night when temperature is pretty low and it is very unusual to use a chiller in order to cool it down, before fermentation. Most of the years the weather is pretty mild, during harvest time, but sometimes we can have a very hot weather and strong hot winds during last stage of ripening. This can desiccate the berries and increase the sugar level to not very acceptable levels. You have to make a choice to harvest earlier, but you have to deal with underdeveloped phenols, or if wait later to deal with high sugars, stucked fermentation,high pH. It is more complicated than that, but the main goal for the winemaker is to know very well the vineyard and each single block, how perform later during wine fermentation and wine aging. Another, much greater challenge for winemakers in California are already mentioned wild fires. They can really damage the whole industry and can wipe the whole wine producing regions. Often the winemakers have to deal with managing the smog taint in wine, which is extremely difficult and there is still not real recipe that work well.
In Bulgaria on the other hand my colleagues have to deal with excessive rains, hail, skill labor shortage, winery owners who are not very generous in term of winemaker’s salary, and money shortage for adequate grape growing and winemaking operation. I am not a big fan of European programs and money that are connected to them. Often the money are not spread equal and are funneled to big producers and often are not used for which they are mean to be used. Another big challenge here in Bulgaria is the huge amount of paperwork and government control which winemakers have to deal with. I can say that even with these challenges my colleagues in Bulgaria are doing a terrific job. I was lucky to test some really great and recognizable wines, made with passion, love and skills.
Where is the Bulgarian wine in your life and what memories have you sealed?
For now, Bulgarian wine has a pretty significant role in my life, after Californian of course. Last few years, half of the time I spent in Bulgaria and I love to explore what my colleagues have created. For itself wine is just a beverage, the most important is with who you will share it. It has been traditional already, when I come back to Bulgaria to bring a few bottles of wine made in the winery I have worked and share it with my closest colleagues and friends. They also bring their wines and we spent hours tasting and talking about wine, how is made, what challenges we had, what unusual happened when we made this particular wine. So I can say, drinking Bulgarian wine will always bring memories about these great meetings, which often last the whole night and often are finishing in some piano bar and with famous Bulgarian skembe chorba at dawn.
If you want to present the modern Bulgarian wine to your friends and colleagues how would you describe it and which varieties would you choose?
In my opinion Bulgarian wine is very diverse, thanks to the fact that together with well known wine varieties we have many native varieties as well, grown on very diverse landscape with its unique soil profile and climate condition. The last 30 years the whole wine industry in Bulgaria went to a full metamorphosis and today we have small boutique wineries, made with love and vision, producing region and estate wines, made from varieties matching particular region with its unique terroir. Last 30 years’ Bulgarian winemakers have opportunities to travel around the earth, working in different wine countries, learning and sharing the knowledge and skills with other winemakers and bringing back their experience and knowledge and to discover their own unique style. In few words I would describe Bulgarian wine as a recognizable European wine, with very diverse style and its unique characteristic thanks to native varieties diversification and many diverse micro climate . In most of the cases Bulgarian wines could feel as bargain for foreign tourists if comparing price-quality, and definitely need to be discovered from the rest of the world. Regarding to Bulgarian native varieties, it is work in a progress for me. Sometimes can take decades to learn how to babysit a new variety. It is a combination of factors in the vineyards and later on I the winery. I believe varieties like Mavrud and Rubin are not a secret anymore for Bulgarian winemakers, following very close from varieties like Melnik 55, Muscat and Tamyanka. In my opinion next big will be a Gamza from wineries in Northern Bulgaria, also Dimyat is an interesting variety, but need more time and work trials. If more new small wineries start popping up in Northern Bulgaria we will hear more about Gamza, Dimyat and Misket. I think we should’t turn back and to continue working with well known for every wine lover in the world varieties, as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sirah, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. We already have many years of working experience and know their optimal regions in the country for growing and have amazing wines made from these varieties.
Is it easy to find Bulgarian wines in the country you currently live and work?
You can find it, most often online. There are few websites where you can order it and it will be shipped to you just in few days. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find it at the markets, where ordinary American normally is shopping.
Do the wineries you work in welcome wine tourists? If so, what are the rates of sales they do through wine tourism?
Wine tourism is huge in the United States. On its base are build many other businesses like hotels, restaurants, limo business,shipping, gift stores, entertaining industry, local farmers markets, as well some local manufacturing and many others. It brings money to many people, who don’t know nothing about wine, not counting a huge revenue that from the taxes to each local government. Wine tourism is extremely important for small wineries, which released and sell their product locally and online only. Sells from the tasting room can be close to 100% for some small producers. Most of the wineries have tasting rooms, some of them have even more than one. Yes, the quality of the wine is a factor, but for itself wine is just a beverage. Emotion and experience which our clients will get and remember are probably more important factor for selling our product. We have to make every potential customer and visitor to feel it. A good emotion later on will bring memories, and good memories will bring you sells and more customers. Concentration of winery in a region is a key factor.In Napa-Sonoma alone there are more than 2500 wineries and the region is not bigger than Plovdiv region. If there are just few wineries in this region we will have no wine tourism.
What advice would you give and what would you wish to your Bulgarian colleagues?
I am not very good in advises, but I would like to see more of them to visiting and working in other wine producing countries and not to be afraid to make their hands dirty. It is not unusual to see a winemaker in the United States, doing some very basic work in the cellar, like doing pump overs, digging tanks and cleaning the floor. I would wish them to keep themselves healthy and in a good spirit, to be more patience toward some stubborn winery owners, and to try to educate them.I wish them to keep the wine as their passion and love.
Will you continue to cross the ocean often or you would like to settle somewhere?
For now, I will continue to travel and take different challenges in other wine countries. Of course, I would like to settle down some sunny day, but I am an adventurist by nature and have a photography like my long time hobby, which keeps me running and discovering more unique places on the Earth. If the right circumstances occur I would like to settle down in Bulgaria, make some wine, educate tourists and customers and travel a little bit.