Hubert Burda Media

Wine by Me

A custom winemaking firm lets people take their wine passion to the next level by making small batch vintages. Founder STEPHEN BOLGER chats with Lauren Tan

Wine by Me

Unless you're born into a winemaking dynasty or are willing to lay down a not-insignificant fortune to buy your own vineyards and facilities, the opportunities of becoming a Bordeaux winemaker is especially rare. But not anymore.
Founded by wine enthusiast Stephen Bolger, and co-owned by Château Lynch-Bages CEO Jean-Charles Cazes, Bordeaux-based Viniv enables wine lovers to produce their own barrels of wine from the region's most coveted appellations, including Margaux, Pauillac, Saint Estèphe, Graves and Saint-Émilion. Guided by the winemaking team at Grand Cru Classé Lynch-Bages, which oversees Viniv's winery operations, would-be winemakers are fully immersed in the entire process from vineyard and varietal selection to harvesting, vinification, blending and packaging.
“It's winemaking with training wheels,” explains Bolger. “Bordeaux wine enthusiasts can live the dream of being a winemaker without leaving their day job or taking the risk of investing in a winery.”
Past clients include Russian oligarchs, a chairman of an Olympic Games organising committee and celebrities such as Hong Kong-based actress Bernice Liu, whose Bellavizio wines were made with Viniv's consulting oenologist Eric Boissenot (wine consultant to four of five Bordeaux First Growths).
How did you get the idea for Viniv?
I had started my career in the industrial minerals sector and then moved into technology for industry. After selling my company in 2003, I had to decide what I wanted to do next and came to the conclusion that in the second half of my career, I wanted to do something that I really enjoyed. But I didn't know what that was. In late 2006, I came across an article in Fortune magazine about a company in California — now called The Wine Foundry — that allowed people to produce their own wine utilising a different business model from what we have at Viniv. I thought: Wow, if something like that works in California, imagine if we set up a company like this based in Bordeaux. As a fine wine lover for many years before that, I first looked at the business from the perspective of the consumer — imagine making your own wine in Bordeaux. That's what inspired me to start doing research and starting up the company in 2009.
Did you have any winemaking experience at all?
Zero. I was the typical Viniv client. There's one maxim I really believe in, but which I won't tell my kids until they graduate from college: Never let studying get in the way of your education. That's what my winemaking background is based on. I learnt by doing. I went to visit the vineyards and met the brokers in 2007-2008. When it came time to selecting the vineyards for our first vintage in 2009, I used two consultants, Eric Boissenot and Stéphane Derenoncourt, a consultant on the Right Bank. Visiting the vineyards with them, touching the terroir, tasting the wines — you'll learn. I'll still never have the true experience of an oenologist who's been in the business for a long time, but when you are in the heart of it all, it certainly helps a lot.
Have you made any wines for yourself? What are they like?
Well, I've been making a lot of wines now as I'm pretty intimately involved with all the wines our clients make. But for my own consumption, I've made two blends. One was a Bordeaux, which I made with Viniv together with a group of friends that is cabernet-sauvignon-driven. The other was made in 2008 with that California-based company and that was a Santa Barbara Valley Syrah, a completely different style of wine, which I thought was fantastic.
Are there clients who ask to make a very specific wine, a Lafite perhaps?
Yes and when they say that they want to make a Château Lafite, Margaux, or Latour, my answer to them is, don't make a wine at Viniv. There is something about the first classified growths — their terroir, their hundreds of years of history in terms of understanding the soil and the way wines are made — that can't be replicated by anybody else. That's why those wines are invariably as good as they are. And Viniv would never pretend to a client that we would be capable of making such wines. But my role with Viniv is to make sure the fruit, some of which come from 1855 classified growth properties, are capable of making classified growth quality wines. But Lafite and Latour, the ones that are at the top of the food chain, they do something magical that can't be replicated elsewhere.
Have you been impressed before by a client's palate and nose?
Yes. What is more fun is watching some of these clients make wine over multiple years. One Finnish client of ours groups a few friends together each year to produce several barrels. When he first came in 2009, he didn't know much about what was going on, but because he comes back and learns a lot every year, finishing his blend is now a 20-minute process. He knows exactly what he wants. Even Eric Boissenot and the technical team at Château Lynch-Bages now take a step back and go: “He knows what he's doing.”
We have a number of clients with a strong palate. But what they usually lack when they start with Viniv is an understanding of how what they taste today will evolve five or 10 years down the road, because the wines you taste at blending are extremely young and still in barrel. Sometimes clients who have never tasted wines that young don't necessarily have that ability. That's the reason why it's important they work with our technical team to finalise their blend.
Have any clients gone on to set up their own wineries?
One Canadian client, who used to be a banker in Geneva, has established a winery in British Columbia [Clos du Soleil], where he is now co-founder and technical director. Another client, a South African, has invested in a winery called Creation Wines in South Africa. Tai-Ran Niew [whose family is Singaporean] came in July to produce a 2014 blend. He had first reached out to us to produce a 2010 vintage [of his Vigne de Niew]. What's interesting about him is that 99 percent of clients will work with the technical director from Lynch-Bages or with Eric Boissenot at blending, but Tai-Ran understood wine quite well beforehand and was able to go through the process on his own. He's now setting up his own winery in Oregon. So people have used Viniv as a means of putting on their training wheels to learn what winemaking is all about. And when clients like them go off and do their own thing, that's the ultimate compliment that we at Viniv are doing something right.
Jean-Michel Cazes of Lynch-Bages made some wines with you. He owns wineries, why does he have to come to you?
Just because he believes in the concept. The reason he ended making a wine with us in 2011 is because he had attended our Member Mashup, which is attended by all our clients and which takes place at Lynch-Bages because our winery isn't big enough to host 100 people. He had tasted the base components of each of the vineyards and was really getting into it and decided to make a barrel. His wine ended up being 45 percent cabernet sauvignon from Margaux, 30 percent merlot from Canon Fronsac and the rest was cabernet franc from Saint-Emilion. So it's completely unlike Lynch-Bages and any of the styles of his other Bordeaux wineries. In fact, the wine is sold at a little cafe, Café Lavinal, located on the village square behind Lynch-Bages, not because he wants to make any money but for fun.
Berry Bros & Rudd is the exclusive UK, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan agent for Viniv.
bbr.com; viniv@sg.bbr.com