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A man with a degree in microbiology who wants folks to make friends with wine? In this episode, Matt Schrader, the Director of Operational Winemaking at E. & J. Gallo Winery / Canandaigua Winery, shares his unconventional journey from a background in microbiology to becoming a key player in the winemaking industry. 

Overseeing the winemaking process from grape to bottle

Starting with his unexpected entry into the wine world, Matt delves into the intricacies of microbiology and its crucial role in ensuring the quality and consistency of finished wines. As a microbiologist turned winemaker, he emphasizes the shift from dealing with potentially harmful bugs to those that contribute to the delightful end product.

Back in 2019, E. & J. Gallo Winery entered into an agreement with Constellation Brands, Inc. to purchase more than 30 wine and spirits brands, along with six winemaking facilities located in California, Washington, and New York. The deal also included the purchase of the Canandaigua Winery that Matt calls home.

The conversation explores Matt’s progression within the industry, from early days at the winery to a winemaking exchange program in Australia, providing a diverse set of experiences. His recent promotion to Director of Operational Winemaking signifies a shift from tactical execution to a more strategic role, where he guides the entire winemaking process, including grower relations and team management.

Matt highlights the challenge of maintaining consistency in popular wines priced at $12 and under, where consumer expectations demand uniform taste profiles. He shares insights into the meticulous process of tasting, blending, and decision-making, showcasing the human element in winemaking.

The discussion also touches on recent successes, such as the launch of Taylor Port Black, an extension influenced by consumer preferences and social media engagement. Matt also unveils the winery’s venture into premium wines, exploring new varieties through a dedicated nano-winery within the Canandaigua facility, demonstrating a commitment to innovation and growth.

Matt has a unique perspective on the future of the wine industry, and he’s excited about Canandaigua’s role in creating new wine drinkers and participating in the premiumization movement. Matt’s passion for his work and the collaborative spirit within his team provide a glimpse into the dynamic and exciting world of Finger Lakes viticulture.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited from its original form to support readability.

Maureen Ballatori: 

I’m Maureen Ballatori and this is Spilled Salt, a podcast on the thrills and spills from the food, beverage and agriculture industries. Today’s guest is Matt Schrader, Director of Operational Winemaking at E & J Gallo Winery. Canandaigua Winery on the East Coast is the location that Matt works from. E & J Gallo also has some West Coast operations. 

So today’s conversation is focused on a number of different aspects of the wine industry in general, and as it relates to East Coast winemaking. Matt works with the grape growers in the New York and Pennsylvania regions. 

Matt’s leaning into an understanding of what the consumers are looking for as the winery looks to create new wines. And what I love about Matt’s work is that E & J Gallo really focuses on what Matt calls, “making new friends for wine”. So they’re in the popular wine category, $12 and under a bottle. 

It’s just a really interesting perspective, especially as it relates to some of the other conversations we’ve had with other folks in the wine industry that are making a very different kind of bottle of wine for the industry. Enjoy the conversation.

Maureen: Hey Matt! Thanks for joining me today. I’m so excited to have you talk through your work a little bit and your history. And some of the future and everything in between. So I’d love for you to start with a little bit of your background. You’ve been 20 years at Canandaigua Winery – that’s a really long time. 

Matt Schrader: That’s for sure.

Maureen: Start me at the beginning right up to the work that you’re doing now.

Matt: Of course. So I stayed local for college. I actually went to Keuka College, where I got a bachelor’s degree in biology. But my heart has always been microbiology. Loved micro, took as many micro courses as I could. That’s where my passion fell. 

So I graduated, I got my degree. I started looking around for jobs like people normally do. And I actually ended up at Geneva General as a medical technologist. Yeah. So I did it  all. 

I really wanted to stay in micro, but there wasn’t a clear path for me there. There were two long tenured microtechs that were doing fantastic work.

Back when you could peruse job ads in the paper, a fellow tech reached out and said, hey, Canandaigua Wines is looking for a wine microbiologist. You should apply. 

So I applied, I got the job. Day one, I walked in, overseeing the micro lab and they said, oh, by the way, you’re also our assistant winemaker. So it was a big surprise, but, with a background in biology, I kind of dove in with both feet. 

I started reading everything I could about wine making, principles and practices of wine making, wine microbiology, and there was a lot of on-the-job training.

Maureen: Before you continue from there, Matt, help me understand, help our listeners understand – what exactly is microbiology?

Matt: Sure. So microbiology is the study of fungi, bacteria, viruses, anything you can’t see with the naked eye. So for the winery, it’s mostly making sure that you’re done with fermentation because yeast consumes sugar and the outputs are CO2 and alcohol.

We’re trying to make sure that our finished wines are free of any yeast and free of any spoilage bacteria that may make the wine go bad or taste bad. 

That was my primary focus coming into wine microbiology. It was a nice trade-up, because I went from bugs that could potentially make you sick or kill you, to bugs that basically got you drunk. 

Maureen: I would say that’s definitely a trade-up. Well done.

Matt: At the time, Canandaigua Winery was owned by Constellation Brands and we have a sister site in Naples, Widmir Wine Cellars. After three years here, I went down to Widmir and learned a new style of winemaking under Glen Curtis. So a little more traditional wine making, small lot, barrels, but great experience. Then in 2010, I was able to come back to Canandaigua and I’ve been here ever since. 

Maureen: It’s quite a journey to go from sort of self-teaching, right, on winemaking to the work that you’re doing now. So talk a little bit about that. What is the context of the work that you’re doing now?

Matt: Like I said, a lot of on the job training, basic wine making technique. When I went down to Widmir, my boss said, Hey, you should do the distance course through UC Davis, enology and viticulture. Simply because the Cornell program wasn’t up and running yet. That actually worked out really well. So I continued some education there.

Then, being a young winemaker, they sent me on a winemaking exchange program to Australia. I got to do a harvest in South Australia, which was eye-opening. Getting to meet with different winemakers and learn different techniques. So, my first few years were a crash course that were really guided by great teachers in the industry.

Recently, I was promoted to Director of Operational Winemaking. So now I kind of own the process, grape to bottle. So I have Grow Relations, a team of six winemakers, all of the Cellar Ops teams, and the sanitation teams. Definitely a shift from tactical execution to more strategy based.

Maureen: I love that word, strategy. Talk a little bit more about that. What does that mean for you? How are you adding strategy into the winemaking process for what you’re doing there?

Matt: My current winemaking boss is on the West Coast, but he is familiar with East Coast winemaking and the varieties that are grown in New York and on the East Coast. So really the push has been for developing regional wines – wines that will thrive in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, our kind of general Northeast area. 

He’s given us quite the ability to advocate for ourselves. When I’m looking at strategy, I’m looking on the grower relation side. I’m asking, hey, what varieties are out there and are planted and can support a new brand too. If we bring this in, do I have the tanks, the coop ridge? Do I have the equipment to process this, to make a quality wine? And then just really trying to drive where the Canandaigua goes in the future. And it’s all very exciting.

Maureen: You spoke to East Coast winemaking compared to West Coast winemaking. What’s the difference?

Matt: I can only speak from experience. The Canandaigua winery focuses on the popular category; the popular wine segment is $12 and under. We are working with a lot of native and hybrid varieties like Concord and Cuba whites. So more Vitis Labrusca, which is distinctly different from Vitis Vinifera, like your Rieslings and your Cabernet Sauvignon. 

It’s a different set of winemaking tools in the toolbox because our consumers want the bottle of Taylor Port that they buy today to taste like the bottle of Taylor Port that they bought six months ago. So whether it was a great vintage or a bad vintage, it’s a good wine, a core vintage. We don’t have the luxury of relying on vintage to vintage variation. We have to let the wine taste the same no matter what the growing year gave us.

Maureen: And so I know that there’s a lot of variation in the grapes that you bring in, right, for how they taste. And so how do you maintain that consistency to deliver the same product time after time?

Matt: It’s a lot of tasting, it’s a lot of using non-traditional tools. In winemaking where we’re looking at lots and lots of time on the bench. As we’re bringing in grapes into tanks, we’re fermenting them up into single lots. We’re tasting as a group, identifying, hey, this has superior quality. Hey, this quality is perfect for this blend, and making a lot of streaming decisions. 

So kind of further down that line, we’re talking about which wines should be racked off their leaves first, which should go to the crossbow filtration first. And then as a group, we’re tasting and saying, okay, these three wines are pointed towards this program, these wines are pointed towards this program, you two winemakers are going to share these two tanks and all the intricacies that go along with that.

Maureen: It’s interesting to hear you talk about that. We work with a lot of the various wineries and breweries and you know a lot of what they speak about leaning into is letting the flavors of that year shine right across the board. 

Whereas you’ve got a different challenge to maintain that consistency. So when you say time on the bench, help me understand what that means?

Matt: Okay, so time on the bench, we’ll pull samples of every tank that we have in large quantities. And then we’re there with our beakers. We’ll try 10% of tank A with 20% of tank B. Then, oh, let’s throw in 50% of tank C. How’s that taste? Oh, that tastes pretty close to where we need to go. What does the analysis look like? Is the alcohol in range? Is the sugar at the correct target? 

So, to the outside world, it’s the mad scientist part. Lots of beakers, lots of flasks, lots of mixing and tasting. I mean, it’s really the exciting part of the work. You’ve got a team of six people going, hey, what if we try this? Or I really liked that, let’s give it a splash more of this. And kind of really dialing in, you know, what that year looks like.

Maureen: I am fascinated to hear you talk about how much the human element is in that though, right? That you’ve got, you know, a room full of people that are all tasting to say, my opinion, basically, as an expert, right, is that this tastes the closest to the taste profile that we’re looking for and that there’s no, there’s no metric for taste, right? You can’t measure for that. 

You can measure for the alcohol, you can measure for the sugars, you know, that kind of thing, but not taste. It’s not like we can say it’s a 7.3 on the taste scale, you know?

Matt: We do have pretty well-trained palates because the team is tasting wines every day and we’re making blends to send to the bottling line every day. So a brand like Arbor Mist, you may be tasting Arbor Mist Blackberry Merlot, you know, three times in a month. So you get very used to the profile, what it’s supposed to taste like. So it becomes a well-trained palate to be able to easily pick out minute differences.

Maureen: That’s so cool. Now talk about new developments because you mentioned that a bit in terms of grower relations and wanting to bring something new to market. Talk about that a little bit.

Matt: In 2023, we had quite the success story with Taylor Port. So Taylor Port is predominantly Concord-driven. We work with our growers to buy up a lot of Concord grapes. Through social media and a loyal following, it kind of really grew explosively.

Since there’s a lot of buying power behind Taylor Port, we thought, what was the consumer looking for? So we actually launched a line extension called Taylor Port Black which has richer flavors and a darker color 

It was all done on the bench. Our winemakers got together and said, here’s three different blends that we really like. I tasted through them and I agreed. I like these two out of the three. 

We sent those to the West Coast. My boss on the West Coast said, yeah, this is great. Let’s run with this. And the other side of that is kind of more doing the work. 

Where I sit in Canandaigua is the old R&D building for Constellation. So there’s a beautiful small pilot winery space in the front office. We really worked with our corporate counterparts and created a nano-winery within the winery. So we have a small destemmer, a small bladder press, we have six tanks, and last year was really our year one.  

We went out and worked with Grower Relations and said, hey, you know, we’re trying to target a more premium price point, what’s out there and is plentiful that we could take a look at. And this past year we did our first two “rec” winery lots. We named it “rec” for regional east coast. 

We did Cayuga white and noir and those lots came out wonderfully. So now the team of wine makers they’re back at the bench going, well, could we make this a standalone wine? Could we blend this with our current portfolio? 

We’re kind of looking at every opportunity there is, just trying to come up with something new and empowering the team to keep swinging for the fences. All we need is one home run. 

It’s a lot of, hey, I got six wines to taste today. Great, let’s taste them. Everything from you know, dryer style whites, rosés, and reds to sangria concepts. I tasted three great sangrias this week. So the team is really putting in the work. It’s a fun time to be at the winery.

Maureen: When you find something that you like and the team likes, it’s agreed that you think this is worth launching? The marketer in me wants to know what’s next. You hinted at that a little bit in terms of, does it sit under an existing portfolio of brands or do you launch a new brand? How does that process work?

Matt: Canandaigua is now owned by E&J Gallo. So we fall under the corporate umbrella. 

The corporate umbrella has its own set of hurdles to clear before you can put a wine to market. But most of the time we’re developing the liquid. So if we have liquid concepts that we like, I send those to my boss, who’s the vice president of wine growing.

He tastes them and if he agrees that hey, yeah, I think you guys got something, then we go through and we taste with the brand marketing team. We get their input and there are other groups and departments out there monitoring market research. What demographics do we think that this wine will hit? Does it fill in a white space for the company? 

So, all those different parties coalesce. When everybody agrees yeah, this is a great wine, I just worry about the liquid. Then marketing and sales figures out what they want the package to look like and what they want the label to look like.

Maureen: For sure. Who is it for, and all of that demographic information. That’s very cool. 

One of the things that you and I have talked about in the past, too, is in that vein of Grower Relations. So I know you sit on the board for the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. We just recently won an RFP to survey all the New York State grape growers to understand what’s in the ground. 

I know that’s important for you to understand in terms of what you can bring to market. What do your Grower Relations look like?

Matt: I have a very strong team of two that work in Grower Relations and they manage all of New York State and some of Pennsylvania. 

We have approximately 70 different growers throughout New York and Pennsylvania and our grower relations person, Mike Kalizzi is fantastic. Very knowledgeable, very easy to work with and our grower network loves him.

I’m talking to Mike about, hey, how much of this variety is planted out there? Because for different wine styles, there are different case thresholds that we need to be able to hit to support growth. It’s great if we find a brand new style and the wine is fantastic, but if there’s only five acres planted in the ground, I have no room for growth. So it’s what’s in the ground now. 

Then we’re kind of working with our growers to say, hey, what else do you got? What’s a variety that you wanna see go somewhere? And after we gain that feedback, we pull some small tons into, well, I should say small poundages. 

We’ll ask them to harvest two, 300 pounds in lugs. We pay for the fruit, then we’ll crush it through the rec winery and see how the wines taste. 

I love being out in the field. I love talking to the growers and every grower has their own passion project, whether it’s, hey, I got Aramella or hey, uh, I have five acres planted of Itasca, have you looked at Itasca? That’s the exciting part, being in the truck, riding around, talking to the growers, walking up and down the vineyard rows, tasting fruit, and then saying, hey, how can we make this happen?

Maureen: Does the winery ever engage directly with those growers to say – let’s say they’ve got five acres of something really new and interesting and it’s exciting to you, you test it out, you love it and you want a bunch of it. Do you ever pre-commit with the growers to buy the output of what they put in the ground?

Matt: We have done that in the past. So that’s what’s known as a planting contract. If we find a variety that we really like, we typically look to our top growers to say, hey, do you have acres to put this in? We’ll sign you up for a seven or 10 year contract at this price, if you put in this variety and sign those tons to us.

We’ve done that in the past and it’s worked really well. Right now, luckily, there’s enough of what we’re currently buying that we don’t need to enter planting contracts, but it’s always something that we look at.

Maureen: I’ve started to hear about more of that happening as of late. Not just in the wine industry, but especially as it relates to regenerative agriculture. That’s something that producers are looking to get their feet wet, but it’s a chicken and egg kind of scenario. Whereas brands want to source regenerative products and it’s a whole game.

You didn’t really come into this work with a deep interest in winemaking, it wasn’t like an itch that you wanted to scratch. You kind of came in from the microbiology angle and then found a fit in winemaking.

Matt: Correct. I mean, I’ve always kind of been a fermentation geek. Before I started at the winery, I brewed my own beer. I’ve done a lot of home winemaking, home brewing. 

I like to tell people that if it has sugar in it, I’ve tried to ferment it. I’ve tapped my birch tree in the backyard and made birch beer. The micro side has always, always been there. But up until I kind of found the job as wine microbiologist, I’d never given winemaking serious thought. I’m old enough to where I was a little, you know, before the ENV programs were established.

Maureen: We talked about this a little bit briefly when we had Nova Cadamatre on season two of Spilled Salt and she shared some great, like, thoughts about where the future of the industry is going. Any predictions from you?

Matt: I think Nova definitely has some interesting thoughts and I agree with some of them. One of the things for us is working in that popular category. We’re focusing on how we create more wine drinkers. New wine drinkers don’t come into the market, buying $50 bottles of Cabernet and $35 bottles of Riesling. 

So one of Gallo’s values is making new friends for wine. So that has really struck a chord with me and with Canandaigua as a site, because that’s what we’re good at. You know, how do we have something for every consumer at every price point? So for us, it’s that entry level, that $12 and under.

We’re thinking about how we get new consumers into drinking wine. And then as their palates evolve, great. I’m glad, I hope they continue on with their wine journey. 

And I hope that they’re buying Gallo wines. 

The other side of that is as we look at new wines and making regional wines. We’re starting to push the envelope and really trying to compete in that $12 to $15 premium section. 

I think that there’s a space for all, but there definitely is a premiumization movement within the industry that we want to be part of. I think that there will always be a space for popular wines because that’s your hook. That’s how you get people into the market and into drinking wines. I think the future is a bit of both.

Maureen: I distinctly remember the first time I walked into a liquor store, when I could legally buy a bottle of wine. I bought Barefoot because I didn’t know what I was buying and I liked the bottle. I thought it was cool. I liked the bright colors and whatever the yellow one is. I think that’s Chardonnay, perhaps, was what I ended up with.

But you’re right. I think that that’s a great mindset of growing the industry as a whole. Asking how can we help people enter into the industry in a way that’s comfortable for them, then making new friends for wine. I love that as a tagline. You mentioned that premium wine is $12 to $15. That’s a very narrow price point.

Matt: Premium is actually a larger gap. I’m saying that I think we can really compete in the $12 to $15 range. I mean, we are a large site and have large equipment. Once you kind of get above that $15 range, our current equipment is a little too strong for the kind of processing we need. I think we can compete in that $12 to $15 rang, but premium really is kind of $12 to $25.

Maureen: That makes sense. So I’d love for you to elaborate on that a little bit. You mentioned that you don’t really have the equipment for the intricacies of a more super premium, like over $25 or let alone over $15 bottle of wine. What does that mean? What does the process look like, you know, to make something on the more super premium side?

Matt: I should go back and reset. I think we could make wines above $15. But for us, we are a large winery. We’ll do 6- to 7 million cases this year. We’ll crush anywhere between 20 and 26,000 tons of grapes, depending on the year, what the year looks like, and what our programs are doing. 

To do that kind of volume, you have to keep the fruit coming in, and you have to keep the equipment moving. So we don’t have any bladder presses where we are setting very specific press programs. We are using more continuous press movements.

Maureen: All right, last question for you. Tell me one of your most favorite things about your work? That can be work that you’re doing now or a moment in your career. What comes to mind?

Matt: Oh, that’s a tough one. Favorite things. I would say kind of right now where I am, being on the edge of guiding where the Canandaigua Winery goes in the next three, five, seven years, is very exciting. 

And seeing the fruit, the quality of fruit that’s being grown in New York State, talking to the growers, then really giving the team a chance to stretch their legs and try new things is exciting. It gets me up every morning, helps me come in and find excitement every day. So right now, my current space is great. I think I love coming into work. I don’t know too many people that can say that.

Maureen: I love coming into work, too. I’m very passionate about the work that I do. And I love finding other people like you who are passionate about their work too. 

I think that for anybody listening to this, life’s too short for anything less, right? You spend a majority of your life at your job. And so you should be doing work that you love, but I won’t get too existential on that. 

I thought this was an excellent conversation, Matt. Thank you so much for talking a bit about your experience and your journey through winemaking and I thought it was fascinating. Thanks for taking the time.