It was a wine tasting and he met a barrel representative from France by happenstance. He tasted wine from the representative’s barrels, and as he compared it to his own wine, he opened a door to an incredible experience: The Powers Sabbatical.
“I went and asked my boss if I could have a couple of weeks of work off, and he was very supportive of me applying for the Sabbatical,” said Rafanelli, a winemaker for L’Ecole 41, based out of Louden, Wash., just outside of Walla Walla. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn as much as I could about oak.”
This would not be Rafanelli’s first sabbatical, having taken prior trips to places like Australia and Germany. The Powers Sabbatical, however, was different. This time, Rafanelli didn’t have to worry about expenses, as the sabbatical was footing the bill. The Sabbatical is offered by the Washington Wine Industry Foundation to honor Bill Powers. The Bill Powers Sabbatical Fund was created to honor Powers and enable a young professional in the Washington wine industry to travel anywhere in the world to learn about an aspect of wine grape growing or winemaking to further their career, and benefit the Washington grape and wine industry.
The Sabbatical awards up to $5,000 with funds used for travel, room and board, education-related expenses, or related expenses. “That really helped break the barrier so I could just focus on learning,” Rafanelli said.
After making the decision to go, Rafanelli developed his own curriculum, chose his own areas of study, making the adventure all the more fun and meaningful for him.
He flew to Paris, then drove to Cognac in central France, home to some of the country’s biggest barrel producers. Then, he spent a week in Bordeaux, visiting wineries, then east to Burgundy, and later to the Champagne region, right around Easter weekend.
What he saw revolutionized his way of thinking, from the way wine is placed in barrels, to the way the barrels are made to the way wine is sold at grocery stores. “Wine has three aisles,” he said, later adding that wine is “almost a necessity over there, a natural accompaniment to life.”
Seeing what a crucial role wine plays in the life of French people made Rafanelli wish it could be more like that in America. In the U.S., some folks still see wine as almost a luxury. At the same time, he relished the chance to visit some of the great wineries in the world of wine.
“Tasting the wines in the cellars and the barrel rooms of all these great wineries like Cheval Blanc, Marquis de Terme, (there were) many great opportunities to learn,” he added. He also learned, much to his surprise, that an oak tree yields only one or two barrels. “They only use 15-20 percent of a tree for the components that go into a barrel,” he said. “There’s only so much that is the right grain or the right direction. That kind of blew my mind.”
If the ancient chateaus, stately oaks, and aged barrels stunned him, technology came to his aid a few times while trying to break the language barrier, with Google Translate becoming a big help.
The biggest lesson he gleaned from the trip is that there is not one right way. The coopers all have their own methods for treating the wood, the winemakers may use the same ingredients, but the results aren’t identical.
“Every barrel was unique the same way every wine is unique,” he said. “We have to keep striving to make great wine. We have to keep working together, since our (Washington wine) industry is still relatively unknown out there in the world or wine.”
The trip to France may help break some of the preconceived notions French winemakers have about our industry, such as its size or its strengths. “They think it may be all Pinot, because Seattle is rainy,” he said. “Lots of preconceived notions about us there. If we work hard, we can change that.”
2020 is the first year of post-Powers winemaking for Rafanelli, and although it may be a few years until he can taste a difference in his work, he trusts that what he learned will have an impact in other ways, like through his involvement in the Walla Walla Community College’s Institute of Enology and Viticulture.
“My goal is to give my presentation on oaks to every class,” said Rafanelli, a graduate of that program who has also taught there. “People just coming into the wine industry will get this information, while I had to wait 10-plus years.” This way, they will be able to make better decisions regarding barrels earlier than he did, he added, allowing them to make better wine sooner.
“It’s great to see the industry propel itself forward, allowing people to have these types of sabbaticals and bring all this knowledge back to Washington. We have to keep supporting it, working together as an industry and keep looking toward the future and continue making Washington a world-class wine region.”
As a winemaker, he’s doing just that, armed with new knowledge.
“Seeing the same coopers I saw in France in my cellar here, and having seen how they season their wood, what methods they use to toast their barrels, I feel like I have a better understanding of how those barrels will taste,” he said.