Clearly, we’re wine fans around these parts. There’s just something about a time-honored tradition, being reliant on the rain, the sun and the earth, and condensing years of hard work into one simple glass — all to better eat with, no less — that we can seriously respect.
What else do we respect? When there’s a woman behind it all.
Meet Karoline Walch. She’s a fifth generation wine maker at Elena Walch, a vineyard founded by her mother, Elena, in scenic Alto Adige, Italy. Karoline grew up immersed in vineyard life, and after earning a dual Masters’ in winemaking and wine business in Australia, she’s since returned home to both preserve her family’s legacy while also continuing to distinguish herself in the world of wine.
We’re stepping into that wonderful world (and inviting you along), below.
Darling Magazine: Winemaking is an ancient profession with a strong history of tradition, but what major changes do you foresee in the industry’s future?
Karoline: Winemaking is definitely driven by tradition, but innovation is also very important. The art of winemaking has been perfected over countless generations, each passing down the knowledge of how to make the best products from the unique vineyard sites that we are lucky enough to own.
In the cellar, technology has improved the process of winemaking tremendously and will continue to do so. Interestingly, even with new technology, we often still rely on old principles. For example, we built a brand new fermentation cellar in 2015. It has the newest technology but also relies completely on gravity to press the grapes and move the juice from vessel to vessel. I think we can look forward to seeing more of this blending of old and new, taking the best concepts from each and utilizing them.
There’s a saying that “wine is made in the vineyard,” and I believe now, more so than ever, we are realizing that this is where our true wealth lies. We work sustainably, giving back to the soil what we have been taking out for many years, but in completely natural ways. Consumer interests have changed; people are now paying more attention to how all products, including wine, are being produced. I feel that this is another major trend. More and more wineries will be working in sustainable manners as consumers become even more conscious of what they are buying, where it comes from and the philosophies behind the product.
We work sustainably, giving back to the soil what we have been taking out for many years, but in completely natural ways.
DM: Since you grew up in the wine business, is this something you had always wanted to pursue? Was there ever a time when you wanted to do something else for a living?
Karoline: I always knew I wanted to be involved in the winery. My childhood bedroom was above our cellar, so every morning I would wake up to the sound of barrels rolling; my sister Julia and I played in the vineyards as kids; and a lot of our family vacations consisted of visiting different wine regions around Europe and the world. It was ingrained in me.
That being said, both of my parents were really supportive and encouraged me to follow my own passions. For instance, there was a period of time where I was very interested in electric guitar and was involved in a few bands. My mom and dad fostered that interest, supporting me and coming to my shows. I appreciated the fact that they didn’t push me into the family business — they really wanted me to make the decision for myself and do something that I love.
I realized I liked playing guitar, but I love wine. When I went to university, I made a conscious decision to be formally involved in the wine industry and later went on to earn my Master’s in Oenology and Wine Business at the University of Adelaide in Australia.
DM: If you could only drink one type of wine for the rest of your life what would it be and why?
Karoline: What I love about wine is the wide range of choices available. Every moment, occasion, mood or pairing, I choose differently. It’s nearly impossible for me to select just one. From red and white Burgundy, a great Barolo from Piedmont, crisp and complex Pinot Bianco from Alto Adige to Oregon Pinot Noirs and Shiraz from old vines in Barossa Valley. There are so many tempting choices!
DM: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in this profession?
Karoline: Being a family-owned estate for 5 generations now, maintaining our values and creating the highest quality wines are a huge focus. With increased competition, our biggest challenge is positioning ourselves differently. We do that by creating a product with soul, made by real people instead of corporations.
DM: How has working with your mother (and sister, Julia) professionally changed your relationship?
Karoline: To be honest, I was slightly nervous when I came back home to work at the winery with them. I had studied abroad for a while, and the idea of moving back and entering into business with family was certainly something to consider as a young woman starting a career. However, I can happily say that this was the best decision I have ever made. I love my job, and having my sister and mother here makes things even more enjoyable because we can communicate freely and openly. Of course, we sometimes argue at the lunch table, but that’s when we come up with the best ideas!
I’ve also gotten to know their personalities so much better:
From working with my mother, I have learned to appreciate each day and tackle it with enthusiasm and passion. She has said to me, “You know, whenever I wake up in the morning and hear the alarm clock, I get so excited because a new day has started.” I find that so admirable; work isn’t work for her, but rather something that she loves.
In working with my sister Julia, I’ve come to appreciate the calmness and balance that she brings to the job environment. She’s able to make the right decision in the right moment.
…the beauty comes from every single part of the process.
DM: What’s your favorite step in the winemaking process and why?
Karoline: Making a bottle of wine is a long, fascinating process and it’s hard to single out a single step, as each can’t exist without the others. You can think of it as an art, every time you create a bottle of wine you are coming from a different perspective and are faced with different conditions. One year will never be the same as the next, so while I value and welcome each step, I see it as the sum and not the parts.
For this reason, the beauty comes from every single part of the process. From the beautiful, sunny spring days when you see the vines waking up again after being dormant during winter to the gentle “bud break” where tiny, delicate leaves start to grow. Then, there’s the gradual change of color in the vineyard from brown to bright, vivid green when the vines are growing. Later comes verasion, where the grapes change color and red varieties like Lagrein and Schiava get their ruby hue.
Then there’s the crucial moment of getting it all right — choosing when to harvest. Day after day, you walk through the vineyards, tasting the berries and checking for the right balance of sweetness, acidity and flavor.
When you finally do pick the grapes, it is an exhausting but rewarding time. We then move into the cellar for fermentation and are continuously tasting barrel samples to see the wine’s evolution. And after many beautiful sunny days, or perhaps also sleepless nights, the wine is finally bottled and sent out into the world.
Then, the process starts all over.
Images via Elena Walch Winery