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Elie Skofis: Man of the Year for 1991.

A man whose life was one long mission of service to his country, to his family to the wine industry joined an elite company of his peers Feb. 1 when he was awarded the Leon D . Adams plaque and was applauded as Wineman of the Year. Elie C. Skofis was honored at the 17th Annual Wine Industry Symposium (WITS) at the Red Lion Hotel in Rohnert Park, Calif.

The man who introduced him - Chris Kalabokes - was his boss before he retired in 1987 after 16 years - ending as vice president-production - at Guild Wineries and Distilleries. Kalabokes is Guild president and CEO.

In his acceptance, Skofis emphasized his belief in youth and service. He paid tribute to the young persons in the wine industry and added this advice to them: we must all be more active in all aspects of the industry if our enterprise is to persevere and succeed in the face of the negative forces at work. We need to fund research if we are to continue to make the best wines in the world."

Especially, he said, young persons in the industry must be willing to serve on the various committees that perform the work of such associations as the Wine Institute. He didn't do it, but he could have pointed out the unselfish service he gave the industry over a half-century.

Skofis was graduated from U.C. Berkeley in chemistry in 1943 and immediately went into the U. S. Army. He served his country three years in the European Theater and attained the rank of captain. In 1946 began a steady progression of responsibility in the California industry with a job as winemaker at Italian Swiss Colony in Fresno (where he makes his home). He was wine division production manager for Roma and Cresta Blanca from 1955 to 1971 when he joined Guild as production operations manager. Promotion was steady and along the way he found time for service to the industry. From 1952 to 1973 he was on the Technical Advisory Committee of the Wine Institute and was chairman for two terms. He was an associate professor of enology at CSU-Fresno in the early 60s and was an adjunct professor later until 1976. He was one of the planners of the Enology department at CSU-Fresno and still is a part-time teacher; his subject is Winery Management.

In the Sixties he was a wine judge for the California State Fair and he was a member of the state's wine grape inspection committee in the 70s and 80s. He was chairman of two major Wine Institute committees-Laws & Regulations and Environmental & Energy - and continues to serve the latter committee with emphasis on waste disposal and air pollution.

He was a charter member of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture and was its president in the late 1960s. In 1983 he gave the ASEV's Guymon lectureship on brandy because of his extensive research in brandy production and in 1985 he received the ASEV's highest recognition, its annual Merit Award.

The 1990 Adams Award recipient, wine consultant Andre Tchelistcheff, presented this year's plaque to Skofis. The first winner in 1979 was the man for whom the award is named, author/ historian Leon D. Adams. Since then other winners have been Louis P. Martini, Prof. Vincent Petrucci of CSU-Fresno, the late Charles Fournier of New York state, the late Jefferson E. Peyser, Louis R. Gomberg, the late Myron Nightingale, Robert Mondavi, Dr. A.D. Webb, Dr. Harold P. Olmo and Dr. Maynard Amerine.

It was fitting that the award be presented to Skofis at the 1991 WITS. He was chairman of the first WITS, held in Fresno in 1974.

Wines & Vines put to Elie Skofis a series of questions and asked his answers based on his lifetime of experience in the wine industry. The Q-A series follows (with the questions in italics):

What were the most significant achievements for the U. S. wine industry during your years of involvement? What should we aspire to in the next half-century?

My involvement started in 1946. We changed production, in the years that followed, from primarily aperitif/dessert wines to primarily table wines. There was a big improvement in wine quality because of new winemaking technology and improved viticulture. This has been evidenced in the high quality of every wine produced - whether it be table, vermouth, aperitif-dessert, champagne or brandy.

One of the biggest goals in the future will be to inform all that wine is a beverage to be enjoyed at the dinner table, to enhance the meal and to enjoy the company without over-indulgence. We must continue to produce better wines from better grapes, which means we need to accelerate and encourage support research programs in enology and viticulture.

Unfortunately, many consider wine a cheap form of alcohol. We must intensify our education program that wine is not that, but a delightful beverage to be drunk in moderation to enhance the meal and to be enjoyed in a pleasant and friendly atmosphere.

Do we have the right grape varieties for table wine? For champagne? If rot, what changes do you suggest?

We have enough wine grape varieties to produce high quality wines. I say this based on present cultivars. It could be that breeding new cultivars will bring out astounding variety.

We have been driven by the marketplace to produce more Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines, yet I have tasted many other varietal wines - both red and white - which were exceptional. We have become enamored with certain varietal names. Many times the consuming public is led to believe by marketers that the only quality wine can come from certain varieties. I have tasted many high-priced Chardonnays and was disappointed with some of them.

With respect to champagne, I believe that the best of them - particularly those fermented in the bottle and primarily in this bottle-are produced from such grapes as Chardonnay and Pinot noir. Yet I have tasted many fine champagnes made from a cuvee of these wines plus other well-made wines. Even wines made of Thompson grapes, harvested at the right acid and sugar, can be used as part of the cuvee. I can say definitely that only well-made wines should be used in champagne making-whether bottle-fermented or by using the Charmat bulk process.

We should continue to investigate the real role of aging champagne on its yeast lees. Additional research on better yeast and fermentation controls should be done using champagne from present grape varieties.

The courts and long custom have allowed American champagne producers to call their product champagne" because it has become a generic word. The French object to this, holding that only the product from the French champagne area can be so called and everything else is sparkling wine. What is your view?

I believe we should adhere to the status quo. The American public has been well oriented that sparkling, or naturally effervescent wine resulting from secondary fermentation is "champagne." A change now may create the impression we have been deceiving consumers. Also, I question whether the American public is concerned about the French objection, which I believe is primarily economic in nature. We are producing many fine champagnes which compete with French labels and the American public is entitled to drink what they like and wish to buy.

What should wine do to make its case before the American people as a mealtime beverage with great history in religion, medicine and good living?

We must expand our promotion of wine as a mealtime beverage and continue to associate our product with good living. Present government regulations restrict us from promoting wine and its medicinal benefits. I would think that we would

be criticized severely if we were to associate wine with religion-even though wine was used in Biblical times and is so used today in church rituals.

The best place to promote wine and its benefits is in the family unit; that is where we should focus our efforts, emphasizing all the best of wine, its history and moderate use.

Some authorities (including Leon D. Adams, first recipient of this award) have argued that wine should be as cheap as milk. Do you think this can ever come about?

I don't believe we could get the cost down to that of milk. I am concerned, though, that we do not have the wine industry perceived as attempting to use the price angle to promote wines over milk. I wonder how far we could get with the assumption that it is cheaper to drink wine than milk. This doesn't strike me right.

In the light of your expertise in brandy production, how do California brandies compare with the brandies from the rest of the wine world? How do you rate column-still brandy compared with pot-still brandy? Is barrel aging more important in brandy production than in table wine?

We are producing in the U.S. a number of different styles of brandy and most are produced in column-stills. These styles can be identified as light, medium and heavy in flavor and aroma.

Most of our column-still brandies are light to medium, whereas pot-still brandies-particularly the French labels - are heavy, i. e., high in higher alcohols, or as commonly known, fusel oil. Brandies produced in other countries are both column- and pot-still.

Depending on barrel-aging time, the type of oak cooperage, the distillation techniques and the grapes from which the product is made, I would say column-still brandies can be exceptional, and in some cases equal to or better than some pot-still brandies. The big volume of column-still California brandies is light to medium. In my tastings I have found California brandies generally are better than similar type brandies produced elsewhere.

Barrel-aging is most important and much more so than for table wines. Brandy won't age in stainless steel tanks. Three things are required for aging: high quality distillate, good oak cooperage and time for oxygen to be absorbed through the staves and interact with the distillate components to bring about the desired brandy flavors and aromas. In my opinion there is no substitute for aging of brandy in oak barrels.

Do you consider that we have the right grape varieties for making brandy? If not, what cultivars do you suggest?

Assuming that a brandy maker uses the same winemaking and distillation methods and equipment, I would say that we, should produce better brandies using such varieties as Colombard and Ugni blanc (St. Emilion). This view is based on my long experience with pot-still brandies; I found that Colombard and Ugni blanc produced a more flavorful and aromatic brandy distillate than Thompson and Tokay. I have noted, however, that brandies produced by column-still from these latter grapes are closer in quality. This is due in my view from the greater rectification achieved in a column-still compared with a pot-still. We should remember that the brandy distillate is made up of many volatile components from the base wine. The richer the wine is in flavors and aromas the more pleasing will be the brandy distillate.

As to cultivars, I believe all the grapes I have mentioned (assuming their soundness) should produce good brandies, depending on the flavor components the brandy maker seeks.

The California brandy industry should do further long-term aging and testing of brandies made from other cultivars such as Barbera, Chenin blanc, muscat and some of the other red varieties. I have tasted interesting brandies made from these.

Quality corks --- do corks present a production problem? Do you see a solution? Is there a closure other than cork that would be acceptable? Why has the industry ignored the screw-top for "quality " wines? Why does a consumer have to wrestle with a corkscrew?

Cork quality is always a concern. With the big increase worldwide in demand I am amazed we don't have more supply problems. This indicates another type of closure should be developed. The aggregate cork closure is now being used. I haven't seen or heard of any study or research using another type of material such as a softened wood (with similar pulling characteristics as cork) to give the benefits (air intake) as does cork.

Today the consumer perceives the screw-top as being used for cheaper wines. If one uses such a closure on a "quality" wine it loses status and is considered lower-priced and lower quality. Yet a "standard" wine outfitted with a cork closure is looked upon by the consumer as better quality.

As long as we use inserted bark corks, we will need corkscrews. A bar-type cork doesn't give the quality protection to the wine as does a solid inserted cork.

What about plastic versus glass bottles?

Personally I don't like the use of plastic wine bottles as it gives wine a cheaper image. I concur in the use of bag-in-box for institutional packs and for bars, and a 4-liter bag-in-box is handy for home use. Also plastic for the airlines is a special category.

I am concerned, as are many others, about the ecological effect of the disposal of plastic packaging.

Furthermore, I am not sure that the savings - whatever they are - are worth the cheaper image plastic confers upon the wine.

Do you see any logic in the federal requirement of warning labels on wine, and in the state requirement (Prop. 65) for warning signs in eating places and bars?

Initially, I couldn't see the sense of the federal wine label warnings, but when we consider the enormous amount of labeling requirements for other products bought by the public, I don't believe we should stand apart, particularly because we have nothing to be concerned about.

With respect to Prop. 65 warning signs imposed on our industry, I don't see what protection is afforded. I am greatly concerned over recent attempts to legislate by initiative, especially because total and truthful representations are not made to the public. Prop. 65 was sold to voters as a protection for clean water, whereas in reality it covered a melange of issues and has become another bureaucracy. The California legislature had passed effective laws protecting our water supply, our air and other environmental concerns; the public was protected adequately without Prop. 65.

What is your reaction to the current issue - as raised by the state - about fermentation as a contributor to air pollution?

As you know, I have been directly involved in environmental problems affecting the wine industry beginning with inception of the Wine Institute's Environmental Committee in 1970, of which I have been chairman.

Had we and the state air pollution regulators known in 1977 (when ethanol emissions were first brought up as a possible concern) what we know now I believe this would not be of interest. In the interim we have done extensive and expensive research on ethanol emission under the auspices of the Wine Institute.

I hope with the latest research involving full-scale operation in 1990, we can convince the Air Resources Board we are not any kind of a threat. The ARB has been most cooperative with us and helpful in our intensive research on fermentation as a contributor to air pollution. Results of that research will prove that pollution through fermentation is insignificant and that abatement costs are both astronomical and prohibitive.

What should be the relationship between winery operators and grape growers?

It should be one of mutual trust. The winery operators must recognize the financial needs of the growers and accordingly pay reasonable prices. The grape growers must recognize that overpriced grapes coupled with diminishing sales are to their long-term detriment.

The law of supply and demand is very applicable to the wine industry. I don't believe we should do what some European countries do in setting up production quotas, i.e. limiting yields per acre and prescribing growing areas. We should research the development of better grape quality standards and then let the marketplace decide.

Considering the part played by U. C., Davis, CSU-Fresno, Cornell and other universities and colleges-at home and abroad - what would you like to see to make their role even more effective?

We need to make their role even more effective through adequate financing and support. Other countries encourage their institutions of enology and viticulture in performing valuable research to improve their products because they realize the important values to their economies. We struggle to get funds to do the research and many years we have inadequately funded programs.

I recognize that a certain segment of our population does not want any governmental support for such research because of the alcohol factor. I would like to see, for example, the California legislature enact a Research-and-Development support program to be funded by the growers and processors, with such funds earmarked for realistic R and D to benefit the state's economy. I don't believe anyone can dispute such a program - which would be paid for in the end by the consumer - to develop further our grape and wine industry.

Do you have any thoughts as to switching the federal agency responsible for wine regulation from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to the Department of Agriculture?

Except for the tax-collection aspects of the wine regulations, the wine industry would be better served by the Department of Agriculture-particularly since it would be the main avenue to help in funding viticultural and enological research to improve the product and therefore the national economy.

The BATF is doing a great job of supporting our industry, but its main thrust is to insure collection of taxes. Early in my career, in the 1940s and 1950s, the tax collectors restricted the industry beyond protecting tax collections. But (former) President Eisenhower instructed the bureau to be of service to us and not a hindrance, and this attitude has prevailed for the most part.

Are career people in the wine industry sufficiently compensated?

I believe that generally speaking the wine industry-in spite of all its problems-has compensated its career people adequately. I do believe, though, that a study could be done to determine better what the compensation picture is in all wine areas of the state and nation. Such a study should be done exclusively for the wine industry by a neutral party. This study should cover the views of both the owner-operators and all level winemakers as to what they expect and what they are getting.

An additional study should include what our winemakers are doing to increase their technical expertise besides the experience gained on the job.

Perhaps we should encourage formation of an Academy of Enologists selected by their peers because of the person's professionalism - the same as other academies or colleges, i.e., the College of Surgeons.

What should the wine industry hope to see by the year 2000? Accomplishments? Dangers?

With the need and desire to produce higher quality grape and wine products, we should encourage development of more stringent grape quality standards to insure that only the best fruit is grown and used.

We are seeing more responsible manufacturers of state-of-the-art equipment which the vintner can use to produce better wines, improve crop yields, reduce costs and, generally, greatly improve wine quality.

As to dangers, my principal concern is: when will this present negative growth slope for wine end? We need to develop a strong image of wine as a beverage to be enjoyed with a meal in the presence of good company.

You have been a long-time supporter of the Wine Industry Technical Symposium and were chairman of the first WITS in Fresno in 1974. What is your opinion as to the worth of such gatherings?

From personal experience over my 46 years in the wine industry, I strongly believe I learned more from such meetings than any other source, where I heard from my peers as to the why, the what, the how and the results of what they were doing.

We need all types of forums to gather and listen and learn, and perhaps also to pass on to others a new thought or finding. Also, at these forums, the younger enologists can meet and talk with their older and more experienced peers.

For a long time (post-prohibition) and even now, we were the envy of other other licensed beverage industries in that wine people, in competition with each other, could meet at such technical meetings and exchange information.

The Wine Institute has been greatly responsible through its committees in development of much technical information from funded research, technical meetings and sponsoring of other programs.

WITS has done an outstanding job since it was created after the demise of the old Institute Technical Advisory Committee. I was most happy to be involved in its first meeting. I particularly am pleased with its broader scope in also involving the marketing of wine.

And, of course, the American Society for Enology and Viticulture, now more than 40 years old, is the envy of the wine world because of its annual conference and scientific journal.

Above all, we need such gatherings to enable our young enologists and viticulturists to meet and learn more about the latest developments.

And, speaking for my generation, we never are too old to learn.

THE NO. 1 QUESTION

In this Q-A interview with Elie Skofis, the veteran winemaker singled out one aspect as the most important. We asked him the following:

After 44-plus years of active wine service, do you have any message for your young wine industry peers?

Yes, I do have an important message to send to the current generation. It is this. You have been given the torch to bold aloft in the 21st Century with the industry in the midst of momentous change.

Many times, changes for the better occur that might have been even more significant had there been more input, by more people. Many times, changes occur for the worse for lack of intelligent participation in the decision-making process. You must participate actively in every aspect of the wine industry in addition to working hard as winemakers, doing an excellent job of producing the finest wines possible. Even so, winemaking will, at times, seem simple compared with the problems which confront you.

Your personal, active participation is most necessary. For instance, we have to resolve the issue of how to do a better job of selecting and funding-on a regular basis-research in enology and viticulture. In addition, you must take part in the work being done to present wine in the best possible light, stressing its use in moderation and as a mealtime beverage to be enjoyed in the company of people you admire.
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Title Annotation:awarded the Leon D. Adams Plaque at the 17th Annual Wine Industry Symposium, Rohnert Park, California
Publication:Wines & Vines
Article Type:interview
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Words:3751
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