Nike Executive Recommends Innovation in Winemaking

Speakers at IQ conference share experiments with oak consistency technology and why 'recipe' wines lack complexity

by Andrew Adams
IQ nike wine event
Chris O’Donnell, vice president of global sales for Nike, shares a story of how innovation boosted business for the athletic gear company during the keynote address at the IQ conference held by Wine Business Monthly magazine at Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, Calif. Photo by Scott Summers
St. Helena, Calif.—The keynote address at the second annual Innovation + Quality conference at Charles Krug Winery in Napa Valley had little to do with winemaking or grapegrowing, but Chris O’Donnell, vice president of global sales for Nike and speaker at the event attended by about 1,100 wine professionals, said successful innovation is possible in any industry by adhering to certain principles.

At Nike, that means listening to athletes. “Your ‘athletes’ are wine drinkers,” O’Donnell told the audience assembled in the winery’s barrel room.

Innovation insights

Nike takes input from its customers and passes it along to the Nike “innovation kitchen,” which is charged with cooking up new ideas. “In this ever-changing world, innovation has never been more important than it is today,” he said.

O’Donnell used the development of Nike Free, a line of loose-fitting shoes that provide a similar experience to running barefoot, as an example of the company’s successful use of innovation. He said the concept came from a university track and field coach who would have his athletes periodically run barefoot over a golf course. The coach believed the barefoot running strengthened the feet and legs of the athletes so that they dealt with fewer injuries and could train harder.

Nike took those insights to their team of in-house scientists who studied the phenomenon and determined the runners’ legs and feet move differently while barefoot. Two years of studies resulted in prototypes that Nike developed into a retail product.

O’Donnell admitted that, unfortunately, retailers weren’t prepared for a product unlike any other shoes on the market. “We had to put a lot of shoes into the marketplace that had no consumer demand,” he said.

The launch was a mistake, and O’Donnell said it took a few years to get the Nike Free program into balance. Today Nike Free accounts for 17% of the company’s total sales, and the division would be the fourth-largest shoe producer in the world if it were separate from Nike. “It’s crazy how that insight led us to something we could never have imagined,” he said.

It also shows that successful innovation is only possible when a company is willing to work through mistakes. “Some of the failures teach you more than the successes,” he said.

O’Donnell stressed that a company has to be willing to work through the mistakes to successfully innovate, and it needs to make innovation a priority—even if it’s small business with limited resources. “You don’t have to be big and well resourced to be an innovative,” he said. “You have to be passionate.”

Following O’Donnell’s presentation, Francis Ford Coppola Winery president and director of winemaking Corey Beck took the stage with Philippe Bascaules, the general manager and winemaker of Inglenook in Rutherford, Calif.

‘Best of both worlds’
Coppola is also the owner of Inglenook, and the successful film director recruited Bascaules from Bordeaux first-growth Chateau Margaux to oversee production at the historic Napa Valley estate

Bascaules has worked in Napa since 2011 and said he’s still learning the nuances of growing grapes and making wine in a climate very different from Bordeaux. Instead of dealing with untimely rains, rot and cooler weather, he’s figuring out irrigation, managing sun exposure and fighting dehydration.

He’s most surprised by the challenges in achieving that perfect point of ripeness in the Napa Valley. “I think it’s not so easy to have the grapes ripen on time, maybe because of the coolness of the night or sometimes the yield and the block,” Bascaules said. “It was a surprise for me to not have very good ripeness of the grapes.”

When asked by a member of the audience if he could recreate a phenomenal wine like the 1954 Inglenook, Bascaules said too much has changed to try and mimic such wines. “It would be impossible to do the same. I don’t want to try and copy, it would be a mistake,” he said.

Yet he does want to make wines with less alcohol—around 14%—that have more freshness and perfect balance. A wine’s potential for aging comes from its balance and not its concentration, he said.

Ultimately though, Bascaules said he doesn’t want to do much as a winemaker, explaining that when winemakers seek a perfect recipe in the cellar they can make technically sound wines that don’t have much character. “When you create a ‘recipe’ as a winemaker, you just taste the recipe and you lose the taste of your grapes,” he said.

Tasting barrel consistency

The conference also included a technical tasting featuring wines that had aged in the new barrels by Vicard Generation 7. (Vicard has developed a system for determining and sorting staves by tannin potential to produce barrels with low, medium and high tannin.) Research consultant Dr. Marie-Laure Badet-Murat described the process during the tasting session, and her work was also documented in an article in the February issue of Wines & Vines. (See “Innovative Tools for Stave Selection and Toasting.”)

Justin Seidenfeld, winemaker at Rodney Strong Vineyards, brought a selection of Chalk Hill Chardonnay wines. He said the winery has been producing a Chalk Hill Chardonnay for longer than he’s been alive, so the process from vineyard to bottle is pretty well set. The new barrels provide a way to make minor and subtle changes yet maintain a minimalist approach to preserve vineyard characteristics. “It allows me to fine tune those details much more precisely,” he said.

Beaulieu Vineyard director of winemaking Jeffrey Stambor said BV has a long history of experimenting with barrels. He mentioned that he remembers trialing “laminated barrels” that had high-quality oak on the interior surface but cheaper wood on the exterior. He said based on the blank looks he was receiving from the audience, few others remember the short-lived products.

Stambor stated that during his time at BV he has worked with coopers on forest and then grain size and tightness to minimize variability. The new advancements in understanding tannin content are producing a level of consistency that Stambor said are intriguing and could even make him adjust the amount of maceration he puts his red wines through because he’s more certain about oak tannin content. 

However, he said he still prefers working with the “purity” of expression in single barrels and then assembling final blends himself, noting that technology is “not the only way to get to consistency in your barrels.”

Hosted and organized by the staff of Wine Business Monthly magazine, the IQ conference is a showcase of innovations for producers of premium wines. Technical tastings highlighted new equipment and winemaking techniques, while a trade show of 90 suppliers featured the latest products and services for the wine industry. Attendees also had the chance to taste through 20 different winemaking trials presented by wineries. Wines & Vines and Wine Business Monthly are both owned by Wine Communications Group.

Posted on 03.04.2016 - 11:02:30 PST
Wasn't at the conference, but I was surprised that a member of the audience singled out the Inglenook '54. The wine most often cited as the Napa Valley wine of the century is the '41. The '58 and '59's were exceptional. But the '54? Not that I have tasted them all. Regarding innovation it is easier to be innovative in a young product and harder in one that has several thousand years of product development. It would seem innovation is certainly more important to a product that is sold on having the latest technology rather than it being a creative expression in a long tradition.Logic would suggest that re-making the '54 or the '41,for that matter, would not require innovation.
Tom Ferrell