CULT OF TASTE: Breathe Deep


A woman uses her senses to make wine

You can take the girl out of Wall Street, but you can’t take Wall Street out of the girl. The first time Lisa Donneson met Gilles Martin, who would become her winemaker, she showed him a PowerPoint presentation. A PowerPoint presentation about the kind of wine she wanted to make, market and sell.

She laughs about it now, but she knew what she wanted and she knew Martin got it. That was two years ago and with their first vintage of Bouké, 2007, in the bottle, they’re starting to see the fruits of their collaboration.

But first, where is Bouké? What is Bouké? Donneson does not have a vineyard or a winery or a tasting room; this 50-something wine enthusiast buys grapes from North Fork vineyards with the help of Martin and then makes four wines—a red, a white, a rosé and a dessert wine—at Premium Wine Group, the custom-crush winery in Mattituck.

There’s no merlot, no chardonnay, just red and white, which allows Donneson and Martin the freedom to choose the best fruit each harvest and blend it to make a consistent product from year to year.

“I wanted the experience to be gorgeous,” says Donneson. “From the packaging to the taste. It has to be approachable, yet still have mystery and magic.” She adds, “But approachable does not mean dumbed down.”

With the waning popularity of “critter wine”—mass-produced, affordable wines with cute animals on the label—Donneson’s wines seem to be on the cusp of the next thing: wine that isn’t one-dimensional with a label that’s condescending or a marketing campaign that talks down to the consumer—three things she was intent on avoiding. And three things the new wave of wine consumers—educated and interested—instinctively find repellant. Especially the groups of 20-somethings from the outer boroughs who make weekends out of wine tasting on the East End.

“And,” she says, “I wanted to accomplish all this at the $15 to $20 price point.”

In addition to securing the services of Martin, Donneson contracted with a graphic artist to create the modern-yet-retro labels of thin vertical stripes of color: yellows for the white, and red and pink for the red and rosé. The rest this former Wall Street analyst has done herself included figuring out legal issues and completing the constant paperwork required by the federal and state governments.

Now the bulk of the work is marketing and selling the wine, and Donneson is out pounding the pavement herself. Currently, the wine is only available in New York State and the 2007 white and rosé have sold out. Just in time for the ’08s to hit retail stores and restaurants for summer.

But it is the 2007 Red that’s currently making Donneson happy. A blend of 35 percent merlot, 25 percent cabernet franc, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, 15 percent syrah and 5 percent petit verdot, it has been winning competitions, receiving praise from wine bloggers and is finally showing what she and Martin knew it could: quality at an affordable price that will continue to develop and improve in the bottle.

Donneson started to show the red last fall, but wasn’t getting many orders; she knew it was good, but had to realize it wasn’t ready. The wine went back into the storehouse, while she waited for its colors to show.

And that’s when she learned about how expensive it is to make red wine. Not only does it require aging time in (expensive) oak barrels, time is also expensive. Even though the wine was the result of passion and pragmatism, it was still dead money sitting in cardboard boxes.

Opening a bottle of the wine in Premium’s office, Donneson and Martin exchanged knowing and surprised glances as they sipped. “It’s scary how good it is,” says Martin in his Gallic accent, appreciating his work and the orchestrated but not inevitable improvement that time in the bottle can impart.

Donneson was clearly pleased and appreciative of the close relationship that develops between a winemaker and his client. The client has to trust the winemaker’s taste, knowledge and experience, while the winemaker must ensure the finished product is more than a collection of his preferred attributes; it has to reflect the desires and personality of the client.

As a client, Donneson is no mere wine enthusiast. She holds a diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, an intensive two-year program, and forged her love for wine years ago after a trip to Tuscany, where she and her husband, lawyer Henry Weisberg, worked in a vineyard and helped in a winery.

The passion grew from there. After retiring from Wall Street to raise the couple’s two children, Donneson hosted dinner parties that grew increasingly focused on fine wine. From there she called the assistant dean of the French Culinary Institute and embarked on her wine education that resulted in the diploma.

By the time she was finished, the kids were grown and she knew she wanted to do something with wine.

For the diploma she had written a paper about launching a wine brand and thus she ended up with Bouké, a series of challenges that involve farming, chemistry, marketing and dealing with the colossal competitiveness that is the wine business. She hopes to be profitable in five years.

“You’re competing with wine from around the world,” she says, adding that staying only in the New York market, with plans for Internet sales under way, will help to capitalize on being local.

And the brand expands. This spring she bottled 50 cases of the dessert wine to be released this summer. The wine is a gewürztraminer blend that is essentially a vin doux naturel, still wine to which distilled alcohol has been added to stop the fermentation, thus keeping some of the grape’s natural sugars. The new wine is called Bouquet.

While she lives in Brooklyn with a home in Sagaponack, Donneson makes regular visits to Premium where some parts of her 2008 red are still in tank and others are aging in different barrels—— some new wood, some aged; some French, some Hungarian. Martin takes her through the tank and barrel rooms showing her how the different elements will come together to produce what the two hope to achieve. The 2008, which wasn’t an easy growing season due to frequent rain storms, is slated to have a little more cabernet and a little less syrah.

The two have lunch and she is gradually learning what Martin is able to discern with ease. “He can tell when the grapes are first picked what they’re going to taste like in a year,” she says. Her training, she adds, was to know what wine tastes like when it’s ready for consumption. “He’s taught me a lot,” she says.

Martin returns the compliment. “It’s a great challenge to work with someone who knows what she wants,” he says. “It’s the first time someone showed me a PowerPoint about what she wanted in a bottle.”

Eileen M. Duffy holds a diploma in wine and spirit from the International Wine Center and writes from her home in Southold.