Sep 10 2010

Inside PBS’s The Winemakers: Q&A with Don Sritong

Not only is Don Sritong an expert on wine, but he also plays one on TV.

The owner of Just Grapes is currently shooting the second season of PBS’s The Winemakers, which is slated to air in spring 2011. The reality show is a cross between Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen for wine, with the winner receiving the financial backing and resources to release their own label. You can watch preview clips of Season 2, including an interview with Don, here:

The series continues production in October, on location in France’s hallowed Rhône Valley. We caught up with Don as he prepares for the trip, to find out how he was picked to be on the show, what part of vineyard maintenance is the nastiest, and how his experience on The Winemakers will enhance the customer experience at Just Grapes.

Q: How did you become one of the 12 contestants on The Winemakers?

Sritong: There were several casting calls around the country. I attended one in New York, and they took two people from there—I was one of them. Other contestants were picked through social media, where they had to post a video on YouTube explaining why they wanted to be on the show, and the people with the most views won.

Q: Does each contestant have a background in wine?

Sritong: Not everyone. There’s one other guy like me that has his own retail wine shop, there’s a few people that are more involved on the food side of it, there’s someone from the distribution side, and the guy I roomed with for the first part of the show is a fireman. It’s an interesting dynamic.

Q: What have the producers put you through so far?

Sritong: The challenges to this point have been more physical than mental. They break us up into groups, and test our teamwork skills and resourcefulness. They had us pruning in the vineyards, and they had us cleaning pond scum out of their irrigation pond—that was definitely not fun. They also had a bird netting challenge, which is a common occurrence in vineyards right before harvest to prevent birds from eating the grapes. It’s all a lot harder than it looks.

Q: How are you preparing for the next round in the Rhône Valley?

Sritong: I have not been there before, and it’s one of the reasons I signed up for the show. I really love Rhône wines, and I think they’re a great value across-the-board—this is an excellent opportunity to go there. As for the show, they tested our overall knowledge of wine in the casting call, but it hasn’t happened on the show yet, so I imagine there will be some testing in France.

Q: You have experience working in vineyards before, so what are you learning on The Winemakers that you can pass on to your customers at Just Grapes?

Sritong: I think we really sell the experience side of wine here, and having been through all the challenges of this show will allow me to communicate even better to my customers, and articulate my passion.

The other peripheral benefit is that we make a barrel with our customers once a year—we have 20 customers signed up for it this year. We’re actually going to Napa and Sonoma to tour the vineyards where we’re sourcing our fruit, and we oversee the entire process, from grape to bottle. So my experience on the show will obviously help me become a better winemaker for our barrel program as well.

Q: If you’re the winner at the end of The Winemakers, what will you name your wine label?

Sritong: Just Grapes! I really believe in simplifying the whole wine process, and at the end of the day it’s all really just grapes.

Before Don departs to the Rhône Valley, stop by Just Grapes and wish him luck on The Winemakers. While you’re here, you can also take some of our Rhône Valley favorites home with you, including:

2006 Perrin And Fils, “Les Cornuds” Vinsobres, Rhone Valley, France [$19.99]

91 pts – Wine Spectator
50% Syrah, 50% Grenache. The color is a deep ruby with a purple edge. The Syrah grape shows on the nose, with red fruit, black cherry and licorice. On the palate, this combines power with elegance with its velvety, fleshy texture. The finish shows the lift typical of the cooler parts of the Rhône valley.

2007 Domaine du Vieux Chene, Merlot, Rhone Valley, France [$10.39]

A rustic, earthy, peppery style of Merlot. Grown in a region not known for Merlot but typically Syrah, this is a fun and delicious style of Merlot that pairs well with savory meat dishes.

2008 Cave de Tain, “Lady Marsanne” Marsanne, Rhone Valley, France [$8.79]

Pale yellow color with green tints. The nose is full of fruit and vanilla-flavored—white flowers, citrus fruits—fresh on the palate with white fruit aromas of pear and white peach. This is an easy-drinking, crisp, and harmonious wine.

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