Q&A with Todd Robbins

General manager and interim vineyard manager, Modales Wines, Fennville
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Photo courtesy of Modales Wines

Q. What’s your professional background?

A. I have a horticulture degree from Michigan State University. From 1999 to 2000, I worked for Dr. Stanley Howell as assistant winemaker at Spartan Cellars. From 2002 to 2005, I learned commercial viticulture working for Mutual Farm Management (MFM). I worked for Fenn Valley Vineyards (FVV) as vineyard manager/grower liaison from 2006 to 2018. Then in 2014, I began as owner’s representative/vineyard consultant for what would become Modales Wines, which Jim and Carol Gonzales and I started in 2016. Our tasting room opened July 8, 2019.

Q. How and why did you get into grape growing?

A. It happened gradually and by accident. My interest in studying horticulture was rooted in learning about diversified perennial food systems. At the same time, I was brewing beer and mead. The opportunity to work for Dr. Howell at Spartan Cellars was completely random, but it set the course for the rest of my professional life.

Q. How have you seen what you do evolve?

A. It’s just been the evolution of professional responsibilities as a seasoned member of the industry. On my first day pruning at my first industry job, I stood at the first vine, paralyzed. The person who I was supposed to be supervising couldn’t speak English but managed to show me how to correctly prune Riesling for Pendelbogen (a type of trellis or training system). I try to keep that moment of patience and generosity front and center in my current role as mentor for our team.

Q. What are the biggest challenges for you as a Southwest Michigan grower?

A. One: increasingly erratic weather. As a horticulturist, my perspective of what’s “possible” is broader than most grape growers. It is possible, for example, to commercially grow orchids in Michigan. I approach climatic risk in the vineyard in a similar way to balancing a financial portfolio. Riskier varieties and sites need to have a larger potential bottle price, and we need diversity of genetics and locations. Higher bottle prices can support the extra effort.

Two: labor. We are experiencing a labor shortage, and the labor that we do have access to is increasingly expensive. Mechanization is a huge part of the solution, but finding people to maintain and operate that equipment is not easy either. Farmers and agricultural workers are unsung heroes in our society.

Q. What are you most excited about?

A. I’m excited to see the grapes that I am growing end up in “estate-grown and bottled” wine. At MFM, harvest was usually the last that I saw of the grapes. At FVV, most of the estate grapes were blended away for cellar efficiency. At Modales, we are focused on the “estate-grown” model. Setting the goal early in the season, getting very intentional in the vineyard and using minimal intervention in the cellar results in wines that are transparent and expressive of site and vintage.

Q. What’s it been like to be involved in launching a new winery?

A. Simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating. I’m excited to be working on a project where the scope of my responsibility is full spectrum, and where the core team that has been assembled is world-class. Jim and Carol have been wonderful to work with, and I can’t thank them enough for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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