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People Talk / A conversation with wine expert Michael J. VonHeckler

Michael J. VonHeckler, 63, may earn more money as an electrical engineer, but he admits being a wine expert is more fun. VonHeckler holds a diploma in wines and spirits from London’s Institute of the Masters of Wine, an accomplishment that took him traveling around the world and seven years to achieve. In 2000, VonHeckler and a group of investors launched a vineyard and winery called Warm Lake Estate in Cambria. The business lasted a decade before it was foreclosed and sold at auction.

As an engineer, VonHeckler lived in Alaska for much of the ’90s, installing radar for the U.S. Air Force. He also worked on Trident submarines. In 1983, he took a job as project manager for Bell Aerospace Co. in Niagara Falls and discovered Western New York. Today he and his girlfriend live in Amherst.

On Tuesday, VonHeckler will begin teaching an eight-week wine appreciation course for the Starpoint School District Community Education Program in Pendleton.

People Talk: How did you break into wine?

Michael VonHeckler: I was living with a gourmet chef, and she had a mastery of the kitchen. I wanted to contribute, so I joined a local wine society on Long Island. I started buying and collecting wine, and the next thing you know we were traveling the world for wine.

PT: You also owned and operated a winery for a decade. What happened?

MVH: A turn of events. I had 65 partners. We raised $3.5 million to start the company. We called it Warm Lake Estate, but the company no longer exists. We were a big company producing 120,000 bottles a year in 2008. In 2010, we went down the tubes. It was bought by another wine company, Freedom Run.

PT: How did you feel about that?

MVH: I got out alive. When we went down the Dumpster in 2008, it was very emotionally disturbing. There’s a lot more money in engineering than there is in wine, trust me. No one wants to touch electrical. Everybody wants to drink a glass of wine and be an expert.

PT: Tell me why Warm Lake Estate only produced one kind of wine?

MVH: I discovered the Niagara Escarpment, was a great place to grow pinot noir grapes, much like Burgundy, France. You need the right growing season, enough water and the right soil. I had been talking to a stonemason in Pendleton who had an apple farm, and we were discussing soil. He described the soil here as clay over limestone, which is the soil composition in Burgundy. Also, the steep slope of the Niagara Escarpment looks exactly like Burgundy’s.

PT: How much of a challenge was the intensive wine program you studied?

MVH: The final test – the only test – was you had to taste a series of 30 wines blind. I think I failed the practical twice before I passed. That was the tough part. Every Monday night I’d take a half-dozen wines from the cellar, put them under nitrogen and go upstairs in my office with the door closed and taste through the wines, make notes and try to memorize. They have a logical tasting order.

PT: What is a good wine for the price?

MVH: I just happened to discover a chardonnay from California called Naked Grape, which is remarkably inexpensive. It’s pretty good.

PT: How large is your wine collection?

MVH: When I lived in Kenmore I had a 10-by-10 walk-in cellar with probably 2,000 bottles of wine. I got a divorce, moved out of that house and sold my collection at auction in New York City. I used the money to start the winery. Now I have two stand-up coolers in the basement of the house I’m living in West Amherst with my girlfriend.

PT: How did you meet your girlfriend?

MVH: Her dad introduced us at the Tonawanda Sportsmen’s Club in Pendleton. I’m an avid trap shooter. I’m also the financial secretary of the club. My girlfriend teaches water aerobics.

PT: What’s your go-to wine?

MVH: Pinot noir, Bordeaux, chardonnay, white Burgundy. Pinot noir tends to live between five and 10 years. It’s light in tannin, so it does not have the longevity of a cabernet sauvignon. From a great vintage and a great grower, a bottle of cabernet sauvignon could last 30 years. My girlfriend was born in 1982, and we just had an ’82 Bordeaux. It was 31 years old, the same age as her. It was absolutely sublime, wonderful.

PT: What wine is undiscovered?

MVH: Underappreciated? Right now, French wines. I was in New Orleans two years ago, and I could not find a French wine in any of the restaurants. They are passé. Everything is from California, Australia, Argentina, Chili, Oregon. Very few restaurants in Buffalo offer French wine.

PT: Is there anything that makes you as happy as wine?

MVH: Music. I’ve played guitar on and off in my life. I was in a band as a youngster called the Mob. That got me into electronics, which got me into music. I’m a collector of antique speakers and electronics.

PT: Is the wine appreciation course at Starpoint your first time teaching?

MVH: I have taught wine before at Niagara County Community College. They have a program up there called “Viticulture and Viniculture.” Viticulture is growing the grapes. Viniculture is making the wine. I wrote the syllabus.

PT: So you have your diploma in wine and spirits. How has it changed you?

MVH: It was a tremendous confidence-builder, because in engineering you’re kind of introverted. Wine is very extroverted.

PT: Why did you study engineering?

MVH: My dad started out as a tree climber and pruner for the parks department in New York City. When he retired, he was a deputy parks commissioner. Actually, my dad ran Gracie Mansion in the ’50s. He was always impressed with engineers. That’s what my dad wanted me to do. I was kind of brainwashed. I’ve been doing it for 40 years.