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Jason Joyce
 
April 29, 2013 | Chalk Talk | Jason Joyce

A Dangerous Game

     A good friend of mine, who is a winemaker, overheard an interesting comment the other day.  It was from a beer drinker who stated, "I just had a bottle of (unnamed rather famous IPA) and it had this weird band-aid smell and taste"  Alarm bells went off in my friend's head.  When he passed on that little bit of info to me, I had the same felling of panic.  It was "Oh no, all of my favorite micro-brews are about to all start smelling and tasting of Brett!"


     In cases you haven't noticed, a big trend in beer brewing over the past few years has been the surge in beers brewed with Brettanomyces.  Brett, as it is called for short, is a "wild" yeast that produces a very distinct olfactory and flavor profile in the beverages produced using it.   The most common description of this profile in wine is either "band-aidy" as in the smell of a box of band-aids, or "barnyard" as in hay soaked in the waste of farm animal.  Not exactly the most endearing of descriptors.


     Along with ripeness (although this is getting smaller with every passing vintage), probably the biggest differentiator between "Old-World" and "New-World" style wines is the presence of Brett.  Taste most really cheap imported European wines, and you will get a heavy dose of Brett.  One of the big problems with Brett, is once it shows up, it is pretty much impossible to get rid of.  Even with all our sanitation gear like ozone generators, steam generators, UV barrel lights, gaseous sulfur dioxide, if a hint of Brett shows up, there's not much to do.  Here at Calcareous, if I smell or taste it in a barrel, the wine is destroyed far away from the winery and the barrel goes straight to the BBQ wood pile.  All the sanitation work is the lock on the door, once the intruder get's in; the only option is to blow the place up. 

Brett Wood: Coming to a tri-tip near you!

Brett Wood: Coming to a Tri-Tip near you!


   Why such drastic measures?  It goes back to one of the classic "throw-away" winemaker interview terms that actually does mean something to me.  I truly want to "respect the fruit".  I want the wine produced at Calcareous to taste of our vineyard.  The problem with Brett is that everything it touches taste like, well, Brett.  The fruit and the vineyard definitely take a back seat to the yeast in its case.  The reason I like to use commercially available yeasts is that it allows me to choose yeasts that have as neutral an effect as possible on the wine.  I pick our grapes during harvest almost exclusively on the flavor profile I get when tasting grapes in the vineyard.  I remember what the fresh must tasted like when the grapes are put into the fermentation tank.   Once primary fermentation is complete, I want as many of those same flavors to be present as possible.  Sure the sweetness has been fermented out, but I aim for that same beautiful strawberry hint I get from Pinot Noir grape to be there in the bottle.  This is why I consider keeping Brett out of the winery probably one of my single most important duties as winemaker.


     So in the back of my mind as I've been tasting these Brett beers the past few years (most of which I just dump out because my winemaker brain has made me so ruthlessly prejudiced against the flavor) I've been thinking that this is a dangerous game just inviting this beast in the front door.  Sure there are schools of thought that small hints of Brett can add complexity.  Concerning beer, where for the most part people are not growing or malting their own barley or hops, I can see the appeal of trying to play with the flavors that different yeasts can add.   But with wine, we emphasize the place, the work we do on the land should outweigh the work we do in the cellar.   The flavors produced by Brettanomyces are just too dominant in my opinion.  If there was a way to ensure that it played nice with everyone else, Brett could be a fun thing to play around with in a limited sense.  But it tends to be a real bully when it comes to aromatics and palate, pushing everyone else to the background.  I only hope that the brew masters of my favorite breweries have somehow learned to tame this dangerous beast and keep it from getting into places it is not supposed to be.  If not, harvest season is going to be a much sadder place if all my favorite beers start to taste of my worst enemy.

   And for a bonus here is a gif I can't stop looking at.  Yu Darvish throwing 5 different pitches from the exact same motion.  Makes Albert Pujols look like me at city league softball which is nice.

 

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