When McLuhan saw the typo he exclaimed, ‘Leave it alone! It’s great’ Thus there are now four possible readings for the last word of the title, all of the accurate: Message, Mess Age, Massage, and Mass Age.
One of the aspects of the “information age” that I find troubling is the fixation on the media and not the information. Everyone seems to be pre-occupied by how something is said instead of what is said. More effort is used up deciding whether to use email, text, blog, twitter, facebook, pintrest, tumblr, google+, wuphf… then is used in thinking about what is to be said. The world seems more concerned with the quality of the devices used for retrieval and display, and less about the creating content of actual quality or use. The end product of this type of thinking is the creation of a veritable cacophony of insipid information. I find many similarities to this when getting involved in the discussion of wine. Too often the conversation is limited to the media, in this case wine, and the content goes missing.
Franz Lebowitz famously said “Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.” Whereas most people that align themselves professionally with wine simply bristle at this notion, I whole heartedly agree. I can’t think of a worse group of dinner companions then a group omphaloskeptic wine experts humming a mantra of aromatics and phenolics to each other all night. I like to think of wine as a portal to almost any topic one finds fascinating. The more one learns about wine, the more one is exposed to the fundamental ideas behind it.
Whenever I give a cellar tour, host a tasting, or walk guest through the vineyard, my singular goal is to take the questions given to me and answer by thinking about bigger concepts. In this way, we can move beyond the superficial and towards the profound. Luckily, I have found that most questions people have about wine are quite easily shifted in a more interesting directions. This in turn creates a deeper understanding of the topic and of one’s own beliefs and opinions.
For example, when asked about using French, Hungarian, or American barrels, the conversation can take all sorts of turns. What is an oak tree’s perspective on human created geopolitical borders? How old world and new world forest management techniques describe the different views each have on the abundance of natural resources. Or perhaps, the evolution of American cooperage technique which was initially based on storing sea faring and colonial salt pork, moved on to whiskey storage, and only recently embraced the unique needs of wine ageing.
The discussion of wine tasting and reviewing easily lends itself to thinking about the nature of perception and individuality. Wine’s intrinsic role in commensality is the perfect stepping off point for demonstrating the unique way each of us experiences the shared moment. The list of possible topics that can begin with wine is nearly endless. Arguing the merits of modern, organic, or biodynamic farming techniques is tantamount to thinking about how best to be sheppards of this planet. When we talk of the relative importance of the vineyard and the vintner in the creation of a bottle of wine, we are really feeling out our thoughts on nature vs. nurture. This is why there is so much written about wine, why wine blogs like this one seem to be in every corner of the internet. Wine is truly intertwined with the human condition.
Of course, drinking a glass of wine with friends does not require that a class of Philosophy 101 begin each night. Most commonly, wine is just the first spark of a long night spent talking about family, friendship, food, travel, culture, the arts; the topics that make life so enjoyable. So please, do take the time to learn as much as you can about wine. Not so you can be an expert on wine, but because it can lead you to wherever your true fascinations lie.
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!
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.
It looks like the new year is upon us. Besides the difficulty of remembering to end written dates with /13, I got to thinking about what the future holds for us winemakers. I spent the majority of my December online time looking at various "best of" lists for 2012, thinking about what has happened. This gave me the desire to put my thoughts on the future in writing, see if what I think is the future will come to pass.
One of the culinary movements that really took full hold this year was nose to tail cooking. That is, not thinking of anything as waste but using everything you get in the kitchen as a possible ingredient. This probably began as a simple reaction to economics, tougher times usually leads people to think about how to stretch things out a bit more. Then it seemed like every restaurant I went to was using things in entrees and appetizers that only a couple of years prior were solely available at various street taco vendors on Mission and 23rd.
I'm seeing something similar happening in wine as well. Here in Paso Robles, making Pink wines from bled off red juice that would normally go down the drain is now common place. Most producers have used the trick of shoveling in your pressed off Viognier skins into Syrah ferments. Now that is expanding out as more white skins are ending up in all sorts of different red ferments. You are also seeing much more whole cluster fermentations these days. That involves using the stem, which usually goes straight to compost, along with the fruit in order to add tannins and spice to your wines. It also changes your fermentation dynamics, but that's another post for another day. Grapes that have shriveled on the vine to become raisons are easily sorted out by using shaking tables and tossed onto the compost pile as well. Not anymore, they are ending up in all sorts of places now. From straight "late harvest" dessert wines to being used almost like a spice added to ferments to add hints of rich sun ripened flavors to Zins and Syrahs. These are all part of the unending experiment that is wine making.
During this upcoming 2013, the waste product I plan to be trialing around with is lees. Lees is the heavy clay like sediment that settles out of wine over time. Traditionally, wine is continually racked off the lees. That is, over time, the wine is pumped off the top of the bottom sediment layer which aids in clarification and avoids strange flavors that may develop. Well, I for one am not afraid to embrace strange flavors. At a much larger winery, that could be dangerous, but that is the beauty and freedom of making wine at a smaller winery. If an experiment fails, the business does not fail along with it. By virtue of small size, we can afford to try different ideas and techniques.
Incorporating the unique flavor profiles developed in the lees is almost universal in Chardonnay production. The weekly stirring of barrel fermented chards to mix the lees back into solution is a key element in adding body, richness, and a little funk for a more complex white. I'm predicting that this the year that "sur lie" aging makes the crossover to reds.
Misery makes for the best of times, I just didn’t know it until about 5 years ago. This realization occurred after about the 3rd day of hiking along the Snake Indian River in Jasper National Park. Expecting to see glorious views of the Northern Canadian Rockies, trudging along in a swampy mosquito cloud, trapped in a dense forest was a bit of a letdown. While I was lying in a tent, practicing knots, wondering why we just drove 1500 miles to experience this, my friend Ethan explained that this was some serious type 2 fun. That is, pure misery that when viewed from the future will be remembered as a great time. Amazingly, he was right. We eventually did climb out of the river valley, into the peaks and camped near glaciers and graced with awe inspiring views of a pure rugged country.
I look back at the whole trip now with nothing but positive feelings. Every year after harvest I’m reminded of this because that is what harvest is, 3 straight months of Type 2 Fun.
Winemaking is joined with most craft industries in the current consciousness in beign over romanticized pursuits. One of those things people say they wish they were doing until you actually have to do it. It’s hot, cold, wet, relentless, exhausting, unyielding, nerve racking, body breaking, repetitive, all with no room for error. There are no days off because nature takes none itself. It reminds me of the stories my Mom tells me of the “back to the land” movements of the 60’s and 70’s. It was all fun in theory until her friends that were not raised on farms realized the animals needed attention every single day and what you ate and wore all had to be make by you. Basically it wasn’t just sitting around the fireplace playing guitar with free love for all. It was hard, hard work, all the time.
But the thing is, if you dedicate yourself to the craft and embrace the misery in the work, there is no greater reward. All great crafts are like this. Farming, carpentry, baking, tailoring, working metal and stone, etc. all require great skill and greater patience. And each comes with their unique challenges, physical, mental and environmental. The overcoming of these, which leads to the act of creation is what makes the product special. In this season of giving I have made an effort to give products of craft. They speak more of how you view your loved ones. The sacrifices and attention to detail given to these items allows them to express more, to mean more than mass produced items. Gifts should be personal, thus need to have the personality which inanimate objects only gain through the craft process. So here’s to all the patient creators in this world that make life truly interesting and beautiful. And here’s to Type 2 Fun, in all its forms, for being the basis of all great crafts, experiences, and stories told.
Good luck happens when preparedness meets opportunity. - Bret Harte
The more interviews I read and wine seminars I attend; the more it seems that non-interventionist winemaking is the over riding zeitgeist of the moment. Every other sentence is “…letting the vineyard speak”, “…showcasing the fruit”, “….creating natural wines”, “…nothing added, unfiltered, unfined” Looking back at tech sheets I’ve written on our wines, and if such a thing existed, transcriptions of speeches I’ve given, there would probably be an ample sprinkling of those phrases to be found. I too shied away from stating that the wines we make here come from the cellar as well as the vineyard. There seems to be some fear of conveying the idea that winemakers actually do anything. I’ve even heard prideful declarations of just putting grapes in a tank, sitting back and seeing what happens.
Well, that’s all fine and good, but I've recently learned to stop worrying about imprinting my personality on my wines and love the craft of making wine again. I firmly believe that great wine is by no means a simple product of entropy. It is attained through determination, skill, guile and the type of luck that pioneer poet Bret Harte was talking about. Michelangelo said that every block of stone has a statue inside of it, the sculptur is simply tasked with finding it. True as that may be, to me the prisoners were interesting to look at, but David was trancendent. The complete unveiling of that which is hidden in the raw material is the gift of the talented and engadged artist. In this way, winemaking approximates art and craft. The vineyard and cellar crew here just spent three straight months working 12+ hour days. Backs are strained, hands are cracked, and boots are worn thin and letting water in. Exhaustion has set in, immune systems are on empty, and there is still work to be done. If non-intervention is the answer, what the hell have we been doing to ourselves? Maybe we could just ship some grapes in a jar and everyone would be happy?
A full description of all the decisions and actions taken during harvest would be quite a tome. If anyone out there is willing to give me an advance on publishing a cellar masterwork like that, please feel free to email me. But since we are using the quick read blog format here, I’ll just touch on one aspect of winemaking, the actual making of the wine.
Those responsible for the physical creation of wine are little single celled creatures called yeast. They perform the alchemical magic of turning sugar to alcohol. The friend of the non-interventionist winemaker is “native yeast”. Here is a video clip of me recently over hearing someone going on and on about the grandeur of native yeast.
I'm not against native yeasts in theory, but in practice here in Paso Robles, something seems a bit off. First, our vineyard and winery is located on what was an oak and manzanita covered hill just 12 years ago. It seems a bit disingenuous to speak of some native culture of yeast that exists here. Much like the cloned vines planted in perfect rows in the vineyard, whatever yeast may be here is a recent transplant to the area. If this vineyard and winery are still here in 50-60 years, then well, maybe we could have something interesting to call our own.
Secondly, inoculating with different yeasts is analogous to having more options in the spice rack. Sure, you might grow some amazing oregano in your home garden, but if that's all that's added to every dish you make, things get a bit repetitive. Each vintage, I make 30-40 different wines from about 15 different varietals. Each varietal and style of wine needs to be treated and prepared in a unique way in order to exemplify the varietal characteristics and stylistic goals. Of course, if your stylistic goal is "Hey, let's see what happens this year", I guess that native route is cool. It just seems to me that using a single dominant yeast that lives in the cellar could work great in a place where you make a single field blend wine, but seems a bit unnecessarily limiting in my case.
I've got nothing against natural winemaking, just as I have nothing against natural medicine and the like. It help to be reminded of the roots of our profession and the basic ideas upon which this craft is based. But it seems that much natural winemaking is rooted in being a response to large scale factory winemaking. An attempt to reintroduce soul and personality in a world where such things are being slowly taken from us via targeted marketing and focus groups. But when you counter dogmatic approaches with a new dogmatic approach, you sadly come full circle to a place of limited opportunity and expression. I’m not afraid to admit that we have progressed many ideas and techniques in winemaking that were not around 100, 50, even 10 years ago. And I’m not about to throw the baby out with the bathwater to go back to some romanticized “good old days” that never really existed. Well, at least until my back get’s a bit older and I start looking for a way to explain why I don’t want to work as hard as I just did this harvest.
Breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. -T.S. Eliot
These are indeed the anxious times. After the scars of last year the poetry I grasped at during my life ignorant youth started to speak to me more plainly.
"Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?"
Most people would assume that fall and the time of harvest is when wine making is at its most tense. I have discovered this year that for myself, that is not so. During harvest you can create for yourself a veneer of control. The increasing flavor complexity and daily measuring of the fruit tricks you into thinking you can decide what will happen. You can imagine that your bank of knowledge and experience will guide you and the wine down some certain path. At least this is what you tell yourself to keep the task within some reasonable scale.
In the Spring, we are truly thrown to the mercy of Nature. What will be, what will come, the future that starts rolling towards you is all set in these early stages of growth. All one can do is look to the sky, feel the air, feel the ground, watch...hope.
The burgeoning growth and young buds, in all their vulnerability, are the basis of what the 2012 vintage will be. Last year, a terrible cold decended upon us during this precious time and much of the crop was lost forever, a vintage not to be. That fear is what makes one focus solely on the low when reading forecasts. There exists no cellar magic that repairs what is lost on the vine. This pushing forth of the first hints of green indicates that everything is being set in motion, and the winemaker is now purely a spectator, witnessing the miracle of the vines bringing life anew. How will 2012 be remembered? The most important first steps are toddling up and down our steep vineyard hills as I write this.
It surprised me how in the facing of this great unknown, I suddenly found understanding in poetry buried deep behind my minds layers of chemistry and enology. I tried in vain so often to understand these verses in college, but without life experience, they fell on intellectual deafness. My professor must have felt like a young parent, attempting to teach a lesson to a child that only time can truly deliver. For what did this line mean to me before I was tasked with producing wine from the alkaline soils?
"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?"
These great lines only grow personal meaning once they can be applied to something true from your own experience. The return of Spring is a call to revisit what you hold as truth. To shine light on your plans with an expanded perspective that comes with each successive vintage. This reminder prevents you from standing still, nature implores you to change with it. All is different from where we left it last fall. The winter retreat of the vines produce new character in these Spring shoots. You can sense it when you walk amongst them. They too are wiser, and will write their verse in some new style. What they capture and how they will explain it to us will be revealed in the poem of the wine they bring forth. That shall be the overiding goal of what we put in the bottle this year.
Shantih, Shantih, Shantih
Replace "new phonebook" with "active MJO" and this was basically me earlier today. Which leads to the obvious question, "What's the active MJO, and why is some jerk winemaker yelling about it." Well, it is all due to the fact that the most important aspect to wine is weather. Regardless of what tricks we have learned during human agricultural history, nature still has the first and last say.
I feel it is important to remind ourselves that making wine, at its heart, is simply an agricultural process. We often get away from this perspective due to the strange cultural significance that wine has taken in the modern world. Somehow growing wine grapes, and recently, organic heirloom vegetables, has become "sexy" to the point that it is viewed differently than growing corn or soybeans. For this reason you don't see as many millionaires retiring to start farming cotton for example, in order to return to a simpler or more natural life. Don't fall prey to this thinking. Despite all the flowery language, sales PR, and talk of esoteric viticultural processes, wine making IS grape farming, no more, no less. Wine though does have a unique way of making the relationship between nature and consumption crystal clear. The ultimate goal of wine making is to allow one to taste and interact with the time and place of creation. The idea of the vintage is rooted in this, that the year is as important as the place or varietal in conveying what lies inside the bottle.
With this in mind, I obsess over the weather endlessly. It dictates to me all the decisions I will make during the annual cycle of the vineyard and winery. Luckily, my obsession with weather pre-dates my time as a winemaker. Living on the Pacific coast, I started checking weather on a daily basis as it determined my plans for surfing. What is special about surfing and weather is that it is dependant upon two forms, the local and the global. The waves that cause one to skip morning class during college are not generated locally, but thousands of miles away. Off the coast of Japan and Russia during Fall and Winter, and way down by New Zealand and the Antarctic Pacific for Spring and Summer. You can't look outside and know that a good swell is coming, you have to do some research to be ready.
This research is what introduced me to the Madden-Julian Oscillation. All this winter the MJO has been in the "inactive" phase. This has been distressing for California farmers, surfers, and skiers. The heart of winter, January-Feburary, was basically one long sunny spring. Temperatures in the 60's and 70's, and never a cloud. While this made it nice to be outdoors hiking and biking, it was terrible for things like water tables, snow pack, and thirsty roots. Then last week came a rather substantial storm, and something felt different. After data analysis, the hopeful news was delivered by the web's greatest weather site Stormsurf:
Current wind analysis indicated modest easterly anomalies were all east of the dateline now (a good thing) extending from 140W to the dateline (180W) and continuing to loose ground. The coverage of these winds shifted east and was fading. Westerly anomalies were strong in the Indian Ocean pushing east to 160E and building more directly over the equator rather than displaced south. It looks like the Inactive Phase of the MJO was loosing control of the West Pacific. A week from now (3/29) the pattern is to continue with a weakening area of weak easterly anomalies hovering between 180W and 160E but nowhere else and with solid westerly anomalies building from the Indian Ocean to 160E and making easterly headway. This indicates that the Inactive Phase of the MJO is to be effectively gone by then with the Active Phase starting to take control of the West Pacific.
If that is not music to your grape growing ears, well, I don't know what to tell you. This is leading to hope that maybe some late season storms will produce water for our thirsty state. The vines are just about to start budding and the roots will start pumping water, making for some possible perfect timing. Spring is well underway though, which usually means a wall of high pressure that keeps California sunny from May to November. But that little bit of weather nerdery I read this morning got me in a solid Lloyd Christmas state of mind
So there you are, all stressed out because of a big final exam tomorrow. You are confident you can pass the multiple choice part. If that was all the exam consisted of, you could be out having a drink and getting a peaceful night's sleep. Sadly, there are rumors of an oral exam. All alone on stage with various professors asking questions that you can't really prepare for. Well, if someone told you that students that skipped the oral exam not only passed, but were actually found to master the topic better than those that took the oral exam. Well, no brainer right, just skip it. I can't help but think of it in these terms when I'm told about unfiltered wines.
Increasingly in recent years I've seen wine labels and tech sheets extolling the unfiltered & unfined nature of the wines. Unfined, sure, so far I've been able to avoid throwing eggs in my Cabernet or pouring bull's blood in your syrah. If you are confident that you picked your grapes at the right time, made and aged the wine soundly, not needing to fine makes perfect sense in small lot wine making. Filtering to me is an entirely different issue. I can't claim to tell you that one train of thought is better or worse. But after years of thinking, reading, asking and doing, I am fairly confident that neither is always better than the other.
Give me a second here and let me tie back into that first paragraph. Bottling is the final exam for the winemaker. After 1-3 years of working with a wine, you mark a date that you are putting it in bottle. After that, you don't get to play with it ever again. It is marked as ready for the world, and you send it out to meet people. Thus those final couple of weeks are a flurry of nerves and activity. The blending trials are sure fun, and make one appear to be an actual winemaker. Dressed nicely while standing around contemplating glass after glass until you feel you've got the best final blend you can make.
Next comes the forklift driving, hose dragging and barrel washing that require less fancy outfits and are more actual work. This is the part of the job you don't wax poetic about during a winemaker dinner. And then there is filtering, the job done 99.9% of the time by assistant winemakers or cellar crew. Let me tell you, nobody enjoys filtering. If you've worked with one, you would know. They take a long time to prepare, (pumping wine through wet cardboard and avoiding a TCA like wet cardboard flavor or aroma takes a bit of magic) then they inevitably clog up. You have to back flush and eventually prepare a new set of pads. The pressure builds up to scary amounts and you hear strange cracking and popping noises making you feel a hose or the pump could explode at any moment. And worst of all, you lose a certain percentage of your wine dripping off the pads. Man, if not using a filter makes the wine better, count me in. That's a couple days of my life back. Plus I could change back into my dry pants and Patagonia fleece vest and walk around the cellar like a proper winemaker. Leg up on a barrel, wine thief in hand, gazing thoughtfully into the distance....but I digress. Quite often, as troublesome as it is, I feel like filtering is often a necessary endeavor.
To understand why, you first have to think about what is being filtered out of the wine. This is not a charcoal filter that is going to strip the wine bare. The filter is a cellulose sheet, kind of like a super heavy duty coffee filter. So you push the wine through the filter sheet, and the large impurities are taken out. These filters are not so fine that they remove the molecules that are associated with flavor or taste. What we're talking about are the dead yeast and bacteria, the byproducts of primary and secondary fermentation, that are suspended in the wine solution. This is what forms the thick mud like lees at the bottom of barrels of aging wine. Trust me, I've cleaned enough barrels and fermentation tanks to have a little lees end up in my mouth. These are not the flavors you're reading about in any wine critics tasting notes of fine wine. They also can make the wine appear cloudy, a massive fault in a bottle that tells me basically the winemaker doesn't care all that much.
There are times I can avoid filtering. If I have been a busy beaver winemaker and racked the wine many times over. This means pumping the clear wine off the top and leaving the lees in barrel. If you do this a bunch of times, all those impurities will have naturally dropped out of solution, so the wine for the most part will be clear and free of most large impurities. If this is the case, well no need to filter. Gravity has done the work for you. But I don't rack my wines that often, usually just 1-2 times over wine's lifetime in the cellar. I feel lees is the wine version of the primordial soup, and all sorts of interesting things are taking place in there. Over the years in barrel, flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel components are being created in the lees and released into solution. Almost all barrel aged white wines are made like this. This along with malic acid and cold stabilization is why you almost never see unfiltered white wines. I strongly believe red wines can benefit from sur lie aging just as much as whites.
The sacrifice I have to make for these lees components though is a couple of long, cold, wet days staring at a pressure gauge, getting that wine all cleaned up and ready for it's introduction to the word.
THe Truth Is Rarely Pure And Never Simple -Oscar Wilde
For the past few years, the great debate in the stuffy world of wine has been alcohol. It is a topic that people feel passionately about. It is also one of those rare topics in the discussion of wine that has actual concrete parameters that can be discussed. Thus it is a great thing to base symposiums and discussion groups around.
I for one could care less what the alcohol percentage is of a wine. Either I enjoy it or I don't. But the number is printed on the label and gives ammunition for all with a bone to pick. The most common bone being picked is that high alcohol wines are a stylistic decision made by lazy winemakers. People who dislike high alcohol wines claim it as evidence as an attempt to make big flabby overripe wines to trick some critic into giving out a big numerical score to the wine.
Like I have discussed earlier in this blog, I pick mainly by using my natural senses. I like to look at the chemistry just so I know what I'm getting myself into as far as the ferment goes. But the decision as to is the fruit ready to come off the vine, I trust mainly my sense of taste, touch, and sight while walking the vineyard. (If I am smelling or hearing the grapes on the vine, that is an indication that I should have picked yesterday.)
One of the big reasons I have decided to swing my decision making so far into one camp is due to the fact I make wine in Paso Robles. This is a unique place making unique wines. If there is a textbook out there that explains making wine in Paso, I haven't read it yet. Most accepted thought on winemaking was established elsewhere, thus I always take lessons from afar with a grain of salt. For a case in point, let's look at the 2011 harvest.
Things are all over the map this year. Early ripeners are developing late and vice versa. I picked some Tempranillo last week that was 23.8 Brix and 3.95 pH. Sure that's just the low acid nature of Tempranillo, but even though it will end up being around just 13% alcohol, the fruit was plenty ripe and I didn't want to let it hang another day. Then this weekend we picked some classic Paso Robles fruit.
Our Kate's Vineyard Zinfandel is always one of my favorite picks of the year. The vines are not overly vigorous for Zin, and produce amazingly complex wines. One of the main reasons for the complexity is high acid and tannin in the must even when pushed for ripeness. Here is the brix measurement after a 4 day cold soak.
28.5! There I go chasing big scores with my big lazy overripe jammy Zin that is going to taste like some Virgin Islands cocktail. If I was making proper wine, I would be pushing for balance, restraint, nuance, complexity. I would have picked it 3 weeks ago at a respectable 25 brix. Instead I'm just going for power to win over some critic who is never going to taste this wine anyway.
Well before we start jumping to conclusions; let's look at some more evidence. I can't have you virtually taste this, so I can't prove that this wine is going to be incredible. But check out this photo:
Wait, what? 3.178 pH. My favorite was the sample I took 2 weeks ago that was 26.2 Brix with a 2.84 pH. So there I go, trying to impress the euro snobs with my austere acidic wines that will take years of ageing to be drinkable.
So who am I making this wine for? Well, I'm making it for the people who have tasted our Zin and love it. Sure these numbers are off kilter, but this must tastes right it its own peculiar way. Big and ripe but with amazing backbone, color and tannin to bring everything into proper balance. Our 2007 Zin had very similar chemistry and it sold out in about 3 weeks. If I could get the numbers to be more traditional, but had to sacrifice what this must tastes like, I would never go for that.
Next time someone wants to look at the % number on the wine label and pontificate about the winemaker's intention, tell them this little story. This world is not always so black and white.
The unpredictable nature of the harvest allows for all sorts of opportunities to the open minded winemaker. The small blocks we farm are tailor made for trying whatever experiment comes to mind during crush. And then, if you let your mind wander, one new idea leads to the next.
This year I wanted to try something a bit different with the Chardonnay. For the most part, every year we harvest the Chardonnay and the clusters are added directly to the press. The juice is pressed from the skins and the wine made from fermenting the juice with no infulence from the skins. I've tasted a few "skin contact" white wines recently and was intrigued. A "Skin contact" white is making white wine exactly like you make red wine, fermenting on the skins as opposed to just the juice. I'm not exactly sold on the concept as I feel the goals of making white and red wines are not necessarily the same, so techniques should not be the same. Never the less, I encourage you to go find these wines. Sometimes they are refereed to as "orange wines" due to the slight coloring the occur. Another way to find them is to look for "skin contact" or "on skins" in the production notes. It is always interesting to taste something that is done in a different way, a great example for tasting what skins add to the wine.
What I was interested in about fermenting white wine on the skins was not the skins, but the potential for carbonic maceration. I seldom "crush" berries during harvest. That is, use some mechanical device to crack the grape skins and release the juice. I use a lot of whole berry fermentation. Leaving the berry whole encourages a slightly different form of enzymatic fermentation within the grape itself. This type of fermentation is known to produce a more pronounced fruit character in the finished wine. Those of you who have tasted Paso Robles wines know that they tend to be big in all aspects. Using this technique to increase the fruit character allows the finished wine to remain balanced, not clunky or harsh due to the acid or tannins dominating.
In this spirit, a section of our estate chardonnay was destemmed after harvest, and the whole berries allowed to rest in our cold room under a blanket of CO2. After 48 hours, the grapes were pressed and the the juice treated the same as our whole bunch pressed Chardonnay. We'll see some time in spring how the flavors differ from the methodology.
A bonus feature of this method is that we ended up with a bin of chardonnay skins. This allowed for the next little experiment. Some of these skins were tossed into one of the Pinot Noir ferments that was just getting started.
It has been rather common to add Viognier skins into Syrah ferments, adding delicate mid-palate flavors to the heavy Syrah. Pinot Noir is a much more delicate varietal, so it will be interesting to see what the Chardonnay skins add to the flavor. Now, if I had a 20+ ton tank of Pinot Noir fermenting away, it would be rather insane to just chuck in the Chard skins and see what happens, because there is no guarantee that this will work. It might be beautiful, it might be horrible. When you have several 1.5 tons ferments going on, the risk is not that great. The small size of our ferments allows for this exploration without risking the farm. So, we'll see what happens. I'll keep you posted on any other ideas that pop up over the next couple months.