The cellar can be a dark place. Lights are kept low and stacks of barrels cast all sorts of shadows to make things even darker. Basically, without a flashlight, not much can be accomplished in the cellar. So picking out a good light is not an inconsequtial task. It is also an amazing demonstration as to how the smallest design features can greatly affect daily work at a winery.
Asking an American winemaker what flashlight they use is akin to asking an Aussie winemaker what shoes they wear, there seems to be a universal answer. There are probably five or six Mini-Mags lying around any cellar I’ve ever been in. It is sturdy, bright, and the beam can be focused which is a big help when checking the level of a big tank from up top. While an iconic piece of industrial design, there are a few issues that stick in my craw about these lights. First, it takes two hands to turn on and off, two hands that many times you don’t have available. Another problem is the incandescent bulb. It sucks up battery life quickly, and it can break when dropped onto the concrete cellar floor. Lastly, everyone uses these things so they tend to get “borrowed” which leads to mornings wandering around looking for a light.
Luckily, it seems that the company has heard from people like me before, so an answer to most of my problems exists. It uses a push button on/off that can be operated with one hand, and the battery life goes from 5 hours to 200+ hours, which is nice. Bulb also seems to be a lot sturdier to the inevitable drop. Overall I tend to like this light quite a bit more than the classic and it is slowly taking over.
Another option for overall use that has unique advantages is a headlamp. The big advantage here is hands free operation. Great for barrel work like topping in place and what not. Also, there are many times I need to sample a vineyard before sunrise during harvest. The headlamp is the only way to go here. You can even harvest at night using these and tractor work like spraying needs to be done at night, so headlamps are a winemaker must in my opinion. My personal favorites are the basic models from Petzl and the Black Diamond.
The only problem I have had a hard time addressing is the “borrowing” problem. The better and more functional a light is, the greater the odds it ends up somewhere besides where you left it. Thus I was looking for a light that maybe was a bit weird or unique enough that people would avoid using it. The solution appeared recently with the invention of probably the coolest personal light ever made, the Mini Hozuki . Maybe not the most practical light, but it is just plain fun to use and cool to play with. It is bright enough that it lights up the entire interior of a tank, so it does have come practical applications. It can even hang from a barrel rack with the built in magnet. But most of all, people just won’t borrow it because they have no idea what it is. This is just one of those items that you just plain will not be disappointed in.
This isn’t my first rosé rodeo. In fact, the first wine to ever carry the mark of my hands was the 2007 Calcareous rosé. I was the cellar assistant back then, and the winemaker felt that experimenting with a rosé might be a good way to let me learn a few things. As many winemakers do in this area, we preformed a saignée on almost every lot of red grapes. Saignée is French for bleed, in winemaking it refers to removing a certain percentage of the juice from your red wine ferment. The primary goal is to increase the extraction concentration of your red wine by creating a greater skin to juice ratio. The juice that is bled off is just a bonus. Often it is allowed to flow down the drain, but it can be treated as a must to ferment like white wine, thus creating a rosé.
I was tasked with making a wine from this bled off juice, consisting mainly of Syrah, Zinfandel, and Grenache. I was proud of the fact that I safely guided the juice through the process and the wine was eventually bottled. It was a decent wine, but a bit off balance. This lack of balance to me was inherent in the process used. The grapes were picked under the pretense of creating dense, full bodied and powerful red wines. The fully ripe grapes did in fact do that. Our 2007 Estate Syrah and Zinfandel set a standard for the type of wines we want to create here at Calcareous. Sadly, this did not in my opinion carry over to the Rose. Without the balance provided by the tannins and other phenolics from the skins, the resulting wine tasted off kilter. The alcohol was a bit more upfront and the acid was lacking, creating a wine with little backbone and character.
Being a fan of pink wines I decided I should try again. In order to push myself to create a wine of quality, I decided I would name it after one of my personal favorites, Robert Sinskey’s Vin Gris. It also meant, taking a new approach to the winemaking process. I would use a single varietal, chosen during harvest from the lot I felt showed the best characteristics for the task at hand. As should have been expected, 2009 was an extremely hot and dry vintage, thus all of the picks came in way too ripe for using in a rosé and I had abandoned hope of making a rosé. Then, right at the end of harvest, along came a freak storm that dropped over 7 inches of rain during a 30 hour period. The only thing left on the vine at the time was the Estate Mourvedre. To prevent any mold or mildew, the grapes were picked right after the storm. During processing, I saw that the sugar level had dropped from 24% to 22%, an obvious sign of rain induced dilution. The lot was going to require a saignée in order to create a Mourvedre of decent concentration. The resulting Estate Mourvedre was perfect for blending with some very ripe Grenache harvested earlier during the vintage, and our elegant 2009 Grenache Mourvedre was born. It was a happy accident, one of those wines that is not planned but creates itself during harvest if you keep an open mind and avoid dogmatic approaches and goals. The juice that was bled off was light and lively, it created a wonderful wine in its own right. It had low alcohol and decent acidity, making for a pleasurable wine. The dilute nature of the wine though showed in a slight lack of fruit and body. Trying to make up for this, I discovered a useful cellar technique. I collected the lees from the finished Mourvedre ferment, and added it to the rosé. This greatly increased both the color and body, and added a bit of real character and distinction to the palate. Again, this was a happy accident and as good an argument as any for making rose. It is liberating to work with juice that otherwise would end up down the drain. You are free to take risks and try new ideas that come to you as there is very little to lose.
Over the next couple of vintages, none of the lots that came in featured any juice I felt would be suitable for making a rosé. So for 2012, I decided it was time to create a specific rosé lot. Most of the blocks of our Estate Calcareous Vineyard naturally produce about 2 tons to the acre. That is, except for the Malbec. Maybe because it is our only truly flat block, but for whatever reason, we have to drop a considerable amount of Malbec on the ground in order to get things properly ripe. Last year I had the vineyard crew leave 12 rows of the Malbec block untouched when they did their fruit thinning. This was to be my “Rosé Block”. The fruit was tasted with the sole intention of creating a rosé, thus I tasted the fruit in the same way I do when sampling Chardonnay or Viognier. Primarily interested in sweetness, acidity, fruit, and the feeling of the pulp, I could ignore the skin because it was not going to be used.
Being a small lot and still early in harvest, the cellar crew and I hand-picked the grapes ourselves. The grapes went straight to press and treated almost exactly how we process and ferment our Rhone whites, except of course for the addition of Malbec lees during winter. The resulting wine is what I feel is an honest Rosé, created for its own sake. I also think it is hands down the best rosé we have created here. It has been in bottle for a little bit now and will be shipping out for our summer wine club. I hope you enjoy the fruition of what has been a 5 year process. Ending with the discovery of how to craft a pink wine that is worthy of the Calcareous label.
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 them 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.
Winemaking can really be tough on clothes, especially pants, so finding good work clothes has been more of a challenge than I ever expected. The mix of vineyard and cellar work, hot dry conditions followed by wet and cold on a never ending cycle really tests garment quality. My first few months working I just assumed that a pair of random denim jeans is all I’d ever need. I learned quickly that cheap blue jeans, those on the Ross clearance rack, are not really up to the task. Blown out seams and fabric rips give them a working life of maybe a month or so. By my second harvest I had moved on to the ranch classics, Levis 501s and Wrangler 13 WMZs. While these were a definite step in the right direction, they still only gave me a shelf life of a couple months before some type of integrity fail reared its ugly head.
I eventually decided to trial some of the tougher work wear classics like Dickies, Carhartt and Ben Davis. The Dickies performed much like the hardier jeans, falling apart after a promising start. During testing, the Ben Davis held up great, lasting a whole harvest of wearing 4-5 times a week. But the fit wasn’t the most comfortable. They are a bit baggy which can lead to snagging on things like drip lines, barrel racks, and tank valves, no good! Carhartt became my go to work pants during the 2009-2011 harvests. Overall, they gave the best performance and comfort at work. Plus Carhartt was based in my hometown of Detroit, well Dearborn is kind of Detroit. I thought I'd never have to think about work pants again.
Sadly, something changed. The Made in USA tag on Carhartts disappeared and was replaced with Made in China or Mexico. Call me crazy, but the crotch seams started failing after a few months. I started to get fabric tears and the fit was not what it used to be. Then I started to notice that not a single pair of work pants I had been trying were made in America. This got me thinking, does anyone make sturdy work clothes in this country anymore? A little research led me to discovering probably the world’s best pair pants. The Filson Oil Finish Double Tin Pants have no equal. When the first 2 customer reviews I read were 5 stars from a logger talking about the pants handling a whip from a broken chain saw and a Canadian Railway engineer who’s had a single pair for 8 years, I knew I had moved in the right direction. They are not as cheap as other pants I'd tried, but not crazy expensive for quality clothing. I mean, they are cheaper than most women's denim pants these days! Plus, I don’t think it is physically possible to damage these things. Everyone should own a pair of Double Tine Cloth pants, just to feel the sensation of what a truly well crafted piece of work clothing feels like. It was like the time I was shopping for my wedding suit and my friend took me to a shop in San Francisco that only sold hand-made Italians. Everything else just plain feels wrong and cheap once you wear the real deal.
The only problem with the Big Boy Filson’s is that they are a bit too heavy duty. In August, when it’s 112 degrees in the vineyard, they can get a bit sweaty walking around. Plus, the oil finish has a strict no washing allowed rule. Things can get a bit funky! So in searching for something a bit more daily practical, I came across my current favorite work pants, Earl’s Gung Ho Camp Trouser. These are darn near a perfect pair of work pants. Sturdy 12oz duck cloth, button fly, a unique cut, made in Texas, affordable…etc. I think, after all these years, I’ve found my daily work pants. Sadly there are rumors that Earl's may be going out of business, so stock up while you can. But of course, the experiment never ends. I have pair of these coming in for testing during this year’s harvest. And I’m always open to suggestions, so if you have a pair of pants you think can handle the work, I’m all ears.
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.
They enter the new world naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter. All about them the cold, familiar wind- William Carlos Williams
The daylight has now overtaken the darkness. Each rotation here in the North now sees more of the sun with the moon more often framed by blue than black. This is usually the time we start to look for the first signs of new life among the vines. Surprisingly, things have happened a bit earlier than usual this year. More often than not, early April gives us our first hints of green emerging from the cordon. The 2013 vintage has decided to begin just as the sun and the equator align themselves on the same plane.
In 2012, the first bud break of the Estate Chardonnay plantings took place around April 5th. Here is a photo of that same Chardonnay this last Friday, March 15.
Our Estate Chardonnay was harvested on August 31st last year. This represented a journey of 148 days from bud break to the press. A similar lifespan would put the first pick of 2013 sometime around August 10th. While I don't see that happening, our earliest ever harvest was August 15th. So it is within the realm of possibility.
This has been a fairly dry year so far with no major winter storms, just the occasional light rain. The temperatures have been mild to cool, so things may slow down a bit over the next 4-5 months. There is no telling what April (The one month a year when the Central Coast Weather reporter actually must do some work) will bring. But shockingly enough, even the Malbec looks like this today.
A quick walk down to the next block also saw the Syrah starting to rustle and swell. Of course, the late bloomers like Cabernet, Mourvedre and Zinfandel are yet to say their piece. The all important flowering is still yet to come. But as things stand right now, an early harvest may be bearing down on us. It is time for winemakers as well to roust from winter's time of recovery, and make the preparations for what lies ahead.
They enter the new world naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter. All about them the cold, familiar wind- - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15536#sthash.2DKOMCf
If you have visited Paso Robles in the past 5 years, you probably at some point have crossed paths with Tacos Al Pastor. Be it at a restaurant, the rehearsal dinner of a friend's wedding, the club pick-up party of one of your favorite wineries, they seem to be everywhere. My first experience with them locally was at the now defunct Restaurant Tenexepa off Creston Road during the 2007 harvest. After a 14 hour cellar shift, nothing could compete with a plate full of these $1.50 pork tacos washed down with ample Negra Modelo.
Having moved here from San Francisco, I was more accustomed to the overstuffed Mission style burrito, but I quickly fell in love with these simple tacos. The perfect mix of spice and fat in the pork is matched with ample fresh onions and cilantro, then comes that special touch, the amazing addition of big slice of grilled onion and pineapple.
At Tenexepa, the kitchen was hidden from view, so I was ignorant of the true magic behind this now staple of mexican street food. I was also constantly told, "Just you wait, the King of Paso Robles Al Pastor is remodeling and when they reopen, you'll taste the real deal." Well, the King did reopen and I have found myself taking almost all first time visiting friends or family to the patio of Los Robles Cafe near downtown. There, for all to see is the cooking technique that sets Al Pastor apart in the cannon of Mexican cuisine. The pork for Tacos Al Pastor is slow cooked on a vertical spit.
The first thought I had was, "These guys must have a friend who owns a Greek or Middle Eastern restaurant and figured he could cook pork the same way." Well, the actual story is more beautiful than that. And it speaks to how the strange search for authenticity in cuisine is a fleeting dream. Food is merely a reflection of the ever changing evolution of culture. The roots of this now ubiquitous food trace back, amazingly enough, to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In the time surrounding WWI, large numbers of Lebanese and Syrian Christians immigrated to Mexico, mainly to the areas around Puebla and Mexico City. They brought with them the Doner Kebab style of cooking. Over time, the locals incorporated these spits for roasting pork instead of lamb and a new food was born.
I was reminded of all this just last week as a new institution has just moved into Paso Robles. During my college days just 30 miles south in San Luis Obispo, one of my standard lunch spots was Jaffa Cafe for their famous shawarmas.
Well, Jaffa Cafe has finally opened a branch here in Paso just a couple blocks from Los Robles, and it is a must visit for lunch or dinner the next time you are in town. Plus you can enjoy this great living example of how food, culture, and history all intertwine to make this world a much more interesting place to eat, drink and live.
Where To Go:
Los Robles Cafe: 1420 Spring Street, Paso Robles
La Reyna Markey Y Carniceria: 532 24th Street, Paso Robles
Jaffa Cafe: 1344 Park Street, Paso Robles (Shared with Panolivo)
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.