September 30, 2009

Unadulterated wine

I have been thinking about natural wine, in light of my previous post about water-backing, and the links to related websites I posted. My thoughts went something like this: wine is anything but natural. Wine does not occur in nature, barrels do not assemble them selves, grapes do not jump in voluntarily. What they (natural wine enthusiasts/advocates) are talking about is not neither natural wine, nor authentic/traditional wine (I don’t want to get into a discussion about defining the terms traditional or authentic). What they are talking about are unadulterated, transparent wines. As I pointed out, there are all sorts off things one can put into a wine to push it towards one “expression” or profile. You can highlight aromas, and introduce bouquets. You can manipulate body, texture, and alcohol. All of these actions are generally used to “design” a wine to fit a model consumer, or create a more standardized product that fits a user groups needs.

The natural wine movement is advocating that wine reflect its context (I will use context, rather than terroir, as its and easier term to agree upon), and that this context be considered and appropriate. They are arguing for non-mass market wine... that wine be unique, individual and handmade (even non-corporate).

So, what does appropriate mean? Well, if a grape variety in one region ripens to 26 Brix or higher, you may be pressured to inoculate with yeast that has a high alcohol tolerance, or cause you to add water, and thus acid, in order to make a “balanced” wine. Whereas, said variety in other regions often delivers ripe flavors at lower alcohols without additions or manipulations. Case in point: Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir. I know a lot of people like it; I don’t. It taste like cola and vodka, not wine. However, the other night I drank a Grenache from the same region, which was more balanced and appropriate for a region that has so much sun and heat. But grenache is a different product, does not fly off the shelfs. Someone thought about that, and still planted it anyway, because they knew it was a better choice. I suspect that the wine making practices were also considered and appropriate. Let me be clear; I’m not opposed to a little chemistry in wine making. Stuck fermentations, partial malo-lactic conversion - these are real problems that wineries face, and must have an answer to them in order to keep their business vital. Similarly with their vineyards, real problems such as rot, mildew and pests have an impact on livelihoods, and few of us have the tolerance for risk (or the financial freedom) to watch a product go to ruin just for an ideal. I just hope that when faced with these problems, farmers and winemakers would opt for the lease invasive intervention.

This is what I believe the natural wine movement is advocating, and I believe that it will catch on, eventually. Organics has convinced many people to consider health over price; fair-trade has encouraged people to think about the social impact their purchases make. Natural wine is asking us to really consider what goes into our wine, and whether responsible choices were made during its production.

September 25, 2009

Barreling Down

When fermentation comes to its death throws (it does not stop suddenly, but rather continues in a weakened stake, the new wine throwing CO2 off for a while) it is time to drain the tank, shovel out and press the skins, then settle the new wine into barrels for their winter nap. I’m amazed out how much of what is in the tanks is actually not wine, but spent berries. The free run wine is only a small fraction of what is in the tank. This is generally reserved, pumped to another tank to wait for the lees (sediment) to settle out. This new wine is generally slightly bitter and green (young tannins and sharper acid), but interesting.

Once the berries are sent to the press, the gently pressed wine is tasted for its tannins, which are higher than the free run wine, but may be included in the lot, and thus pumped to the tank. Or it may be too tannic, and will be set aside for a different lot. The hard press wine is always set aside.

A day of two latter, we will come back and rack a tank, that is, transfer it once again to a different tank, this time leaving behind any sediment that has fallen to the bottom. This is the start of making a wine clear and clean. Once racked, the wine is ready to head to one more container, this time French white oak barrels. Only about 25 percent of the barrels are new, the rest divided up from previous years. In the barrels, the wine will undergo secondary fermentation, transforming the green, tart malic acid, which makes the wine taste young, into lactic acid, giving a softer feel to the wine. Oak also allows the wine to slowly breath, and the barrels will regularly be topped up so that the wine does not oxidize too much.

Meanwhile, all the mistakes get sent to Tank Zero. Tank Zero is what we euphemistically call the drain. How does wine end up there?

  • While dragging hoses between too close barrels, a valve gets tapped and wine shoots in the air, on the barrels, and on you.

  • After mixing the tank, detach the tank mixer without closing the valve, then attempt to close the valve while the mixing rod is still in. Note: Shirt will turn purple.

  • Forget to correctly measure the volume of wine you are transferring to a smaller tank. Wine shoots out the top, and into Tank Zero.

  • Keep a pump running even if the wine is not flowing through it. The wine trapped in the pumping chamber will burn to a cotton-candy-carmel crisp. Take a part the pump and dump all the wine in the hose.

  • Become slightly distracted while filling barrels. If you look away at just the right moment, a geyser of wine will shoot out the top, stan the barrel, and flow to the drain.

  • Turn on a pump before checking each connection, or the end point of your hose.

Of course, all of this is generally done right as the winemaker walks around the corner and see you, so that your actions are recorded and humorously discussed at lunch.

September 19, 2009

The Cap

One regular, and critical task in the winery, and one of my favorites, is punch-downs.  Punch-downs refer to breaking up and submerging, literally pushing down, the cap of skins and seeds that float, or are pushed to the top of a tank. This is what makes red wine; by mixing up the grapes in their juice, skin phenolics are extracted, color and tannins are imparted and the juice develops character. As the juice ferments, the berries are pushed to the top by carbon-dioxide.

The Cap

When fermentation is in full swing, we punch-down four times a day. In the morning a cloud of C02 can be seen when you first break the cap, as the warm gass breaks through to the cold air. The cap is three feet thick, and rolls like a wave when you push on one side. Traditionally this is all done by hand, with a metal paddle, but we are afforded pneumatic arms the take much if the work out of the job. Still, we run around, trying to cycle through a dozen tanks.
The point of a punch down is not just to extract color and tannins.

Fermentation, through the mechanism of CO2, stratifies the tank, and the top of the juice can be several degrees warmer than the bottom. Mixing the tank helps keep the temperature even. And it does so gently, which is important to Pinot Noir, as it benefits from careful handling.

What I love about the punch-downs is seeing how each tank is unique, depending on the vineyard or lot or stage of fermentation. Some tanks give off a very fruity aroma, as they go through the cold soak. As the juice turns to wine, fermentation imparts new scents to the wine; some tanks give off a savory, gamey bouquet, others maintain a their primary fruit character. Each tank is different, and a map of aromas and bouquets in the winery has developed in my head.

September 13, 2009


It is a common practice in California, due to the “perfect climate”, to allow grapes to ripen to “phenolic maturity”. Phenolic compounds are contained in the skins and seeds of grapes, and by allowing them to ripen to maturity means that they will not impart bitter woody tastes (like over-steeped tea, from the seeds) and will have more developed fruit aromas/flavors (from the skins). However, this often means that grapes are picked when they are at 26° brix, or sometimes higher. As brix is a measure of sugar, and sugar is converted to alcohol, wine made from these grapes would be high in alcohol: around 15% and higher. This is considered acceptable for some varieties, to some people. There is, of course, a way to lower the alcohol by adding water to the must to dilute the sugars. And depending on the philosophy of the winemaker, this is not only acceptable, but the right approach to making “balanced” wine in California.

Of course, when fruit ripens, becoming sweeter and sweeter, it lose acidity. And acidity is what makes wine good to drink with food, it makes it refreshing and cleanses the palate (think lemonade!) So to make balanced wine with grapes that are “phenolically” ripe, winemakers must add tartaric acid (a grape’s natural acid, though in this case from it has been extracted from grape sources, only to be added back to grapes) in addition to water. This may seem like a roundabout way of taking care of the problem... why not just harvest the grapes when the acid and sugars are in balance? I ask that question as well, and the answer I come up with is that wines with ripe fruit character sell. Also Americans are just not phased about having additives, from natural sources or not, in our food or drink. No one is really outraged about a little chemistry... after all some of us (read: I) drink Red Bull from time to time.

Now, to say that this (it has a name: water-backing) is common, is not to say that everybody does it. Just like not every wine is adulterated with Mega Purple. But just as Mega Purple is added to give uniform color to a wine to make a consistent product, water-backing provides the winemaker with a degree of control over the wine (specifically the alcohol content and acid) to create a uniform product that will be acceptable to the (American) market. Simple as that; its not romantic, its business.

There are winemakers out there who disagree, and question the acceptability of the practice. I’ve seen back labels that stated the ingredients in the wine, which read “organic grapes”. Of course I thought that it was BS. Besides being hard to imagine anyone making a reliable living depending on spontaneous fermentation, not adding yeast nutrients or enzymes, there is the question of what else could constitute an ingredient in wine making. After all, oak barrels play a significant role in the aroma, flavor and feel of a wine; should they to be included on the ingredient list - after all tannins from the oak leech into the wine. Another issue is vintage variation. With so much chemistry, and such ease of ripening, its easy to make a very consistent product from year to year. Great for creating a product, but frankly boring; if nothing ever changes, why put a date on the bottle? Lastly, if the grapes ripen so easily, to such high levels of sugar, it raises the question of how appropriate the variety is suited for the place. In physiological terms, grapes ripen faster in warm weather, but developing complex flavors takes a long slow ripening period. When you ripen too fast, you get too much sugar, not enough flavor. Though some would say that its just a different expression. Or, climate change can be tasted in the glass. And while water-backing is illegal in France under AOC rules, producers there have the right to add beet sugar to the must to increase alcohol. Is this any better or worse?

The point of all of this is not to question the decisions of winemakers and winery owners. Rather, it is to give context to this anecdote:
I found myself adding approximately 60 gallons of water to a tank of must to bring the brix down to 24°. To do this we use a large gauge that connects to the end of a hose via a quick release connector. The gauge is large, and heavy, and awkward to hold. And it takes about one minute for 10 gallons to flow, so I was looking at standing there, holding the gauge for six minutes. After about 30 seconds of holding the hose, I  attempted to adjust it and find a more comfortable position. This is when the quick release connector came to rest on the edge of the fermentation tank, and did just that; it quickly release the water gauge. Right into the tank. And disappeared into a mess of grapes.
I stood there dumbstruck. There was really nothing I could do to retrieve it. I couldn’t get into the tank, or just reach in... it was 15 feet down a dark tank, under 6 feet of juice and 3 feet of grape skins. And there was no way to ignore it. Eventually I would have to tell somebody, because I would not be able to complete my tasks - it would look awfully weird if I went around carrying buckets of water instead of using the hose.

The object in question

So I went to tell the cellar master, figuring, at least he would be able to find another water gauge. He left into action (literally... he is a bit hyper) while I stood there, still coming to terms with the idiotic thing I had just done. While I began to prepare to transfer all of the juice from one tank to another, then dig out the gauge from the remaining grape skins, the cellar master had already rigged up a crazy rake taped to a telescopic pole, and was ready to go fishing.
After just a few attempts, we managed to get the offending piece of metal out, much to the relief of the winemaker. And then he told me about the time he accidentally dropped a bin (yeah, a bin that holds a half ton of grapes) into one of the fermentors. That made me feel a little better.

On a related topic, some interesting articles on Natural Winemaking:

September 11, 2009


A visual accompaniment to the previous post. It basically shows the sorting table, the de-stemmer, and a "side dump" into an open top fermenter.


September 9, 2009


Its been busy around the winery for the last 6 days. We’ve been getting loads of grapes in, 20 or 30 tons each day. As these grapes get processed, we need to punch down the caps or pump the juice over. But more on this later. The first thing that goes on is weighing and organizing the lots of bins that come in. Because each block of each vineyard gets sent to different tanks to be vinified separately, we need to keep them organized on the crush pad so that we don’t sent the wrong lot to wrong place, or mix lots together.Sorting Table

Once organized, these grapes will be visually inspected and sorted on a large conveyor belt. Bins are dumped on to the sorting table and we pull out any “Matter Other than Grapes”; leaves, twigs, rocks, frogs, crickets, dragonflies, clusters shriveled into raisin, second crop (latter blooming fruit that is unripe), and clusters infected by botrytis (noble rot). Each block of fruit, and sometimes each bin varies in how clean they are. Well farmed vineyards, with good picking crews, offer clean lots, and we let most of the grapes pass with only a few things to pick out. Some lots can be from problem areas, so infected by rot, with grapes so dehydrated as to resemble clods of gray dirt, that the speed of the conveyor must drops to a crawl so that we have time to pick it all out.Bad Grapes!

While at the sorting table, I asked the assistant winemaker about the quality of the fruit we were sorting, and weather is might deserve a vineyard designate wine. His answer was that he didn’t know. Perhaps, but that could only be determined once it was wine, and of course, the wine would have to be distinctive enough to merit being held apart. This is why, the most important step in the whole process of winemaking is probably keeping individual lots separate and organized. Later in the year, the winemakers will sit down and taste and analyze and give thought to what belongs where, blended or set apart. But by fermenting them separately, they are taking part in a long, slow experiment to determine the characteristics of a vineyard, or a portion of a vineyard.

Our pace is determined by the type of fermenter (open or closed top) we will use for that lot. For open top fermenters, which will require punch-downs (to extract color and flavor from the skins), we dump the fruit directly into the tank from the bin, using the forklift. This means we have to change out bins and wait for forklift drivers. With closed top fermenters, we attach a must pump that continually drives the juice and berries into a tank. This leads to faster sorting, but tunnel vision ensues. And when I close my eyes at night, all I can see is grapes, passing by me, and my muscles strain to grab at the leaves and unripe clusters.

By the noon, after sorting for over 4 hours, the table is sticky from sugary grape juice, and I as well am covered with sticky juice, up to my elbows. The front of my pants, covered in juice has collected twigs and leaves. We must hose down the table and bins and de-stemmer before we break for lunch, lest the juice dries out, leaving an near impossible cleaning task for the end of the day. Even so, after another four hours of sorting in the afternoon, the equipment is covered in a layer of sugar and tartaric acid that has built up and needs to be pressure washed off.