Friday, May 9, 2008

Meanwhile, back in the winery...


Wine has been made for 7000 years. The first was undoubtedly the result of a gatherer in the Taurus or Caucasus Mountains coming home, exhausted, arms laden with edibles, only to find her hunter impatiently pacing about saying “so, what’s for dinner?” She hurriedly tossed the grapes she had gathered into a pot in the corner, and fixed a sumptuous feast. She forgot about the grapes, but a couple of weeks later came home from another gather to find her hunter stretched out on the sofa, the pot of grapes by his side, and a huge smile on his face. 7000 years later, Chateau Lafite.

So wine is not hard to make. You don’t need oak barrels, you don’t need temperature controlled fermenters, you don’t need fancy yeasts, you don’t need vast filtering systems, you don’t need cobwebby underground caves, you don’t need to be French, you don’t need a degree from UCDavis. All you need is grapes—wine is made in the vineyard—a container to ferment them in and then—and this is the first lesson our hunter/gatherer learned—an airtight container so that the wine is not exposed to air. Wine—like bananas, milk, meat and peaches—will spoil if exposed to the oxygen in air. (So if you’re ever unlucky enough to only drink a half bottle with dinner, be sure to decant what’s left over into a smaller bottle to minimize its exposure to air).

A friend once said “the magic is in growing grapes, because wine making is just chemistry.” As the son of a chemical engineer, I had to take exception—yes it is chemistry, but to say “just chemistry” is like saying Marilyn Monroe is just a hundred pounds of water with a few pounds of minerals thrown in. You can make Thunderbird, or you can make Stag’s Leap—the difference is in the chemistry.

In fact, ten skilled wine makers using identical batches of grapes harvested from the same vineyard on the same day, will produce ten easily identifiably different wines. It’s all in how they handle the chemistry.

So the mechanics of making wine are simple: you extract the juice either mechanically or with your feet, if they’re white grapes you separate the skins from the juice before fermentation, usually by pressing, if they are red you keep the skins in contact with the juice until after fermentation because the color comes from the skin. Fermentation is the process of converting sugar—glucose—into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Yeasts are a catalyst for fermentation, and you add yeast to the juice, or depend on natural yeasts in the air and on the fruit to do the job. Fermentation lasts a few days to a few weeks, after which you have wine. At that point it is murky, cloudy, filled with bits of skin, seeds and an occasional bee, quite raw, and hard to drink. You can train your taste buds to taste it at that point, however, and get a good indication of how it will end up. The rest of the process is clarifying the wine, and allowing it to develop its true taste and character, much as you might let a stew sit for a time after cooking to allow the flavors to meld together. Except with wine it can take weeks, months or years.

Let’s get back to those ten winemakers. What are the variables that will produce ten distinctly different wines from the same grapes? First, the fermentation. Fermentation generates heat—which is why most modern wineries have temperature controlled stainless steel fermenters. A wine fermented at low temperatures will preserve the flowery aromas of the grapes, so the temperature of the fermentation can determine the difference between an austere, steely wine, and a soft, flowery wine. The yeast you use —and there are many choices—can alter the flavor slightly. You can ferment a wine bone dry—most fine wines are—or you can leave varying degrees of sugar. Most beginning wine drinkers like a slightly sweet wine, and grow into drier and drier wines as their palates develop, so many wine makers make some sweet wines to appeal to as many customers as possible.

The really great sweet dessert wines, the Chateau D’Yquems, the ice-wines from Ontario, the Trockenbeerenausleses from Germany, are made from grapes dehydrated by either freezing on the vine, or by botrytis—the “noble rot”—and so have such a high sugar content when they are harvested that there is considerable sugar left when the wines reach about 17 percent alcohol, the point at which most fermentation stops. With very special handling, the alcohol percentage can crack 20 percent, but that is very rare. (Any liquor with a higher alcohol level—Cognac, Scotch, Gin, Vodka, Rum moonshine tend to be 40 percent or above—has to be distilled).

The second set of decisions comes in the process of clarifying the wine; separating the wine from the lees, the dead yeast cells, the bits of skin and that dead, but happy, bee in the bottom of the container. The lees impart a flavor, and some winemakers will deliberately let the wine sit on the lees for months, and stir them up from time to time, to capture that flavor. Others will siphon the wine off the lees as soon as possible.

And finally, there is the aging process. Here the two main variables are “how long?,” and “in what?” As an often broken rule, white wines are aged for months in stainless steel, and red wines for years in oak. Oak barrels—and of course, there are many kinds of oak—impart a subtle oak flavor to wine. French Limousin is the traditional standard, but some winemakers are partial to Yugoslav or Spanish oak, and many Australian winemakers like Pennsylvania oak, go figure. Each variety adds a different flavor, and the length of time the wine is in oak affects its flavor as well.

To add to the complexity, oak barrels lose their ability to impart their flavor to the wine after three or four uses, but continue to change the wine because a minute amount of air gets through the wood and, subtly, matures the wine. Similarly, a tiny amount of air gets through a bottle’s cork and helps high quality red wines age. Yes, too much air spoils wine, a tiny bit matures it.

By the way, there are people who make their living going from vineyard to vineyard and scraping off a thin layer of wine soaked oak from the inside of barrels, thus exposing new oak, and giving the barrels another three to four years of life.

So it’s easy to see how our ten winemakers can each make a different wine from the same grapes.

In our small winery right now, we have three vintages (2005, 2006, and 2007) undergoing the clarifying/flavor melding process. There are certain processes that have to get done—stirring the lees or siphoning wine off the lees, for example—but there’s no rigorous schedule. Like snakes that only eat once a month or so, it doesn’t really matter if we stir on Monday or on Thursday.

So during the winter Russ Gaul, the one-handed Episcopalian minister’s son, Nixonian Republican, and one time cardboard box salesman turned Unitarian and de facto Democrat, and Mike Carpenter, the long bearded—the Mexican pickers refer to him as “Osama”—Republican, lawyer and sailor, also Unitarian and de-facto Democrat and I gather intermittently to check on the wines, and occasionally do some bottling.

Last time we were in the winery, I bottled the 2005 Cabernet/Merlot/Cabernet Franc blend that, faux de mieux, will be the red we’ll serve at our opening reception on June 11, 2009. I’m still working on the whites.

Pruning, Part II

BLOG # 2

Wine growers have forever argued about quantity versus quality. The conventional wisdom has long been that they are inversely related. Like Van Gogh, you have to suffer to produce great art, a great vine has to suffer to deliver a pitifully small amount of great wine.

That may once have been absolutely true. But like so much else in our lives, the more we learn, the more we realize that it’s not quite so simple. In 2007, we had a small crop, and very good quality. It turns out, however, that the small quantity was due to 2006-07 winter damage, and the high quality was due to exceptional weather during the summer of 2007—weather that allowed for optimal fruit growth, minor disease threat, and a long, dry harvest period that allowed flavors to concentrate in the grapes. We also had a small crop in 2004, but the quality was sub-par that year because both the winter of 2003 and the summer of 2004 were nasty—the winter had dramatic temperature swings, the summer unrelenting rain.

What we are now learning is that vines are like people—they have different strengths, they respond to different stimuli, they are capable of delivering different crops. One vine is simply physiologically able to deliver more pounds of fruit of high quality than the one right next to it, despite the fact that both are the same variety, the same clone, the same rootstock, planted at the same time, and pruned, tended, and sprayed the same way. The grower’s task, therefore, is similar to that of a good teacher, parent or boss—insofar as possible, treat every vine as an individual, set a quality goal, and then try to maximize the quantity of fruit at that quality level for each vine. In practice, of course, that’s impossible, but you do get to the point where you can tell from the look of a vine as you prune it in the dead of winter—its shape, its vigor, the cane size—whether you have to prune it hard (and settle for a smaller crop) or allow it to carry more fruit. Similarly, you can look at a vine in late July and see immediately that it simply hasn’t developed enough strong foliage to ripen all the fruit that’s hanging on it, and force yourself to “drop” some of the fruit, so that all of the vine’s energies will go into ripening the remaining fruit.

You have no idea how hard it is to drop fruit in July.

And don’t get me wrong, while all that is going on, there’s time for your mind to wander, it isn’t totally focused on the pruning. There’s an Amish farmer a few miles away from whom we buy produce in the summer. Ike Stoltzfus, or one of his many kids, is usually in the store, a small room with shelves for the produce, a refrigerator with butter and cheese, a counter with a bell, a scale and a cash register, and a blackboard with aphorisms and announcements. For the most part, the fruit and vegetables are grown on their farm, but occasionally they buy from neighbors. One day last summer I was in the store and Ike’s 10 year old daughter was behind the counter. I was buying corn, and, as you know, it’s hard to know if an ear is good just by looking at it, so I asked the girl “how do you pick the ears you eat?” She looked at me incredulously, and said “with our hands!” As I was gathering my stuff, she looked at me and said “if I wasn’t here, what would you do?” I said “well, either I’d leave the money I owe you on the counter, or I’d leave you a note and say I’d pay you next time. What would you have me do?” Again she looked at me with amazement and said “Ring the bell!” Finally, I picked up some pears—it was late in the season—and said “Are these your pears?” This time I got a sly smile: “They are now!” she said.

If only I could get her to apply to Andover, she’d get in in a nano-second.

Back to the vineyard. We’re also learning more and more about disease control, weed control, and how certain weather patterns may affect the fruit weeks hence. For example: the slightly ratty looking vineyard with a certain amount of weeds poking up among the vines may be far healthier than the vineyard with no growth whatsoever between the vines, or between the rows. Those immaculate rows look beautiful—lush green vines against the brown earth and blue sky, but it’s taken a huge amount of chemicals to keep the weeds and ground cover in check, and, more important, weeds provide nutrients to the vines, control water run-off, and provide habitat for beneficial organisms (as wellas the occasional wasps’ nest).

Which leads to a truism that still stands: wine in made in the vineyard. The best a winemaker can do is not screw it up. The flavor is in the grape, the character is in the grape, the surprise is in the grape. All the winemaker does—from the grower’s point of view—is take this great gift that is entrusted to him or her and simply by fermenting and clarifying the juice, transform it into great wine. It may explain why winemakers are often so, well, crabby, and why most of them finally succumb to the desire to grow their own grapes.

I would be remiss, here, if I didn’t say that most grape growers also, finally, succumb to the desire to make their own wine—how hard can it be, they say, and why should I entrust these jewels I’ve spend a year cultivating to some bozo who can ruin them in a fortnight?

The result, of course, is a bunch of brilliant winemakers who can’t grow crab grass, and a bunch of virtuoso growers who couldn’t get a decent glass of orange juice from a perfect Florida juicer.