Last Saturday I took my “Wine Theory” class on a vineyard and winery tour. These people have been listening to me drone on and on for an entire school year about how to source grapes from the right locations, how and when to harvest grapes, how to ferment grapes into wine, how to blend wine, age wine, and bottle wine. Good grief…they should be sick of listening to it and talking about it by now. I know I would be…but I also have the patience of a nat. So in the interest of “connecting the dots,” and answer the proverbial question: “Professor Sjolund, how do you make wine?” I arranged a tour of two vineyard sites on Red Mountain, followed up by a tasting of the 2011 wines made specifically from those vineyards. The following captures my thoughts throughout the day:
As I drove through the vines into the middle of Scooteney Flats, I couldn’t help the silly grin that creased my cheeks. Have you ever arrived somewhere and just knew that you are in the right place at the right time? You stop and just…breathe. Every sense heightened, aware yet in awe, excitedly nervous, yet spiritually calm. That is how I feel every time I drive through a vineyard, or walk into a winery. I felt that way for the first time in August of 2000, standing at the entrance of a wine cave. That was the moment I officially decided to make this my career. The thrill of that moment, of that feeling, has never gone away to this day. It is that feeling that creases my cheeks, puts the sparkle in my eyes, and allows me talk about wine for hours on end. Dramatic I know, but it is why I do this for a living. At the very heart, it is passion. It is passion that drives me, and it is passion that I seek in those working with me. How do I teach that to a group of students wanting to know how I make wine? They have to find their own passion. All I can do is give them the opportunity, expose them to all of the elements, and give them the fundamental rope to start over the ledge.
Every winemaker has a “style,” a signature to their wines. People ask me what type of wines I make. My response: “I make the wines I like to drink.” Question: “How do you choose a vineyard that will give you the right kind of grapes to make the wines you like to drink?” Answer:”Start drinking other people’s wines. Find another wine producer you appreciate and respect, find out where their grapes come from, and pray that you know someone who knows someone.” It is all about making connections, putting your feet to the ground and seeking out those who can or will assist you. Once you find the source of the grapes you seek, it becomes imperative that you develop good communication with the grower. It is no coincidence we talk about “growing wine.” If the grower doesn’t know your style, how can they assist you in growing grapes for the wines you seek to make? It takes two to tango, so learn the dance. I like big, bold red wines with structure and balance. I look to Red Mountain vineyards for the backbone of my red wine blends. I look to the vineyard managers to help me achieve the balance I seek in the grapes they grow.
Each vineyard within an AVA like Red Mountain has its own personal characteristic. The soil, topography, and climate all play a role in how the grapes taste. The vineyard manager knows this as intimately as I know how the diversification of wine yeast and barrel selection can enhance the flavor and aroma of wine. Pictured above is what will become a cluster of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the Scooteney Flats vineyard on Red Mountain. This vineyard has 33 acres planted with all five Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. The ground is composed of “scooteney” soil, which is identified as loess or alluvium over gravel. Loess soil is defined by Wikipedia as an “accumulation of wind-blown silt, twenty percent or less clay and the balance equal parts sand and silt that are loosely cemented by calcium carbonate.” What does this mean for grapes? It means that the soil is loose, or highly porous. Water and roots can penetrate the soil. Because it can develop thick layers, this soil will act like a sponge, allowing the vines to absorb nutrients and water. Even with natural rainfall and irrigation, the water will stay in the upper layers of the soil, never reaching the gravel unless fully saturated. Knowing this allows the vineyard manager better control over vine growth and irrigation. Knowing this as a winemaker allows for more interactive discussion with the vineyard manager regarding viticultural practices for that site. Nutrients in the soil impact the chemical composition of the fruit. The calcium coated gravel affects the pH of the fruit, which is something the winemaker has to deal with in the winery during fermentation and aging. Water impacts where the vine puts its growth energy (vegetative growth or fruit development). Too much water early grows large canopy’s, which decreases sunlight exposure, which leads to underripe “green” flavors in the fruit. Of course I am generalizing and oversimplifying here, but the point is that every decision in the field in addition to the site itself impacts how the fruit will taste. The winemaker has to care about this and understand it in order to make decisions regarding fermentation style and aging. One hand feeds the other. Know your vineyard manager. Bring them coffee at 6am when they are standing in the field waiting for daylight to harvest your grapes.
Once the grapes are harvested and the wine is made, you should invite your vineyard manager to taste the efforts of the season. As a winemaker, you must be able to distinguish the wine flavors coming from the fruit (vineyard), and those coming from fermentation and/or barrel selection (winemaking). If there were fermentation issues, or microbiological issues, did those originate in the vineyard or the winery? If the wine flavor and aroma is not expressive, is that a vineyard problem, or a winemaking problem? Use this information with your vineyard manager to make a strategy for next year. Scooteney Flats tends to produce very structured wines with what we describe as “chalky” tannin. You know that peanut butter effect when you eat too much and your mouth feels like the Sahara. It is a quality in red wine that I enjoy in small amounts. It has to be controlled. Overextraction during fermentation, and too much oak will send this wine right over the edge. You want to enhance the fruit, not overpower it. The grapes themselves expresses deep red and black fruits. The flavor intensity of the fruit can handle the tannin structure, but there has to be a balance. Of course barrels add a whole new dimension, and the exponential variables to winemaking go on and on from there. Point is this: know what the vineyard can give you, and know how to make it work for your style and palate. If it goes awry, figure out where the source of the problem is. Vineyard or winery? The best vineyards grow balanced expressive fruit that we as winemakers simply translate into drinkable form. The fruit requires minimal intervention on our part. In other words the vineyard manager will deliver the bins to the winery and shout “don’t screw it up” as they wave goodbye. Other vineyards require more manipulation and intervention to get what you want. Know the difference. Know when to back off, and when to intervene. This comes only from exposure and experience. You have to get out of the pick-up and walk the vineyard blocks. You have to be with that fermenter every day. You have to taste your wine. Know everything you can about it. That is the only way you can start to change it.
So back to the question: “Professor Sjolund, how do you make wine?” There is no simple answer to this. It depends on where the grapes come from. It depends on the composition of the soil, topography, and climate as to what kind of fruit the vineyard is going to give me. From there I make a decision on how to ferment that fruit in order to showcase the characteristics of its origin. Then I decide if it needs a barrel to enhance its flavor and structure. Even when dealing with the same vineyard year after year, each vintage is different. The earth provides a different set of circumstances every year, so my tactics are always changing. Cooperages are making different barrels, yeast strains are being sourced from different locations for better fermentation kinetics and flavor profiles, and the list goes on and on……it’s mind blowing. I’m very experimental with how I make wine. It is a personal challenge to raise the bar every year. Can I make the wine better than I did last year? What do I have to do to get there (wherever “there” is)? What am I doing right, and what needs to be tweaked? Is it viticultural or winemaking? The quest to make an “ideal” wine is a lifelong journey I am willing to take. That “ideal” exists only in my mind. The “ideal” is different for everyone. I hope I never get there, because then I would have to find something else to do. For it is the “ideal” that fuels the passion.
At the core of all this, there are fundamentals to winemaking. That is what I can teach you. It is the rope I can throw you as you dip your toes over the ledge before I push you. Beyond that, you must use your imagination and passion to navigate the terrain. Hold onto the rope with one hand, a foot, upside-down or sideways. The possibilities are endless. Fall off the rope, and you’ll need bandages. That is another blog post entirely.
How do you like your wines? A little dirty like a martini, or straight up clean and sophisticated? Is there a difference beyond personal preference? Let’s investigate…
As some of you may know, I am an online instructor for a program called VESTA. This is a nationally funded degree program by the NSF. It stands for “Viticulture and Enology Science and Technology Alliance”, www.vesta-usa.org. Universities and local Colleges around the country host classes for the VESTA program. I happen to teach online wine chemistry for Kent State University, Ashtabula, and intermediate enology for Missouri State University, West Plains.
During the course of every semester, the topic of filtration and wine quality is most assuredly brought up. The question being, “how does filtration change the wine prior to bottling? Does it “strip” the wine of flavor and aroma?” A question that has plagued winemaking for quite some time. Anyone who has ever tasted a barrel sample in the winery knows what an incredible sensory experience it is. As a winemaker, we want to deliver that sensory experience to all of our consumers. While we want our product to taste as phenomenal in the bottle as it did in the barrel, we have another job to accomplish. That is to keep the wine safe in the bottle as it ages. Remember that wine is a living thing. Even in the bottle, wine is always changing. As a winemaker, we want “controlled” change!
So what does filtration do? Filtration is designed to remove particulate matter that has precipitated. Anyone drink unfiltered or filtered apple juice? Orange juice with or without pulp? Clearly you can see if there is particulate matter in the product, and you make a choice based on personal preference. The bottles with pulp will direct you to “shake before opening.” This is an over exaggeration for wine of course. We don’t “shake” our unfiltered wine bottles before opening, but I use these examples to draw comparison. There is discussion out there that hints along the line of unfiltered wines tasting better, or being of higher quality than filtered wines. This is rubbish. In the current issue of “Wine Business Monthly,” Senior Technical Editor, Curtis Phillips puts into print what I have been preaching to my students all along. It crux of the matter is scientific evidence. Prove to me via experimental scientific method that filtration significantly changes the wine from a sensory perspective, and I will accept it. No such thing has been proven. What has been proven is the concept of “bottle shock.” But we will get to that in a minute.
So what of filtration? Why do we do it? We certainly do it for cosmetic reasons. We make the wine more visually appealing by removing particulate matter, making the wine clearer. But as we all know, looks aren’t everything. The most important reason we filter is to remove microbiological matter so our wines will have “stability” in the bottle. That means they have less risk of refermentation in bottle, less risk of becoming tainted by rogue yeast or bacteria strains. UC Davis professor, Dr. Block has recently released a sensory study regarding the age-old question “Is filtered wine different than an unfiltered wine” from a chemical and sensory perspective over a period of time? Are sensory compounds removed by filters “stripping” the wines of flavor and aroma prior to bottling? The results: NO, filters do not have a significant impact on removing chemical or sensory compounds. What is significant is sensory and chemical data obtained immediately after the wines are bottled vs. data obtained at a much later date after bottling. Proving what we all know is “bottle shock.” The change in the wine from physically putting the wine in bottle. There is a vapor – liquid equilibrium at which the wine exists in a barrel. This equilibrium is significantly disturbed by putting the wine in a bottle. Certainly a drastic change in living environment. Image being used to a 2,500sq.ft house with windows that open and close, then moving to a 600sq.ft apartment with no windows. Drastic for sure. It will take some time for a new equilibrium to be reached. And you have to cram all your stuff into a new living space. Ouch!
Now, for the purpose of this post, I am simplifying things a bit. What is important to understand is that no one has proven from a sensory study that filtered wines vs. unfiltered wines are different in a blind evaluation some time after bottling. As with all things scientific, the results are only as good as the experimental design. Considering this experiment was performed by one of the best in the industry, I believe it. Now to be consistent, the study must be repeated many times. The point here being this: winemakers rely on the academic world to do these type of research studies and provide us with results we can use to implement production changes in our own facilities. Changes that either impact quality or economics.
I will confess, I filter all of my wines. Why? Because I want to sleep good at night knowing my wines are protected in the bottle. It is like gambling. How high are the stakes and what are you willing to bet/lose? I hate losing, and am not willing to bet my wines on potential contamination due to lack of filtration. Now, I am in no way suggesting that those bottling or purchasing unfiltered wines should change their ways. I’m sure they won’t. I still buy/drink unfiltered wines. What I am saying, is that there is no proof that those wines are of higher “quality” or taste better than filtered wines. It is marketing concept, not a scientifically proven fact. However; along with Curtis Phillips, I also believe that the academic experimentation should continue with multiple replications across different varieties, vintages, and regions to give us a broader perspective.
My last word from a logical point of view: cosmetic filtration only removes particulate matter that has already precipitated in wine, thus preventing precipitation in bottle that you the consumer will see later on. Using filtration for microbiological stability physically removes yeast and bacteria cells from the wine (they are very small by the way). Has anyone ever written a tasting note on what yeast and bacteria actually taste like independently? Not the product of what they do (ferment grape juice to wine) but what they are. Yeast and bacteria are microbes. Do they have a flavor independently? Taste any yeast or bacteria lately? Would you really know if they themselves were actually in the wine while you were drinking it? So in closing: for the consumer, choosing a filtered vs. unfiltered wine may be personal preference like how you take your orange juice. Keep in mind most wine labels do not indicate filtered vs. unfiltered. For the winemaker, choosing to filter or not comes down to: 1.) do you own or have access to a filter? and 2.) to what extent do you want to take out insurance on your wines?
So I’ve been on this health quest for the last 3 months, reflecting on my life journey…blah, blah, blah…and it dawned on me that our lives somewhat mirror that of wine. Think about it for a minute…when you were born, you required a lot of nurturing to grow and develop into the adults you are today. As maturing adults, many of us become relaxed in taking stock of our health. If we check in only once in a while, we might discover that things have gotten out of hand. At that point, it takes a lot of work to bring it back in check. Those persistently evaluating their health tend to discover that “fixing” potential problems is not such a daunting task. Most call it “preventative” care. I’m not here to preach about healthy living, but to draw some comparisons between our lives and that of wine. You see, the life of a wine requires constant care and vigilance from the winemaker (yes, wine is a living thing), just as our bodies require constant care and vigilance from us. Without constant monitoring, a wine can get out of hand…it looses its lustre. It is exceedingly difficult to “fix” a wayward wine due to neglect. So let’s reflect on the life of wine…
Consider how wine is made…the condensed version: grapes are harvested from the vineyard, brought to the winery, berries are removed from the stems and then fermented into wine. When those individual berries land in a fermenter, they already contain a fixed amount of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc). Yeast is required to convert grape sugars into alcohol. The yeast need a lot of nutrition (from the grapes) in order to do that. The life of a yeast cell is rough. They are small, grapes are big. They have to persist in various temperatures. They have to persist in the presence of “antimicrobials” such as sulfur dioxide. They have to be built fermentation tough! And if the grapes do not have enough nutrition for yeast to consume during their daunting task of alcohol production, they produce these foul-smelling aromas to let us know they are MAD! At which time the winemaker runs over to the fermenter and does a couple of things. #1.) they spank it (by doing a punchdown or pumpover) and tell it to stop crying…and/or #2.) they feed it something (nutritious) and tell it to stop crying. Yeast are very temperamental. They need discipline sometimes, just saying. At any rate – this is where the winemaker becomes the biochemist…and the therapist. Winemakers spend a lot of time babysitting fermenters as yeast transforms grape berries from wee little sweetie pies into liquid courage. It takes time, attention, and proper fermentation management to achieve a stable, well-balanced wine. Just as it took a time, attention, and guidance to transform us from children into adults.
What happens after fermentation? Are they all grown up? Do we stop worrying about our wines? Do we just put them to barrel and let them be on their own? I mean, it’s alcohol, and alcohol is anti-microbial, right? It is used as a sterilent, right? You’ve all seen the movies! Whiskey and vodka will kill anything you got. So wine should be able to take care of itself, right? Once a wine completes its fermentation, it DOES NOT mean you put it in a barrel, taste it every month, then decide you need it to leave home and make money for you. That wine still requires care and attention. It is still ALIVE!! It has feelings too you know. Its life requires certain necessities like protection and a stable environment. Most winemakers evaluate their wines monthly. We look at the chemistry of the wine to make sure all is in order, just like you take a blood test at the doctor’s office. If things check out, we rest easy until the next visit. If they don’t check out, we have to take action. In addition to chemistry, we use our nose and our palate as tools to access the state of the wine. If we detect an off aroma or flavor, we find the source and correct the problem. Sometimes wine goes through peeks and valley’s like a teenager’s attitude. One month you are in love with it, and the next you threaten to dump it down the drain. You have to be vigilant and you have to be patient. Love its strenghts and weaknesses.
Once you have determined the wine has matured to the point where you want to bottle it, you have to make sure it has everything it needs before it goes. Again, winemakers take stock of the wine’s “mental and physical state” before ushering it out the door and sharing it with the world. We want to make sure we have given it the best possible chance to do its job…the job of bringing enjoyment to you. Even in the bottle, wine continues to live on. It’s composition changes as does ours. It continues to mature, as do most of us. It continues to require care, and most of all, respect. Respect for the life it lived, and the life it continues to live!
Instead of calling it the “ART” of blending, I prefer to call it the “heART” of blending. Let’s face it, anyone can flick a paintbrush on a piece of canvas and call it art. Although the canvas may be a masterpiece, it is really the “heART” of the artist in which we become invested. The heart is fueled by the soul, and your choice of “heARTistic” expression allows others to live though you and your interpretation of the world. It doesn’t matter if you paint a picture, sing a song, build a sculpture, or blend a bottle of wine. Anything done with “heART” is truly special and unique, regardless of the way in which you choose to express it.
When I approach blending, I give each barrel of wine a chance to “express” itself. I start to consider which “blend” might be appropriate for that barrel. It’s like giving the personality test at the wine recruiting office. Are you bold or reserved? Do you posses a strong or smooth finish? Are you aromatically open or closed? Do you seek the simple or complex? Of course, it isn’t that easy. The point being, each barrel has a unique personality. As a winemaker, we wish everyone could experience the distinctive character of each individual barrel. But consider painting a picture with only one color, or singing a song in only one key. It can be done beautifully, but the addition of other colors or keys may give way to deeper appreciation and beauty. So the real question you ask each barrel is this…”do you deserve to be showcased solo?” or “should you be used in harmony?”
I just finished blending the 2010 vintage of Sonoris reds. There were 22 barrels composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, ranging from 5 different vineyards across 3 AVA’s. After tasting every barrel, I started separating the ones I knew would go to the Cab Sauv program or to the Merlot program. This is based on several factors like aromas, flavor, texture, and finish. I know what I like…I know what I want…and most importantly…I know what I feel. Once I have a base for each wine blend, I start adding small amounts of the remaining varieties until I discover the elixir that sends me into nirvana (eyes cross and then roll back in my head as I outwardly whisper…yes!). This usually requires no less than 10 wine glasses, a disposable pipet, graduated cylinders, pitchers, and sample bottles…I know what you are thinking – high maintenance! I will make 10 sample versions of one blend using all the varieties I have. Each sample will vary between 1-5% of each other. Again – so picky! What is it I am looking for? I start to dissect each wine sample the way you might dissect a new car on the dealer lot. How big do you want your engine? Take it for a test drive. How does it feel? Does it have all the bells and whistles you want or need?
In wine, I search for aromatic layers, distinct flavors, and feelings on my tongue, cheeks, lips, and throat. Once I’ve come up with my nirvana concoction, I quickly look around for somebody else to taste it. Most likely I find Charlie or Mitch, shove the glass in their face and giddily ask “What do you think?” They give me an honest opinion, followed by some remark that will send wine ejecting through my nose as I try to taste with them…they laugh hysterically, and the blending session is over! The only thing I can tell you is this: I blend wines based on what I feel. It comes from a place deep in my “heART”. At the end of this blending session, 3 different wines were made: a Cabernet Sauvignon called “Burney’s Blend” (275 cases), a Merlot called “The Source” (200 cases), and a single vineyard wine (75 cases) that has yet to be named.
In an effort to bring you the lastest winemaking shenanigans, laboratory experiemnts and overall tales of a life lived for and through wine, I am starting a blog! So who am I, and what am I going to tell you that you haven’t read on some other wine blog?
I am the “enomama.” A name coined by a colleague that seemed all to fitting for a girl who has “mommy’d” many wines back from the brink. As a professional winemaker, laboratory owner, and winemaking educator, I have stayed up many a night fretting and fussing over tanks and barrels, both my own and those belonging to others. Some of these wines have gone into great bottles that many have enjoyed, and others…well they are in a better place somewhere beyond the tasting room fountain, or being used on your salad. See, winemaking is a lot like cooking. Some dishes make the menu, and some…well, you get the picture. But if you are like me, the journey is what you are most interested in. The finsihed product is just wine in your Riedal.So what am I going to tell you about? As a winemaker, I try to deliver the best of my (crazy) imagination and palate through a series of vineyard choices, winemaking style, and blending ability. My job is to find the most flavorable grapes from the most unique places, and turn them into wine you can drink. As a wine analyst I am the last stop on the quality control bus. It is my job to deliver technical information to other winemakers, so they can make the best decsions for their wines. It is also my job to “experiement” with new winemaking procedures and stay up-to-date on technology advancements that I can share with my colleagues. As a wine educator, I spend 5 hours a week on-line, teaching new winemakers across the country about wine chemisty and enological practices. After doing all of this, I sit back with a glass of wine and tell you a story…a story about how I make wine, how I experiment with wine, why I teach wine, and how I live through wine. Believe me, it’s quite a story with colorful characters! This is my life, and this is what you will hear about. Hope you enjoy the ride. It has been great so far!