Favorite Videos & Articles from Wine Country @ Work
The Wine Makers Education
BioDynamics in Wine Country
The Caves at Soda Canyon
The Art & Science of Winemaking
Pasteur’s research into microbes led to wineries becoming obsessed with cleanliness and to doctors washing their hands. During his work developing Germ Theory, he had an ongoing debate with Antoine Béchamp who developed Terrain Theory. Pasteur postulated that health was attained by killing the ‘bad’ microbes. Béchamp proposed that microbes were opportunistic and one could maintain good health by promoting the supportive microbes with diet, exercise and lifestyle, which naturally inhibits the destructive versions.
This debate continues between the pharmaceutical and natural health industries, but in wineries it is settled. Growers generally accept the importance of ‘terroir’ or terrain, because research has determined that a vineyard’s distinctive flavor owes much to the health of the soil’s microflora. That is determined by how it is farmed, the nutrition it receives and the animals and plants and that live there. Also, no one questions the importance of microbes, and premium winery sanitation equals most medical facilities, at least any place where the wine is touching. So, for winemakers, both Pasteur and Béchamp were correct.
Because of Pasteur’s work, ninety percent of winemaking is washing equipment, nine percent is record keeping and one percent is wine tasting. Sanitation consumes a fair number of the thirty-two steps required to make a good wine, and winemaker’s joke that their first wine, when they did every step, was their best. After that, over-confidence lets them skip steps and the flavors go wrong in tiny ways that they hope no one notices.
Between modern science, stainless steel and technology, today's wines consistently turn out well, but premium wineries take that to the next level and here is how they do that. When they determine that the grapes have enough sugar for the yeast to produce the planned alcohol level, the team hand harvests the bunches at night, so they arrive at the winery by first light.
The grapes are washed and sorted to remove immature or spoiled fruit, leaves, twigs, and the occasional raccoon catching a ride and a snack in the bin. They love ripe grapes! The white grapes used for white wines are pressed immediately. Depending on the winemaker, they may be tossed in as whole bunches or de-stemmed first. That juice goes into a fermentation tank to begin the magic. Among premium wineries, concrete egg shaped fermenters are increasingly popular for white wines.
Most premium wines depend on the grape’s native yeast for fermentation, which takes longer than commercially cultured yeast, but produces subtle, complex flavors. Big production wineries, on demanding timetables, prefer the aggressive, cultured yeast strains that work fast and can overcome problems caused by less than pristine grapes. Imagine wine yeast as a video game character with a big mouth, like Pac Man. As it consumes the yeast it excretes alcohol and that activity generates heat, so they cool the tanks to prevent the heat from destroying the flavors. The process releases carbon dioxide, which displaces oxygen, so wineries constantly run vent fans during the peak of fermentation. Although some wineries sidestep this problem by having their tanks outside.
Red wine grapes are handled differently. They are de-stemmed and rigorously sorted because the juice and skin will be in contact during the fermentation. The more expensive the wine, the more grapes they discard, using mechanical and human sorters. They only want perfect grapes going into the fermentation tanks.
The tanks are sanitized, usually with tasteless ozone, and filled halfway to allow for the rising carbon dioxide bubbles. Pinot Noir tanks are wide and open topped, while Bordeaux varietals use an enclosed tank with a small hatch. Every surface the grapes or juice will touch is cleaned before and after.
When you talk with a winemaker, they’ll say something like, “I’ve been with this winery for twelve harvests”, because that experience helps them predict how the juice from each place will ferment. That transformation is not always a smooth process, so they have nutrients they can add to the juice to help the yeast be more effective. The carbon dioxide bubbles bring the skins to the surface, where they form a thick cap on the clear juice. Those skins contain the flavors and colors, so several times daily the winemakers ‘punch down’ the cap with a large paddle, infusing the juice with those components. Some wineries pump the juice from the bottom to the top, so it seeps down through the skins. Every step is scheduled and every action and measurement are recorded.
When the fermenting bubbles stop, the skins, seeds and expired yeast settle to the bottom. This mix is called the ‘lees’. They remove the clear, ‘free run’ juice suspended above the lees, keeping that separate. Then they open the bottom hatch and put the remaining mix of juice and lees into the press. That juice is stored separately because the two lots have different flavors.
After fermentation, premium wines of both colors go into oak aging barrels, which soften the wine’s sharp edges and compliment the flavors. Less expensive white wines are often kept in stainless tanks which makes them bright but a bit sharp. Sometimes winemakers decide to age a white wine in neutral oak barrels which doesn’t add any flavor, but it gives them a softer mouth feel than the stainless steel.
Most premium white wines, like virtually every premium red wine, go into new and one-year old oak aging barrels. After six months the wines are ‘racked’, which means that the sediment has fallen to the bottom of the barrels, so the clear wine is removed through the top bung hole and put into a tank. The barrels are washed with ozone water and then refilled with wine for more aging. White wines are usually barrel aged for six to twelve months. Red wines are aged longer, the time determined by the thickness of the skins. Fragile Pinot Noir might require a year, while durable Cabernet Sauvignon needs from eighteen months to two years and sometimes more.
Eventually the barrels of clear, aged wine are transferred to a tank and allowed to settle, in preparation for bottling. White wines can be ready to sell in the coming year, but red wines normally need more time in the bottle to become appealing to the palate. And that is a simplified description of winemaking! Excerpt from A Tour Guide's Napa Valley (C) 2022 De Amicis
Why This Place is Special
During the 1960’s housing boom, California developers looked longingly at Napa’s broad valley and picturesque hills, imagining houses built on the slopes and a broad highway traveling up the middle. So, the local vintners and farmers, who knew this land was special, strategically blocked those plans by creating America’s first Agricultural Preserve. Through a hotly contested vote, they placed restrictions on development in the valley. In return the Preserve provides tax relief for those who farm. Beyond the natural beauty of the place, that is why the valley looks the way it does today, and visitors experience it the way they do.
As vineyard estates proliferated, locals pushed back against unsustainable winery development. Today, if you want to build a winery in the commercial zone by the airport, the Napa County Board couldn’t be more helpful, but if you want to build one in the Ag Preserve, you better have deep pockets and patience. The Preserve restricts tourism too, so any winery started after 1990 can only see visitors by appointment! Once upon a time there were plenty of pre-1990’s wineries with walk-in tastings, but today between limited production and burgeoning wine clubs, many of them now only do tastings by appointment. Always check the website first to avoid the embarrassment of being turned away at the door.
Understanding Napa Valley
Napa’s topography is unique and perfect for wine grapes. The vineyards fill much of the broad valley floor that runs from southeast to northwest; a perfect angle for catching the morning sunshine so it will make bright fruit flavors. A smaller number of wineries are in the hills and canyons that border the valley on both sides even though growing grapes there is challenging. While the quality improves the production drops with the rising slope and altitude.
On the southern edge of the valley is the Los Carneros district that borders the San Pablo Bay. This windy expanse of cool, shallow water reflects the sunlight, casting it northward into the valley, producing the region’s ‘abundant sunshine’ that great wine grapes demand. The overnight fog, rolling off the bay onto the valley floor, cools and nurtures the sun-soaked vines. As you travel north, away from the incessant ‘Carneros winds’, the valley gets warmer, while the soils change from ancient, basaltic seabed, to volcanic benchlands.
While those bayside vineyards grow the cool-loving Chardonnay and delicate Pinot Noir, the warm-blooded Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals fill the valley’s heart. North of the town of Saint Helena there is less Cabernet and more heat tolerant Zinfandel, a legacy of the Italian families that settled there in the 1800’s. The influence of Mount Saint Helena, that towers over the valley’s northern tip, cannot be denied. This 5,000-foot, flat topped mountain, acts like a cork on the valley’s bottle. It traps the sun’s heat inside while protecting the vineyards from the harsh north winds. There are steep volcanic hills on both sides of the valley; the rocky Vaca Range to the east and the heavily wooded Mayacamas to the west. Mount Veeder, located at the southern tip of the Mayacamas range, is the geologic exception. It is the only mountainous Napa region formed from an ancient seabed, heaved up when two ranges crashed together.
The Napa River meanders down the valley’s center, forming alluvial, clay rich soils that are good for Merlot, a big berry that requires more water than Cabernet. The hills are volcanic ridges with thin, highly drained soils, a perfectly stressful environment for low yeild, prestige Cabernets. Growers there get half the grapes for twice the work, but they get high quality with dense flavors. The old grape growers claim, ‘to get good wines you have to make the vines suffer’.
The hillsides are covered with grand valley oaks, sultry live oaks, stately redwoods, abundant pine, prolific mountain laurel, fragrant eucalyptus and pretty, red-barked madrone trees. While bears are rare, mountain lions, coyotes, deer, hawks, owls, gophers, jack rabbits and snakes, including rattlers make this their home, so watch your step! At least you don’t have to worry about being eaten by a California Grizzly Bear. They have been gone for many years.
Most of Napa’s wineries are family owned, although a small group of large properties went corporate starting in the 70’s due to an agricultural blunder. Like much of the world’s vineyards, Napa’s vines are grafted onto American root stock to protect them from a soil-borne pest called Phylloxera. This practice started in the 1800’s, when European grape vines were planted in the American vineyards. It was discovered that, unlike the native American vines, the European varietals were not immune to this microscopic, root boring pest. Through experimentation, they found that European fruit stock could be grafted onto Phylloxera resistant American vine roots. This saved the wine industry globally, because Phylloxera had gotten loose in Europe and decimated entire vineyards. Their only solution was grafting onto the American root stock.
This solved the problem for many years, but then in the 1970’s a new, but secretly defective root stock became popular because of its high productivity. Many successful Napa wineries planted it, and then later had to rip out those sick vines, just when they should have been recouping their investment. It made numerous family vineyards vulnerable to corporate buyers. Interestingly, the more cautious Italian American families in the northern part of the valley didn’t bet on the new root stock and held onto their vineyards.
The silver lining behind this disaster was a dramatic improvement in vineyard site selection. The infusion of new money and science into the area led to better varietal location choices. It was at that time that less productive and marketable grapes were replaced with more Cabernet Sauvignon, using the best clones, optimal locations, ideal orientation and carefully engineered drainage. In the past, this collection of improvements would have taken generations of trial and error to accomplish. It is one more reason why Napa is special!
Excerpt from Dream Tours of Napa & Sonoma (C) 2022 De Amicis
Ralph’s ABC’s for Tasting Wine
The way you drink wine with a meal is different from how you sample it in a tasting room. The funny techniques you see people using during tastings help them perceive the wine better through the senses of sight, scent and taste. It starts with the glassware. Wineries use crystal goblets because they are rougher than glass. When you swirl the wine, those microscopic bumps pull apart its molecules, mixing them with oxygen, releasing the aromas and flavors for you to experience. Hint: The fancier the winery the fancier the glasses.
Start by holding the glass by the stem. It is partly to prevent your hand from warming the wine, but mostly because that makes it easier to move the wine around inside the glass. Temperature matters and wines are poured at different temperatures; sparkling and sweet whites are the coldest while the dry whites and light reds are cool. The big red wines start out at ‘cellar’ temperatures and then gradually warm during the tasting, which allows the complex flavors to bloom. The worst thing you can do is not give the wine a chance to open up and stretch, after its long seclusion in the bottle. That’s like having the genie pop out of the lamp and not giving them time to properly introduce themselves before you start asking them to grant your wishes. Start by holding the glass upright and taking a sniff. Much of what you’re smelling at the top of the glass is alcohol rising off the liquid. Next, set the glass on the tabletop (the tasting notes make a nice, soft surface), place your fingers firmly on top of the base and vigorously swirl the wine clockwise. Now, pick the glass up and hold it to the light. Wine is a complex creation so you may see red, blue, violet, gold, straw and so on, depending on the varietal. Set the glass down and swirl it again.
Next, pick up the glass and hold it at a 45-degree angle across your body (so you avoid pouring the wine on yourself), and put your nose on the glass’ lower lip, and take a sniff. At this angle, the alcohol fumes are rising inside the globe, and slipping out at the top like smoke going up a chimney, happily bypassing your nose. Now, instead of mostly smelling alcohol, you’re smelling the heavier fruit flavors below, the wonderful scent of fermented grapes!
Take a moment to appreciate the bouquet. With a big, densely flavored red wine, it’s best to repeat the swirl and sniff steps a few times, until you’ve truly captured the fullness of the scent, before taking a sip. With a white wine the flavors open more quickly and you can move through swirl, sniff and sip in three lovely steps. Then just keep repeating the process until there is none left.
Wine Geek Alert! There is an odd phenomenon that happens with wines that have been aged in oak for an extended period, usually eighteen months or more. As related to me by winemakers, when you swirl the wine clockwise you will smell predominantly fruit flavors. But when you swirl counterclockwise, you will also notice the nutty, sometimes spicy flavors that come from the barrel. Why does this happen? According to Ralph’s best quasi-scientific analysis, it is due to the relative efficiency of vortices. A clockwise swirl more efficiently mixes the various part of the wine together. But the less efficient counterclockwise swirl allows the layers to separate. The wooden barrel flavors are the last ones to be infused into the juice and in this less organized mix, some of those woody notes are left floating at the top for your nose to discover. This technique is used by some winemakers to determine a barrel’s influence on the wine. If you have a good sense of smell, you will notice the difference. Now you are officially a Wine Geek!
When you take a sip, move the wine around your mouth, so it touches all your taste buds from the tip of your tongue to the valley in its center, and then, both sides. Once the flavors are well dispersed, you can swallow the sip. There are certain scent notes that are only released when they touch your tongue. To access them, gently breathe in through your mouth so the aromas on your palate reach your nose via the back of your throat. There is another quality you should note called ‘mouth feel’. It is how the texture of the wine feels to the surface of your mouth. Is it sharply acidic, soothingly silky, or almost sticky and syrupy?
That gives you some clues about the kinds of foods and situations the wine is suited for. A high acid wine goes great with food because it cleans the palate and helps the digestion. A wine with a soft mouth feel is nice at a party for socializing. The syrupy sweet wines make a nice dessert after a heavy meal, when you don’t have room for cake.
With these steps, you have experienced almost the full signature of the wine; the look, scent, flavor and feel. The only note still missing is how the alcohol hits you. Popular wines range from about 10% up to 16% alcohol. Port is fortified with grape spirits to stop the fermentation before the sugar is completely consumed, and it is about 20% alcohol. A wine below 12% is called a table wine, and for many years most wines were in that range. The change happened due to the desire for bigger, fuller flavored wines, which requires leaving the grapes on the vines longer, where they make more sugar, which the yeast converts into more alcohol.
Related to inebriation, not every wine makes you feel the same. We suppose this is because wines are chemically complex nutrition and your body uses the dietary components it encounters. The best wines are also the healthiest, because they are pure, they contain a higher quality alcohol and more vital nutrients, so your body recognizes it as ‘good’ food. Eating more vital foods helps you feel optimistic, confident, content and loved. This is not scientifically quantifiable, but it is clear from experience that some wines make you feel ‘better’ than others.
The Importance of Swirling
We cannot repeat this enough, swirling is essential. A great deal of effort and technology goes into keeping the wine away from any oxygen that will dissipate its flavors. Mixing the wine with air inside the glass releases those trapped aromas and flavors, making them available to your nose and tongue. Swirling the glass by sitting its base on a tabletop produces much better aeration than swirling it while you hold up in your hand. It also keeps the wine stains off your clothes, which happen most often later in the day when you loosen up. Even the best wineries don’t have carpets in their tasting rooms for a reason.
The nose detects millions of scents, many more than we can identify. But the palate is more limited. Conventional wisdom says there are only six or seven main flavors that people can describe. You have probably heard the list; sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent with ‘umami’ being a recent addition. We detect more nuances, but flavors defy verbal description because they are experienced in the body’s language center and they take up the full band width. That's why great flavors can render you speechless. It's hard to describe a taste in detail because ‘flavor’ is its own language.
The First Sip Conundrum
While all these techniques sound thoroughly enjoyable, there is a hurdle to overcome. That first sip of the day rarely tastes good. Why? Because much of what you will be initally tasting is your breakfast, or maybe your toothpaste, still stuck on your tongue! The same thing happens after lunch, but to a lesser extent. The wineries know about this, so that is why they start with a high acid, white wine, to clean your palate and warm up your taste buds. Once your palate is clean and tuned it’s clear sailing.
It is important to give your nose and palate time to wake up and adapt to the situation so do not rush the first tasting. In your everyday life those two sensory organs experience the same group of scents and flavors in the same sequence with little variation. They are nice aromas, familiar flavors, comforting to your emotions and sometimes delivering valuable messages, like that afternoon cup of coffee when you need to get back to work. At a wine tasting you are asking your palate to analyze a series of complex wines containing hundreds of scents and flavors, one after another. So, start off slowly and don’t worry, it’s like playing a sport, after a little warm up, you will find that everything moves. feels and even tastes right.
© 2022 Ralph De Amicis