The first thing we do every morning when we arrive at the winery is stick our noses into things. Not into other people’s business, mind you, but barrels and bins. As our wines bubble away in the open-top fermenters, they put out all kinds of interesting smells. These scents tell us what is going on with the fermentation, if things are progressing properly, and whether or not there are any potential flaws developing. Later on, as the fermentation slows down and the wines are ready to be pressed, we stick our noses deep into the barrels and take a whiff. A clean barrel smells good, and makes for better wine.
One thing you learn from Lane when you see her make wine is that her nose is her sharpest weapon. After the last punch-down of the day, we leave the wine for the evening and let the yeast work their magic, turning juice into wine. In the morning we go straight to the bins and lift off the cover and stick our noses in. Some mornings you get beautiful fruit flavor, some mornings a slight hint of reduction (lack of oxygen), or maybe if you’re unlucky, a hint of VA (volatile acidity, a slight hint of vinegar). These smells tell us if any extra care is needed that day in handling our wines.
We have all had bottles of wine (not Lumen, of course) that taste or smell just plain funky. Burnt rubber, nail polish, wet dog, salad dressing – these are all signs that something went awry during fermentation or aging. But not with Lane. Her nose knows (sorry, couldn’t resist that pun). If we have a hint of reduction, we do a punch down with extra aeration and the reduction disappears. We haven’t had any issues with VA, because we take such care to regularly mix the cap with the fermenting juice. VA during fermentation usually occurs if the cap is left to sit too long, and the grapes on top start to get a hint of vinegar flavor.
I have learned so much from Lane during this crush. More specifically, my nose has learned so much from her nose. I came home one day last week and popped a bottle of Pinot, and instantly poured it down the drain. I don’t do this very often (sign of alcoholism?), but the wine was so reduced I couldn’t palate it. Then it struck me – if it weren’t for what Lane has taught me, I wouldn’t have been able to identify the flaw.
On most days during harvest, a bunch of the winemakers in Santa Maria gather around the lunch table and “brown-bag” a bunch of wines that we have brought to test our palates. It’s a fun game of guess the varietal, guess the region, and sometimes, guess the flaw. Today we had a wine that had almost every flaw a wine could have, all together in one sad little bottle. No one could even drink it. We even rinsed our glasses out before tasting the next wine.
The joyful moment came when we blind tasted three of Lane’s wines: a 2002 Melville Vineyard Pinot Noir, a 2003 French Camp Syrah, and a 1990 Sierra Madre Vineyard Pinot Noir. They were all glorious, a testament to not only Lane’s lower alcohol winemaking style, but also her infallible nose.