Are Winemakers Magicians?
Years ago I wrote an article for The Surfer’s Path Magazine about my good friend, Oded Shakked, who was then winemaker at J Vineyards. During the interview he commented about how people make such a big deal about winemaking. “Winemakers don’t really deserve all that attention,” he said. “After all, we are only making a beverage.”
I have heard other winemakers make similar proclamations. One told me that successful winemaking is, simply put, not making any mistakes. I took all of these comments with a grain of salt, though, thinking they came from famous people who were just shrugging off the attention.
On the flip side, on trips to France winemakers would wax exultant about their craft, talking about it as though the entire process were infused with winemaker pixie dust. “Winemaking is an art that I have learned through six generations of working in our cellar,” or something along those lines. Oh la la.
What I have discovered after five years of working with Lane Tanner is this: it’s a mixture of both magic and common sense. It is a little pinch of not making mistakes, mixed with a smidgeon of routine, a sprinkle of trial by error, and accented with a dash of pure blind luck. Much of what we do is exactly like what we did last year. The glory of it all is that every year is totally different, and carries with it delicious new surprises - some of which are challenges, and some of which are revelations. The longer I participate in this craft, the more I realize that it is the decisions along the way that define a winemaker’s style. What blocks to choose from, what vineyards, when to pick, how long to cold soak, when to press and barrel down: these are the tiny details that make our wines different than our neighbors, even if they may be using the fruit from the next row over.
With our 2014 vintage now on the market, I can say that we have made some good decisions along the way. Our wines have been scoring high marks with the critics, and are as affordable as ever. Thank goodness for all that common sense, and for that little bit of winemaker pixie dust.
- Will Henry
Will 2016 be the vintage of the decade?
2016 marks the fifth vintage that I have worked alongside my partner and friend, Lane Tanner. One of the things we love about making wine is that every vintage is different. While some tasks in the winery may seem mundane, the uniqueness of every harvest ensures that the work never gets old. Even Lane, who has been making Pinot Noir for upwards of three decades in this valley, relishes each year’s harvest as though it were her first.
Every now and then a vintage comes along that winemakers describe as having “perfect numbers.” What that means is that the fruit has a perfect balance between acidity and sugar. We measure this in three ways: titratable acidity, pH, and degrees brix. As fruit nears maturity in the vineyard, Lane and I sample the fruit every few days and measure these three things, from which we glean sugar levels (brix), and acidity (pH and TA). We use that information, along with the flavor we taste in the grapes, to make one of the most important decisions we will make all year: when to call the pick. And, muy importante: we won’t call the pick, no matter what the sugar or acid, until the fruit reaches an appropriate complexity of flavor.
Perfect numbers are usually a result of cold nights and warm (not hot) days during the ripening of the fruit. As fruit matures, it’s sugar goes up and its acid goes down. Cold nights keeps the acidity from decreasing too quickly, as does a lack of extreme heat during the day. 2016 seems to have produced the perfect combination of weather patterns in the Santa Maria Valley, yielding fruit that has reached flavor maturity much earlier than normal. What that means is that we are able to pick with lower sugars- and higher acidity - than any harvest I have seen before.
So what does that mean for the final product? The 2016 wines will have impeccable balance, lower alcohol, and a striking acidity. They will also age phenomenally well. Paint by numbers might not be what most people call “real art.” But perfect numbers for Pinot will most certainly be.