Archive for the ‘Winemaking’ Category

The glass ceiling

Monday, September 8th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

My primary profession is law and there was a time largely but not entirely before my time when a glass ceiling existed in the profession. If you were a woman, it hardly mattered how good you were. Sandra Day O’Connor, who eventually served on the US Supreme Court, had a really tough time getting a job. It had nothing to do with capability. It had only to do with a perception that certain people (i.e. women) could never cut the mustard. Or maybe it was even worse than that. Maybe it was that the men who dominated the profession didn’t care whether women could cut the mustard or not. They just were not going to be allowed into the elite club.

Of course, that was a whole lot worse than the glass ceiling that exists in the wine world today, but it does not make the wine world’s glass ceiling any less excusable. Two posts that appeared this last week discussed this point and they are well worth reading. The first can be found at:

Dark Secrets of the 100 Point Wine Scale

The second is Steve Heimoff’s comment on the first, and it can be found at:

Is there a “glass ceiling” when it comes to scoring certain wines? (Hint: yes)

Both posts acknowledge that if you are a particular type of wine you can forget about achieving a high score. It really doesn’t matter how good a wine you are, or how much pleasure you impart. You had better be a Cabernet or a Pinot Noir or you need not apply for one of those uberscores.

I can’t begin to say how pernicious this is. One can make the argument that certain wines are innately superior and that other varieties are innately of lesser worth and quality. If you are one of the latter, albeit one of the best, you are still second-rate.

Except there is no objective basis for saying any particular variety of wine is entitled to those presumed laurels. Or, even more to the point, there is no basis for saying that some other variety, even at its best, isn’t as good as the really good varieties.

If you define wine quality as being Cabernet and Pinot Noir, to the exclusion of other varieties, then you have a tautology, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The second rate can never be first rate because it is, by definition, second-rate.

As anyone can see, this is a ridiculous state of affairs. Ridiculous, except for the fact that it in fact represents the state of affairs that exists in the wine world today.

Suppose you were a wine explorer, a Christopher Columbus of viticulture, and found in some obscure valley in the Caucasus a variety hitherto unknown, transplanted it to California, cloned it, planted a vineyard, and produced wine from. It could be the best wine ever made (assuming there were some objective way to come to that conclusion). For your effort, you would probably get an 88 and a few words of praise on some obscure page of some wine review publication which would then bestow 95-100 point scores on the latest California Cabernets.

Of course, my fantasy about a Christopher Columbus of the vineyards is just that. By if you are a producer of Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, or any number of other varieties, you are essentially locked out when it comes to the ratings game.

If you are a member of the clique (Cabernet farmer, winery, critic, etc.) that profits from the feeding frenzy that attends each new vintage of Napa Valley Cabernet, then all is good. But the end result is a perpetuation of the perpetual. It is not revered because it is superior–it is superior because it is revered.

I do not intend to cast aspersions against California Cabernet and Pinot Noir. They are wonderful grapes and produce great ones. But there is without a doubt a glass ceiling that prevents others from entry. It is not a ceiling that I see disappearing anytime soon.

The perpetual problem

Monday, September 1st, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

While going through my posts for the week, I came across this one from SVB On Wine:

Oversupply and a Bubble Forming. Now What?

While the gist of the post is how to deal with a situation of oversupply (the suggested best course of action is to cut your losses early), I want to talk here about the nature of the problem to begin with.

Most businesses that produce a product can make some reasonable prediction about demand and adjust their production accordingly. Agriculture in general, and winemaking in particular, are in the unfortunate situation that nature dictates their production, at least in the short term, irrespective of demand.

So we are constantly struggling with oversupply and undersupply. When the great recession hit, it had a negligible impact on overall wine consumption (although a significant impact on pricing). But we were hit with what seemed like a never ending series of bountiful harvests which the industry struggled to offload. The combination of excess supply and tepid demand was a killer.

As things started to recover, we were hit with a series of short harvests. If we could have flipped the situation, we would have, but nature does not give us that option.

Now we have had two large harvests and are probably looking at a third. We may get grapes than we neither need nor want, but somehow they need to go away.

So what do you do? Taking the industry as a whole, SVB on Wine’s outlook is probably pretty fair. If you have too much, in one way or another you need to discount it to blow it out. Unfortunately, unless that results in an increase in demand, it’s basically a race to the bottom. Not a happy situation. The winners of the race are none too happy. The losers are even less happy still. But that is the situation of individual producers who have little choice but to match their competition.

As a small producer with primarily direct to consumer sales, all of this is not nearly as much of a concern. The difference in production may not be enough to really impact things all that much.

Of course, the person who takes the brunt of all this is the farmer. The winery probably has some wiggle room to buy more or less grapes unless it is locked into contracts which require their purchase. However, most contracts have maximums which protect the winery to a great extent. But the farmer has no such protection.

If the farmer is in a prestigious appellation, such as Napa Valley, he is not in nearly the predicament of a lesser appellation, or a farmer who must sell his product as California appellation. Since there is only a limited ability to process so much wine, all Napa Valley grapes will get processed. Each more prestigious appellation will bump the less prestigious until those at the bottom of the pecking order may have no place to go. That has happened in the past, though I don’t know if it is happening more recently. There is some capacity to absorb larger production, but then, as I say, it results in oversupply which creates its own set of problems.

For the large scale producer, which may be looking at a world market, overproduction in one place can get balanced out by shortage in another. But that only goes so far. And over the long term, the only solution for overproduction is ripping out vines, which in fact has been happening on a large scale in Europe. In the long run, that is probably a good thing as supply and demand are brought into better balance, and the grapes removed from production are of lower quality.

But short of being able to control nature, the problem of alternating over and undersupply is not going to go away. It is a problem built into the business, and, unfortunately, introduces unpredictability in everything that we do.

Wine is not a natural product

Monday, August 25th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

With all the hoopla about the natural wine movement, a nasty little fact is that wine simply is not all that natural a product.

We have a vegetable stand in Suisun Valley, Larry’s Produce. If you go there, you can buy all kinds of fruits and vegetables. Corn, avocado, lettuce. The list goes on and on. These products are pretty much pulled from the earth or the trees that they grow on, brought to Larry’s, and sold. I think it would be fair to characterize them as natural.

Wine is a not like that. It is a processed product. The “natural wine” movement would more accurately characterize itself as the “less unnatural wine” movement. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but certainly more truthful. Of course, “less unnatural” doesn’t generate sales in quite the same way as “natural” does, so don’t expect it to show up on a supermarket shelf near you anytime soon.

But if we are going to be honest about it, then wine violates any realistic concept of being “natural” from the beginning of the process forward.

First of all, there’s this nasty little fungus called powdery mildew that attacks the vines and the grapes. If you want to control it (and believe me you do), you pretty much need to use sulfur in some form, or else some chemical brewed up in a laboratory. Now you can say sulfur is “natural” and, in a certain sense, I guess it is. I’m not sure how you define “natural” because if you define it as everything that is a product of nature, then you eliminate nothing. At any rate, for anyone that has had the pleasure of spraying sulfur on some vines, it’s not a particularly pleasant experience. And I doubt very much of the process by which the sulfur is mined, processed, manufactured, packaged, and applied, would meet most consumers concepts of “natural”.

But be that as it may, even the most “organic” of farmers use a group of chemicals in their farming that, like sulfur, may occur in “nature”, but are chemicals nonetheless.

Once grapes are harvested, normally the first thing you do with them is hit them with a dose of sulfur dioxide. Whatever your thoughts are about chemicals, if you are going to make wine, you have very little choice but to use sulfur dioxide from start to finish throughout the winemaking process.

And the reason for that is simple: they are just all kinds of microbes out there that could care less about the stability of the wine that is being made. If you want to control those microbes, you’d better be using sulfur dioxide pretty much from the point of the grapes come in from the fields to the point that they go, in liquid form, into the bottle.

Probably the second thing that you add to your grapes once they come in from the field, at least after you’ve crushed them, is some tartaric acid. Again, tartaric acid is in a certain sense, like sulfur, a natural product. But it didn’t come from the grapes that came in from the field. True, it is the same acid that is in those grapes, but, in California, most of the time our grapes simply don’t have enough of it. So we add some more. It comes out of a bag. It looks like a pile of crystals until you dissolve it.

We also often add diammonium phosphate, which is, for all intents and purposes, nitrogen. If you want a nice, smooth, and uneventful fermentation, your yeast had better have enough nitrogen. The grapes, as they come in from the field, do have nitrogen, but often not enough. So you add some diammonium phosphate, generally referred to as DAP. Often you will add a nitrogen soup of sorts as well containing amino acids to facilitate a smooth fermentation as well. There are various brands out there with names like Superfood and Fermaid-K.

Without making things too complicated, once your primary and secondary fermentations are done, there is a third process that the wine wants to go through, the one that converts it from wine to vinegar. Unless you’re in the vinegar business, it’s pretty important that this third process not occur. So a genocide of the microbes that cause that conversion is in order. So we introduce another massive dose of sulfur dioxide.

Hopefully, this whole process occurs without incident. But sometimes “shit happens”. When it does, usually the solution is more chemicals.

I think pretty much every winemaker would subscribe to the “less unnatural” philosophy of winemaking. But no winemaker worth his salt would subscribe to a philosophy that, at least in my view, would be a really “natural” winemaking method. Because if he did, he would end up with some pretty crappy wine.

As processed foods go, wine is certainly less processed than many others. And trying to keep interventions to a minimum is, in my view as well is that of probably the vast majority of winemakers, the way to go. But it is only fair to acknowledge that “keeping interventions to a minimum” is a far cry from keeping interventions to zero. You can do that with table grapes pretty much. You can’t do that with wine.

Cork, or how to close a wine bottle

Monday, August 4th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

I have to admit that I am something of a nerd so when it comes to something as mundane as figuring out how to close the wine bottle, the first thing I want to look at is what works best.

Of course, others see things in a totally different light.  Take Jo Diaz for one.  You can find her views at: “Cork … It’s what’s for dinner”

The argument against cork is simply stated: Cork is something of a crapshoot. Most of the time it’s just fine. But on occasion you get a really bad cork and the wine is spoiled. Even when the cork is not “bad”, there is a degree of variability. A cork lets in a certain amount of oxygen over time. More oxygen, and the wine will age more quickly, eventually reaching senility and then worse.  So you can have two bottles of the same wine that come off the same bottling line right next to each other that, because of variation in the corks, will taste very different a few years later.

By contrast, other types of closures are far more predictable. A screwcap, for example, will do whatever it is designed to do.

The downside to a screwcap, at least when I last checked into the matter, was that it essentially let in no oxygen, which for many wines was not a good thing. I understand that it was technically possible to design a screwcap to allow some oxygen in and for all I know such a screwcap is now available.

But, for the reasons expressed by Jo Diaz, it really doesn’t matter. Because when people buy wine they really aren’t looking for something that only a nerd could love. They want to have an emotional connection with it.

Enter the cork. And so, for all its flaws, the cork continues to be the closure of choice for the vast majority of wines. And the fact that it is not technically the best closure? Nobody cares.

If there is one thing that is driving this home to me it is manning our tasting room a day or so a week. I have no doubt that our patrons want to taste, in fact insist on tasting, good wines. But if that is all you have to offer, then it is not enough. People want to feel some sort of connection between themselves and the winery. If they don’t feel that, they may as well walk into Safeway and pull a bottle of wine off the shelf that was produced half a world away by some conglomerate.

So if they are going to buy a bottle of wine from us, they need to feel some connection to a local enterprise, whose grapes are grown in a field that they drive by on occasion, and are processed on equipment that they actually see.

Portugal may be a far ways away from Suisun Valley, but at least there is a sense that somebody is growing a product, harvesting it, and converting it into something that somebody actually made, as opposed to something that came out of a laboratory and a factory. Maybe some people are happy with the product that performs best irrespective of its pedigree, but it is quite obvious to me that most people don’t feel that way.

Low yields and wine quality

Monday, July 28th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

It has been a while since I’ve written about this subject, but it’s worth writing about it again. What brought me back to the subject was an article on Palate Press by Blake Gray on the subject. It can be found at,

While I pretty much agree with the conclusion Gray reaches, which is that the idea that lower yields translate into higher quality is a myth, I do have some pretty serious reservations about the method he uses. As I understand it, he basically takes some pretty broad brush statistics available to determine yield for the grapes which went into certain wines and then compares them to the prices of those wines on the secondary market. If the lower yield equates to higher quality thesis holds true, then, he reasons, you should see the prices higher for the lower yield wines. In fact, you see the opposite, although to a relatively slight degree.

I guess I can go along with Gray to the limited extent of saying that if lower yields had a clear and dramatic correlation with higher quality, then you would probably expect to see a dramatic increase in prices where yields were lower. Since you don’t, the thesis does not hold.

Of course, you don’t need a PhD in statistics to see that the methodology is broadbrush, to say the least.

But I do think you can get to pretty much the same place in a far more direct way.

When you are growing a grapevine, what you are looking for is balance between vegetative growth (shoots and leaves) and grapes. While there are various tests that people apply to determine when you achieve that balance, personally, I don’t think which one you choose is all that important, because the grapevine will produce high-quality fruit in a reasonably broad range of “balance”.

One test which is very easy to apply because of its simplicity is to aim for shoots that are in the neighborhood of 4 feet long. Why do you look at the shoots and not the grapes? Because the amount of fruit that you allow to hang largely determines how much vegetative growth you going to end up getting. And while you have some degree of control over vegetative growth by the amount of fruit you allowed to hang, there is no converse control that you have over the amount of fruit you produce by controlling for the amount of vegetative growth. So if you hang an amount of fruit that gives you four foot shoots, you’re not going to be very far off from optimal.

If you hang less fruit than that, you’re going to get more vegetative growth, which is going to lead to not just less fruit, but more shaded fruit, and often fruit that, contrary to what the proponents of low yield content, that gets less, not more, of the resources of the plant. Why? Because those resources are instead going to vegetative growth instead of fruit ripening.

It’s a nice idea that you can hang less fruit and expect that the vine will accommodatingly produce the same amount of food in the form of carbohydrates and direct it all towards the lesser amount of fruit, with the result that that fruit gets a megadose of nutrients, and therefore produces the Superman equivalent of fruit. But it just doesn’t happen that way.

One thing that Gray’s analysis does not take into account is that higher yields translating into better quality only works up to the point of optimal fruit quality. As you hang more and more fruit, the vine does not produce enough leafage to ripen the over abundance of fruit, and you get lower quality fruit. So it’s not a simple higher or lower yield, but the right yield.