Archive for the ‘Winemaking’ Category

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.

Estate bottling

Monday, June 30th, 2014

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

One of the things that you as a winery are always happy to put on a label is that the wine is “Estate Bottled”. Unfortunately, the vast majority of wine does not meet the requirements, since the grapes and wine pretty much need to be, at least in theory (more on this later), under the control of the winery from beginning to end of the process.

While there is a general perception (which may even be backed up by some evidence) that having “estate bottled” on the label helps when it comes to sales and/or pricing, there is less evidence that “Estate Bottled” wines are really any better. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that they are really any better because they are Estate Botttled.

Or, put another way, I do think it is probably fair to say that, broadly speaking, estate bottled wines are better. But correlation does not equal causation. And I certainly would much rather have grapes that are well grown by an outside farmer than grapes that aren’t as well grown under the direct control of the winery. Which is all kind of obvious. And there is no particular reason to think that the winery will, necessarily, do a better job of it than a dedicated farmer.

Of course, it can be argued, with some legitimacy, that the winery’s goal is to produce grapes that will produce superior wines. The farmer may have other goals, such as higher yield. However, it is really hard to sort all of this out, as one winery may in fact be more interested in yield and one independent grower may more interested in quality. It’s hard to come up with any across the board generalization.

But I do think it is fair to say that a winery that can control the entire process from vineyard to bottling is going to have deeper pockets than one that cannot. So to the extent that “estate bottled” implies higher quality, I think it’s more because of more money behind that winery than anything pertinent to the estate bottling process itself.

“Estate bottled” in fact implies a little bit more than it necessarily delivers. What it requires is somewhat limited. And, to some extent, irrelevant. While the winery is supposed to have a certain degree of control over the grape growing process, that degree of control is really not very great. With many estate bottled wines, the winery in fact does have a very high degree of control and in many cases actual ownership and stewardship. However, neither is in fact required. A fairly loosey-goosey supervision passes muster.

Some of the requirements to qualify as Estate Bottled really are more in the category of crossing T’s and dotting I’s. If you remove the wine from the “estate” even for a short period of time for some fairly minor processing, you lose the right to call the wine Estate Bottled.

There is also the designation which I see from time to time “Estate Grown”. As far as I can tell, this is not an official designation of any sort. At least in theory, I would assume that it means that it meets the requirements for estate bottled up to the point of harvest. But as a legal matter, I don’t think it means anything at all.

So like so much in the wine world, what on the surface seems fairly clear is anything but once you get down into the nitty-gritty.

The Celebrity Winemaker

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

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

I really have a big problem with the whole idea of the celebrity winemaker. And that’s primarily because I think its more a marketing thing than anything else. I also think many of these winemakers have subscribed to a similar style (generally called “international”), that for me is big turnoff.

This whole subject was brought to mind by Steve Heimoff’s post, “Are consultants “killing” wine?” Which can be found at:, which is well worth reading.

First, the idea that there is any great secret to great winemaking is something of a myth. There are certainly things you can do, and can refrain from doing, with a bunch of grapes, which will impact the final wine. And two winemakers presented with the same grapes will turn out different wines. But let’s not get too hot and bothered by all that. The similarities will, barring some major screw-up, outweigh the differences. And the differences will be stylistic—differences in what the winemaker wants to achieve in the finished wines, not the capabilities of the winemaker. Two different but well made wines are just that. One winemaker, because he is a cult or celebrity figure, isn’t by virtue of that fact better than the other. As with celebrity chefs, they are what they are because they have the skills of their profession with the flair of the entertainer. The equally skilled practitioner who lacks the entertainer’s flair is equally capable at making food, or wine, or whatever.

If you start with good grapes and don’t commit some major error, or suffer some unfortunate stroke of bad luck, then you should end up with a pretty good wine. You may add more or less acid (or none) than another winemaker, more or less oak, etc., etc. At the extremes, wines produced will be noticeably, and even dramatically different. But most of the wine will be similar in overall quality, even if there are, as I say, stylistic differences. There’s not a lot of magic tricks when it comes to winemaking. The most important “trick” is to make damn sure you’re starting off with good grapes. If there’s a point where there really is skill, it’s blending, but even here, there’s a lot of disagreement about what is the best blend when you do a blending trial. So, like so much with wine, this is more subjective than objective.

And certainly the “international” style represents one of those extremes that you can produce from the same grapes. Round, soft wines, low in acid, high in oak. And when you are talking about the celebrity winemaker, you’re pretty much talking about winemakers who make wines in that style. I don’t so much have a problem with that style of winemaking per se. My problem with it, aside from the fact that I myself, personally, don’t like it, is that it has pretty much monopolized what the public perceives and expects of wines to a degree that freezes out other styles. Of course, that’s not entirely true, as most Pinot Noirs are not (in fact could not be) made in an international style. But it is largely true for Cabernet Sauvignon, which is very unfortunate, as that variety has been largely consigned to and identified with that style.

So I would very much like to see the celebrity winemaker thing toned down. But since marketing drives the wine world, and many new wineries with lots of money behind them are looking for that hook that will generate publicity and sales, it’s not very likely I’m going to get my wish.

More on “natural” winemaking

Monday, June 16th, 2014

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

After last week’s post on “natural “versus “unnatural” winemaking, this post appeared in Palate Press:

“A touch of sulfur”: Sulfites (or not) in Natural Winemaking

Erika Szymanski

I think this post goes to show that when you want to reach a given result, you can do it. Albeit, you may need to twist logic out of all proportion, but it can be done.

I think this post epitomizes the worst of the worst when it comes to the natural winemaking movement.

By some logician’s magic, the addition of sulfur dioxide, something that for all intents and purposes does not exist naturally in wine (in fact, it does, but only in microscopic quantities) is deemed to be natural, while the additional of Tartaric acid, the main acid in grapes, and a critical ingredient for wine to taste anything like wine, is unnatural.

It would be far more reasonable to just face up to the obvious fact. No matter how natural a winemaker you want to consider yourself, you had better damn well throw some sulfur dioxide into your wine if you want it to be any good. Because if you want to rely on the idea that you are totally natural, then you can forswear sulfur dioxide, and make a go of trying to peddle oxidized vinegary wine. Since “natural” winemakers are as interested in anybody as anybody else in selling their products, they aren’t about to take this suicidal route, so they throw in the so2, and rationalize it as best they can.

I would have far more respect for them if they would call themselves something more like “minimalist” winemakers, which in fact more accurately describes what they profess. But since consumers like the word “natural” and could easily confuse “minimalist” with some avant-garde art and music trend, “natural” it is.

Of course, all of this involves a certain amount of hypocrisy. But if the real goal is to sell wine, then that is something that can be readily tolerated.

It is worth focusing in on another point of this post: “Feiring’s definition is useful precisely because it discriminates: it includes some wines and excludes others. It is, moreover, relatively clear about what falls on either side of the line. Nothing added: no acid adjustments if the grapes come in too ripe, no sugar if they’re not ripe enough, no commercial yeast or “yeast food,” certainly no MegaPurple to punch up color and sweetness. Nothing taken away: no reverse osmosis to strip volatile acidity or other faults or to reduce alcohol, and not filtered.”

Without putting too fine a point on it, most of these interventions are undertaken precisely because there is something wrong with the wine. If, in fact, the grapes come in too ripe, then is it really better to leave them that way in the interest of being “natural”, or throw in some tartaric acid to make them more palatable.

Well, correct me if I am wrong, but I thought being palatable is what wine was all about.

I could go on and address the other interventions, but you get the point. I am certainly not an advocate of making interventions right and left for no particularly good reason, or as a matter of course. My experience has been that most interventions don’t work out quite as well as you expect. But I certainly would not refrain from adjusting the acidity if the wine needed it, and I certainly would not refrain from adding “yeast food” to avoid the yeast becoming stressed and doing all sorts of nasty things.

But once you have made the choice to do something different than what nature would do to the grapes without human intervention (which of course all winemakers must do if you want to end up with something called wine) then it’s just a matter of which interventions you choose to make. In that sense, all wines, including “natural” wines, are unnatural, as they should be.


Monday, June 9th, 2014

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

“Natural” and “unnatural” are really very charged words. But they are words that we use and accept superficially, and which, on examination, really have nothing to do with much of anything, really.

Take, for example, something that I’ve heard many times in my life, “homosexuality is unnatural”. Well, it only takes a second’s thought to realize that this statement is factually false. Homosexuality exists in nature. When someone says homosexuality is “unnatural,” that is not a comment on whether it is really natural or not, but the moral judgment of the speaker. And that’s generally the case when it comes to “natural”. When someone says something is unnatural, it’s not a comment on whether it exists in nature (which it always does), but the moral condemnation of the speaker.

Which brings us to wine. And the “natural” wine movement. If you can call it a movement. I guess when it comes to “natural” wine, there is a little bit more validity to the idea in that it bespeaks an adherence to low-tech wine production (though there is no real agreement about what qualifies and what doesn’t, since there are no clear standards on what you need to do to qualify as a “natural” winemaker).

For example, I think most “natural” winemakers would at least tow the line that they are against the use of chemicals. Of course, since everything is chemicals, that really doesn’t advance the discussion one whit. Now you can say it’s okay to use naturally occurring chemicals, but not those made in a laboratory. But is it okay to use sulfur dioxide? If you want to talk about relatively noxious chemicals, sulfur dioxide certainly meets the bill. But only the most extreme of “natural” winemakers eshew the use of sulfur dioxide for the simple reason that it is almost impossible to make a good wine that will last very long without it. So orthodoxy has to yield to expediency.

What about something like a centrifuge? In a sense, this is pretty natural since all it does is spin something around to clarify it. But I don’t think most “natural” winemakers would have much tolerance for centrifuge use.

So, “natural” winemaking really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what is truly natural, but with what a group of self-proclaimed prophets want you to buy. Which is, not surprisingly, their wines.

I do think that there is a type of “generally” minimalist winemaking which “generally” adheres to the idea that when in doubt, do less. I myself subscribe to this winemaking philosophy. But I think it is fair to say that to the extent someone describes this philosophy as “natural”, he is engaged in an exercise in marketing more than anything else. The things that you do to wine which are in excess of minimal, are every bit as natural, in the sense that they use natural processes and exist in the real world.

And much of what the most minimalist winemaker does uses techniques that are intended to inhibit what wine would otherwise do. After all, left to itself, the endgame for wine is not wine, but vinegar. And nobody wants that, except maybe on their salad.

For, truth be told, even the most minimalist schools of winemaking routinely use materials and techniques which, though natural, or not “natural”. But, then again, if “natural” is really just a marketing moniker, then what difference does it make as long as you’re moving cases.