Archive for the ‘Viticulture’ Category

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.

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.


Monday, May 19th, 2014

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

I always enjoy reading Jamie Goode’s posts, even if I often disagree with him. In a recent post he lambasted the wine media for giving a pass to wines and wine regions that don’t live up to the standards that they should. (The entire post, “What do I really think? Some unfiltered opinions on the world of wine“, can be found at

While Bordeaux was not alone, it figured prominently: “Bordeaux is the world’s leading fine wine region, and yet I find it hard to love at the moment. I love great old Bordeaux, but so much has changed of late (more selection, more concentration, later picking, more winemaking) that I’m not sure that we can guarantee that the current crop of top wines will all age gracefully for 20-50 years. Wouldn’t it be a disaster if suddenly people began to realise that all these investment grade wines actually tasted better after 5-10 years rather than 20? There’s such a lot of hype surrounding Bordeaux, and the en primeurs circus, and so many of the wines are being judged so early in their life. And I don’t understand the journalists who criticise and moan about the primeurs, but who then dutifully trek there every year and publish their scores. You can’t have it both ways.”

There are really two main points that Goode makes. First, Bordeaux is not what it used to be. Personally, I do not have a big problem with that, because what Bordeaux used to be was, at least in my opinion, not all that special. But when Goode says that Bordeaux has changed due to “more selection, more concentration, later picking, more winemaking”, I think what he is saying is that Bordeaux now conforms more to the “international style” and has strayed, for better or worse, from its traditional style. Looked at from a grape growing and winemaking point of view, Bordeauxs used to age for long periods of time because they were somewhat underripe, and therefore high in acid and with harsh green tannins. I don’t think that the intent was to make wine from underripe grapes. It’s just that that’s what they were able to get. In the unusual year when they could fully ripen the grapes, they did so, and declared a vintage of the century.

I for one don’t buy that the wines were made this way so that they can age. I think they were made that way because that’s what they were capable of doing, and a wine that is high in acidity and tannins is probably going to age pretty well. In fact, it has to, because at a young age it is undrinkable.

With advances in viticulture and winemaking, Bordeaux is now able to emulate California more than it was ever able to. The wines are more accessible wines at a younger age. Pretty much by definition a wine with lower acidity and lower tannin levels is not going to age as well as a wine with higher acid and tannin levels, other things being equal. Bordeaux, like most of the rest of the world, has opted for wines that can be consumed younger. In this respect, I have no quarrel with the trend. But Bordeaux’s reputation for being a long lived wine will probably not survive this trend.

The second main point that rears its ugly head is that, if there is one thing that Bordeaux is better at than making wine, it is marketing it. Bordeaux is a brand. I, personally, have never been that huge a fan of Bordeaux wines, so I have always thought that they were overpriced and overhyped. But if you’re in the business of selling wine, being overpriced and overhyped is not such a bad place to be.

Of course, tasting a very young wine out of barrel, particularly a barrel handpicked for the superiority of wine it contains, is a meaningless exercise when it comes to judging the quality of the wine. But when hype and not reality is your goal, it makes perfect sense. And if you can get a bunch of supposed experts to come and taste these barrel sample wines and then opine at how great these wines are going to be, why wouldn’t you? So I don’t blame these wineries in the least. They are simply doing what pretty much anybody else would do in similar circumstances given the opportunity.

Of course, the problem with most brands is that their continued success is based more on marketing than anything else since, even if they started off with a quality advantage, that quality advantage is almost impossible to maintain over time (See Mercedes Benz and Lexus). After all, there is only so much that anybody can do when it comes to growing grapes and vinifying them, and Bordeaux winemakers have no monopoly on these techniques. They may have advantages of climate, etc., that some other regions may lack, but that not all regions will lack. I personally see no reason why California, Australia, Chile, and any number of other wine regions cannot make wines just as good, if not better, than Bordeaux.

And, as other wine regions catch up (as many already have), the ability to stay on top in the mind of the consumer depends not so much on better quality, but on better marketing.

I wish the world were otherwise. But it is not. It is simply the way of the world. It always has been, and always will be.

Why is Napa Napa and Monterey Monterey?

Monday, May 12th, 2014

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

A couple of weeks ago I read Steve Heimoff’s post on Monterey County. It can be found at:

Thoughts on Monterey County

I think it would be fair to say that Napa is the King of American wine, and Monterey a backwater with a fair to middling reputation. Why is that?

While the most obvious reason which jumps to mind is that Napa is just a better wine producing area than Monterey. I have a problem with this. I don’t think it’s true.

I don’t want to stand accused of bad mouthing Napa. After all, that’s where I live and grow grapes. And it is an excellent wine grape growing area.

And while I do not know Monterey nearly as well as I know Napa, I think I know it well enough to say that it is an excellent wine grape growing area as well. But then again, so is Australia, Chile, and a whole slew of other places which don’t have nearly the reputation that Napa does.

As with so much in life, the accidental predominates over the planned. To a large extent, Napa’s well deserved reputation goes hand-in-hand with Cabernet Sauvignon. One can quibble whether Napa is the best, or simply one of the best, places on the planet to grow Cabernet. But there is no doubting that that variety does extremely well in Napa.

And, I think it would be fair to say, Cabernet does not do very well in Monterey. It doesn’t do very well in Burgundy, either. That has not stopped Burgundy from being considered one of the premier wine growing regions of the world. It is not enough to have an area that is able to produce great wine grapes. Necessary, but insufficient. Nor is it enough to have a great wine grape. Again, necessary, but insufficient. The two must be paired. Cabernet and Napa, Pinot Noir and Burgundy. Both result in great wines. Cabernet and Burgundy. Well, there’s a reason why they don’t plant that there.

Long before I became involved in the wine business, I tried a number of Cabernets from Monterey. Unfortunately, Cabernet was considered the be-all of wine, and everybody planted it everywhere. In Monterey, it uniformly yielded wines redolent of unripe bell peppers. After a number of poor experiences with Monterey County Cabernet Sauvignons, I chalked up the region as inferior, and simply stopped buying their wine.

More recently, I have tried a number of Monterey County Pinot Noirs. They have been uniformly good. I don’t think they have quite measured up to some of the more prestigious AVA’s further south on the central coast, but they were definitely solid wines. I have also tasted a more limited number of more expensive wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County. These wines have received many accolades, and I do think they are very good. However, they are, by and large (at least the ones that I have tasted), not of the style that I prefer (light, elegant, racy, perfumed). But that really is just a matter of personal preference, and I do believe that the wines from that region deserve to be highly regarded, even if they are not my cup of tea.

But whether you like a wine depends on an awful lot besides where it came from and the variety and clone it is made from. Vineyard practices and winemaking technique can result in radically different wines being made from vineyards side-by-side planted to the same variety. The bottom line to all of this is that I have very little doubt that Monterey County is fully capable of making “world-class” wines.

Aside from the unfortunate experiment with Cabernet, I think a second, and maybe even more important, reason for its less than lofty position is that the quality associated a the wine region has easily as much to do with marketing as it does with the wines produced there. And, if there is one thing that Napa is even better at than producing wine, it’s marketing. The Napa “brand” has been developed laboriously over many decades. Why it developed there and not someplace else is probably largely an accident of history, but things are the way they are. Monterey, as Heimoff points out, was developed largely by bulk winemakers. If you want to make great wines, the first thing you need to do is to want to make great wines. If you have your sights set on making reasonably passable plonk, then if you make a great wine, it will be totally by accident. And even then, it would be unlikely to be perceived as such.

I hope that Monterey is eventually recognized as being a premier wine grape growing area, as I believe it is fully capable of being. But, once pegged in a certain hole, it can be very difficult to reposition yourself in the marketplace. Ask any Australian winemaker.

Joseph Swan 1993 Pinot Noir

Monday, March 10th, 2014

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

I’ve been trying to clear out a large number of older wines recently. My general advice for California wines is to drink them up within 10 years. In typical “do as I say, not as I do” fashion, I have a large number of wines from California that are definitely beyond the ten-year point.

And, in general, I should’ve followed my own advice. Most of these wines are hollow ghosts of their former selves. In many cases, they are totally over the hill, showing an unacceptable level of oxidation.


I know I have often made the case that California wines simply don’t age that well. And, in general, I think that that is a true statement of the state of affairs. But do California wines not age well because of some innate characteristic or because of how they are made?

Entering the fray on this question is a wine that I opened last night, the 1993 Joseph Swan Pinot Noir from Lone Redwood Ranch.

I can’t even remember when I bought this wine, but it was a really really long time ago. Even when young, this wine was, in my opinion, a wonderful example of what Pinot Noir should be. It was light in body, high in acidity. As all Pinot Noirs should be.

So how was it last night? Well, in a word, spectacular. It is one of the best Pinot Noirs I have ever had. Generally, we think of the best aging California wine as being Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot doesn’t seem to last nearly as long. But this wine certainly put the lie to that generalization.

It is certainly the case that if you start with overripe grapes which are low in acid and tannin, and simply put them through the fermentation process without making adjustments, you’re probably going to end up with a wine that is not going to last terribly long.

If you start off with that same wine, but add a decent amount of acid, and maybe even some tannin, that wine should fare appreciably better.

If you start off with a wine that is not overripe, and maybe even a little underripe, with tons of acidity, it will do much better still. While tannins help, we know in general, and the Joseph Swan in particular, are not overly endowed with tannins. Certainly, when you think of what Pinot should be at its best, lots of tannin doesn’t factor into the equation. But this wine is certainly evidence that with enough acidity and being otherwise in balance, a California Pinot Noir can last a really really long time.

I’m not really sure how to describe this wine, since old Pinots tend to develop a nose which is unique unto itself. All of the usual descriptors that we apply to younger wines just don’t seem to have a place when talking about a wine of this age. I guess the best descriptor that I could give it is “old Pinot”.

So, if the question is whether California wines usually don’t age well because of innate characteristics or, instead, how they are made, this wine certainly comes down hard on the side of “how they are made”. I’m quite sure that these grapes were not picked too late, and I suspect that they naturally had plenty of acidity. It’s also possible that acid got added after harvest, though I tend to doubt this.

At any rate, this wine is simply glorious. It is everything an old wine should strive to be.