Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: Even Winemakers Get The Blues

by Peter Wellington

A bad spring cold really zapped me for a couple of weeks. I even went and had blood tests done. They found nothing and I’m fine except for a bit of residual coughing. What with being low on physical and creative energy, I asked the w00t community for ideas, and you responded so well that there’s not really space in one blog. Still, please keep the questions coming. So, in no particular order, here goes:

Joelsisk and yumitori both asked a series of questions about tasting rooms. For small wineries with limited distribution, tasting rooms are very important sales and profit centers. A recent survey reported that the typical 5000 case winery sells over half its wine retail. For some wineries it is essentially their only sales outlet. Over the last couple of decades even large winery tasting rooms have come to be treated as profit centers more than as promotional outreach.

We opened a tasting room three years after we first started selling wine. My father was quite resistant to the idea; he didn’t want to be a shopkeeper, but $20,000 in sales at a barrel tasting weekend changed his mind. We sell almost 40% of our wine retail (including internet and wine club shipments, but not w00t), and get almost 60% of our gross revenue from those sales. Even after payroll and overhead it is far more profitable than selling to distributors. I don’t spend much time with the day-to-day operation of the tasting room; I just try to give Toby the tools and support he needs and let him make most of the decisions. An added personal benefit of having a tasting room is the flexibility to make lots of different wines – that would be a marketing nightmare on the wholesale end.

Cesare asked about sulfites, providing great links to articles by Andy Waterhouse of UC Davis. Sulfite addition probably dates to Roman and Egyptian times, when someone noticed that the fumes from burning brimstone (sulfur) inhibited spoilage. Up into the twentieth century the only means of adding sulfite (as sulfur dioxide – SO2) was by burning sulfur in wine containers before filling them. SO2 serves two functions in wine. It protects against oxidation and it also inhibits growth of (but does not kill) spoilage organisms like vinegar bacteria and Brettanomyces. We now know that SO2 is also produced by yeast, probably an evolved competitive edge against bacteria. Unfortunately, the amount of SO2 produced by yeast is usually not enough to fully protect wine during the aging process. There are a couple of wineries that don’t add any SO2; sometimes they succeed in making wine that isn’t either severely oxidized or microbially spoiled, sometimes not.

A lot of people complained about SO2 in wine after the mandatory warning label went into effect in the 80’s. “Since they started putting sulfites in wine it gives me headaches”, “Do sulfites cause cancer?”, “Why did you start using sulfites?”…. Sulfite levels are actually significantly lower than they were several decades ago. The main winemaking text I had at Davis, Technology of Wine Making by Amerine, Berg et al, 1980 edition, recommended 75 to 200 parts per million (PPM) of SO2 at the crusher. We typically add 20 to 25 PPM, and I don’t know of many wineries that use more than 60 PPM unless they’re dealing with rotten grapes.

MarkDaSpark asked about frost protection and about pest control. The real traditional way of protecting against frost is to plant in areas that aren’t prone to frost after budbreak. At our vineyard, which dates to 1892, avoiding frost damage entailed planting late budding varieties like Zinfandel, pruning late to delay budbreak a few days, and prayer. None of those methods are particularly effective when it drops into the 20’s on April 20th & 21st. Wind machines and overhead sprinklers are the two main modern methods. Wind machines work by mixing warmer air from 30 or 40 feet up with the colder air that settles closer to the ground. They don’t help a lot if there isn’t temperature stratification or if it gets below the high 20’s. Once upon a time orchard heaters (“smudge pots”) were used in conjunction with wind machines, but air pollution issues ended that in these parts about 30 years ago.  Overhead sprinklers give greater protection, but are dependent on having a large water supply because they use about 3300 gallons of water per hour per acre. This method takes advantage of water’s high heat of fusion (for you physicists). What this means is that it takes a lot of heat to melt ice, and, conversely, ice formation releases a lot of heat. Ice forms on the vines when you use overhead sprinklers, but as long as you keep that ice wet it stays at 32ºF.

 This year’s frost damage occurred over a wide range of conditions and situations. Areas that had low frost risk and no protection, such as Sonoma Coast and some mountain vineyards, were affected. Between the combination of low amounts of rainfall and many nights of frost some people ran out of water. On one of the worst nights there was little or no temperature inversion so wind machines were ineffective.

Fortunately (he says, knocking on wood) there are no grape insect pests that require routine treatment in our northern coastal vineyards. We personally have never had to use any kind of insecticide or miticide in 20+ years. There are worries about excluding exotic pests like the light brown apple moth (LBAM) and the glassy winged sharpshooter (GWSS), so many vineyards have detection traps. It’s unknown how much damage the LBAM would do to wine grapes. The GWSS is scarier; it is a strong vector for Pierce’s disease, which kills grapevines. The introduction and establishment of GWSS devastated the Temecula winegrape industry in the late 90’s. Mites and leafhoppers are the most common pests in Sonoma and Napa, and both are easy to manage, usually without pesticides. Many bird species love grapes, and they are the worst animal pests. In areas with lots of grape acreage the damage is generally tolerable; we probably lose fifty to a couple of hundred pounds a year. Some people can’t accept any loss, and deploy scare kites, Mylar tape, propane cannons (real popular with the neighbors), bird distress calls, balloons, trained falcons, or netting (extremely costly). Unless you have a small, isolated vineyard these measures probably aren’t terribly cost effective. Deer can do a lot of damage, especially early in the year, when each tiny nibble can destroy what would become a pound of grapes; most vineyards have deer fencing. Rabbits, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, possums and even bears (one highly publicized incident in Napa) will all eat grapes, but usually not a significant amount.

Lighter asked for more “day in the life” stuff, but that’ll have to wait until next time, and about how much lab work I do. Lynda (asst. winemaker) does most of the labwork; I do some when she’s on vacation and during crush. We’re pretty basic. We check each wine’s pH (one measure of acidity) and free SO2 every time we rack, and sometimes in between. We check alcohol levels after crush, after any blending, and before bottling. We check residual sugar and malic acid during and after crush, until each wine is dry or has completed ML, respectively. We check volatile acidity (vinegar, basically) and total acidity at least once per wine (legal requirements, but only infrequently relevant to winemaking decisions).

Well, as Porky would say, “that’s all, folks!”