Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: Last 2007 Installment

by Peter Wellington

And She’ll Have Fun, Fun, Fun ‘Til Her Daddy Takes the Ripple Away - Sat. Dec. 8, 2007

Sweet fortified wines like Night Train, Ripple and Thunderbird were the backbone of the California wine industry from repeal up into the 1960’s. Whether all grape like Port or Muscatel, or flavored like Ripple, these wines were the beverage of choice for budget minded alcoholics, aka winos. The sugar helped it go down easily and provided some energy, and wine was the cheapest high because of the tax structure. The tax on fortified wine was, and still is, higher than the tax on “table wine”, which is defined as 14% alcohol or below. The federal government still considers all wines above 14% as “dessert wines”, not distinguishing between a typical Zin or Syrah and a Port. During the reign of George I, his administration raised the tax on wine 529%. They also levied a one-time floor tax on all wine in any licensee’s inventory. Because the tax was to be calculated as of Dec. 31st most restaurants and wine shops cut way back on holiday ordering that year in order to deplete their stocks and reduce their tax liabilities. We ended up with depressed sales and extra taxes – Merry Xmas! That administration also introduced a bill including a special occupational tax (SOT) on winemakers. The SOT was originally set at $5000 a year, a mere pittance for wine factories, but quite painful for small businesses like ours. In the final version passed by Congress it was reduced to $1000 a year and was recently eliminated altogether. Every dollar of tax paid at the producer level raises the price of the product two dollars or more at the retail level and three dollars or more at restaurants because everyone wants to maintain their margins. “No new taxes” my @;;!

Start Me Up - Tues. Dec.11, 2007

I just got our monthly energy summary from the power company and we only had a net usage of $86 of electricity in November, leaving us with a balance of almost $1200 to the good. The anniversary of our solar electric generation system and annual electricity usage reconciliation is March 30th, and it looks likely that we’ll still have a surplus at that point, and therefore an annual electric bill of $0. The system was designed to generate 95% of our usage in the prior year, but since we did not have a time-of-usage meter they could only guess at peak/off peak usage. Also, we now have a “net” meter so we don’t know if we used less electricity this year because of the mild summer or if the system is more efficient than anticipated. I have a feeling the company that designed and installed the system will be able to tell us which is the case, as they have remote monitoring equipment. I’ve got a board meeting at the Sonoma Ecology Center tonight. Maybe I’ll offer them free charging for their Toyota Rav 4EV (they talked Toyota into a donation when all the other ones were recalled/decommissioned).

Auld Lang Vine - Thurs. Dec. 20, 2007

Thanks to nematic for the suggestion that I address the facts and myths of old vines. I remember when I was growing up I once asked my (physician) father, “Why do old people get thin? Do their digestive systems not work as well?” His response was, “Maybe it’s not so much that old people get thin as that thin people get old.” This has to be true to some extent with vineyards and quality as well – good vineyards don’t get ripped out as readily. There are logical reasons why old vines often make for better wine, but age alone is no guarantee, nor is it impossible to make great wine from very young vines. The factors that do influence quality have more to do with vigor, stress and fruit exposure (all interrelated). Grapevines are extremely vigorous plants, and if given fertile soil and sufficient water they grow excessively and don’t produce high quality wines. There’s an old European saying that “vines need to suffer”. What this really means is that they produce better wines in poor soils; when they actually suffer they don’t produce good wines. Old vines tend to be less vigorous. This means their fruit has better light exposure (important for flavor, color and tannin development), they have lower yields and they stop growing earlier in the season (putting their energy into ripening the fruit). Location is still the number one factor in quality potential; even old vines don’t make great wine in poor locations.

I will be on vacation until mid January. Keep the comments, questions and suggestions coming, I’ll respond when I get back.

Happy New Year to all!
Peter