Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: Making Wine and Selling Wine

by Peter Wellington

Ho Ho Ho Chi Zin, MLF is Gonna Win - Thu. Mar. 13, 2008

I wasted this ad-lib on Lynda the other day as she was removing chromatography paper from the developer jar – she’s way too young to remember the Viet Nam War.  Malo-lactic fermentation (MLF) is the conversion of malic acid (named after apples) to lactic acid (named after milk).  This process lowers the acidity and raises the pH, making wine slightly less tart.  MLF is carried out by lactic acid bacteria, usually Oenococcus oeni.  Byproducts of MLF often include diacetyl, a major component of the aroma of butter, which typically is metabolized by yeast but can be left in the wine, intentionally or not, by using ML bacteria strains that produce lots of diacetyl and by racking the wine immediately upon completion of MLF.

MLF can be a real pain.  We inoculate all our wines for MLF except Sauvignon Blanc, some Roussanne and the Rosé.   Inoculation takes place after primary fermentation, and the bacteria usually grow and work very slowly in what is a very hostile environment for all life forms (low pH, high alcohol, no sugar, no oxygen, low temperatures).  Sometimes MLF doesn’t finish until well into spring.  This is worrisome because we don’t add SO2 or rack the wines or bring them to cellar temperature until MLF is complete because all of these activities will inhibit ML even more.  Without SO2 the wines are more susceptible to spoilage, both microbial and non-microbial, so there is risk.  It is possible to inoculate for MLF during primary (yeast) fermentation, when there are more nutrients available, but there is a very real risk of stuck fermentation due to competition with the yeast.  I got stung badly once, and it was enough to get me to abandon early MLF inoculation.  Aside from lowering acid levels, which may or may not be a good thing, MLF serves several functions.  You can get buttery aromas if desired, and other secondary flavor and texture contributions, it makes your wine more resistant to growth of spoilage organisms by consuming nutrients, and you don’t have to worry about MLF in bottle.  MLF in bottle is never good; it results in cloudy, spritzy, often stinky (cheese/sauerkraut) wine.

Is There a Distributor in the House? - Tue. Mar. 25, 2008

Thanks to Bhodilee for the topic – he asked (somewhere in w00tland, but I can’t find it) how one goes about finding a distributor.  If anybody can answer that they could make a lot of money.  Over the last two or three decades there has been consolidation amongst medium to large size distributors while there has been a huge concurrent increase in the number of wine brands sold in the United States, both foreign and domestic.  During that time the United States has become the number one wine consuming country in the world, and a greater variety of French, Italian and Spanish wines is being sold here than ever before.  Wines from Australia, Chile and Argentina were virtually unknown in the U.S. 25 years ago, to say nothing of New Zealand, Portugal, Austria…  Between actual “brick and mortar” wineries and alternating proprietor brands (like Ty Caton or Muscardini Cellars wines that we have made) there are now almost 2000 bonded wineries in California alone.  Large wine companies have created multiple brands such as Gallo’s Dancing Bull, Anapamu, MacMurray Ranch, Frei Bros., Turning Leaf, Barefoot, Red Bicyclette, Black Swan, Ecco Domani, etc. etc. in order to claim a larger portion of retail shelf space.  All this brand inflation makes it very hard to get wines reviewed by Parker or the Spectator and even more difficult to find distribution

So far all I’ve done here is complain why it is increasingly difficult to find distributors.  I’ve poured wine at various trade events, made cold calls, used recommendations and intros from various contacts, even hired a national marketing company for two years (at 10% commission on gross sales), all with fairly minimal results.  Over the years Wellington wines have been distributed in 24 states.  We currently have distribution in twelve states plus California, with highly varied results.  Three of the states are hardly worth the effort of maintaining licenses and filing reports.  Of the remainder, two states (Missouri and Ohio) are responsible for over 50% of our wholesale business.  I am currently in various stages of discussion with distributors in three other states – it’s kind of an ongoing process.  The biggest markets (California, Florida, New York and Texas) are the toughest.  We have yet to find the right company in FL, we lost our NY distributor post 9/11 and our TX distributor closed shop in the mid 90’s.  Our greatest success has been with small, relatively young companies that have sought us out rather than vice versa.

Thanks again to Bhodilee and keep the suggestions coming.  I promise there won’t be a long a gap before my next column.  Things are getting busy, but there’s a lot to write and talk about this time of year.