Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: The Times They Are A Changin’

by Peter Wellington

A Bad Night At Black Rock - Wed. Apr. 23, 2008

It’s been so cold all month that the vines have hardly grown at all, but after three weeks we able to discern that the damage from frost at the end of March wasn’t so bad.  That all changed Sunday and Monday mornings.  We had two extremely cold nights in a row, resulting in our worst frost damage since 1988, and by most accounts, the worst damage region wide since the early 70’s.  We lost more than a quarter of our potential crop, and published estimates are 10-20% losses for Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties, somewhat less for Napa.  Losses in Sonoma County alone are projected to be in excess of 50 million dollars worth of grapes.

The Tipping Point - Sat. Apr. 26, 2008

I believe Al Gore used the above term in reference to the situation where the environmental balance is compromised to the extent that it can’t be corrected – when “chain reaction” climate change takes over.  I bring this up because I think we’re near or at the tipping point for a lot of resources that we’ve taken for granted in the past.  Prices will skyrocket as demand exceeds production capacity.  The price of wheat has tripled in less than six months; worldwide rice shortage looks inevitable, salmon season has been cancelled.  Steel prices have risen 30-50% since January, on top of huge increases in recent years.  Despite the powers that be exerting tremendous political and economic pressure, it probably won’t be long before U.S. gas prices reach international levels (currently $8 a gallon and rising in most of Europe).  The reasons are obvious yet complex and interwoven at the same time.  For a real eye-opener check out the current National Geographic issue, which is entirely devoted to China.

Why, you may ask, am I bringing this up on a wine blog?  I’ve been paying bills, and almost all of them have increased dramatically from only a year ago.  Tin wine capsules have gone up 50% or more since last year due to a worldwide shortage of tin.  Apparently demand, particularly from China, has surpassed mining capacity.  Bulk tin has gone from $1600 a ton to $10,000 a ton in less than a year.  Recently, scrap metal dealers have been calling, looking to buy “damaged” wine capsules.  The price of steel grape stakes has more than doubled in five years, stainless steel tanks likewise.  Everybody is adding “fuel surcharges”; trucking wine to the warehouse after bottling last week cost $590 plus a $173 fuel surcharge.  Wine bottle prices have jumped – no, there isn’t a shortage of sand yet, but it takes a lot of natural gas to melt the sand.  The cost of shipping wine seems to go up almost every month as UPS and FedEx pass on their increased costs.  I haven’t asked WineDavid about it, but I imagine this is eating into the take home for both w00t and the participating wineries.  Can $5 shipping last much longer?

Some Like It Hot - Wed. Apr. 30, 2008

Thanks to Clayfu and ieabarry for the questions about high alcohol levels in California wines.  The biggest reason, both direct and indirect, is wine critics’ and consumers’ tastes.  I say direct and indirect, because alcohol levels can be adjusted independent of grape sugar levels.  The traditional methods are decrease by amelioration (water addition) and increase by use of sugar (in Europe and much of the U.S.) or grape concentrate (in California, where sugar is not allowed).  The modern, more technological methods include the cryogenic concentrators used by top Bordeaux chateaux and alcohol removal from wine by centrifuge or reverse osmosis and distillation.  Clark Smith, owner of Vinovation, says that his company removes alcohol from hundreds of “high-end” wines every year.  He touts the theory that every wine has one or more alcohol “sweet spots” – and you can optimize the taste of your wine by dialing in the right alcohol level.  There are some very high end Napa Cabernets that use a “formula” of picking at outrageous sugar levels, bleeding off juice and replacing it with enough water to be able to ferment to dryness, and then removing alcohol.

Alcohol labeling is another issue.  In the U.S. wines are categorized into two tax classes, 14% and below, and over 14%.  When this system was set up, fortified wines (Port, Sherry, Muscatel, etc. – actually the lion’s share of the California industry at the time) were the only wines over 14%.  For table wines (14% or below), the label is required to be accurate within +/- 1.5% (to allow for blending and batch to batch variation).  Almost all California table wines used to carry a label stating 12.5%, which covered everything from 11-14.  European wines don’t require alcohol labeling in their home countries, so a generic sticker (typically 12.5%) is added for export to the U.S.  Above 14% the label must be accurate within +/- 1.0%.  You can’t always assume that the stated alcohol % is accurate.  Someone in the w00t forum referred to a Bordeaux that was 12% alcohol – it could easily have been 13.5%, given standard import practice.  Also, some U.S. wineries strive for full disclosure and accuracy while others label for perception / marketing (usually within the allowable legal limits).  I had one wine recently (coincidentally a w00t offering) that just seemed higher in alcohol than the label stated.  I was suspicious enough to save an ounce to test, and lo and behold, it tested at almost 1% higher than the label said.

Widespread appreciation of fine wine is a relatively new phenomenon in this country.  We look for wines that are easy to like, and many of us look to “experts” for guidance.  I think only if you have been “into” wine for 25 years or more can you fully realize how much Robert Parker and others have dictated tastes.  I don’t really want to renew the debate about that here, so I’ll spare you the crazy stories for now.  At any rate, a large number of American wine drinkers currently prefer wines with lots of body and extract but low acid, soft tannins and sweetness or the impression thereof.  As grapes ripen, sugar levels climb, acid levels drop, tannins “soften”, and flavors change.  The general trend over the last fifteen years or so has been to delay harvest; “hangtime” has been one of the most popular wine buzzwords of the decade.  Higher sugar levels result in more alcohol; they also result in more “stuck fermentations” with residual sugar (RS) left in the wine.  Sadly, in recent years I have tasted a number of Gold Medal winning and 90+ point wines with 16% alcohol and 1% or more RS.  Traditionally this type of wine was considered flawed.  Robert Parker has actually used the term “port-like” as a positive descriptor for non-dessert wines.

Alcohol affects the aroma and flavor of wine in several ways.  Because it is volatile it acts as a carrier for other compounds, intensifying the aromas.  It adds sweetness, body and viscosity, intensifies the impression of fruit, and adds “heat” – that sensation you get if take a shot of distilled spirits.  All of the above make a wine seem “bigger” and more intense.  This is all fine and dandy within the cultural mindset of “if something is good, then more of it is better”, but a lot of us don’t live our lives that way.  In my world there is such a thing as too much garlic or too much hot sauce, etc., and I find that over-the-top wines don’t taste as good with food and the food doesn’t taste as good either.

Determining when to harvest is the most important, and for me the most subjective, decision in the whole winemaking process.  One needs to consider sugar and acid levels, flavor and tannin maturity.  Acid and sugar (or alcohol) levels can be adjusted up or down and tannins affected by processing techniques to some extent, but you really can’t change the basic flavor of the grapes.  I plead guilty to allowing the alcohol levels in my wines to creep up over the last few years.  There is a dilemma for a winemaker who has a philosophical belief of minimal intervention.  I do use flavor as my primary consideration in harvest decisions, but sometimes this results in higher sugars than I want.  I don’t like to add water, so I’ll add enough to ensure we can ferment the wine to dryness, but not necessarily enough to bring alcohol levels to what I consider ideal.  Some winemakers will never add water; some will always adjust to a specific “target” sugar level.

To sum up, higher alcohol levels, whether desired or not, are often a result of harvest decisions.  Alcohol levels can be adjusted.  Changing consuner preferences are the biggest driving force behind this change.