Today, there are near countless tools and techniques that any winemaker might pull from his or her toolbox to help evaluate and improve a wine.
In 1938, the Russian-born winemaker André Tchelistcheff purportedly walked around the tiny town of Rutherford wearing a white lab coat. He was from a new generation of winemakers and had been trained in both enology and microbiology. He believed in using art, science and technology to improve wine quality.
Tchelistcheff would feel right at home in 2015. Back then, a microscope was the primary scientific evaluative tool. Today, there are near countless tools and techniques that any winemaker might pull from his or her toolbox to help evaluate and improve a wine. As Gordon Burns, co-owner (with Marjorie Burns) at ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, puts it, “Up until the past few years, traditional wine microbiology could determine why a wine had spoiled. Now, with recently developed molecular biology analyses, we can often detect problems in time for the winemakers to take non-Draconian actions to prevent spoilage.”
Similar to the smartphone that’s likely in your pocket, using technology in the winery and vineyard has become commonplace. And, whereas historically, there might have been some reluctance to employing technology in winemaking, according to Burns, “Winemakers increasingly understand that proper use of technology often lets them be less intrusive into the natural process of winemaking.”
This phenomenon is clear when talking with many winemakers and growers. After each has passionately discussed how great grapes make great wine and lamented over the ever-increasing costs, it’s common to hear such terms as “high-performance liquid chromatography” (HPLC), “robotic DNA evaluation,” “mechanical harvesters with built-in optical sorters,” “open-air-vineyard-evaporation sensors,” “soil-moisture probes,” “foliar cocktails” and “satellite imagery.” A few winemakers are even experimenting with flashing grapes with a quick burst of high temperature to extract color and flavor or adding oak-infusion devices to obtain character and structure.
Why technology? Winemaking is a high-stakes business: Grapes are harvested only once per year, so winemakers are often in the unenviable position of needing to craft a farmed product that must still go through fermentation and then be aged before it’s eventually ready for sale. The process is challenging—subject to weather, pests and labor shortages—and winemaking itself is wrought with a perplexing number of potential issues that range from stalled fermentations to contamination, each problem having myriad possible causes. Then each wine enters a hyper-competitive global market to compete against producers whose cost basis can be dramatically different. Using technology can provide solutions for many of these issues.
“Winemakers have options now,” says Meredith Leahy, winemaker at Knights Bridge Winery in Knights Valley. “That might include sending [wine] samples in for evaluation to better understand its profile and then working backward to see if we can improve next year’s wine through changes in vineyard or winery practices.”
Technology in the winery has become pervasive, but there are plenty of high-tech tools to help in the vineyard, too. To produce exceptional grapes, one needs the right soils, climate, moisture, rootstock, clonal selections and a competent farmer. Until recently, most decisions were governed by beliefs and practices that had been passed down over the eons. But stroll through many vineyards today, and you’ll find weather stations, soil-moisture probes and even individual vines fitted with contraptions that evaluate water, photosynthetic rates and grape maturation. New foliar sprays are being developed that cause a vine to ripen grapes faster or more evenly, and new moisture-evaluation tools are being deployed to help optimize grape quality while reducing water use.
Although there are more tools at a vineyard manager’s fingertips, the goal remains pretty much the same. Garrett Buckland, a partner at Premiere Viticultural Services in Napa, explains, “Create a healthy, sustainable vineyard that’s in balance, and you’ll produce high-quality grapes that need less manipulation during winemaking.” Former president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, Nick Frey, agrees, suggesting that farmers remain on the cutting edge of increasing wine quality, “continuing to find ways to improve,” with many growers experimenting with ways to advance quality, which leads to finer wines.
The link between vineyards and winery has never been more desired. Wine industry veterans Bill and Dawnine Dyer emailed to say, “Winemaking today is more focused on highlighting vineyards rather than obscuring their specificity.”
Companies like ETS, Enologix and Wine Xray have tools to help advance the link between vines and wines, too. Each has a suite of evaluative assays for examining each of the elements in both wine and grapes so they might be modified while farming or during harvest to increase quality and decrease flaws.
Diversity of packaging options
No matter if the wine has been made using space-age tools or with native yeast and no added sulfites, once a wine has been fermented and aged, it needs to be “bottled.” The word is in quotes here because the number of long-term storage options for packaging wine has exploded to include a variety of different types of containers. From kegs and paper bottles to tin and soda-pop-like cans, the sheer number of options is staggering. And they’re gaining broad acceptance in the marketplace.
Why are these new containers becoming popular? Jordon Kivelstadt, CEO of Free Flow Wines, the country’s largest wine-kegging business, says its technology “eliminates the threat of cork taint while simultaneously removing an estimated 10 million bottles out of United States landfills every year.”
The options for closures also continue to expand and evolve. Screw caps, plastic, glass and other synthetic systems continue to gain favor, and there’s growing evidence that many of these work as well, if not better, than the traditional cork derived from the bark of the cork oak. Some argue, however, that natural cork harvested from organic or sustainable farms is still more ecologically sound. Others argue that recycled material is best. Many of the natural winemakers continue to debate what "natural packaging" means, pondering issues such as the carbon footprint of corks and bottles transported from nonlocal sources versus the use of synthetic or recycled material. The conversation continues.
The year of the somm
Remember the days when restaurants existed without a high-profile chef? Not today. Now chefs have gained near rock-star status and, in the future, wine sommeliers might be regarded in the same way.
The documentary “Somm,” although not a box-office hit (with less than $1 million in sales) seems to highlight this emerging change. The movie follows four struggling sommeliers who attempt to pass the prestigious Master Sommelier exam, and a new TV show tracking the new cohort of Master Somms is scheduled to come out later this year.
“People are trusting their own palates and going by descriptions and personal or somm recommendations more these days,” says Heidi Barrett, the winemaker responsible for some of California’s most notable cult wines, including Screaming Eagle (1992-2005) and her own La Sirena since 1994. Other wine professionals are expressing their newfound influence in a variety of ways. Some of the most visible are developing smaller, more curated wine lists and many restaurants are creating larger and more eclectic by-the-glass programs. Technology is helping fuel this trend, too.
New wine-delivery systems such as Corivan, Enomatic and wine kegs have allowed these larger by-the-glass programs to flourish. The use of these technologies lets wines be sampled directly through the cork or kept from oxidation using neutral gases, which lets even the most expensive wines be sampled without risk.
“We sold the ‘95 mouton for $250 per glass,” says Cedric Nicaise, head somm at Eleven Madison Park in New York City.
Democratization of wine: social media
Although many sommeliers might be looking for elusive, obscure and rare wines, most wine drinkers are “looking for stories,” says New York-based wine writer Zachary Sussman, pointing to the explosion of wine-focused blogs and apps that continue to lead the growth of many niche wines. These goals aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, he adds, and can lead to the “democratization” of opinions regarding wine. Consumers want a diversity of perspectives and, these days, they have them.
“There are so many different wine markets, and successful wine marketing oddly results in promiscuity,” says Evan Goldstein, master sommelier and president of the Bay Area’s Full Circle Wine Solutions.
Wine drinkers can now follow both their wine-loving friends and their favorite professionals to get recommendations and to see what they’re drinking on a nightly basis. Want to know what the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné or somm Rajat Parr is drinking? Follow their social media feeds, perhaps on the app Delectable, where you will see not only the wines they're drinking but also get their ratings and notes. You can even “like” a particular wine they’ve posted.
Using label-recognition systems, you, too, can upload and rate the wines you’re enjoying, even waxing poetic on how the subtle aromas heighten the flavors or how the wine feels like silk in your mouth. Two of the most popular of these wine apps are Delectable and Vivino. Take a photo and automatically learn about the wine and see how both professionals and non-professionals feel about it. Often you can also get pricing and purchasing information. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are also full of wine conversations, pictures and ratings.
Urban wineries and tasting rooms
“The number of urban wineries has exploded,” says Matt Dawson, deputy editor at Wine Enthusiast. Wineries can be found in many urban centers, including many around the Bay Area. “People love making wine but often want to live in a city environment,” he continues. “For some winemakers, there’s just not enough going on in Wine Country.”
These wineries often provide specialized and unique winemaking options, such as Jeff and Jodie’s Covenant Kosher winery in Berkeley.
To taste wine in the past, you needed to travel to where it was produced or have it at a restaurant or at home. Today, consumers often enjoy wines in the hundreds of tasting rooms that have sprung up in the last few years. Sonoma Square itself has more than 20 tasting rooms, and although restrictions have been imposed or are being considered, Healdsburg, St. Helena and Calistoga might not be far behind.
And this trend isn’t limited to Northern California. Just look at the “funk zone” in Santa Barbara, Calif., where a section of the town is dedicated mainly to the consumption of wine. The source of this growing trend is driven from the consumer side, but is also the result of the growing number of producers that make wine virtually, not having their own winery facility to visit.
“Young people are especially interested in drinking wine in fun and exploratory ways,” Dawson says. Gone are the days of quiet and contemplative wine tastings. Now wine is a part of a social and entertaining experience. Are we on the verge of theme wineries? The idea might not be too far-fetched. Back in the 1980s, food went through a period when the Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood were all the rage—food had gained a certain level of quality and importance with people who required more than just another good restaurant. Will we soon have Disney wine experiences? Probably not in 2015, but keep your eyes open.
What would Tchelistcheff think?
Have things changed since Tchelistcheff’s time back in 1938, when he came to America and revolutionized winemaking? Yes and no. Winemakers and grapegrowers continue to explore how best to produce better wine, using methods that speak to their artistic, scientific and business sensibilities, be it by using more technology or less.
Quality wine from quality grapes is still the goal of most winemakers. Barrett sums it up nicely: “What are the most important aspects of winemaking today? Consistency of style, balance and ripeness.”
Her point: The best wines still come from quality grapes, and they tell a story of where they come from and how they were made. That’s a good thing, because wine is one of the few products our grandchildren might be able to consume, perhaps enjoying a bottle of the fine 2015 vintage, recalling how their great-grandparents influenced wine made back then—either by consuming, farming or making it. We’ll seem old-fashioned to those future children, but the story we leave behind will have the opportunity to make a lasting and meaningful impression.
Natural Wines: Back to the Future?
Technology for both the growing and making of wine appears to be an unstoppable trend. Yet at a fundamental level, winemaking remains an ancient and natural process, which gives wine an inherent interest beyond being just another consistently tasty beverage.
Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have been drinking fermented grape juice for at least 10,000 years, and the basic tools of making wine—presses and fermentation vats—have been used at least since 4000 B.C. Even without human intervention, fermentation occurs naturally in the wild.
That winemaking is a natural process, coupled with the fact that many of the world’s most highly sought-after and highest-priced wines often come from the least-invasive growing and processing techniques, is causing an interesting conflict to emerge: Technology can be helpful, but there’s a growing curiosity for how life might exist without the use of such high-tech tools in winemaking.
Although no clear definition is available, the concept of “natural wines” continues to gain popularity, with wine bars and wine lists highlighting them. These wines are often made using organic or biodynamically grown grapes and fermented using natural yeast found in the vineyard with no other additives such as sulfites, oak chips or chemicals. These wines might be bottled unfiltered or by using old-school diatomaceous earth-filtering techniques.
Under the umbrella of natural wine are the “organic wines.” According to the Organic Consumers Association’s website, for a wine to be labeled “organic” in the United States and bear the USDA organic seal, it can only be made using organically certified grapes and cannot have any added sulfites, but may have naturally occurring sulfites up to 20 parts per million. Different nations have their own certification criteria, so what’s organic in one country may not be so in another.
Seeking Unicorn Wines
It used to be that high scores from Wine Spectator or Robert Parker were the mark of special wines, but those old measures are no longer enough.
“Obscurity is the new exclusivity,” says Zachary Sussman, a New York-based wine writer, explaining the wines that have achieved a certain “cult” status because of their obscurity are sometimes referred to as “unicorn” wines.
Michael Mina’s wine director, Rajat Parr, recently described unicorn wines on Twitter as “…wine that is ‘rare,’ ‘not seen much,’ ‘special bottlings.’ Not always the most expensive but just hard to find.”
Search nearly any social media site with #unicornwines, and you’ll get additional definitions, examples and suggestions. But although the wines are not always “expensive,” as Parr points out, some wines are very pricey, including a magnum of the ‘92 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon that’s currently listed on www.wine-searcher.com for a mere $22,500.
Tim Carl, Ph.D., studied science at Harvard, was a business consultant at McKinsey & Co. and co-founded Knights Bridge Winery. Presently, he lives and writes in Calistoga with his wife, dog and cat. Follow him on Twitter @tim_carl or email email@example.com.
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