Wine As Wee See It

by Jeff Bundschu

Crystal Balls and Native Rootstock

Is wine just glorified Welch's Grape Juice? Not quite, but much closer than Mm. Rothchild would ever have you think. Simply put and to the point, wine is grape juice which has had its sugar naturally converted to alcohol.

Let's all step out of my head for a moment and into the vineyard where the process of winemaking begins and meet my fictional friend, Farmer Aiden. Now don't go thinking that all farmers are named Joe, Hank, or Bud. This is the hipp'n nineties. Keanu, Julia, River, and even Uma are in the fields. (We'll save Uma for later.)

For the sake of space, time and my own attention span, we'll assume that Farmer Aiden has found a suitable plot of land. Suitable means that the soil, climate, exposure, and water availability are all conducive to winegrape growing. Before sticking a single root stock into the soil, however, Farmer Aiden will look into his crystal ball to see what grape varieties will be in demand in five years (i.e. what people will be drinking).

Because it will take five years for the vineyard he is planting to reach full production capacity, Farmer Aiden has to have far reaching vision and a bit of luck. For instance, the people who five years ago thought that Merlot was going to be a hot item and planted the red varietal, well, those folks are laughing all the way to the bank. That can't be said for those people who thought that Dry Riesling was going to be the next Chardonnay.

Let's move on and say Farmer Aiden knows he wants to plant Chardonnay-a safe bet because new wine drinkers often start with Chardonnay. Now all he has to do is drive to the nursery and buy some baby vines and stick them into neat rows, right? Only in Farmer Aiden's wildest dreams!

Many winegrape varieties come in different clones. All Chardonnay clones obviously produce Chardonnay grapes, but characteristics of the fruit from each clone can be substantially different. In the old days, a farmer would just go to the vineyard that produced his favorite wine and take cuttings to plant in his own vineyard. Now, thanks to science, traits of various clones have been isolated, so the farmer can make a more educated decision. Or, as in Farmer Aiden's case, be a lot more confused than his grandpa ever was.

Farmer Aiden's now got a variety. He's got a clone. He can plant, right? Nope! The European varietals that we all know and love, including Chardonnay, are susceptible to American scum diseases when stuck into our soil and allowed to grow their own roots. Instead they are grafted onto rootstock that will do well in our soils. There happens to be quite a few rootstocks available to choose from, and each has individual inherent traits that may or may not be suitable for a given piece of land. Most of these stocks are just variations on the same theme-they all include a large portion of native rootstock which do not produce good fruit, but are resistant to American scum diseases.

Now, believe it or not, Farmer Aiden can finally plant his vines. But soon after he has successfully stuck them into the soil, he begins having nightmares about big ugly bankers with baseball bats. Why? Because by the time his vines produce sellable fruit, he will have spent approximately $18,000 per acre. And that doesn't include the cost of the land. Debt, for many vineyard owners, is a way of life.

Time Warps and Vainglorious Enophiles

We zoom ahead five years to find Farmer Aiden's Chardonnay vineyard which is now in full production. As is standard for the industry, he will sell his grapes by the ton. So naturally, you'd think, he's farmed his land to produce the maximum amount of fruit per vine. Not so fast Zippy.

If Farmer Aiden's vineyard is best suited for high quality winegrapes, he will most likely market his fruit based on its quality. It is generally perceived among wineries that high quality and high quantity are mutually exclusive. Meaning that you can have your vineyard produce either many grapes or good grapes, but not both.

So Farmer Aiden has to manage his vines carefully. He still wants to produce as many grapes as possible, but he needs to keep his fruit intense. (Jeff, we need to expound a bit on "intensity," here. It hangs without explanation). Intense Chardonnay, the kind which can end up in $20.00 bottles, goes for about $1500.00 per ton. That translates to roughly a buck-seventy-nine per bottle.

Now we're kick'n it. Farmer Aiden has just delivered his grapes to an awesome Sonoma Valley winery that has recognized his commitment to quality. He's been paid, so he's out of the picture until next year. As I promised earlier, it's Uma's turn to take the spotlight. She is a University of California at Davis graduate who just happens to be the winemaker at this groovy winery in Sonoma we'll call Beelzebub Cellars.

Beelzebub Cellars makes 20,000 cases a year of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a tiny bit of Sweet Grenache. They belong to that most prized group of all California wineries: they are independently owned and operated. Twenty thousand cases translates to about 300 tons of grapes. So like all winemakers in North America, Uma is very busy from late August through late October. These are the months in which winegrapes ripen, and thus harvested and brought to wineries.

A given grape's ripeness is measured by its sugar content. Sugar in winegrapes is extremely relevant to Uma. If the grapes don't have enough, the fruit character in the wine will lose out to acidity. Lean is an adjective used by many enophiles to describe wine that is high in acidity and low in fruit character.

On the other hand, if the grapes have too much sugar, then the subsequent wine will suffer from having too much alcohol, something the Enophiles call hot. While the right amount of alcohol is needed to create a "balanced" wine, which means that the fruit and the acidity complement each other. Too much alcohol will actually create a hot or even burning sensation on the palate.

Uma originally told Farmer Aiden exactly how much sugar she wanted in her Chardonnay grapes, and threatened to deduct money if he didn't get them into the winery with the right amount. This practice is common among winemakers and is used to keep farmers like Aiden on their toes because a grape's sugar level can change substantially in a day and he's got to be ready to pick. We won't even go into the perils of sampling a vineyard for ripeness. Just remember that because one grape is ripe, doesn't mean that the others in the same vineyard will be too.

When the Chardonnay grapes finally get dumped into the crusher, smunched a bit, and separated from their stems, the must gets pumped directly to a press (must is enophile speak for the muck which is made up of skins, seeds, juice, and meat of the grapes that emerges from the crusher). The press does just what it's name says it does. It presses the must against a mesh screen (nowadays made of stainless steel) that has holes big enough to let juice out, but too small for the skins, seeds and such to get through.

The juice is then separated from the skins when it is pumped into a fermentation vessel. Since Uma is making high-end Chardonnay, we'll assume that she is like many other California winemakers and these vessels are 55 gallon barrels made of oak wood from France. Thus her Chardonnay wine will be called √ębarrel fermented. Some Chardonnay is fermented in stainless steel tanks and will never see any oak. Some is stainless steel fermented, then aged in oak.

These process choices all depend on Uma the Winemaker and the quality of Chardonnay she is trying to produce for Beelzebub Cellars. We can safely say that most premium Chardonnay ($8+) from Northern California will see some oak contact. The French Oak barrels cost about $500 each. Uma will be crushing about 100 tons of Chardonnay or 290 barrels worth. So add another $1.70 to each of her bottles for the raw grapes she purchased from Farmer Aidan. Uma will add yeast (Enophiles say inoculate) to every barrel. The yeast will take about 8 to 10 days to convert all the sugar to alcohol. So 8 days later, the Welch's will be wine!

We're not going to go into some of the specifics of what Uma does with her Chardonnay after this, except to say that if she's typical, she'll leave it aging for 4 to 8 months before it's bottled and released. This storage time is also where the price per bottle adds up. It is basically unsold inventory which costs quite a bit to maintain. The longer it is aged, the more expensive the wine.

Burnt Barrels and Tannic Tongues

Let's move on to red grapes and show how Uma would have treated them differently than the white grapes she used to make Chardonnay. Red grapes are crushed, then pumped, skins and all, into big tanks. They are immediately inoculated, then mixed at least twice a day for the duration of the fermentation (this is also called "pump over" and is a cellar rat's least favorite job). This mixing process is necessary to expose all the grape juice to the skins for a chosen period.

That's right, red grapes actually produce white juice that only turns red after prolonged exposure to its skins. Keeping the juice off the skins is how Zinfandel, a red grape, can be made into a white wine. The skins not only impart color to the juice, but also tannins (tannin is the element in red wine that makes you feel like you're growing hair on your tongue). Though tannin is a key element to most red wines, it is undesirable in whites, which is why white grapes are immediately pressed.

When the red juice is fermented dry (dry to Enophiles means sugarless), it is pumped into oak barrels where, if it is a high-end Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot it might remain for 12 to 16 months. Most red wines from Northern California are barrel aged to some extent.

Wine barrels come in only a few shapes and sizes and are made exclusively from oak. Some barrels, however, are made with American oak and others with French. Most wineries use a combination of both. Differences are subtle, but conspicuous. Winemakers have their own preferences, as do winery accountants, as American oak barrels can be 1/3 the price.

Before they ever see a drop of wine, the oak barrels are burnt inside (Enophiles call them toasted) in order to impart certain flavors into the wine. Chardonnay, being a white wine, and thus lighter in flavor, is where you will find the oak flavor most detectable. Think of trees the next time you sip a Chardonnay that has been aged in oak and see what it gets you.

Mark-up to the Market and the Glory in Your Glass

Once Beelzebub Cellars is ready to release its wine, it is put into bottles, then into cases and finally warehoused where it will await shipment to distributors. The distributors purchase the wine from Beelzebub Cellars, then sell it to the stores and restaurants where you can at last get your hands on it. It is in this last segment of the wine's trip to market that its price escalates.

Most wine doesn't just sell itself. Beelzebub Cellars will have to actively market their wines to distributors, which means paying people to travel wherever the wine is sold to support the brand. The winery representative who hosts a wine dinner at a restaurant in your town is only performing a portion of her job. Her most important task is to make sure the distributor sells Beelzebub Cellars' wine when she isn't in town.

Twenty to twenty-five percent of gross income is about the norm that wineries spend on marketing. Wine and liquor distributors themselves are big businesses, and in many cases larger than the wineries whose product they sell. The distributors, of course, mark-up the wine up to cover their business expenses. Needless to say, the wine in your bottle goes through a lot before it lands on your table.

I can't leave you without a few words on consumption. The essence of wine is the spirit that it brings to every table. It does not matter if the wine is the most expensive in the world or your neighbor's home-made brew. Opening the wine not only uncorks the bottle and better conversation, but also leads to enhanced enjoyment of the food on your plate. No really. Wine does make food taste better.

Try this: the next time you have pasta and Classico sauce, get your eating place all set up. Pour yourself a glass of plain water. In another glass (don't go thinking you need a real wine glass or you'll sound like a enophile!) pour yourself some of that $5.00 bottle of Chilean red wine you bought when you picked up the sauce. Now eat some pasta, then drink the water.

When you're done with that bite, take another, though this time wash it down with wine. If your plain old pasta didn't come alive with that sip of Chilean red, we aren't the Brats. This is no B.S. Try it some time. And the conversation-meal time is when we can learn the intimacies about one another which make our own lives so much more enjoyable. We don't want to hear your secrets over a can of diet coke. Bring on the wine, and may we all share one big happy smile!