I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a winemaker and while our profession contains many responsibilities that are obvious, some nuances are not very clear. Basically we are responsible for cultivating Syrah and shepherding yeast and bacteria into transforming that fruit into a wine that gives people pleasure. That sounds simple enough, but along this path there are so many variables that can influence the way a wine tastes, and the way a wine tastes is a key part of what delivers – or not – pleasure! Therefore I believe an integral part of “winemaker” is an abiding passion for understanding new nuggets of info that either corroborate current thinking, compel changes to current thinking, or engenders new thinking so that we are always working to understand the key variables in a wine’s distinction. Put another way: put aside you ego and stay on top of your game!
One way we do this is to spend time every few months “geeking out:” flipping through peer reviewed journals. One less obvious job of the winemaker is to identify the most important variables of the transcendent process of winegrowing, explore the ones that can shift the way a wines tastes the most, and pay a lot of attention understanding those decisions. A greater understanding of what causes differences helps us to identify vineyard and cellar components that are more likely to produce different wine, even in the same vineyard. Then we can work both to capture and control variance in quality which empowers us to only select the best of the best.
For example, shallow soils in one section of a vineyard that hold less water will have a significant impact on the quality of those grapes, the vigor of the vine, etc. We know this empirically and through research performed over the last couple decades demonstrating quality improvement with water deprivation. Water stress levels can be variable even in small vineyards and rarely follows what we have defined as “blocks” in the vineyard: planting date, row number, clonal sections, etc. Variation in quality and physiology can occur within and across rows. We must let the vineyard create the blocks based on qualitative factors of the fruit, not logistical factors of its farmers. Identify the variance, and then segregate it to determine its impact on the way a wine taste.
This idea was strikingly made in a recent article I was reviewing in the geeky Australian Journal for Wine and Grape Research. The study involved two canopy management strategies across whole vineyard blocks. In their conclusion I read: “it was demonstrated that the inherent variability of vine vigor within the block had a greater effect than applied treatments.”
See winemakers! Our decisions (“applied treatments”) are not as critical as you think if you have serious “inherent variability” in your vineyard (think even mid-row)! Interestingly, their practices had more of an impact one year than the other indicating that whatever inherent variability exists was somewhat mitigated in one year (hmmm, vintage as another variable!). However in the end this still means that natural characteristics of the site generally outweigh their management strategies (unless their management strategy includes harnessing that variability!). Or, terroir matters!
I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a winemaker, and I think one thing that is clear is that first and foremost we must place understanding inherent variable vineyard components ahead of our own decision making. We are prone to highlight our decisions because we are humans and we have ego; but if in doing that we lump an entire vineyard’s quality variance together we are simply making the average of a site. And even if it is a high quality average, don’t we want to cull out the best of the best? At Donelan, the answer is “of course!”