Our winemaker, Tyler Thomas, posts again as a guest on the notable wine blog Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews. Tyler describes the personal winemaking philosophy developed over time, as a result of many wine experiences culminating in our approach at Donelan Wines.
While obtaining a B.S. and M.S. in Botany and Plant Molecular Biology, I was fascinated with plant physiology: how a static organism could adapt/interact so well to its environment. Winemaking is a wonderful professional avenue to enjoy the fruits of such interaction in a way that brings pleasure to so many people. In this industry my focus has almost exclusively been with producers who sought to maximize wine quality (and hence, your pleasure) by maximizing our understanding of any particular place and bringing forth that expression with deft work in the cellar. My desire is to produce wines of great and special character consistently and efficiently each vintage. Read more at Wakawaka Wine Reviews…
This was original published for Wines and Vines (July 2010, copyright Wines and Vines).
I (Tyler) have always wanted to be an artist. I greatly admire talent that can morph a concept into visual allegory, or capture a natural detail and evoke emotion and wonder for days on end. I don’t have a favorite medium (OK, maybe sculpture, photography, and literature), but I thoroughly enjoy pieces that seem to delve the depths of human nature. However early in adulthood I realized this talent evaded me. It’s OK, you can’t be everything and besides I’ve found winemaking.
Winemaking is about as close to artistry I think I will get without actually producing art. Now, several colleagues and probably more wine admirers would dispute the suggestion that wine making does NOT produce art, but I assert that wine cannot merit this association.
Conversely, wine is not merely a science. I have heard it time again couched that one must be either the winemaker scientist, or the winemaker artist. You are either romantic and mystical or analytical and technical. I wonder if these poles are constructs from our modern culture which seems to have trouble with nature and mystique coexisting. Why is it that one cannot be both mystical and analytical or creative and technical? In my time as a coerced scientist (read graduate student twice over) I found the individuals I worked with to be incredibly creative and imaginative. It recalls Ralph Waldo Emerson’s perspective that “science does not know its debt to imagination.” I would argue that culture does not know science’s debt to imagination. I think this is true in the wine industry as well.
What can grappling with creativity and the structure of scientific knowledge do for the winemaker, and does creative process alone make wine art? Churchill once said that “without tradition, art is a sheep without shepherd, without innovation it is a corpse.” It has also been noted – I don’t remember where – that tradition is an experiment that worked. You see it takes creativity to experiment, but good analytical thinking to provide constraints to the experiment so that in the end the knowledge gained is useful. Scientific endeavor ought to inform our brush strokes, not define what we create, but aid in how to achieve the painting. Winemaking involves many decisions that require creativity, and many decisions that are aided by analytical interpretation of known scientific entities about our craft. Blended together one may wade through the variables of winemaking to ensure a beverage of distinction, but also rest at night knowing all the possibilities were exhausted and imaginatively applied.
So is this artistry? Perhaps: the artist does learn techniques and parameters that they creatively push to achieve their goals. There are similarities to the process of creating art and wine. But where winemaking falls short of being a piece of art is not in the technique as much as in the end goal. Wine is for pleasure, maybe health, but I can think of little else. Its purpose is limited to evoking one emotive response: gladness. And while this can be euphoric and remarkable in how it uses 4 of 5 senses at once, the limit to wine’s end goal would seem to eliminate it from contending with, say the high art of Rodin’s Hand of God. As art is able to do, winemaking is a beautiful craft that can be transcendent, but it falls short of an art form.
High art has the potential to evoke so much more than pleasure and gladness. Art can connect with individuals in a range of feelings and concepts. It is a prism that can diversely project the ideas, emotions, and humanity of the artist shining into it. Wine has artistic qualities, but does it produce art? Think of a furniture maker who hand crafts furniture. You can choose to go to IKEA, or a craftsman. Both will produce a table on which you will eat. One is engineered on a mass scale, the other is crafted with extra elements of imagination, beauty, and care; but both are still tables. No matter, I am happy to forego the distinction of artist and simply be Tyler the Winemaker.
One increasingly common practice at harvest is the night pick. Night harvest are really a win win for vineyard and winery. That is of course if you exlude the fact that all parties involved lose sleep, but we lose so much sleep anyway during harvest than another few hours doesn’t seem to matter.
I think vineyard workers enjoy night harvest because they can pick more in a day and harvest at cooler temperatures. Vineyard managers enjoy this as well because cooler weather improves labor effeciency, but over and above that their clients are generally happier with night harvests. Why might that be?
We enjoy night harvest because the fruit arrives cold and early. Cold is important because controlling and predicting fermentation temperature is very important for native ferments, and extraction of all those components that lead to the wonder texture of Donelan Wines. Additionally, cold fruit doesn’t ferment readily decreasing the risk of volatile acidity development in juicy grapes. When the fruit is early it sets up our day much better and we are able to accomplish much more in a day with the chance, the chance, of seeing our families at night!
“What exactly are you doing in the cellar this time of year” is a frequent question received from fans. It is true that once our Syrah or Grenache or Pinot or Chardonnay head to barrel we trust all that is left to do is wait and blend. Blending surely is something we spend a lot of time doing when we are not visiting our loyal customers during the off-season! And while vineyard visits have begun in earnest for 2012, cellar duties are largely limited to the realm of quality control.
Our Assistant Winemaker extraordinaire Joe Nielsen has a regular program of barrel and lot sampling set up to eye the progress of our wines. There are several easy measurements we can make that act as proxies to potential problems we would want to know about. The principle of these is a rise in Volatile Acidity (VA). VA is collection of different aromatic compounds, the primary being acetic acid, or in lay terms: vinegar. Most spoilage organisms…wait, let me explain Continue reading
Obsidian Vineyard Syrah wine is produced from one of the most unique terroirs we cultivate. Learn a little more about the vineyard and the wine with this description from winemaker Tyler Thomas. Obsidian sells through fast so be sure to join our community to find out more.
“Those who utilize sensory science make better wine.” I recently recalled this matter of fact phrase once made by my sensory science professor during a lecture.
What did she mean by that, and why did she phrase it in that “this is truth” manner? Was she suggesting that if you wear lab coats, conduct consumer preference studies, and accumulate descriptive analysis to help understand wines, then we will make better wine? I don’t think so. Besides, that methodology helps you make a type of wine, not necessarily better wine. If the statement is true in that sense, it would only apply to wineries of such a size as could afford to conduct sensory science studies, and I don’t think that was the implication.
I think the statement cuts to the heart of this question: What is sensory science? What are the principles of sensory science and how can we apply these principles to our small, Continue reading
Quality to Donelan means we try to do everything well, including our conservation.
It is frost season and in the morning you can see overhead sprinklers running all over the valley to protect swollen buds from damage. Water use in California is a hot button topic and the wine industry will play a critical role. Local growers within the Russian River watershed of Mendocino and Sonoma counties filed a lawsuit against the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) last October because of an unprecedented regulation targeting winegrape growers’ use of water for frost protection purposes.
Water use has engendered tension for ages and according to an American Intelligence Community report problems with water could destabilize several regions across the globe in the next decade. One thing is for sure, with growing populations and ever growing needs for water, improved efficiency in water use is a must. I’ll leave the frost protection debate for lawyers, but there are steps we can take – and indeed that we have been taking – to improve the quality of our stewardship each year. And in our minds, quality stewardship is a part of producing quality wines.
We are always open to exploring new ways to improve the stewardship of our resources. We work with growers to move toward organic farming, and limiting water use. Since Continue reading
Want to find out what a wine grape harvest really is? Follow our intern, Sarah Green, as she chronicles her experience as a cellar rat. This entry highlights the beginning of a new adventure of a completely different scale than with Donelan Wines.
I don’t even know where to start.
I have made my way to Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand and settled into the charming, idiosyncratic, slightly broken and mildewed bungalow next door to the winery that I share with three other cellar hands. After arriving in Auckland, a few stops to satisfy the awestruck sensation that I could see to Antarctica (I couldn’t), and a traipse over sheep-filled cliffsides I made it to my new home, at least until the grapes are all crushed and stirred.
As of yet, things are still slow at the winery. After a cool summer, harvest is behind schedule and winemakers are getting nervous. The conversation is like déjà vu from 6 months ago in California, as pick dates loomed despite low sugars and rain in the forecast. We’re holding our breath. Today we passed around a Chardonnay sample at the winery; a cloudy, split-pea green juice that, at 17 Brix, is nowhere near where anyone would like it. Raising the winemaker’s blood pressure: there’s already botrytis pressure in the vineyards and there’s more rain ahead.
The winery is committed to making the best possible product it can and is hard at work in Continue reading
People love the phrase “in vino veritas”–in wine there is truth. But I wonder sometimes whether “in vino scientia” holds as well. Is there any true knowledge with wine?
The goal of obtaining more knowledge about wine growing is to use it to optimize our viticulture and enology to ensure we are making the best wine possible each vintage (not as some seem to think to increase technology and sameness in wines). In my time in the industry, I have observed a contextual approach to “knowing” and understanding. People tend to believe what they have experienced at their site, their winery, or in their lab, and often are skeptical of other insights.
While both the industry and academia can play a vital role in obtaining understanding, both have pitfalls. For example, science is extremely valuable and responsible for much beneficial technical knowledge. It can, however, be esoteric; difficult for research to integrate all true possibilities that affect a certain outcome, and disregard feedback from the industry. The scientific problem is often posed as one specific condition, but initial conditions of juice–or the condition of finished wine–rarely have only one element that may cause a problem.
The industry provides experience, empirical data, intuition, and is the cog of wine Continue reading