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 week our winemaker, Tyler Thomas, will be posting two pieces as a guest on the notable blog Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews. The first reflects on the humanness of winemaking:
One of the elements of winemaking I enjoy is how its production employs our humanness. This topic is difficult and very broad so I’ll try to remain on task. We could start by discussing wine’s transcendence. Wine transcends its original material. It points to – no – engages the imbiber into an experience of enjoying flavors other than what would be expected from tasting its original components. Cherry wine tastes like cherries, but grape wine doesn’t taste of grapes. And while I think, just as NYU President John Sexton argues, that baseball implies a larger transcendence and the same could be said of wine, here we’ll leave that windy path for someone else to travel. But there are plenty of other reasons beside wine’s transcendental nature that invoke our human experience, not the least of which is the way it draws our pleasure and gladness of heart. Continue reading at Hawk 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.
In this continuing series of harvest images, here are a couple sights in the cellar from pressing red fermenations of Syrah and Pinot Noir. The process is fairly straightforward, use a pump to drain any wine that comes freely from the tank.Then, to unlock the rest of the wine still soaked in the skins, we must get inside the fermenters and dig out the fermented grapes, place them into our press, and gently squeeze the remaining wine.
All of this takes several hours per tank (thanks to all the necessary cleaning!) and generally one yields about 2.5 barrels per ton of grapes fermented. We are starting to fill up the cellar now!
During fermentation, the massive production of carbon dioxide sends the skins and stems we leave in red wine ferments floating to the top (pictured left). All those elements have goodness that we want to extract from them and as a result we need to work to submerge and mix them with the warm Syrah, or Pinot, or whatever it is. One could use a pump to pull from the bottom of a tank and spray the wine over the skins, or one could “punch down” the stems with a long plunger. We do both.
Standing above the fermentation you simply work to puncture the “cap” floating on top and submerge all those great skins. During the peak of the fermentation this is much more difficult than toward the end when the carbon dioxide production as slowed considerably. We have also posted a video here of this process.
Sure, you’ve imagined what it must be like to be in a wine growing valley during harvest, but what does it really look like? One common sight besides vines filled with Charonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah: dirty cars. Wine growers drive from vineyard to vineyard collecting grapes to taste and analyze for ripeness. With no time and plenty of dirt, our cars often look like this:
Then of course, there are the contents of the car: flagging tap, sun hats, nice clothes for dinner with a customer, zip lock bags to hold grapes, pruning shears, etc., etc., etc.:
As we walk the vineyard we taste, examine seed color (general browness means general goodness), chew on the skins (how do the tannins change?), and get a gut feel for overall flavor. Then of course we bring the grapes back to the winery to examine sugar and acid to compliment our impressions by taste:
Now that we are at the end of August nearly all our Syrah, Pinot, Chardonnay, and Grenache vineyards have either progressed through or are currently in a process called veraison. Veraison, a widely adopted French viticulture term, does not have a direct translation but defines the inception of ripening and more or less means color change.
While veraison signifies the beginning of ripening, it would be misleading to think that only after this physiological time point can one “ripen” the fruit. There are several important processes that occur well before veraison that we know impact the way a wine finally tastes, and as such they certainly impact the final “ripening.” However, it is at veraison that the berry undergoes significant changes that are principally associated with tasty fruit: acid decline, sugar accumulation, and color change. (Parenthetically, this is nearly identical to what happens to tomatoes, which botanically are also berries). Flavor development is also important, but some flavors are indeed developed prior to veraison; and others dissipate after veraison and it is their absence that signals “ripe” fruit. ”Flavor ripeness” in some respects is how these elements taste relative to the primary changes mentioned above.
Veraison really is a remarkable transformation in the grape. The obvious changes of color, sugar, and acid only tell part of the story. For example, the acid declines because the berry begins to “eat” the acid for energy in lieu of sugar, which it now stores. Water resources begin to come into the berry by a different conduit and only in concert with sugar. Seeds begin to brown, tannin levels change. I could go on.
The most important part of veraison though may be its psychological impact on the valley. There seems to be a palatable shift in gears from the entire industry. It’s as if we have stepped into the on deck circle in a close game, and it is nearly our time to bat. Time to hit it out of the park.
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 Continue reading
“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
I have worked with Syrah most of my career, and one of the remaining unanswered questions: what is the origin of people adding Viognier to Syrah. Most responses correctly explain that adding Viognier to Syrah has its roots in Cote Rotie of the Northern Rhone where they are allowed to add up to 20% Viognier to Syrah (cofermented). Rarely though, do you find an explanation as to why they ever started the practice in Cote Rotie in the first place! That is what I am after for those of us in Sonoma County.
“But Tyler,” you say, “they do it because it adds a floral note to the wine and rounds out the mouthfeel, increasing the complexity and hedonism of the wine.” Of course, but how on earth did they ever discover that? Why would someone add a white variety to a red? Wouldn’t it dilute the color quality?
As it turns out, adding Viognier can actually help the color. This is because most red wine has greater color intensity than it ought to given the concentration of color compounds found in the wine. We know now that colorless compounds called cofactors bind and stack in between colorful compounds called anthocyanins to increase the intensity of the color that meets your eye. And while white grapes are missing anthocyanins, they have plenty of cofactors in their skins which – one could argue – will enhance the color intensity. Pretty cool.
But of course they didn’t know this back when the practice of adding Viognier to Syrah
began. In fact I cannot find solid evidence of when the practice even started but suffice it Continue reading