How Work in the Cellar supports the Farming
LA CLARINE FARM
When I first decided to try to make some wine under my own label, I knew it was going to be on my own terms. I had worked almost 10 years for other wineries at that point, had learned a lot, but I kept having questions with regard to the processes and protocols involved. I had seen things added to wines, and seen the results, but I kept asking “why?”
So I was going to make some wine with my name on it, and keep asking “why?”. That way, if it really sucked, there was no one to blame but me.
I asked: Why does everyone I knew (at the time) add an isolated strain of yeast to their musts? What would happen if I didn't, and relied solely on the indigenous (or ambient) yeasts? Why was everyone automatically adding SO2 at the crusher, and then at every racking? Why was everyone I knew destemming every grape cluster? Why do you need to add an enzyme to quicken the extraction rate of the must? Why did everyone insist that you needed to use “some” new oak (supposedly to add structure), when wines from my region have plenty of structure already? If wine is a “living thing”, why strip it of everything that lives in it by running it through a sterile filtration?
Textbooks will give you good reasons to do these things. But textbooks are also concerned with merely making “sound” wine. I wanted more than that.
A more sensible person than I would have moved ahead slowly, experimenting perhaps with using less sulfur one year, maybe with a batch or two with “wild” yeasts. Not me. I decided to throw all those things out, at once, and start at zero.
No added yeasts. No SO2 at the crusher unless there is a good reason to do so. No destemming. No SO2 addition at any point in the process unless I needed to. No new oak (which is really more about flavoring than “structure”). No inoculation for malo-lactic fermentation (the secondary fermentation which converts and softens some of the wine's acidity). No blocking the malo either. No enzymes to speed up color and flavor extraction.
Of course, there are other, technological things one can do to wine, too, like reverse osmosis and sterile filtering. Sterile filtration is pretty common, but not universal. I have seen reverse osmosis machines do their thing, too. It is fascinating, in a disturbing sort of way, that you can dismantle a wine, take out some offending component, and reassemble the wine...
But I wasn't going to do any of that stuff either. If I really screwed up, it would just go down the drain...
My first fermentations were a little scary. Very slow to start. Very slow to finish (we are talking months here!). Lots of new flavors and textures. Lots to think about and mentally process. Nothing is ever added to the wine which would alter its chemistry, speed of fermentation or flavor. The new wine is simply allowed to be what it is at its own pace.
The most interesting thing to me (besides the wine, which I liked a lot!), was that by removing all of these additives and stripping down the process to its bare minimum, I find I am more involved with the details than ever before. I watch over my fermentations like a hawk. I taste the young wines constantly, checking for things (maybe) going awry. I see patterns and rhythms that I would have before missed. I have also learned that things which “may” signal a problem (like a strange flavor or a hint of reduction) may not mean that I must act now to save the wine. I've seen strangeness appear in wines, have left them alone, and seen that strangeness disappear again, somehow absorbed into the fabric of the wine itself. The sky never does seem to fall.
In short, I feel like I am really a part of the wine now.
In case you are wondering...yes, I have lost a few barrels over the years. But I learn from both my successes and failures.
Adding yeasts and SO2 and other things to your wine does bring a certain predictability to winemaking. A safety net. It does free you up to worry about other things, I suppose. But it also sets up (at least for me) a mental wall between the person and the wine. Winemaking can become fairly close to autopilot. In a setting where you need to make a lot of wine quickly, I guess that's an asset. I find it much more fun to take the risk, much more challenging, and much more rewarding.