Winemakers Rely on Living Equipment
Most of the gear buzz in the past few years has been about the nexus of sorting, destemming and (barely if at all) crushing: The quest for perfect, squeaky clean, absolutely intact berries at the start of fermentation. The choice of cooperages and toast levels in a barrel program can make or break a wine. Membranes do magical things. Flash Détente may save the world.
Of course, none of these gizmos come close to the most critical machinery in the cellar: the winemaker’s taste buds and his or her olfactory bulb. The reason wine is made by people and not computers or 3D printers is that some human has to taste and sniff the stuff all the way along the line and make dozens of decisions based on the mental readouts from these tiny little organs. It’s the place where art meets science in winemaking.
But winemaker organoleptic equipment doesn’t get much press or even much attention in the industry. Many of you may be reading this during the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, which is always accompanied by a huge trade show dispensing endless information about everything from mechanical harvesters to barrel bungs. Ever see a booth devoted to taste buds? How does anyone know whether Winemaker X can taste anything at all, or whether he has a long string of blind spots, or substitutes personal taste quirks for objective evaluation? Do winemakers ever ask anybody else for second or third opinions? Does anybody think about what consumers might taste and might like?
Full disclosure: Tim Hanni put me up to this. The roguish Master of Wine and the former Mondavi PR chief—Team Sweet as I refer to them—emailed me about the intriguing phenomenon of winemakers with sweet/sensitive palates working in an industry that worships big, dry, tannic, oaky, alcoholic reds above all. I thought of writing up this double-bind for Psychology Today, but then realized there was a broader question worth examining: What role do taste buds play in winemaking, and how much attention do they get?
Time to call up a bunch of veteran winemakers in different parts of the country working with different styles of wine. Inquiring winemakers want to know…
Why buds and bulbs are indispensable
While harvest 2013 was in full swing, I managed to track down Marco Cappelli, a consulting winemaker in the Sierra Foothills and the former winemaker at Swanson Vineyards in Napa, Calif.; Jeff Booth, former winemaker at Pine Ridge Vineyards, now consulting and making wine for Goosecross Cellars in Napa; French-born Bernard Cannac at Heron Hill Winery in the New York Finger Lakes; Coby Parker-Garcia at Alsatian-inflected Claiborne & Churchill Vintners in San Luis Obispo, Calif.; Jim Pfeiffer of Turtle Run Winery in southern Indiana; Ondine Chattan at Geyser Peak Winery in Sonoma, Calif.; Harry Peterson-Nedry at Chehalem in the Willamette Valley (Oregon); Phil Steinschriber at Diamond Creek Vineyards in Calistoga, Calif.; and Cathy Corison of Corison in St. Helena, Calif. Some of these names came from Hanni’s suggestions, some from their association with wines I happen to like, some out of thin air.
I figured that if this group didn’t know something about tasting wine, the entire industry would be in serious trouble. And before I got through explaining the reason for my mid-crush phone calls, nearly every one of them interrupted me to say that taste buds and noses were the most important things in a winery.
The difference between how winemakers taste wine and how consumers taste wine centers on the fact that winemakers taste and re-taste at every stage—from unripe fruit through fermentation and aging and pre-release bottle evaluation, and often for years and years after the wines have left the winery. Their job and their skill are not just tasting for today, but how the same wine compares to a month ago and what it might mean three years from now.
My consulting crew was in considerable agreement about the points in winemaking at which tasting (and sniffing) are the drivers of decision-making. The first one, naturally, was the picking decision, the point at which serious winemakers insist on visiting the vineyard, tasting the fruit and passing judgment on the best time to pick. All my winemaking sources run tests and look at numbers from basic Brix and pH and TA to (in Phil Steinschriber’s case) detailed phenolic profiles of hanging fruit. Those numbers are important for deciding when to start tasting and for treatment further down the line, but the picking date gets decided in the winemaker’s mouth.
This is an extraordinary act of vinous fortune telling. Grapes on the vine taste nothing like finished wine, which depends primarily on flavors and aromas developed during fermentation and aging. What few elements are fully formed in the grapes are covered up by 25% sugar and accompanied by zero alcohol. So when winemakers can find the right balance point in ripening grapes and think ahead to how the fermented juice might taste in the glass, that’s pretty amazing. No automated lab analyzer can handle that job.
The only way to develop that capacity for precognition is the same one that will get you to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. It’s not so much a matter of sharp, acute sensitivity to different tastes and smells, though that helps; the heart of it is palate memory: the ability to generalize from tens of thousands of sips and put the one currently in your mouth into context.
“The longer I make wine, the more I rely on my taste buds,” Parker-Garcia says. “I’ve been making wine for 13 years, and I find myself relying less and less on pH and refractometers.”
Steinschriber, who has been making the high-profile Diamond Creek Cabernets for 22 years, expressed sympathy for young winemakers who can’t possibly have the taste experience he has at age 62.
“I was trained as a chemist,” says Peterson-Nedry, “and I love analytical tools, numbers. Early on I had trouble realizing that the most important analytic tool is organoleptic. It took me a while—two or three vintages—to decide picking decisions had to be on sensory, not lab tools, by walking the vineyard.”
The same logic applies to many of the other points in grape- and wine-processing, where taste has to rule. Tasting red fermentations to monitor extraction and tannin accumulation, for example, is the key to deciding when to press. And once again, that perception has to penetrate through layers of dead yeast and sludge and remaining sugar, not a simple task. Winemakers aren’t likely to get it right the first time—or the first few times. Bernard Cannac at Heron Hill remembers that when he first came to the winery, the cellar crew started pressing red wines after a week of fermentation, like clockwork, because that’s how they had always done it. He insisted on tasting the wine before doing anything, and proceeded to keep the must together for another two weeks.
Different winemakers taste for different things. Steinschriber, whose Diamond Creek Cabs are famously high in tannin at release, makes a point of tasting for excessive tannin buildup during fermentation, since that would mean he’d have to fine later. Everyone tastes for balance, however they define it.
Pfeiffer says he can taste the difference between glucose and fructose and spot the point at which the yeast move from devouring all the glucose to starting in on the fructose, which may be the point for arresting a fermentation for a sweeter wine style.
“During fermentation,” Booth says, “we taste all the wines every day, including sniffing the head space for aromas, to make sure there are no bad microbes of H2S. In the barrel program, we come back regularly to taste, make sure everything is developing right. No computer or HPLC test unit can do this yet.”
Going it alone?
Sensory science is clear on the proposition that people’s sensory equipment and capacities can differ markedly. Different people—even if they are all trained winemakers—show different thresholds for important compounds, react more or less strongly to more or less of this and that, and have a wide range of preferences for how wine should taste. Professional winemakers soon develop the ability to recognize and categorize attributes of a given wine, whether or not they like it; experienced palates can do a fine job describing wines they would never dream of having for dinner.
Still, nobody’s palate is flawless, and everyone I spoke to readily agreed that they were imperfect vessels, even after years of experience. Cannac remembers being in tasting classes at the University of Bordeaux and seeing the amazement on all the faces when some students could not detect high levels of some compound others picked up at minimal concentrations—followed by role reversal on the next compound that was ordered up. Group wine tasting can be a sobering experience.
Winemakers do not, of course, get palate-profiled as part of applying for jobs. In my sample, only Booth had the experience, years back, of having to take a written winemaking test and identify a series of wine flaws to qualify for an early job. The assumption is that winemakers know how to taste wine, and so the responsibility for gauging one’s own strengths and weaknesses falls on each winemaker.
And as a result, everyone I talked with has some system or other, formal or informal, for soliciting other people’s opinions about the wines they oversee. Most insist on blind tastings. Peterson-Nedry only feels comfortable having at least three other palates sit in on important tastings. Cathy Corison says that her staff is so small that there aren’t always lots of tasters around, but she draws folks in as she can, and never makes a decision based on one sitting.
Several winemakers acknowledged specific limitations of their own palates, shortcomings for which they took steps to compensate. Cappelli, a master at sweet winemaking, admits to having a low tolerance for high alcohol and tannin, especially oak tannin. Corison says she makes sure to have others taste for green flavors. Peterson-Nedry admits to being less than sensitive to Brett, and feels fortunate that his low-pH Oregon wines don’t have much of it; nonetheless, he has designated people sniff for the stuff. On the other hand, Nedry says he has can smell the beginnings of oxidation a mile away. Parker-Garcia says tasting beer has helped immeasurably with his ability to spot Brett and volatile acidity. Steinschriber says that by the time he or anyone else can smell Bret, it’s too late, so he screens for it through lab analysis.
One thing all these winemakers have in common is that ultimately they have to make the final call. “There is such a thing as too many opinions,” Booth says. “Consensus winemaking never makes good wine,” says Chattan—though if she is the only outlier in a group tasting, she will at least do a retest later. After the last spit bucket is dumped, winemakers get paid for the decisions their buds and bulbs tell them to make.
Factoring in consumer taste
Every commercial winery has to sell its wine, lest it cease to be commercial. No one can simply ignore the market out there—at least not for long—and so any winemaker making decisions based on his or her palate had better have a bunch of like-palated customers waiting to get their hands on the product. No one has to be for everyone, but it does have to be for someone other than the winemaker.
How strongly and in what form cons umer tastes are taken into account varies, largely based on the size of the winery and the volume of wine it needs to move. In my sample, Chattan at Geyser Peak had the largest production—200,000 cases—and the clearest understanding of the need to make the wines that are widely accepted and consistent from year to year.
“I might personally like our Sauvignon Blanc to be really punchy, New Zealand-style, but our customers want a California style. We get feedback from lots of places, and for our Sauvignon Blanc we have a 20-year history. We get information from tastings, from customers, from winemaker tasting groups with outside winemakers, and from keeping up with trends in the wine market.”
Parker-Garcia says that he might like to make some of the Claiborne & Churchill Alsatian varieties a little racier, a little more acidic, but he knows the winery’s customers expect the slightly softer style the winery has been successfully associated with for many years. Parker-Garcia also makes a point of having women taste all the wines he makes, since women dominate the wine-buying marketplace.
Some of the smaller operations in my sample have the luxury of making wines the way they want to make them because they have managed to find a small but devoted audience for that style of wine. Corison says, “There’s a wine inside of me trying to get out, and that’s what I’m trying to make, not doing consumer studies. A label needs to stand for something and not be chasing fashion.” She has made 2,000-3,000 cases per year for a quarter-century, and it seems to work.
Peterson-Nedry says that he, like many Oregon winemakers, revels in the details of vintage variation, which works for 18,000-case Chehalem because it has a following that thinks and drinks that same way.
Back to Tim Hanni for a moment: The certified wine educator is on a crusade to convince wineries that there is a huge, untapped market out there for high-quality, softer, sweeter wines, and that the industry is making a big mistake by only catering to the big, dry red palate. That market certainly exists, but what would Corison or Peterson-Nedry gain by catering to it, when they can sell every bottle of the distinctive, sharply etched wines they make at prices that keep them in business? They can follow their personal palates and get away with it. Chattan, on the other hand, has read the news about the army of consumers who like sweeter wines, and already her Geyser Peak label has a sweet red entry on the market.
Several of these winemakers said the last thing they wanted to do was make wine for the palates of wine critics, even though that may be part of the job description at some labels. Maybe if wineries started insuring the organoleptic apparatus of their winemakers, the way some critics have done, everyone would have a better appreciation for the living equipment that makes wine wonderful.
Tim Patterson is the author of “Home Winemaking for Dummies.” He writes about wine and makes his own in Berkeley, Calif. Years of experience as a journalist, combined with a contrarian streak, make him interested in getting to the bottom of wine stories, casting a critical eye on conventional wisdom in the process.