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Morgan & Moore

 

When Technology Becomes Tradition

September 2008
 
by Jeff Morgan & Daniel Moore
 
 
Wine De-alcoholization
 
De-alcoholization, or alcohol reduction, is performed off-site, per TTB regulations.
 
A long time ago, an inquisitive drinker was experimenting with sturgeon swim bladder and said to himself, "I wonder what this would do to my alcoholic beverage." He found out it clarified his drink, and he went back to his village shouting, "Eureka!"

The inquisitive drinker had discovered a new "technology." Pursuing this hypothetical historical premise, let's suppose there were skeptics content to continue drinking cloudy beverages. They assailed our curious innovator as a heretic. Today, isinglass--made from sturgeon bladder--is a canon of tradition for many low-tech winemakers. Apparently some technologies have the staying power to become tomorrow's traditions.

Other new techniques, however, are destined to become obsolete. Thirty years ago we destemmed whites, pumped them into dejuicing drain tanks and marveled at the clarity of the resulting free-run juice. At the time, we wore bellbottom pants to the disco after we left the crush pad. And when we tired of those bellbottoms, we said goodbye to drain tanks as well.

So many new and innovative technologies have captured our attention in the cellar. This arsenal of high-tech tools ensures reasonably stable, high-quality wine in the bottle. And it's an increasingly critical arsenal--particularly in the age of "unfined" and "unfiltered" ultra-premium wines.

Yet sometimes we wonder if the tail's not wagging the dog. Are the new cellar techniques defining our wines' styles more than we--the winemakers--are? In some cases, the answer is yes.

Is there anything wrong with using today's technology to craft wines that might conform to a bandwagon mentality? We don't think so, provided that winemakers refrain from blindly following the latest techno-fads because they see a silver bullet for production. A select number of key technologies are at the forefront of today's winemaking. The trick is to use them--not abuse them.

"De-alc"

De-alcoholization is a technology that has enabled production to be pushed to the ultra-ripe end of the spectrum. It enables winemakers to "de-alc" a portion of wine for blending back into the main lot as they look for that sweet spot--a balance of aromatics and flavors not marred by the heat of high alcohol. And if that sweet spot just happens to be around 13.9% alcohol by volume, the technology really helps save money by lowering tax liability.

The one drawback to this technology is that the wine must be sent off site (due to TTB licensing considerations) to be processed. Make sure that the facility where you send your wine has the low-tech concept of sanitation to match its high-tech equipment. De-alcoholized wine provides a lovely medium for nasty things to grow in. It's also a good reason not to let your "de-alc'd" wine sit around for too long after processing.

Bad bugs gone wild

"Bad Bugs Gone Wild" is not a spring break beach video. Bad bugs could, however, be the root of a problem you are having in the cellar or in a particular lot of wine. From a curative standpoint, there are technologies that can help you if these bugs have not pushed your wine totally over the edge.

If volatile acidity is the problem, it can be reduced with reverse osmosis administered by a mobile filtration company that will come to your winery. Or perhaps you created a slight Brettanomyces issue by using that last 50 gallons of "de-alc'd" wine that sat around the winery too long. To be proactive you might want to use cross-flow filtration, depending on how large a microbial load the wine in question contains.

Cross-flow filtration definitely gives you a technological edge over the older plate-and-frame and pressure-leaf filters. This new filtration technology can deliver a finished wine that is by many accounts better than one treated by more traditional methods. Nonetheless, some winery veterans believe that with proper wine preparation and techniques, a pad or pressure-leaf filter will yield results just as good as a cross-flow. So we need to ask ourselves: Are we buying a new cross-flow system when our old plate-and-frame filter is perfectly adequate? The right answer (whatever that might be) will ultimately save money.

Cross-flow filtration
 
Cross-flow filtration systems such as the KMS WINEFILTER (above) provide an alternative to plate-and-frame and pressure-leaf filters.
Consider another scenario: You don't have any (or many) bad bugs, but you ripened those grapes so high in sugar (26.99º Brix is the new 24º) that your wine never went totally dry. Velcorin® dosing at bottling can give you peace of mind in attempting to maintain an "unfiltered" production mantra. Velcorin is very effective at low dosages against a broad range of yeast and bacteria. It can be used at bottling to prevent refermentation of a small amount of residual sugar and the outgrowth of spoilage yeast such as Brettanomyces. These technologies may not be "cure-alls," but they do give us a great deal of flexibility in containing a problem or ensuring against a potential one.

More bugs

Without proper sanitation protocols, microbial populations get a toehold in the cellar and become difficult to control over time. Winery sanitation technology such as ozone provides a great tool to augment cleanliness in the cellar. But before we fixate on ozone, let's remember that there are basic, simple cleaning rituals that need to be done on a regular basis.

Compounds like peracetic acid and sodium percarbonate (Peroxicarb) have replaced chlorine and chlorinated caustics. Even a simple technique like pushing a little orange sponge ball through a hose can work wonders when it comes to cleaning a most fundamental piece of equipment. Such low-tech cleaning protocols are critical, yet they are often not executed.

So what good is ozone technology? It has great efficac y as a contact sanitizer and breaks down to stable oxygen. However, using ozone does not clean your winery. Mechanical implements and good old-fashioned elbow grease do. Ozone is, nevertheless, a great addition to the cellar for keeping microbiological loads under control.

Double-edged sword

Technology can serve us well, especially when it helps us make better wine. But if it makes us less vigilant or more careless in either the vineyard or the cellar, it might not always be the blessing we believe it to be. Increased access to new methodologies coupled with the pursuit of media scores have left many people wondering whether New Age winemaking technologies have led to a homogeneous winemaking style. As a result, a lot of folks are saying we've kicked Mother Nature and terroir to the curb. So who's really dictating technology use in the cellar? Winemakers or the powerful critics? The answer seems obvious--they both play influential roles.

Ultimately, we can't always rely on old-school techniques and Mother Nature to provide the essentials for making great wine. Anyone who's ever had runaway VA on an otherwise delicious-tasting wine knows that. And some winemakers may simply feel that an astute use of technology helps them receive higher scores from the critics. After all these years in the trenches, we're pragmatic. That may not be such a bad thing.

Every industry must adapt to the times in order to survive. It's good to know there's a toolbox full of solutions for our cellar woes. And surely, some of the new technologies will be considered "tradition" 50 years from now. Still, we prefer to think of technology as a backup technique. It's here to serve us--not the other way around. If we choose our winemaking tools carefully while maintaining a clear vision of what it is we want to create, we can make great wines of unique distinction. And we can do it while preserving both our integrity and our livelihoods.

Jeff Morgan of Napa Valley and Daniel Moore of Sonoma County are partners in M Squared Wine Consultants, m2wine.com, and jointly own and operate SoloRosa and ZMOR wineries. Morgan also makes two kosher Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines: Covenant and RED C. To comment on this column, e-mail edit@winesandvines.com.
 
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