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Where Artistry Meets Technology

October 2010
by Jim Gordon

When planning this first-ever Artisan Winemaking Issue of Wines & Vines, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what “artisan” meant—someone who applies artistry to their craft. We wanted an issue theme to appeal to smaller-sized vineyard and winery operations throughout North America, and particularly those working to produce wines of exceptional quality.

Only after the assignments went out and the articles came back in did I realize how well the various components of this issue challenge the definition of “artisan” and frame the philosophical discussion of what a winemaker contributes to the product, as opposed to the grapes and the winemaking tools.

The definition of “artisan” that I like best for this issue is the one I found at Wikipedia: “An artisan (from Italian: artigiano) is a skilled manual worker who makes items that may be functional or strictly decorative, including furniture, clothing, jewelry, household items and tools. The term can also be used as an adjective to refer to the craft of hand-making food products, such as bread, beverages and cheese.

“Manufacture by hand and with hand tools imparts unique and individual qualities to artisanal products, in contrast to mass-produced goods, where every one is nearly identical.”

An artisan makes things by hand and uses hand tools. To me that raises the question: How much of a wine’s value comes from the artisan, and how much comes from the artisan’s tools?

Paul Franson’s cover story brings out various approaches to the winemaking craft, from a range of very accomplished artisan winemakers. What are the keys to their success in producing wines that merit very high prices and high marks from critics? Whether young or old, from Sonoma or Santa Barbara, maker of Cabernet or Pinot Noir, they all cited the quality of grapes they use as the most important contribution to their wine.

None of them credited their successes to the perfect crush pad processing line (even though we know how important this is), or to a flawless program of SO2 additions. Pressed for details about the parts of the winemaking process that made the difference between good wine and great wine, they frequently talked about a very artistic factor—tasting. They described their most critical decisions in winemaking as based on something very individual—their personal sensory perceptions—rather than on the tools and technology they use.

And yet, many of these winemakers have bought and do use the latest equipment and supplies for grape sorting, pressing, lab testing and so on. Two other articles in the issue give great examples of how new technology contributes more backup than ever before to wine industry artisans’ sensory skills.

Author and winemaker Stephen Yafa’s third article about barrels for Wines & Vines describes an important new technology for coopers that enhances their artisanal products. Most winemakers grasp that the tightness of the oak grain is correlated to the tannin level in the barrel, but it turns out that tannin levels in the wood can be much more accurately assessed via near-infrared technology than by even the most experienced artisan cooper’s naked eye.

Another technology that backs up the artisan winemaker is the Adams-Harbertson phenolics assay, a method for measuring tannin and color in must and wine that Wines & Vines has covered extensively. The article by Corey Beck and his winemaking team at the Francis Coppola Winery in Sonoma County, however, is the best explanation I’ve ever seen of how to apply the assay to make better wine.  

Beck and company emphasize that the assay is extremely valuable in confirming sensory impressions at critical points in winemaking, such as whether to pump over or punch down, and when to press off a red ferment. These are exactly the same points at which several of the winemakers in Franson’s story said that tasting was the key to making the best decision. Beck’s team writes that by looking at assay results while also tasting, one is doing “real time winemaking,” a process that can be more effective than simply doing one or the other.

If we want to go back to the definition of “artisan” and get picky, we see that “hand tools” are what artisans use, not infrared scanners and complicated lab analyses. Fortunately, no one is holding winemakers to this standard except themselves. They decide how to balance art and technology. I believe that the most successful ones use the best tools to quickly focus on a relatively small range of variability wherein they then apply tasting, their artistic goals and their experience to get the most out of their raw materials, the grapes.

Since wine drinkers ultimately appreciate wine based on their personal tastes, just as they appreciate music or art, it seems right that a winemaker’s personal tastes play such a prominent role in the crafting of artisanal wine.


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