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Science and Religion in Winemaking

Posted: Oct 18, 2006 12:11pm ET

When discussing winemaking, I try to be very careful about distinguishing science from religion. What do I mean by that? The fact that yeast converts sugar to alcohol and CO2 is definitely science. The fact that we prefer to use Assmanshausen yeast at our winery is religion, especially since we’ve never done trials to prove to ourselves that we really like it best. It’s important for me to distinguish what I know as fact from what I just believe.

One problem with making wine is that you only get one shot at it each year. That means it takes a long time to get useful data. And even then, the data you get is often questionable. I hear winemakers talk about doing trials to decide what works best—yeast, barrels, whole-cluster fermentation, whatever. I’m not sure that many of these decisions are based on truly valid data. Not to say that the decisions are wrong, just that their basis is often more religion than science.

Take barrels for instance. How would you decide which cooper’s barrels work best for aging the wines from each vineyard? First, you have to believe that there really is an answer to that question. You can’t try every barrel made, so you limit the choice to some subset. Let’s say we choose four different coopers. Since you’re a small producer, you don’t have very big lots of any one wine, which makes experimenting difficult. Maybe you get enough fruit from one vineyard to make 1,000 cases of wine, so you'll use that since it’s probably the only lot big enough to get you reasonable data. One-thousand cases is 40 barrels, so if you prefer to age 50 percent of your wine in new oak barrels, your trial will consist of 20 barrels--five from each cooper. Not too bad a start, but there's trouble up ahead.

Most of us get a mix of different vine clones from a vineyard, and we like to keep those separate to evaluate the different characteristics they bring to a wine. But you probably can’t do that this year because you’ll want a consistent blend of wine in all of the new barrels. Oh well. What if one clone didn’t fare as well under this year's weather conditions and its yield was lower than normal? Let’s forget that and go on.

Just before bottling, you taste through all the barrels and decide Tonnellerie Awesome is the best. Of course, if you used five different barrels from each of the producers, the results for each barrel may have been totally different. Why? Because the truth is that no two barrels are ever completely alike—different trees, different individuals making the barrels, different fire temperatures and times during toasting, etc. But let’s forget all that as well and assume all the barrels from a producer were identical.

So what have you figured out? You now know that you preferred that set of five barrels from one cooper for that vineyard in that vintage. That’s about it. You can try to extrapolate, but is that valid? You should probably try again next year. But how many years before you’re sure? I’m sure a trend will evolve over time, but what if you get mixed results? How do you interpret that? And even if a clear winner emerges, other factors may change that would affect future results: A new clone may be added to the mix. As the vines age, the quality of the fruit will change. Arrrgggh!

And what about all the other variables you neglected? Like issues of which forest the wood came from, the level of toast on the oak, the length of the toast, whether the barrels have toasted heads or not. You also made an arbitrary decision about which barrel producers to try. Maybe one you neglected would have been best.

And what about those lots of wine that are only 10 barrels in size? How do you test different barrels on them? There are just so many variables and not enough chances to test them all.

So what’s a poor winemaker to do? You find religion. You basically go on faith.

Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 18, 2006 12:31pm ET
No 2 experiments or trials would ever be the same. The fruit, barrels, weather, etc will all have changed the next vintage. Even the taster will have changed. Referencing your last blog about making wine, this seems to be the essence of why winemaking must become such a passion for some. It is a new challenge, a new project every yr. Many aspects are similiar but you can't rest on past performance. Do you ever say 'that turned out great but next yr I'm going to do this...'??
Paul Manchester
Santa Cruz, CA —  October 18, 2006 12:49pm ET
Brian, excellent blog!! I've always had the idea that producing wine is more difficult than most people can imagine, and you just confirmed how brutal it can be. I think this is part of what makes the world of wine so fascinating to me. Every time I taste a bottle of wine I think about all of the time, effort, science, calculations, weather variables, etc... etc... that you just mentioned above. Sheeesh, it must be pretty nerve-racking to be a wine maker. I'm really impressed by your knowledge and willingness to dive in and go for it. I've never tried one of your wines before, but now I'm going to taste some. Thanks for all of your hard work and effort. Keep up the GREAT work!! PM
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  October 18, 2006 1:22pm ET
Brian,Great post. Working for a larger winery, we have the luxury of more fermentations than you do, a larger barrel budget (most likely), and the ability to ferment in many different size tanks / boxes. Every year we set out to do 'experiments' with the fruit that comes in. For instance, we are looking at a few new yeast strains this year at this time. What have we seen? We have seen that one of the new yeast strains is a very quick starter, clean fermenter (clean foam and not too much of it), and that it seems to 'strip' color a bit more from roses and whites than other strains we are using. Is this 'science'? Yes. Is this a 'true' experiment - heck no.I truly believe that the best winemakers choose to do some sort of 'experiment' each year - different yeast strains, different fermentation regimes, etc. Personally, I think this is what makes winemaking as much an art as it is a science - always 'tinkering' to create the best possible product. If you feel that you make the very best product possible each year, then I guess you really don't have to experiment much. But who the heck is satisfied with whatever they produce year in and year out?!?!? Not me - I will always strive to 'do better' . . . and I believe you are the same way!Good luck with the rest of harvest . . . and feel free to stop by any time!
Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  October 18, 2006 2:27pm ET
It must add even more frustration to realize that 1000 cases is a heckuva lot of single vineyard pinot noir. We're usually talking 200-400 cases for most of the high level small producers. It's got to be tough to keep a consistent 'house style' like so many larger producers of cab and chardonnay do, even with blending.

I've seen trials where the source of the french oak meant a whole lot less than the toast levels of the barrels, since that is where most of the complex flavors are coming from. Brian, do you look at different toast levels of the barrels you use for the individual vineyard bottlings and/or the different clones? In tasting at home in Oregon I've noticed that big fruit and Dijon 667/777 wines can tolerate a higher toast level, and that more winemakers seem to be moving towards heavier toast, particularly on the heads.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 20, 2006 1:03pm ET
Sorry for the slow response everyone... long couple of days.

Apj - we usually do tweak something a little bit each year, but more as a refinement of our process/style than as a departure. Whether it's throwing a new barrel producer in the mix, or deciding to try a bit more dry ice to give us an extra day or two to get our pre-fermentation numbers (sugar and acid) to where we want - it's usually just incremental changes. Nothing drastic. And mostly done on "gut feel". I still can't bring myself to call it science - but we do "play"... if for no other reason than we can do it - and it may be fun.

Charles - we don't experiment with toast levels and/or toasted heads. We use medium toast, with the occassional medium plus (for fun), and all toasted heads... except for Remond - they won't do toasted heads. Once again, simply religion on our part.
Wes Hagen
Lompoc, CA —  October 21, 2006 1:22pm ET
Can I come out of time out yet, Brian?I promise I'll be humble and nice!
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 21, 2006 10:17pm ET
Wes - I think you've done enough time... you are released from timeout!! :)
John Stuart
Halifax, NS, Canada —  October 22, 2006 12:13pm ET
Hi Brian - I was just curious, when you add water to the must, what kind of water do you use? Distilled? Tap? Well? Would the mineral content etc. in the water make a difference overall? Just curious, thanks!
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 22, 2006 1:22pm ET
John - we add Lompoc city water because we feel we want to be true to our terroir ;) Seriously, we have a chlorine filter that filters all the wine that comes into the winery - and the resulting water from the tap tastes really good. We'd used bottled water in the past, but after getting the filter, we prefer the taste of the city stuff. We've never seen any minerality effects from the water we use, so I'd say that our source is pretty neutral in that regards.

This does bring up an interesting point, since all wineries use some water source to clean equipment and barrels. Barrels especially soak up some liquid and possible minerals (or flavors). There probably is a defacto winery terroir that does exist.
Delmonico Stkhse @ Venetian
Las Vegas, Nevada —  October 22, 2006 4:19pm ET
Brian - After spending time with you this weekend, I have even more respect for what you are doing. The " Man of Science, Man of Faith" question is fun to discuss and debate. I hope my opinions were not too direct. Keep up the GREAT work. Kevin

If you need anyone to give you a sommelier's perspective on your whole line-up, my palate is up for the task. I could email you my address. (Grin)
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 22, 2006 8:39pm ET
Kevin - I loved the debate! In fact, it'll be the topic of an upcoming blog. I hope you'll weigh in with you opinions then.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 23, 2006 9:38am ET
The great Battle of the Bubble Lounge! Can I play too?

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