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How Do They Do It, Part 2: Meet the People Who Make $500 Wines, $10 Wines—And Everything in Between

It takes a vision—or a few dozen of them—to turn thousands of acres into millions of bottles. The stakes are high, and plenty can go wrong

Posted: Dec 27, 2012 10:00am ET

By Ben O'Donnell

At the Penfolds Nuriootpa winery in Barossa, you can crush 22,000 tons of grapes. At Chateau Ste.-Michelle, 2.8 million cases of wine go out the door every year. If you are Peter Gago or Bob Bertheu, head winemakers at Penfolds and Ste.-Michelle, respectively, how do you even process and track so much stuff, let alone make it good?

"That's why God created Microsoft Excel, I guess," replied Bertheu. I asked four winemakers who head up large-to-massive operations that produce dozens of different cuvées in all price ranges, from $10 quaffers on up to the storied $600 Penfolds Grange. In my previous post on the subject, I gave a sense of the scale of the task and wrote about how the four keep tabs on their growers and grapes through harvest. Now I'll explain how they juggle as many as 52 different wines at once.

With the exception of Guigal in France's Rhône Valley, winemaking is a team effort at these operations. At Francis Ford Coppola in California, Corey Beck delegates winemaking by style expertise rather than price. "The gentleman who does our Chardonnay, he does our $15 and our $30 bottle. He has a really good understanding of that; I'm not asking him to do Cabernet as well." But all Beck's subordinates (there are four) taste all the finished blends. Beck estimated that he himself spends two to three hours a day on average just tasting samples as his lots move through élevage over the year. Philippe Guigal tastes through his lineup seven days a week. It's of paramount importance to "very regularly have a sampling of the entire cellar," he said.

Bertheu described the difficulty of making 52 wines in five different price ranges. "I can't make all my wines selfishly. I can't just say, 'Let's go make the best wine.'" He and his team taste competitors' wines and verticals of their own bottles to get a sense of how a given wine should feel. "When I've got [midrange series] Indian Wells on my mind when I'm going through the lots of Merlot, it's totally different than when I have [high-end] Artist Series on my mind. Each wine has to have a vision to it." Bertheu has more than 15 fermentation regimens, varying in yeasts, soak times, temperature controls, "rack-and-return" cycles and more.

But "crushing, fermenting, racking and blending is only the beginning," said Gago. "Maturation and bottling timelines may appear to be more relaxed than harvest; however, vigilant deadlines and tracking are as important."

When you have this amount of inventory on your hands, there's no time to bewail technological shortcuts as unnatural or non-traditional. Bertheu recently installed an optical sorting machine at Ste.-Michelle for his premium grapes. It scans grapes as they come in for crush and blasts the bad ones off the conveyor belt with a puff of air. At Coppola, Beck purchased a pricey Flash-Détente chamber, which sucks the maximum amount of color and tannins out of red grapes. "When you look at the skins [after], they're blanched," he said.

"When you're making a $10 bottle of wine, the economics is you can't spend $1,000 on French oak barrels," Beck explained of another technology. "But you can buy the same staves that make up the barrel, put those in a tank with micro-ox[ygenation] so you can simulate what's in a barrel." It's a cost saver, and a clean alternative to using old barrels, which over the years can pick up microbes that might spoil a wine and which sacrifice wine to ullage.

Indeed, the more wine you make, the more opportunities you have to screw up. Headaches range from leaky tanks and faulty equipment to experimental new blends that simply "don't quite make it home," as Bertheu laughed.

For example, just this year with extraordinary yields in California, Beck's operation labored under almost too much of a good thing. In early October, the grape hoist sputtered, leaving 11 trucks' worth of grapes waiting for crush in the driveway; a quick chain repair 25 feet in the air revved things up again. As the Cabernet cascaded in, the main bladder press at Coppola blew a hole, and only a 3 a.m. fix-it job kept crush on the rails. Virtually all teams under Beck's command, from maintenance to lab, put in six- or seven-day weeks for months. And "just because you've made the wine and it's going into your blends, you can't turn a blind eye and say, 'Oh it's done,'" said Beck; plenty can go wrong all the way through bottling.

The strain of tonnage at a pell-mell pace can serve up a potential disaster fortnightly (or more), an instructive example of how the cult craftsman is the speedboat racer to the big-time winemaker's ocean liner captain. The latter can take on more water, sure, but there's a lot more ship to sink. In both cases, the good winemaker keeps his boat afloat.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.

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