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Feature Article from the January 2013 Magazine Issue

Improving by Degrees

Eleven seasoned winemakers recommend ways to ratchet up quality in the coming year

by Paul Franson
If you’re already making good wine, how can you make it better?

Winemakers have many ideas about how to create better wine—both in the vineyard and in the cellar—but they don’t always agree about what is “better.” One measure of quality is being able to command a higher price. Another might be to get a higher rating from a top critic. Both of these indicators are regarded rather cynically by top winemakers, however.

Dave Paige of Adelsheim in Newberg, Ore., points out that it’s easier to improve a mediocre wine than make a great one better, and few winemakers believe that following some simple steps will make a dramatically better wine.

As director of winemaking and viticulture at Long Shadows Vintners, Gilles Nicault runs a winery whose partners include some of the most famed wine consultants in the world. He says, “I believe that each winemaker should have a go-to consultant to revaluate the techniques used, the new vintage coming up, the blending of the wines being made in order to always be on the cutting edge.”

Michael Richmond of Bouchaine Vineyards has 42 harvests under his belt. He summarizes the quest for quality: “Quality is an attitude and a perspective. There is no magic bullet or secret ingredient. There may be new tools available to help fix problems. There are also many winemakers who are regressing back to basics, eschewing new technology. It is up to us to stay current and critical. I hasten to add, not all innovations, new devices and techniques prove useful to us.”

All winemakers we spoke to agreed that what you do in the vineyard is vital. But it’s not the whole story.

In the following mini-interviews, veteran winemakers will give specific tips for vineyard management as well as recommendations for the crush pad and cellar.

Chris Dearden
Napa, Calif.
Position: Owner/winemaker/general manager/consultant
Wineries: Dearden Wines, Costa Del Sol Consulting, Robert Biale Vineyards, Chanticleer Estate Wines, V Madrone
Manages: 25,000 cases
Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of California, Berkeley; bachelor’s degree in winery operations
and management, University of California, Davis;
MBA, Haas School of Business
Career harvests: 27
Winemaking mentors: Larry Brooks, Acacia Vineyard; Greg Fowler, Schramsberg Vineyards; Andre Tchelistcheff, Beaulieu Vineyard

Consulting winemaker Chris Dearden, who also grows grapes, acknowledges the importance of high-quality fruit—but other factors such as yeast types, tank types and closure quality control are important, too.

“Ralph Kunkee proved that statistically there is little influence from yeast. That being said, yeast do perform at different rates and conversions, and I have my favorites for certain varieties.”

Dearden has used native yeast inoculums on his Chardonnays for a decade with excellent results but points out that they are really “low-inoculum” and not true “native-only” yeast. “I wouldn’t use native yeast on a suspect vineyard, or one I did not know well or had doubts about the vineyard maintenance.”

He uses concrete tanks at the Napa Wine Co. in Oakville, Calif. “Concrete provides points of nucleation for polysaccharide formation, which adds mouthfeel—and to that extent it adds dimension. I’ve used open-topped French oak tanks for the same reason, and they rob a little of the fruit but add a definite mouthfeel that you don’t get with stainless. I like using both stainless and wood for complexity.”

Dave Paige
Newberg, Ore.
Position: Winemaker
Winery: Adelsheim Vineyard
Manages: 45,000 cases
Education: Bachelor’s degree in fermentation science, University of California, Davis
Career harvests: 27
Winemaking mentors: Colleagues at Steamboat Pinot Noir Conference

Dave Paige says, “It wouldn’t seem fair to credit any one person as a mentor. The strongest influence on my development as a winemaker has been the Steamboat Pinot Noir Conference, which I have attended several times starting in 1994. The event consists of three days of rigorous blind tasting of samples brought by the participants, with each wine getting a thorough discussion from the 50 or 60 winemakers in the room. Problems are shared, as are possible ways to fix or avoid problems, success stories, examples of new clones or production methods, etc. In the evenings finished wines are shared, with more stories about their origins. It is a great learning experience and a very important part of the development of Pinot Noir in the new world.”

Paige is one of many winemakers who doubt that a few simple steps will make a dramatically better wine, but he takes them anyway. One step he finds necessary is to limit yield more in Oregon than he did when working in California, due to the unique conditions.

He says that the most important consideration may be to make wine lot by lot. “If you already think you know how you’ll make wine this year, you’re already screwing up. You need to evaluate every lot separately and decide how to treat it.” Paige made 160 lots in 2011.

Ashley Hepworth
St. Helena, Calif.
Position: Winemaker
Winery: Joseph Phelps Vineyards
Manages: 50,000 cases
Career harvests: 14
Winemaking mentors: Chateau Angelus in Bordeaux, and the vineyard, cellar and winemaking team at Joseph Phelps

Precision watering makes a difference in the approach of winemaker Ashley Hepworth from Joseph Phelps Vineyards. “We irrigate carefully based on block history, soil type, variety, stem water potential and how the vine looks. There is never a one-size-fits-all watering technique.

“With the diversity of the Napa Valley and our eight estate vineyards located from St. Helena to Carneros, we have many soil types, microclimates and varieties. What worked in the vineyard and/or the winery last year might not work this year. We are always innovative and pushing the envelope to make the very best with what Mother Nature deals us. That is a philosophy that Joe Phelps has instilled in us all. My interpretation of it is: Never think that what you’re doing is good enough, because there is always room to improve.”

Karen Culler
Napa Valley, Calif.
Position: Winemaker
Wineries: Wolf Family Vineyards, Ladera, Renteria Wines, Probst, Rivera, Culler and Casaeda
Manages: 20,000 cases
Education: Bachelor’s degree in botany and agronomy from Ohio State University; master’s degree in viticulture and enology, University of California, Davis.
Career harvests: 25
Winemaking mentor: David Lake, “now deceased but the first winemaker I worked for at Columbia Cellars in Seattle.”

Karen Culler says that handling grapes gently and using native yeast are important in her approach. She adds, “Nothing can beat great grapes. Get grapes from nicely balanced, well-drained, preferably rocky soils with low-yielding vines.”

Michael Richmond
Napa, Calif.
Position: General manager
Winery: Bouchaine Vineyards
Manages: 25,000 cases
Education: Bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas; short courses from the University of California, Davis; apprentice at Freemark Abbey
Career harvests: 42
Winemaking mentors: Brad Webb, Freemark Abbey; Dick Graff, Chalone Vineyards; Larry Brooks, L.M. Brooks Consulting; Dave Ramey, Ramey Wine Cellars

Michael Richmond, general manager of Bouchaine Vineyards and a founder of Acacia Winery, provided an exhaustive list of steps he takes to improve already outstanding wine: “We are constantly engaged in improving the wines, not just following the same pattern from year to year.”

He attends seminars to keep abreast of new developments in wine and vineyard technology. “This year we have attended seminars on new yeast and fermentation adjuncts, Hungarian oak barrels, sensory evaluation, botrytis management, the World of Pinot tech seminar and will be attending the Steamboat Pinot Conference.” He adds, “We stay current with trade publications—all in an effort to stay current with new resources and developments in the science of wine quality.”

In addition, he meets at least monthly with his farming company to discuss vineyard operations and ongoing trials in new pruning methods, vine restoration, soil management, etc., always asking leading questions about improving fruit quality, any new technology they should consider and long-range planning.

“In the cellar we have ongoing research with yeast trials, malolactic trials, barrel trials, fermentation matrix trials—all with an eye toward what works, what doesn’t and what can we improve on given our fruit in our environment with our personnel and ownership. We taste in-house, inviting non-employees from the wine trade to help keep our judgment broad to guard against developing a ‘house palate’ among those of us who actually make the call. We attend many tastings where we actively sample a representation of currently available wines just to stay current with the wine market. We are currently involved in a fruit exchange with two other winemakers—each of us vinifying each other’s grapes to compare and learn from the results.”

Richmond continues, “Among ourselves, we have many energetic discussions (appearing as outright war to an outsider) over points of differing opinions, always challenging our assumptions. Complacency is the greatest threat to quality. We invest in the best equipment, tools and services to make better wine and assure a high standard of quality control. We have acquired a state-of-the art crossflow filter, ozonater, alcoholizer, data-tracking program, additional small fermentors and, most recently, to assure sanitation and stable wines in the bottle: a steam generator.”

He is expanding trials with different styles of oak barrels to see if they can improve the allure of the Pinot and the grace of the Chardonnay. “The 2011 wines were severely triaged to select only the finest wines of what we thought might be too subtle a vintage to be consistent with our wines over the past five years; 60% of our 2011 Pinot was sold off to maintain that commitment to quality.

“We remain our worst critics, constantly challenging every operation we do in the light of evolving opinions in the technology world and the input we receive from fellow winemakers, consumers, the wine trade and our owners. We remain students of wine.”

Celia Welch
St. Helena, Calif.
Position: Winemaking consultant, owner and winemaker of Corra Wines
Wineries: Barbour Vineyards, Buccella, Hollywood & Vine Wine Cellars, J. Davies, Keever Vineyards, Kelly Fleming Wines, Lindstrom Wines, Scarecrow Wine
Manages: 15,000 cases
Education: Degree in fermentation science from the University of California, Davis
Career harvests: 32
Winemaking mentor: Jon Engelskirger at both Silverado Vineyards and Robert Pepi Winery

Celia Welch, a Food & Wine magazine winemaker of the year, thinks broad issues like crop load and narrow ones like winery lighting are key quality issues. She advises optimizing uniformity of ripeness because it will greatly assist each section of the vineyard to give consistently wonderful flavor development. She adds, “Maximizing quality almost always means limiting production, unfortunately, but a veraison-time thinning of fruit that is less ripe and/or less fully colored will improve the quality of the remaining fruit remarkably.”

Welch tries to make sure that each cluster has at least some dappled light hitting it (but not so much sun exposure that it bleaches or desiccates), and that fruit isn’t layered cluster-on-cluster. She says, “Plan to walk through the vineyard before harvest again to check for additional thinning work, and t o sort the fruit once it hits the winery.”

She thinks too many winemakers overlook the cleanliness of the winery. “Keeping a production facility clean and organized not only keeps the wines microbiologically sound but also leads to an overall winery philosophy of being detail-oriented.”

It is tough to enforce cleanliness standards if a facility has poor lighting, drains that don’t work well, and so on, she says. “Design or retrofit your facility to make cleaning it easy. Avoid clutter. Teach your interns to clean the hard-to-reach corners. Preventing microbial contamination is much easier than correcting it. Simply installing better lighting in your production areas can greatly improve wine quality.”

Gilles Nicault
Walla Walla, Wash.
Position: Director of winemaking and viticulture
Winery: Long Shadows Vintners
Manages: 12,000 cases
Education: Four-year degree in winemaking and viticulture from Université d’Avignon, France
Career harvests: 21
Winemaking mentors: Allen Shoup, Peter Fisher, Rick Small

Gilles Nicault says, “I have a unique situation in the wine world that has allowed me to work closely with many winemakers from around the world and has diversified my vision of winemaking and viticulture. My first eye-opening experience was at Chateau Revelette in the Coteaux d’Aix en Provence in 1991 with Peter Fisher, and then with Rick Small of Woodward Canyon in Walla Walla, Wash., in 1996.

“Since 2003, I have been working closely at Long Shadows Vintners with incredible winemakers. It has given me a one-of-a-kind experience.”

Nicault likes to look, touch, see, smell and taste during the pump over. “There are many very important steps in making great wines, but the pump overs are one of the most crucial times of the process. We use open-top fermentors and perform all pump overs manually.”

He likes to ferment in concrete tanks if they are well equipped with temperature control. “It preserves the fermentation heat for a nice end of maceration.” He uses concrete eggs for white fermentation and red/white aging because eggs create a flow and keep the lees in suspension in the wine.

Nicault runs a winery whose partners include some of the world’s more famed wine consultants. “Our vintners at Long Shadows are winemaker partners instead of being just straight consultants. But I believe that each winemaker should have a go-to consultant to revaluate the techniques used, the new vintage coming up, the blending of the wines being made in order to always be on the cutting edge.”

He takes a precaution necessary in cold-winter climates. “If the winter was especially harsh, we might leave more buds to make sure to end up with enough live ones after bud break. “We readjust when we know the percentage of live and dead buds.”

Finally, Nicault uses 2-inch corks for Long Shadows’ signature reds and 1¾-inch corks for whites. He says size doesn’t matter but quality does. “We do a lot of sensory screening to minimize the percentage of tainted corks. It has been very effective, as our percentage of tainted bottles is extremely low.”

David Lattin
St. Helena, Calif.
Position: Winemaker
Winery: Kuleto Estate Winery
Manages: 14,000 cases
Education: Bachelor’s degree in microbiology with German minor, Oregon State University; master’s degree in enology (food science), University of California, Davis
Career harvests: 29
Winemaking mentors: Larry Brooks, Tolosa Winery

David Lattin of Kuleto Vineyards says Larry Brooks was his greatest influence as a winemaker. “Larry and I met at Davis, and he gave me my first job in the business in 1984 at Acacia Winery. He was fearless in experimentation and passionate about creating the most delicious Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. He took what he was doing seriously, but didn’t take himself so. It was a great time and place to cut my teeth as a winemaker.”

Lattin’s advice centers around the vineyard: Sometimes the sun is too much for exposed bunches, as when the heat spikes after a cool or wet period when growers have had to pull leaves to increase exposure. He says he uses shade cloth or Surround (a white powdered clay) on the afternoon side of the canopy to prevent the burning of fruit.

Another way to keep fruit cool, Lattin says, is to “harvest at night to lower pH.”

Bob Iantosca
Santa Rosa, Calif.
Position: Executive winemaker
Winery: Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards
Manages: 150,000 cases
Education: Bachelor of science, University of Arizona
Career harvests: 37
Winemaking mentor: John Jaffray at Dry Creek

“One can’t do anything that has more effect on quality than getting the vineyard right,” says Bob Iantosca of Gloria Ferrer. “Of course this involves getting the right variety in the right location—both for climate and soils—then putting that on the right rootstock.”

He says that proper pruning, along with head suckering and judicious thinning, should help balance the vines so that the grapes can be picked at the best balance of sugar acid and pH. He jokes, “Even though I’m getting older, I don’t like the prune-like wines that people make from very ripe grapes.

“Hand-harvest of cool fruit and gentle conveying, crushing or whole-cluster pressing will all help get what’s in the vineyard into the bottle.”

Chris Carpenter
Oakville, Calif.
Position: Winemaker
Company: Cardinale, Lokoya, La Jota, Mt. Brave Wines
Manages: 8,000 cases
Education: Bachelor of science, University of Illinois-Urbana; MBA, University of Illinois-Chicago; master of science, University of California, Davis
Career harvests: 18
Winemaking mentors: Marco DiGiulio, Charles Thomas, Tom Peffer

“You can’t make gold from lead, but you can take gold and make it shine brighter. Our focus is on the raw product: the grape. We utilize all of our knowledge of the site, grapegrowing and how the two are affected by one another to elevate the fruit.”

Jon Ruel
Napa, Calif.
Position: Director of viticulture & winemaking and chief operations officer
Winery: Trefethen Family Vineyards
Manages: 480-acre vineyard and 65,000-case estate winery
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College; master’s degree in enology from Northern Arizona University; master’s degree in viticulture from the University of California, Davis
Career harvests: Nine
Winemaking mentor: Tom Prentice, Crop Care

“Your original question was about how to make great wine, and I responded: ‘Buy the vineyard and farm it—or at a minimum, make friends with your grower and talk often.’

“My point is simply that great wine is made in the vineyard, and the more control you have over the vineyard, the more control you have over wine quality. The most control is certainly found at an estate winery, where the grower and winery are one and the same.

“That said, as with all things wine, there are many ways to skin this cat. For some wineries, owning and farming a vineyard is just not realistic, and there are many fantastic growers who focus on quality and have no interest in making wine.

“Napa Valley is full of success stories with these independent wineries and growers. Their shared success is a direct result of the ‘make friends and talk often’ approach. It’s critical that the winery and the grower build a long-term relationship that includes the basic elements of trust, communication and shared goals.”

He adds, “Keep lots separate to allow each a chance to develop before making blending decisions.”

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