I have all the tools to make great wine. I live on a vineyard surrounded by grapevines. I’ve planted, pruned, and picked grapes. I’ve helped vinify both small and large lots of wine. I taste and smell finished and unfinished wines almost every day. With all these tools at my disposal, inspired by this column, plus years working as a sommelier and life in a wine region where everyone is either a winemaker or married to one, I decided in 2016 that it was my turn.
After waxing poetic about wanting to make wine to anyone who would listen, a convenient offer came: tend a single acre of Zinfandel for one season, and I could have the grapes for free. Thrilled to have ownership over tasks I’d only watched, read, or written about, I snapped at the offer with the absolute gusto of a novice. But, as it turns out, truly caring for vines from start to finish is a lot of work, and being in charge is very different than occasionally helping out. What I came to learn through my disastrous first attempt at making wine is that no level of inspiration nor my experiences properly prepared me for this endeavor.
From March to August, I watched the vines grow, pruning dead branches, clipping off unnecessary shoots, netting the vines to protect them from vicious birds, and testing the sugar and acid levels of the fruit as harvest got closer and closer, and closer. It was meditative, calming work, until the sun was completely overhead, and then it became sweaty, uncomfortable work.
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But, I was going to be a winemaker! I was not giving up.
Through it all, I badgered my winemaker friends about what was happening in the vineyard. When should I pick? How vicious are the birds in your neighborhood? What are your thoughts on natural fermentations? Do I need to air condition my garage? Can I just ferment in buckets outside? Do you think I’m totally insane?
Luckily for me, they were generous with their advice. They all offered their hands, expertise, and even equipment when it came time to harvest. On Aug. 15, in six hours, we removed the netting and picked a whopping 2,000 pounds of grapes with the help of friends, their kids, my mom, and lots of Prosecco.
Now, I felt ready to turn these grapes into wine. I’d done this before, or I’d at least helped to do it before. So, like any avid wine lover, I ditched my shoes and jumped into my bins of Zin, crushing those grapes the old-fashioned way (an amazing workout, in case you’re wondering).
I decided the best way to ferment my wine was the simplest way — outside, in a shady area near my garage. At 3,300 feet of elevation, temperatures were warm in the day but cool at night, preventing the wine from fermenting too fast, but ensuring the yeast would have enough heat to turn grape sugar into glorious alcohol. I also chose natural fermentation, so I didn’t add any yeast or chemicals to my grapes, and instead let the native yeasts on their skins and in the air do the work.
After thorough stomping, I rigged a makeshift lid onto the bins I was using for fermentation with a plastic drop cloth and some duct tape (something professional winemakers do, too, for small lots). Then, I waited.
Like clockwork, and much to my happiness, the mixture started to bubble, indicating the start of fermentation.
“Glorious success! This is easy,” I thought.
Each day, I hopped back into the tanks for a quick stomp to mix the fermentation and keep the grape skins wet, a practice known as “punching down” in the biz. After each stomp session, I hopped back out, leaving bits of grape skin and juice splattered messily on the sides of my tank. That was my first mistake.
In a winery, punch downs happen a few times per day. Punching down both prevents bad bacteria from developing on the dry grape skins, and ensures the tannins and color from those skins are extracted into the wine. In my driveway, it was more like a once-a-day affair. That was my second mistake.
Beyond the bubbling of alcoholic fermentation, most of the magic of winemaking is invisible, or noticeable only on test strips or with fancy equipment. The development of volatile acidity, the compound that turns wine into vinegar and makes it smell like nail polish remover, is one of those things, and the exact bacteria I was cultivating with my laissez-faire winemaking attitude.
VA and other bacterias easily develop and multiply on dry grape skins (the cap I wasn’t punching down) or on dried bits of juice (the edges of my tank), and once they’re in a wine, they’re impossible to remove.
After 10 days or so, the bubbling diminished, showing signs that alcoholic fermentation was coming to an end. Curious, I grabbed a glass and stole some juice away from the skins and stems still in my bins. And that was when all of my previous mistakes were revealed.
Struck by the nail polish remover smell my time as a sommelier taught me to notice (and loathe) I threw a sample in a coffee mug and sped to a nearby winery.
“Joe, we need to test this now,” I said to friend Joe Coughlin, assistant winemaker at Sobon Estate in Amador County, California. “Is it that bad?”
He just laughed. Small amounts of bad bacteria like brettanomyces — the barnyard smell — or VA aren’t detectable in a finished wine, or can even add good character. But too much is a death sentence for most vino.
Like a good friend, Joe also gave me a pile of chemicals to add to the wine, super strong yeast cells, sulfur, and modified yeast proteins to help kill the bacteria and hopefully cover up the VA aromas and flavors.
I raced back home, added the correct proportions, called everyone I knew, and hoped. By “hoped” I mean got on a plane to Morocco, leaving the now-medicated wine to be moved into barrel by my loving boyfriend. All I could do was wait, right? No sense staying local, right?
Ask a winemaker if they’ve ever vacationed in September or October and you’ll get the answer. (Spoiler alert: It’s a “no.”)
Long since fermented to dryness and quietly aging inside the garage, we gave my Zinfandel another taste test in November. The best we could muster was, “I’ve had worse,” before dumping our glasses.
The wine was still riddled with volatile acidity, meaning it smelled like acetone and tasted about as good. There was a hint of fruit on the palate reminiscent of Zinfandel, but that hint fell far short of the wonky flaws and nail polish that dominated my first cuvée. Defeated, I dumped the wine after another month since there was no curing it of the nail salon tasting notes.
As my experience proved the hard way, there’s a reason most winemakers learn their skill with a university degree. While fermentation is a simple process, good winemaking simply is not. Most of the nuances of winemaking are invisible and microscopic, especially with natural wines. There might not be any visual indicators of a problem, and the aromatic indicators are minute, demanding that the stewards of vino be scrupulous and focused on their grapes from the field to the bottling line.
That also explains why most large wineries use a recipe for their fermentations, adding reliable yeasts and fermentation food to ensure their wines are clean and don’t go haywire like the Burgess Cuvée.
For now, I’ll raise a glass to the professionals and vow to be more meticulous, and vacation-free, in 2017.