Hubris - It’s Not Just For Icarus Anymore
Everything is always going really well until it’s not. I’m sure you recall what happened to Icarus when he inched too close to the sun. Well I too was defeated by my own hubris, and I fell hard. Let me preface this cautionary tale with the denouement. The 2010 Anderson Valley pinot is perfect. It smells and tastes delicious. This vino extraordinaire is currently resting comfortably in a Francois Freres barrel, and I have Clay and his team to thank. During the 2010 harvest, I experienced my own logrthymic phase. Like fermenting yeast, my learning curve exploded exponentially. For the first time I both made and implemented my own stylistic decisions. Sometimes I added water (with the ripest fruit), sometimes acid, sometimes both. I derived my own calculations and felt proud of my work. After three easy, quick, and seamless fermentations, I flaunted my experience like Teresa Giudice with a 12 carat cocktail ring. Only my fourth and final fruit lot awaited vinification. Allow me to set the scene: I was standing beside the delivery truck, waiting to sort my fruit. Brassy and smug, I said it aloud. In fact, I purposefully said it loud enough that my colleagues would hear. I said, “I’m not going to add anything this time. I am going to let the grapes work for me.”
Before you pass judgment, let me admit that I plagiarized the line. It was plucked nearly verbatim from a recent interview with a well known French winemaker. After espousing some version of the (very true but) ubiquitous “great wines are made in the vineyard” adage, he explained how meticulous, obsessive viticulture primes the grapes for low-intervention winemaking. Now, after 17 paltry days of harvest experience, I actually fancied myself that guy. And luck was on my side. The cool weather grapes from Anderson Valley would be harvested with more modest sugar levels, and my grower, Rich Savoy, is top dog in the region. He brings 30+ years of grape farming experience and a methodical, conscientious style to the proverbial table. I knew his grapes would look nearly perfect even if I fell asleep at the sorting table. And because those bunches did, I had the chutzpah to say it. When I ran the first chemistries on my juice, the initial numbers looked perfect. The truck sample measured brix=23.4°, TA=7.88 g/L, pH=3.34. Yawn...it would be like babysitting a sleeping baby. No work at all.
My non-intervention plan included judicious sulfur at the crusher (lowish average) and a five day, pre-fermentation cold soak sustained by daily dry ice infusions. I’d requested a 48 hour juice analysis from a commercial lab, since the vineyard is only in its second fruit bearing year, and I was curious about its nitrogen status. I received my results immediately following the weekend hiatus (Sunday closure), and the numbers were shocking. My pH had skyrocketed to pH=3.86, and my acid had all but disappeared (TA=4.55 g/L). The most excruciating zinger was that the lab couldn’t measure the sugar or nitrogen content, since according to their data, fermentation had already commenced. What??!! I hadn’t even added the yeast yet. How could this be happening? I felt my iPhone buzzing in my pocket. Clay confirmed the results with real world evidence. My grape skins had already formed a cap, and the bin smelled funky. Not good, mushroomy, damp earth funky but P-U, stinky smelly. Something was terribly wrong.
Clearly the “native” grape yeasts had initiated fermentation without my consent. All I could do now was inoculate the brew with my own yeast and hope my valiant population would overtake the offending buggers. With proper aeration, the stench would blow off, too. As the final pending lab results trickled to my inbox, the data grew ever more curious. The lab detected lactic acid- the by-product of secondary fermentation! Huh? Yeast doesn’t even possess the internal machinery to make that stuff. It has to come from bacteria, which I clearly hadn’t sanctioned either. A mixed bag of party crashers had infiltrated my bin, and I couldn’t even identify which vermin were to blame. Clay suggested some fancy microbiology to tease out exactly which pests had ravaged my all-you-can-eat sugar buffet. Their mug shot will surprise you.
Notice first that there’s basically no Brett (spoilage microbes famous for l’odeur du manure and barnyard stench) and minimal Acetic acid bacteria (potential vinegar). The other predators fall into two camps- yeast and bacteria. We’ll break it down in next week’s blog.
But most importantly please do remember, today this wine smells and tastes great. Thanks to speedy intervention and superlative, healthy grapes, my “good” yeast completed a clean, easy fermentation just 6 days later. But indulge me while we talk “wine pathology” so we can solve this wine caper together.