The role of a winemaker is often a romanticized profession. One that may conjure up images of daily wine tastings and alluring vineyards. The truth is that winemakers manage an infinite number of variables and complexities to produce the wine in your glass. Ideally, understanding the intricacies of winemaking will deepen your appreciation for wine even further. Yet what happens behind a winery’s cellar doors can seem like a mystery. So, what don’t winemakers tell you about making wine?
First of all, winemaking is not a one size fits all profession. A winemaker’s responsibilities are determined by the type of winery at which he works. In order to fully grasp what happens behind the scenes, I spoke with a variety of winemakers from estate wineries, winery cooperatives, and a custom crush winery.
What’s the difference?
- Estate winery – wines are made entirely with grapes from vineyards owned by the winery and produced entirely on the winery’s property
- Cooperative winery – vineyard growers become members of the cooperative and sell their grapes to the winery. The winery produces, markets, and sells the wine. Most common in European regions with small average vineyard sizes and relatively low wine prices.
- Custom crush winery – a winery that offers contract winemaking services to clients. Services may include processing fruit, cellaring, blending, bottling, and laboratory analysis.
Winemaking During Harvest
Harvest is the busiest season in the winery. Literally, tons of grapes arrive for processing daily. Then the winemaking begins. Let’s peek behind the curtain of a winery’s most exciting time of year.
There Is No Secret Formula for Deciding When to Harvest
Deciding when to pick the grapes is one of the winemaker’s most important decisions. Pick too early and acidity might be too high, sugars not high enough, and tannins too green. Pick too late and you’ll have the opposite problems. All winemakers have a different approach to making the picking decision. Some rely on science, others rely on their senses, and some rely on both.
How an Estate Winery Decides When to Harvest
At an estate winery, the winemaker can walk the vineyards every day leading up to harvest. He assesses the grapes’ readiness by sight, touch, and taste while considering the following:
- How tough or thick are the skins?
- Are the seeds green (indicating unripe fruit) or brown?
- Do the grapes taste tart or sweet?
- Do the grapes taste good?
Adelaida Vineyards & Winery[ND1] produces wine from over 40 acres of estate owned vineyards in Paso Robles, CA. Assistant Winemaker Ryan Bosc says, “Pre-harvest, I am running pH, TA, and brix on vineyard samples to track ripeness. Mostly these numbers are great for historical tracking and data. We DO NOT pick based on numbers in the lab.”
Did You Know Winemakers Are Also Weathermen?
Adelaida’s Winemaker Jeremy Weintraub describes the start to his average harvest workday, “The first thing I do is read the weather. Then I read it again. Then again and again.”
Like all crops, vineyards are heavily influenced by changes in weather, especially during harvest. Heat spikes can mean excessive boosts in sugar, over ripeness, or raisined fruit. Rain can mean spoilage, mold, mildew or swollen berries. Temperature drops can bring frost that ruins crops. Winemakers must stay one step ahead of the weather in order to have a fruitful harvest.
How a Cooperative Winery Decides When to Harvest
At a cooperative winery, growers harvest their grapes once they meet specific parameters set by the winery. Antichi Poderi di Jerzu is a cantina sociale (‘cooperative winery’ in Italian) located in the province of Ogliastra in Sardinia, Italy. Currently, this winery has 450 members farming over 500 hectares of vineyards.
Winemaker Biagio Boi shares that the growers’ main goal is to produce grapes that adhere to the phytosanitary parameters (i.e. pH, brix, TA, etc.) imposed by the cooperative winery. The extent to which the growers meet these parameters determines what they are paid for their crops. Antichi Poderi di Jerzu employs Laore , an agricultural agency in Sardinia, to provide technical assistance to members in meeting said parameters.
The Grapes Arrive at a Custom Crush Winery
By nature of the business, a winemaker’s duties at a custom crush winery begin when the fruit arrives for processing. While they are not involved in picking decisions, custom crush winemakers have the benefit of exposure to fruit from multiple regions.
McLaren Vintners is a custom crush winery in McLaren Vale, South Australia that aims to crush around 6,000 tons of fruit annually. They process grapes from McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Langhorne Creek, Limestone Coast, and the Riverland. Winemaker Matt Jackman shares, “McLaren Vintners definitely allows for good exposure to the regions, varieties, and styles that… is unparalleled [in Australia]. This is my 8th vintage here and every year there are new things to learn.”
Winemakers Don’t Tell You About Their Logistical Expertise
So, the grapes arrive at the winery, now what? A few decisions need to be made based on the grape variety, the fruit quality, and the intention for the wine.
- Determine how the grapes will be processed
- Select a fermentation vessel
- Decide on an aging vessel
For example, Winemaker Sherman Thacher of his namesake Thacher Winery in Paso Robles often uses concrete tanks, terracotta amphora, and neutral barrels in order to preserve freshness in the wine.
Logistical organization prior to harvest is essential to ensure processing runs smoothly when harvest is in full swing.
An Estate Winery Perspective on Logistics
“During harvest, decision making is constant…and improvising is paramount, especially during a heat wave when things are moving quickly inside and outside of the cellar. We are constantly planning and re-planning the week ahead to try and prevent log jams…It starts with coordinating picks, deliveries, processing times, available tanks and fermenters, press times and getting wine to barrel. Sometimes it all works out, usually not. Sluggish or stuck ferments drive everyone crazy as they tie up much needed equipment and space.” – Sherman Thacher, Thacher Winery
A Custom Crush Perspective on Logistics
While a boutique estate winery may process 250 tons in an entire vintage, a large custom crush winery can process that amount of fruit in one day. A heavier daily production increases the importance of logistical organization.
“Juggling such an array of customers throughout the year can be a logistical challenge that is magnified at vintage…Vintage 2017 was a doozie. The site crushed over 6,500 tons… Logistically, it was a bit like going for your highest score in Tetris. In order to process more, [we had to do] things like packing together ferments that we don’t normally pack together. Or liberating back vintage oak batches to big tanks so that we could press other batches and put them to barrel. Sending bulk wine offsite also needed to be done. Obviously, all of this needed to be arranged and ok’d by customers as that’s part of the service.” – Matt Jackman, McLaren Vintners
Winemakers Are Master Decision Makers
In addition to producing wine, winemakers make a lot of decisions. They are constantly responding to changing variables as they guide the winemaking process from vineyard to bottle. Tasting and smelling the wine throughout fermentation and aging is crucial. This allows winemakers to monitor the progress of the wine and to intervene as soon as possible if there is a problem.
As Adelaida’s Winemaker Jeremy Weintraub illustrates, “I pay attention to the way a must is tasting in the fermenter: How does it smell? Does it need air? What’s the temperature? … How does the wine taste? Should it get another punch down or pump over? Should it be pressed sooner rather than later? I look at brix and temperature for every fermenter, every day.”
Below are additional considerations often made by winemakers.
Winemaking Considerations for an Estate Winery
Simone Sedilesu is the winemaker and owner of Cantina VikeVike[ND1] in Mamoiada, Sardinia. This region produces one of the best expressions of Cannonau, Sardinia’s most planted red variety. Simone’s decisions focus on producing elegant, fresh wines that showcase his vineyard sites and do not require extensive aging.
“My wines are the offspring of the vineyards. From a young vineyard (15 years old) my easy-to-drink “base” Cannonau is born. This wine can be consumed young, but ages very well thanks to its high acidity. The old vine vineyard (100+ years old) is used to produce my reserve. This is a wine that shows best after 3 or 4 years of aging and has more complexity than the other.” – Winemaker Simone Sedilesu, Cantina VikeVike
Winemaking Considerations for a Cooperative Winery
Cantine di Orgosolo is a cooperative winery located in the village of Orgosolo in Sardinia, Italy. Winemaker Angelo Corda works with 19 members who each farm around 1-3 hectares of vineyards. Cannonau is the main variety planted in Orgosolo. Angelo shares his main winemaking consideration, “Our Cannonau must be as similar as possible to traditional Cannonau made in Orgosolo.”
How does Angelo achieve this? He allows for spontaneous fermentation on native yeasts present on the grape skins. Angelo says, “Working with these types of yeasts is more difficult because they are more unpredictable, but they certainly give us results that lead to a greater characterization of our product.”
Further south in Sardinia, cooperative winery Antichi Poderi di Jerzu is the main company in the region of Ogliastra. This cantina sociale is one of the historic wineries on the island. The winery provides employment for many families within the region. Winemaker Biaggio Boi recognizes that his role means being responsible for the income of many families who provide their crops to the winery year after year. Biagio affirms, “With a deep respect for our partners, I feel their sacrifices on my shoulders and I recognize that, if after 70 years the company continues to grow, it is thanks to them.”
Winemaking Considerations for a Custom Crush Winery
At a custom crush winery, the winemaker is focused on achieving the goals of each individual client. McLaren Vintners’ Winemaker Matt Jackman emphasizes the importance of building relationships with customers (other winemakers) in order “to learn more about the individuality of a vineyard or wine style for a brand…At times we are simply messengers that ensure processing instruction is carried out to our customers’ expectations.” At other times, they may have more leeway.
Winemaking Throughout the Year
While the majority of physical winemaking mainly occurs during the 2-3 months of harvest, winemakers are busy throughout the year. What do they do outside of harvest? Here are some examples:
- Ensure wines complete malolactic fermentation
- Determine final blends with wine blending trials
- Bottle wines
- Vineyard management – pruning, vine training, canopy management, etc.
Mid-Growing Season at an Estate Winery
“We are outside a lot this time of year. The vineyards need to be closely monitored. We will be suckering, shoot thinning, leafing, cluster dropping/thinning, watering our non-dry farmed blocks, and checking for problems, such as mildew. As we approach harvest, we will start to check sugar, pH, and acid levels.” – Winemaker Sherman Thacher, Thacher Winery
Winemakers Don’t Have a Perfect Recipe for Wine
There is no perfect recipe for making wine. Considering the infinite number of variables in the winemaking world, how could there be? Although, each winemaker has his own methods for creating the ideal blend.
Often times, even wines that are made from a single variety, like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, must still be blended. Winemaker Sherman Thacher explains, “We blend almost all of our wines as even single varietal wines are often broken up into lots from different vineyards, picks, oak regimens, and fermentations.” The winemaker will eventually blend the numerous lots together to produce the final single-varietal wine, just as he would blend a wine made from multiple varieties.
While some wineries may aim to produce wines with the same flavor profile year after year, others focus on showcasing individual vintages. Adelaida Winemaker Jeremy Weintraub illustrates the latter, “After tasting every barrel [with the Assistant Winemaker] I grade them, starting with the vineyard block that was picked right down to the barrel itself. There is no recipe, however. I want every vintage to speak for itself. I’m not trying to make the most ‘consistent product’ every year. Quite the opposite. I don’t want the wines to be as predictable as a McDonald’s hamburger. No offense to McDonald’s.”
Blending trials vary in frequency depending on the winery. Once the final blend has been made, the blended wine is first racked back into tank and later returned to barrels to age for months before bottling.
A Winemaker’s Job Isn’t Over Once the Wine Is Made
Following a period of aging, the wine is ready to be bottled. Yes, winemakers are responsible for getting the wine safely into bottles, too. Some wineries have their own bottling line onsite. Others may use a mobile bottling service. Wineries with a very small production may bottle the wine by hand with manual machinery.
Bottling at an Estate Winery
Adelaida Vineyards & Winery produces around 160,000 bottles of wine per year. Assistant Winemaker Ryan Bosc says, “We bottle three times a year – January, April, and June. Spring is spent composing blends and wines that will be bottled at the end of April.” By summer, they are doing blending trials for the June bottling.
Bottling at a Cooperative Winery
At Antichi Poderi di Jerzu, bottling is a year-round job. Not only because the production is so large, but also because Sardinia is a huge tourist destination. The bottlings must support the great demand from restaurants around the island during the booming tourist season.
“Today our cellar…produces over 2,500,000 bottles. To support this number, we bottle almost every day from Monday to Friday and it is the winemaker’s daily routine to prepare wine for bottling the following day.” – Winemaker Biagio Boi, Antichi Poderi di Jerzu
Bottling at a Custom Crush Winery
A custom crush winery sees significantly more bottling action throughout the year because they are making wine for numerous customers. Those customers then have commitments to delivering wine to several markets worldwide, for which the winery must provide.
“The whole year (yes, even during vintage) our customers have markets they have commitments to delivering to, so there is not a lot of respite to blending and bottling wines. Most of the year we would send out 5-10 wines per week to bottle, but in spring (following 18 months maturation/storage in oak) we have our busiest period of bottling the previous year’s red wine.” – Winemaker Matt Jackman, McLaren Vintners
A Winemaker Won’t Tell You That Great Wine Is Made in the Cellar
Making great wine from bad grapes is virtually impossible. Winemakers recognize that truly great wines are made in the vineyard. At Cantina VikeVike, Winemaker Simone Sedilesu feels fortunate that he is able to work the vineyards himself and assure that only the best grapes arrive in his cellar. Simone says, “Over the years I have learned that 80% of the work is done in the vineyard. Winemaking is a crowning achievement of a whole year’s work.”
Variations in vineyard sites provide for the diversity in wine that we all know and love. When a winery mainly focuses on the production of handful of varieties, or even just one variety, distinctive vineyard sites are of the utmost importance.
“Even though [we work with] mostly Cannonau, it is fair to say that each micro zone…manages to give its own imprint to the grapes and this is then remarked in the finished wine. Equally true is that the age of the vineyards has its weight; smaller productions give more concentrated fruits and a wine with marked differences.” – Winemaker Angelo Corda, Cantine di Orgosolo
Winemakers Don’t Know Everything About Making Wine
For many winemakers, the unexpected challenges and vintage variations are what keep the job so interesting. Winemaker Biagio Boi of Antichi Poderi di Jerzu reveals, “ The harvests have always been different from each other and this is also what makes the world of wine fascinating – the variables are so many that they can never be repeated.”
(H3) Don’t Knock It Until You’ve Tried It
Experimentation is a big part of making wine. Many winemakers draw inspiration from winemaking practices currently used in other wine regions around the world and even from historical techniques.
This is what Adelaida’s Winemaker Jeremy Weintraub did when he tried pigeage for the first time. Pigeage[ND1] is the traditional, age-old practice of grape stomping in open fermentation tanks as a form of punching down grape skins during fermentation. In doing so, Jeremy learned that, “You can break the berries without breaking the seeds, you can feel the health of the fermentation by the heat being generated, and you keep your feet in tradition.”
Winemaker Sherman Thacher points out what may seem unusual is often commonplace elsewhere. In the case of carbonic maceration, for example, which is common practice in Beaujolais and not seen as often in California. This is a technique Sherman uses for fermenting small lots intended for blends. Though last vintage, he did so on a batch of whole-cluster Valdiguié. After covering the grapes in a layer of CO2, the tank was sealed and left for five weeks. The wine was then basket pressed and moved to neutral puncheons to complete malolactic fermentation. “The result was a bright, lightly colored red wine with an amazingly fruity nose,” says Thacher.
Winemakers Are Wary of Climate Change
Mother Nature is the ultimate CEO of the wine industry. She provides us with grapes, then winemakers turn them into wine. Though winemakers are witnessing the effects of climate change with every passing vintage.
At Antichi Poderi di Jerzu, Winemaker Biagio Boi says, “Despite my young age, I can say that the real challenge in the vineyards as well as in the cellar will be to live with climate change. The risk is that in the coming years we will find ourselves working more and more with ‘unbalanced’ grapes.”
Winemaker Angelo Corda of Cantine di Orgosolo gave a few examples of how climate change has influenced recent vintages. In 2017, they faced “perhaps the hottest year of the century, with maximum temperatures that exceeded 40°C in August and an extraordinary drought.” This resulted in a challenging early harvest and grapes at extremely high sugar levels.
The next year, Angelo faced heavy rains in August and September at ten times the normal level. Harvest was delayed by 2-3 weeks because the vines were having trouble bringing the fruit to maturity. In the current 2020 vintage, following a brief winter season, bud break was a month in advance, running the risk of “freezing in April, which can ruin the whole development process.”
What Can Winemakers Do About Climate Change?
- Delay pruning to delay bud break and limit the risk of damage in the spring
- Use drought tolerant rootstocks
- Plant varieties that can take the heat, such as Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Mourvèdre
- Plant vineyard rows in an orientation that protects against sun exposure
- Install micro-sprinklers to combat low moisture content in the air