Romance? Hardly...Glamour? No Way! 10 Things Winemaking Really Is!

I’m sure many of you have thought at some point, “Think I’ll get in to the winery business”. What could be better than living this idyllic life, and at the end of the day getting to enjoy a wonderful glass of wine that you created? Personally I would be hard pressed to argue against that thought, after all, I’ve been in this business for 40 years. Still, if you think that much anticipated end of the day comes as planned, or according to any kind of schedule, guess again. At the risk of sounding like I’m whining (pun intended), and as I stated above I’ve been at this for 40 years, I really do consider myself one of the truly fortunate people in that I can say day after day, “I get to go to work today!”

I quickly lost the notion of romance in what I do the first time I had to sink hundreds of vineyard posts in a new vineyard and the temperature topped out at 110 degrees. Or when I was pressed in to action to pick some Pinot Noir at the winery I was working at in the Russian River region of California and a whole box of Band-Aids wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the very sharp picking knife I was supplied with. Then what about glamour? Ask me that question during most any harvest time and I’m working on a stretch of 30 or more days with no days off and I’m averaging 16 hours or more every day. Again, I’m not trying to sound too whiny, I’m just trying illustrate #1 and #2 of my list below. So here goes, the 10 things that creating wine is really about.

#1 – Farming: This really is the core of what we do. If you’re going to have a winery at some point in the whole process you’re going to need grapes. Of course you can purchase grapes from somebody else that has a vineyard and let them do all that work but in the process you relinquish the control that drives the highest quality you might achieve. You certainly can purchase good grapes but if you want the best results you need to be the one that has the most serious stake in the game, and when it is your own vineyard you are more motivated by quality than cost containment or return. Then ask any good farmer, it doesn't matter what the crop is, farming is very, very hard work and wine growing is more labor intensive than just about anything else out there. Expect to be tired, dirty and sore at the end of the day. The bottom line is the better the quality of your raw materials the better your end product will be.

#2 – Dedication: Remember those long days I referenced above? Harvest isn't the only time you’ll put in crazy hours and effort, you need plenty of dedication to your vision and belief in what you are doing.

#3 – Patience: Wine growing has spawned many a cliché over the years and most really do express the realities of what we do. The French like to say when they plant a vineyard that they plant it for their grandchildren. True, vines have a very long lifespan capable of more than 100 years and as vines age the fruit tends to develop deeper, more complex character. The other cliché I like is that it takes 10 years for a winemaker to learn a vineyard. Because you get only one crop per year, and each year is going to be different in some way, it takes time and patience to learn the nuances of fruit character that all the different sections of any given vineyard has to offer.

#4 – Science: The broader, deeper and more detailed your understanding of the sciences related to making wine, the better. Organic chemistry is the major science employed in the making of wine but soil science, plant biology, plant pathology, microbiology, meteorology and others all have important roles to play in the process of turning raw open land in to a bottle of wine. The better understanding and grasp of any or all of these sciences allow you better control over the entire process. Which brings us to…

#5 – Control: Nowadays you here the term” non-interventional”, or “natural” applied to wine making, meaning do as little as possible to interfere with what would happen on its own. Sorry to be a bit of a stickler for trying to keep it real on this one, but even those that utter this term have to acknowledge the need for as much control over every step of the process as possible. To me control doesn't necessarily mean doing something, or not doing something, it means understanding the environments and processes every step of the way and doing all things possible to create and foster the likelihood your desired outcome will actually occur. Sometimes that means standing back and letting nature takes its course, sometimes that means applying a system, technique or action to move things toward your desired goal. As an example look at a grapevine, the only “natural” goal of a grapevine is to survive to the next year and producing seeds is their method of doing so. Allowed to grow without control may indeed allow it continue as a plant but will ultimately have negative consequences if you plan on making wine from its fruit. Pruning and training of the vine will direct its resources toward producing fruit of the quality and character desired by a winemaker. There are many pruning and training systems and you might use multiple systems throughout a single vineyard. Knowing the when, what, where, why and how of it all allows for control, and this applies to all that we do from vineyard to bottle. Then of course there is “Mother Nature” in her kindest and cruelest forms, sometimes you have no choice but to just roll with it.

#6 – Janitorial Skills: Sound a bit silly? Trust me on this one, it isn't. Actually this one falls under the control issue above but cleanliness and sanitation in a winery is so critically important that sometimes I joke it’s 70% of what we do, and is important enough to stand on its own as a category. Constant and complete cleaning and sanitation of all surfaces and equipment is your best measure against any unwanted component in wine. Spoilage yeasts, volatile acids such as acetic acid (vinegar) and many other nefarious little nasties are always looking for ways to sneak in to the winery. When it comes to these horrors of wine making a no tolerance approach is required. So clean it, clean it again… and by the way, even if you think it’s clean… clean it again. Remember what I said about glamour?

#7 – R & D: One of the greatest things about this business is there is always something new to learn. Winemakers are notorious for being tinkerers, we always want to know what if I changed this a little, or how about that, how about I change both at the same time? What’s the guy next door doing, what about on the other side of the planet? If I change this in the vineyard what will I find in the winery? The never ending quest to make better wine each and every year keeps us positively restless in the search for new ideas and tricks. Now go back to #3 and “find your balance grasshopper”.

#8 – Farming (again): Great wines truly are made in the vineyard.

#9 – Farming (yes, again): I know of nothing other than wine that better reflects the origin and quality of one’s efforts than the reflection of a vineyard in a bottle of wine. Except for our children, of course.

#10 – Life: Every wine is made up of a thousand details, all of which need to be governed by the philosophy of reaching toward developing an expression of place. What could be better than living this idyllic life, and at the end of the day getting to enjoy a wonderful glass of wine that you created?



Adam Satchwell   Shady Lane Cellars Winemaker and General Manager


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