The Courage to Do Nothing
by Jim Law
In past articles I have focused on the vineyard, as this is my greatest passion. To be quite honest, it takes a cold wet day to get me down in the cellar. Perhaps it is for this reason that I have fully embraced the philosophy of minimalist winemaking. I am currently in a transition period with my winemaking. I no longer have the same enthusiasm for the wines that I used to enjoy. In many cases this includes my own past vintages. I used to enjoy clean, fresh balanced wines that emphasized fruit. Now I look for wines with personality, texture, concentration and a sense of place. Over the past several years I have tasted, traveled and read extensively. I would like to first write about certain personal epiphanies that lead me to my noninterventionist winemaking philosophy. Then I will write about what I am doing, or more correctly, not doing.
In 1998 I had the opportunity to visit Tokaji as the guest of a winemaker who was responsible for a large, new, very well financed winery. His family also grew grapes and made wine in their centuries old cave. He was most excited and proud of the new high tech operation, which had the best of everything. In tasting the bottled wines it was apparent that he had taken advantage of every tool available to him. The wines were sterile and striped of any texture or personality. Later that day we visited the family operation located under his house. I have seen homewine making operations better equipped. After apologizing for the lack of polish and clarity of the wines, he poured some of the most expressive, layered, heady wines I have ever tasted.
One dinner at Chez Panisse confirmed everything I had read and heard about using the best ingredients and keeping it simple. Cooking has become a hobby from which I am constantly able to improve my winemaking skills. Understanding balance, texture, concentration are tactile skills that both chef and winemaker must possess. I have learned to depend on my palate to make my decisions.
Then there is cheese. I love unpasturized, aged artisan cheeses with lots of personality. I love the fact that so many Americans find them stinky and unattractive. I love France where there are professions and businesses whose only job it is to age cheese correctly before it is sold.
During the harvest of 1999 I took on a sharp, inquisitive intern who never stopped asking questions. Aware of my focus on producing wines of concentration he asked “Are you concerned about the water you add to the juice and fermenting wines?” My intern learned that you don’t make such allegations to a stressed out winemaker during harvest. After I calmed down and thought about it I realized that he had a point. It made me examine everything I was doing. Just during the early stages of winemaking I could be adding SO2, yeast nutrients, bentonite, gelatin, tartaric acid, pectic enzymes, yeast, or malolactic bacteria. Much of this was mixed with water, which was my intern’s concern. My concern was the other stuff.
My winemaking goal is to do as little as possible. It takes many vintages of learning to achieve this goal and I have only just begun. It is hard to break old habits. Mistakes can be extremely expensive. My philosophy encompasses two views. 1. In the vineyard everything we do is focused on getting balance, concentration and flavor into the wine. In the cellar we try to keep all that stuffing in the wine and not take it out. 2. Time gives wine stability and personality.
Procrastination is the grapegrower’s worst enemy and the winemaker’s best friend. Vineyard practices of meticulous canopy management and yield reduction give us the best raw ingredients. The better the ingredients, the less the winemaker has to do. One caveat in all this is the importance of finding the right grape for a given site. This is where Europe and in some cases the West Coast have a big advantage over most of the East. I’m heading in certain directions, but nowhere near proclaiming I’ve found Linden’s grape.
When I examined my winemaking practices, much of my work was based on taking something out of the wine. Settling and fining juice, racking, fining wine, cold stabilizing and of course filtration can take out good ingredients as well as bad. I am constantly analyzing how far the “do nothing” envelope can be pushed without getting into trouble.
Time often achieves the same goal as all the above mentioned practices. Fermenting and aging wines in the barrel on its lees will often give the harmony, stability and clarity that technological intervention tries to achieve in less time. I’ve been experimenting especially with chardonnays. The first summer I keep the wines in older barrels, on their lees with little or no SO2. Any residual sugar or malic acid ferments out during this time. Lees protects the wine from excessive oxidation and adds texture and complexity. I do admit to getting into reduction problems and now have a much better grasp on what the French mean by “healthy lees”. Barrel aging eliminates most protein stability problems and allows the wine to settle clear. With some Chardonnay I am experimenting aging 18 to 20 months in barrel. When I do rack I use a bulldog pup (pressurizing the barrel with N2 to transfer the wine). When I bottle without filtration I find that the wines are much more expressive in the bottle with much less “bottle shock”.
To bottle a wine that has a high risk of microbial spoilage (those with fermentable malic acid or sugar) without filtration is too risky for me to entertain at this point. Bottling wines that may drop sediment, however, is an acceptable risk for me. As more beverages are introduced on the mass market, such as fruit juices with “natural sediment”, I have found that my customers are accepting of wines that are less than perfectly clear. If they are properly informed. My favorite example of this is from the back label of Domaine Leroy in Burgundy: “This wine was bottled in the traditional way and may therefore contain a noble and natural sediment at one point in its evolution. This is a sign that the wine is alive; and to prevent the formation of sediment by filtration or any other means is to take away its life and character.”
As my business matures, the cash flow problems subside. Time is now on my side. This gives me the opportunity to make the wines the way I feel is best. My accountant has become less influential in the winemaking process. In Virginia, along with most other regions we are experiencing a winery boom like I have never seen before. These new wineries will go through the same cash flow cycles. They will need to get clean fruity wines to entry level consumers quickly. This will give me the freedom to make wine for the more experienced and adventurous wine enthusiasts.