Flavor Magazine

April/May 2011

Why I Cook – a winemaker’s perspective

Jim Law

I have no memory of not cooking. Early in life, watching my mother prepare meals provided curious entertainment. Once my motors skills developed, I became her occasional sous chef. Chopping and sautéing onions was my first great culinary feat. Cooking has always been an important part of my routine, providing a daily therapeutic sense of accomplishment. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized how much it was contributing to my winemaking skills.

Cooking and winemaking have so many parallels that I cannot comprehend a progressive winemaker who does not cook. Experimenting with the blending of flavors and textures in the kitchen has resulted many epiphany moments related to winemaking. A winemakers gets but one harvest a year. Opportunities to learn and fine tune are endless in the kitchen.

Early on, my cooking experiences revolved around recipes. Purchases strictly followed an ingredient list. Over time, I found that following a recipe reminded me too much of college lab. It wasn’t fun. I was imitating someone else’s creativity. This was science based cooking with measurements, timers, and thermometers. I wasn’t learning, enjoying or relaxing.

Eventually I became comfortable creating a simple meal around one or two ingredients. It made me more aware and cognizant of techniques and flavor pairings. I was using my senses.

So how does this relate to winemaking? There are two schools of winemaking philosophies: science based vs. palate based. I am much more comfortable with palate based winemaking for the same reason that I stopped following recipes in the kitchen.

Winemaking involves one ingredient: grapes. That one ingredient is incredibly complex. Variety, soil, vintage and vineyard management all have a profound influence on the flavor and texture of this “raw ingredient”. Most of a winemaker’s important decisions are made within a time span of several days: from the decision of when to pick to how the juice will ferment. By tasting the grapes and observing skin and seed color, by using all senses, a game plan is devised as to how the wine will be made.

The same is true in the kitchen. Crunchy, freshly picked green beans from the garden need little intervention from the cook, but tough stringy ones that have been hiding in the refrigerator for days need to cook longer and have more intervention with other ingredients. Think about tomatoes, corn, and asparagus. An experienced cook knows how to do as little as possible when the ingredient shines, but also how to enhance when necessary.

When the right grape is grown in the right place, by the right person, winemaking becomes amazingly simple. When the grapes are not in natural balance, then the winemakers need to shift gears and intervene.

The most common seasoning in the kitchen is salt. Too little, and the food is bland. Too much and that’s all you taste. Just the right amount brings out the maximum flavor of the dish without tasting salty.

Oak is a winemaker’s salt. The best oak is the oak you can’t taste. A Chardonnay or red wine made skillfully in oak has more texture, complexity and integration than a wine made in stainless steel. The type of oak, age of the barrel, and amount of time the wine spends in oak all have a bearing on oak integration in wine.

Lees is the winemaking term for the yeast sediment that settles in a tank or barrel after fermentation. Wines aged on their lees (sur lie) gain palate weight and a certain yeasty, bread dough aroma and flavor that contributes to complexity. If the lees is of poor quality (resulting from rot in the grapes or a stressed fermentation), a wine aged sur lie can have an unpleasant aroma or taste of boiled cabbage, dirty socks or rotten eggs. The winemaker’s art is to understand how much lees influence (if any) is beneficial to a given wine.

In the kitchen, my lees equivalent would be truffle oil, asafetida, or fish sauce. If you smell these from the bottle they are frankly, disgusting, but adding just the right amount at the right time gives a dish subtle complexity.

Perhaps the greatest palate/balance challenge any winemaker has concerns extraction techniques and levels of red wines. This refers to the amount of flavor and tannins that come from the skins and the seeds before, during and after fermentation. The winemaker has to be mindful of the quality of tannins and style of the wine. Time (5 days up to 30+ days on the skins) and temperature (a cool 70F or a hot 90F) both play a major role in extraction.

Experienced cooks know that we need to slowly braise a lamb shank, but quickly sear a loin. Blanching vegetables followed with an ice bath keeps them green and fresh. Cooking time is measured in seconds for fresh picked in season corn on the cob and in minutes for corn purchased out of season.

Most of my important winemaking decisions come while tasting the grapes and imagining how I can bring out their best attributes and maintain balance in the resulting wine. This is what I have learned from cooking. Texture and flavor clarity in a dish or a wine come from experience and confidence.