It’s been said, “You can take the boy out of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.” I found this to be true when I recently visited Sonoma in California wine country. Instead of rows of corn, I saw rows of grape vines running through the lowlands and wrapping around the hillsides. Growing grapes is agriculture, and being exposed to this process was especially interesting to me.
My experience came from growing grain (corn, oats, wheat, milo, etc.), and we were primarily interested in yield. It was bushels per acre, and the higher the yield the more profitable it was. In Sonoma yield is only part of what appears to be a much more complicated equation. To explain the reasons for this I need to give a bit of history.
Grapes have been grown in California since the early 1800s. Immigrants who enjoyed wine in their native lands wanted to enjoy it here, so they planted grapevines. It was found that certain areas of California were perfect for growing grapes. It didn’t become an important industry until after the repeal of prohibition. At that time several companies started to make and bottle wine. It was basically a sweet wine and not of a good quality. Farmers would sell their grapes to companies like Italian Swiss Colonies and Carlo Rossi, and the wine would be processed and bottled mainly in jugs. To the grape farmer, yield was much more important than quality.
In the middle of the 20th century several of the vintners wanted to make wine in more of a European fashion, so they started importing and growing vines from France and Italy. Varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, Chardonnay, and merlot were introduced. There was very little demand for specialization at this time, so oftentimes the farmer’s crop of specialized grapes would end up being sold to the jug wine companies so farmers could make ends meet.
Varietals started to catch on in the late sixties and early seventies, and the quality of their wines increased dramatically. California achieved almost overnight status as a producer of excellent wines as a result of the Judgment of Paris, where in 1976 a blind tasting pitting French wines against the California wines resulted in the California wines winning in each of the red and white categories. The demand for their wines went through the roof, and this launched the California wine industry to superstar status.
As the wine companies expanded, they purchased plots of land that oftentimes weren’t adjoining. The new plots might even be located in a different appellation (a legally defined area with a distinctive combination of soil, climate, and identifiable regional wine character). The growers noticed that the same varietal plantings could produce different tasting grapes depending on where they were planted, so instead of combining all of their grapes together, they processed and bottled the grapes from certain plots separately, giving each varietal more specialization.
For example, chardonnay grapes grown in the Russian River Valley may have a much different taste than grapes that were grown in the Chalk Hill region even though the plantings were the same. They could take the higher quality fruit and bottle it separately, and label it as a “Reserve” wine with the winery’s plot designation or appellation appearing on the label. The fruit of lesser quality was then added to their general wine production which didn’t have the reserve designation. Note: Wine quality is a subjective determination, and oftentimes the word “Reserve” is used in marketing the wine rather than being a quality indicator. Be suspicious on any bottles labeled as “Reserve” if they are selling under $20.
There are many other variables that determine the finished product. Sometimes the vintners have no control over them. Wine generally likes warm days and cool nights, but the conditions may vary. Many times a crop that has been stressed by high temperatures or drought will actually lead to a better tasting wine.
For the most part the vintner can determine the general outcome of the wine. Such things as vine spacing, orientation of the rows, exposure to sunlight, pruning, leaf pulling to affect canopies, and dropping developing clusters of grapes so the remaining clusters will be of a higher quality affect the final product. Scientific techniques also play a large role. Such things as precision farming, irrigation amounts, maceration techniques, fermentation processes, and soil mapping can help growers produce a crop of higher quality.
Much of it is simply based on the instincts of the vintner. When to pick the grapes is a major decision. They need to be physiologically mature, and not a day sooner or later. Also, the length of time a wine should be stored is important. If it should be stored in steel vats or oak barrels, and if oak barrels, what kind of oak needs to be decided. In the final blending process the decisions of the vintner regarding the wine’s balance will determine the taste of the wine for that vintage.
When to release the wine to consumers is another decision that has to be made. The vintner might also recommend to the purchaser how long the wine should be “aged” before it is opened and the date by which it should be consumed.
The final decisions are made by us – the consumer. We need to decide when to open the bottle, how long to decant it, at what temperature to serve it, what glassware to use, what food to pair it with (over 80% of wine is consumed with food), and probably the most important decision of all, who to drink it with. In the words of Clifton Fadiman, “A bottle of wine begs to be shared; I have never met a miserly wine lover.”
Other quotes involving wine:
“Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”
“If Bacchus ever had a color he could claim for his own, it should surely be the shade of tannin on drunken lips, of John Keat’s ‘purple-stained mouth’, or perhaps even of Homer’s dangerously wine-dark sea.”
“I get refill number three or four and the wine is making my bones loose and it’s giving my hair a red sheen and my breasts are blooming and my eyes feel sultry and wise and the dress is water.”
“As we hypnotically watch the steadily diminishing reserve of sand in life’s hourglass, the instincts of a miser surface. Life is now savored, sipped as with a fine 19th Century French wine.”
Joe L. Wheeler
“Men are like wine – some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age.”
Pope John XXIII
“Age appears best in four things: old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and old authors to read.”