Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
December 3, 2008
The sun is setting on late a fall afternoon at Spring Mountain Vineyard. Inside the winery, Jac Cole and Leigh Meyering, winemaker and assistant winemaker respectively, are laboring over one of the critical aspects of modern day winemaking: paperwork.
Each month, every bonded winery in America that has on hand at least 60,000 gallons of wine must submit a form to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or the TTB for short. TTB is a division of the U.S. Treasury Department (yes, Henry Paulson’s domain) and its main responsibilities are, and I quote from their website, “protecting the public and collecting the revenue.” Emphasis on part two.
The form, called the “Report on Wine Premises Operations,” is commonly referred to as the “702” in the industry, but in its infinite wisdom the TTB has renumbered the former 702 and it is now officially Form 5120.7. It is basically a two-page spreadsheet that calls for wineries to account for any and all movements of wine on the premises during the given reporting period. Smaller wineries are not exempt from filing the 702 (let’s stay old school on this), but they are only required to submit quarterly or yearly depending upon the amount of wine they produce.
While I said paperwork, the realty is that much of the wine business is based on the use of computers. On this day, Jac and Leigh are installing a new product from a company called Orion Wine Software that will, among other things, help to streamline the process of filing the monthly 702. Orion, a company that specializes in producing software for wineries, has programs that allow winemakers to do a myriad of other tasks on the computer as well, from tracking each barrel using barcodes, doing cost analysis based on harvest yields, and even creating “virtual blends” prior to the actual blending process.
“You end up spending more time in front of a keyboard and computer screen,” Jac notes, “but it really does give you a greater ability to pay attention to detail and that allows me to use a little bit more creativity.” As is the case in just about every industry, the emergence of information technology has changed the day-to-day lives of winemakers.
But Jac and Leigh did not become winemakers to create spreadsheets, and Jac’s demeanor perks up when he begins to discuss the malolactic fermentation, or secondary fermentation, that is currently in process in the barrels just outside his at Spring Mountain office.
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By the end of November, all of this year’s harvest had undergone primary fermentation (where yeast had turned the grape sugars into alcohol) and had been transferred to the oak barrels, where they will age anywhere from one to two years. When the wines are pumped into the barrel, they will have a naturally occurring amount of malic acid, a hard, somewhat bitter acid that has the taste of green apples.
In some white wines, such as Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, this acid is beneficial in that it helps to keep the flavors of the wines crisp and fruity. But most red wines and Chardonnay benefit from a softening of the acid and a reduction of the bitterness.
That’s where ML, as malolactic fermentation is known, comes in. The goal is to change the bitter malic acid into a softer, smoother acid called lactic acid. This is accomplished by introducing lactic acid bacteria into the wine. At Spring Mountain, this bacteria is purchased in a freeze-dried form, reconstituted in wine and then simply poured into the barrels themselves where the process of de-acidification, or the transformation of the malic acid to lactic acid, occurs over a period of around two weeks. During this time, the wines are constantly monitored to ensure that the ML is working according to plan. If all goes well, the result will be a more rounded, polished wine that is smooth on the palate and devoid of any bitterness.
An interesting offshoot of the ML process, depending upon the strain of the bacteria used, can be the development of a buttery aroma and flavor that is the result of a chemical called diacetyl, which is a natural by product of fermentation. Many California Chardonnays are known, some favorably, others less so, for the “buttery” character of the wines. It is the ML that is responsible for this.
Chemistry, accounting, computer skills, farming. The skills required in contemporary winemaking are varied and complex.
Much like the final wines that go into Spring Mountain’s annual releases.