From Grape to Wine
By Emily Towe
Summer Solstice, Los Alamos, California
Each year before the longest day ends, my husband, Jody, and I celebrate our wedding anniversary here, in the vineyard. The sun falls, slowly, while we watch the west wind sweep the rows of vines from which we will make wine. The grapes are small and hard and green still; their time is yet to come. Today is about the light. The vines reach over undulating hills, leaves unfurled and tendrils stretched to the sky, up toward the last ethereal bits of glow. We rejoice with them in summertime’s unbridled growth energy, before the ripening and harvest ahead.
In life, the rhythms of nature will guide our way and give us what we need, if we listen and allow. Working with farming and agriculture, we are especially bound to these rhythms through the seasons of the year. Jody and I consciously choose to honor and respect them in our winemaking practices, as well, making the wines naturally, without any unnecessary interventions in the vineyards or winery.
What’s In Your Wine?
Wine grapes, grown in the right places and tended properly, contain a perfect balance of sugar, acidity, and natural yeasts at ripeness. Under a winemaker’s watchful eye and careful hand in the cellar, the grapes will naturally ferment into wine with nothing added or taken away, as the native yeast on the grape skins converts the fruit’s sugar into alcohol. Certainly, human intervention and attention is always necessary in the work of bringing grapes to wine; if you simply left the fruit on the vine, or ignored it in the winery after picking, there would be no wine as we know it. Wheat can become bread only by way of the baker, but just as an artisan sourdough loaf barely resembles a factory-produced bag of white sandwich slices, wine made using natural, noninterventionist principles is quite different than what most conventional wineries produce.
It comes as a surprise to many that a lengthy number of additives and processing aids are legally permitted, and broadly used, in wine production. None, with the exception of the preservative sulfur dioxide, are required to be listed on the label in the US. Vegetarians and vegans have no way of knowing whether the wine they buy from a supermarket shelf was treated with egg whites, gelatin, or isinglass (fish bladder), all of which can be used to clarify the appearance of finished wine. Genetically modified wine yeast is now available to wineries, along with myriad laboratory-engineered yeast strains developed to control fermentations, while also adding specific flavor and mouthfeel profiles to wines. Before fermentation, grapes may be machine-heated nearly to boiling to extract color and flavor, using a process called thermovinification. Wines made from overripe fruit can be run through reverse-osmosis to reduce alcohol. These are just a few of the allowable interventions in winemaking.
While we didn’t start our life together with the idea of making wine, Jody and I have always had a bit of a stubborn do-it-yourself ethos, and a penchant for doing what felt natural and sensible (to us, anyway), especially when it came to what we put into our bodies. In high school, we’d skip the fast food spots and meet at the local hippie café. In college, we relinquished our cafeteria cards to cook in a tiny kitchen, saving money to buy the best balsamic vinegar we could. When we married, we planted a garden, grew carrots and lettuce and onions and watermelons; we mourned over the brussels-sprout stalks devoured by whitefly. I gave birth to our children at home, and later, made them baby food of puréed greens and homegrown peaches. Our 4-year-old daughter knew plenty about food chemicals; she would politely inquire if a friend’s proffered snack contained any “hydrog-a-mated oils.” It all just seemed like a natural way to live. Sensible.
Our winemaking adventures began in our 10th year of marriage, when we tasted a singular wine from a singular California vineyard site about which we knew nothing, except that we had to go see it; see why this wine tasted of a place like no other, somewhere that spoke to us from the bottle as a place we had to set foot, and learn more. (Sensible, perhaps, this was not. But fate, it truly was.)
At that vineyard, that place, we learned the craft of small-production winemaking. We learned by spending as much time at the winery and among the vines as possible, by getting our hands dirty throughout the seasonal, rhythmic, transformative process: buds into leaves, flowers into fruit, fruit into wine, wine maturing in barrels. We were there when the grapes were picked, and when the wines were put into bottle. We learned how that special site, and others, offered different expressions in different vintages, influenced by all that comprises a growing season. What astonished us about the vintage differences was that the particular site-sense, the terroir, was always identifiable in the wines – if the winemaker allowed it to shine, rather than imprinting a personal “style” through interventional techniques. (The winery was run by two partners who often had very different ideas about how they wanted to make their wines; as a result, we experienced the natural, the conventional, and most everything in between.)
Watching and tasting the trajectory of these wines, from start to finish, gave us an education in the important day-to-day aspects of craft winemaking. What held the most appeal for us was the attentive, but surrendered, path of gently guiding fruit to reach its inherent potential. It was joyous even when it was mundane (an oft-repeated joke is that 90 percent of good winemaking is janitorial work), and it connected us to the cycle of growing and making things in a beautiful new way.
We were in love with it all, with the inspiration nature provided, and the infinite possibilities. It gave us the thought that perhaps we could make our own wine together; wine to transparently tell the story of a vineyard and a growing year, and so we decided we would.
Commodity vs. Craft
Energized at the knowledge that the days were now numbered before the time would come to make the wine, we set out to meet and talk to all sorts of winemakers about the project we were undertaking. One day, a winemaker we’d just met handed us a thick, glossy catalog from a chemical company with the confident announcement, “You’re going to need this. It’s the winemaking bible.”
The “winemaking bible” offered hundreds of pages of products for sale, all intended for use in turning grapes to wine. So many cultured yeast strains were listed, each sounding straight out of Willy Wonka’s factory: this one gives passionfruit aromas to Sauvignon Blanc, and this one, maximum vanilla to Merlot! (You’ll also need these powdered nutrients to feed your chosen yeast.) Liquid tannins will firm up a wine’s too-soft mouthfeel; mesh bags of oak chips will quickly give a wine barrel-aged qualities; bags of acid powder can add zing to a “flabby” wine; and so on. It made my head spin a bit, like walking down the bottled salad-dressing aisle at the grocery store: Why are there all these things that no one really needs?
But of course, there is a huge market for cheap commodity wine, just as there is for processed foods. To meet that demand, those wines are factory-made in a certain way. In the same fashion as cans of soup that span the shelves in every supermarket, large-scale wine is expected to be broadly appealing, shelf-stable, and above all, consistent. How does one ensure absolute consistency? Not only by following a recipe, but also by mitigating the influence of nature’s inevitable variances, adjusting the ingredients so that they give the same result, every time. Many smaller wineries seek the same end goal: a reliable, predictable product their customers will return to again and again, on the basis that (while they do not know what chemicals may have been used to make it), they know it will be the same as the last bottle. This is why the “winemaking bible” exists. Its laboratory-created items offer to remove the sometimes-risky guesswork and intuition that winemaking, as a craft, otherwise requires.
That was not the kind of life we wanted to live. That was not the kind of wine we wished to make.
Stories of the Seasons
And so, we put the catalog in the recycling bin, and we started with grapes, grown high on a mountaintop without pesticides, herbicides or chemicals. We spent many days among them as they turned from tiny and green, to pink and slightly softened, to delicious, juicy purple. On picking day, we awoke in the darkness, and drove a truck to the vineyard, arriving before sunrise. As the light became just enough to see, we walked the rows and pulled brown leaves away from the ripe clusters while the crew wielded shears in a fast-motion blur, separating the bunches of grapes from the vines, dropping them into half-ton bins. We would cover those bins with sheets upon which our children once slept, drive the precious fruit back to the winery, and shepherd it carefully on its natural journey into wine.
We have done this for ten seasons now, adding vineyards and varieties along the way, driven by the goal of translating the whole of a growing year, from a noble site, into a bottle of honest wine that tells the story of its place.
Every year has been different, with varying amounts and intensities of rainfall, frost, wind patterns, heat spells, sunshine, and clouds. Every wine has been different, a story unique to the sum of every single day of the seasons. Our hearts have soared: the wines resonated with people who became dear friends as a result, and with those who helped our dream become reality, bringing the project out of our imaginations and into the marketplace. And our hearts have broken: a crop lost to drought, a bottling that disappointed, a winery that no longer stands in that place where we learned to make wine; its presence there ended by the frailty of human relationships.
For Jody and me, it is a gift and an honor to take the minutes and moments and span of days that weave together a lifetime – the bitter and the sweet – and to taste them through the specter of nature, and the prism of vineyards. Even greater is the honor to be able to share this work with others. Captured in a bottle, these natural seasons of our lives, and the natural truth of the wines: they are one and the same.
The solstice sun shines. The story continues.
SEEKING OUT NATURAL WINE
While there isn’t a universally accepted definition of the term “natural wine,” most agree on these minimum basics:
Grapes grown organically, or without the use of chemicals or pesticides;
Fermented into wine with only the yeast naturally present on their skins, with no additions of laboratory-cultured yeast, nutrients, and/or bacteria; and
Little or no added sulfur dioxide. This is a naturally occurring compound that occurs in the winemaking process, but it also usually is added in the winery as a preservative to reduce unwanted bacteria on grapes, and/or protect finished wine from the potential of spoilage in the bottle. The label must state “Contains Sulfites” if the concentration is more than 10 parts per million. (By US law, wine can contain no more than 350ppm; dried fruit usually contains about 3,500ppm.)
If you are interested in wines made with minimal intervention, the best way to discover them is to ask your local independent wine merchant. Try a few from different regions — you may have some local wineries working this way, if you live in wine country. (If not, your wine shop should be able to point you toward small, naturally-minded bottlings from France, Italy, California, and elsewhere.)
Originally published in Comestible Issue 2