This recent article by Zachary Sussman in Punch provides a much needed corrective to what has become a cliché that winemakers do nothing except let the grapes express themselves.
Even those of us who prefer our wines to be made with a lo-fi approach know full well that wine doesn’t make itself. Even the most minimally invasive scenario still involves skillful mediation. David Lillie, of New York’s Chambers Street Wines, sums this up well, recalling a quote from the Jura winemaker Pierre Overnoy: “Making natural wine isn’t so easy—you don’t just decide not to add sulfur and then go take a vacation.
The ideology that a winemaker is nothing but a custodian was useful in drawing a contrast with mass-produced, industrial wines or wines made according to a recipe intended to get big scores. What goes on in the vineyard is crucial to making good wine. But that vineyard work requires a lot of understanding and expertise. And once the grapes arrive in the winery making good wine requires meticulous care and watchfulness. If you’re not going to use chemicals and whiz bang filtration technologies to correct flaws then you better make sure you understand what’s going on in your fermentation tanks.
There are countless decisions that have to be made in the vineyard and in the winery about how to process the grapes, when to move on to the next stage, and about when those processes are complete that mean every wine has the stamp of the winemaker on it, if only because it’s their personal taste that governs these decisions.
Jason Brandt of Berkeley’s Donkey and Goat digs into just one aspect of winemaking, how the grapes are pressed:
First off, before we even load the grapes into the press, we sort them, which not everyone chooses to do, and then you have a slew of decisions on how to use the press, which are all really impactful, especially on the whites,” Brandt explains. He continues to describe “the various programs you can use to increase the pressure on the grapes,” specifying his preferred method of “slowly increasing the pressure, holding it for five minutes and then increasing it again, which is one way to get the extraction you want.” Then there’s the matter of how many turns the press should complete—“I’m not a big fan of having to press-turn, actually, since I think you get flavors that aren’t as interesting or consistent with what we want”—and how long to run it.
This is before we get to issues such as fermentation temperatures, macerations, wine stability, battonage, and aging decisions all governed by the tasting acuity and preferences of the winemaker. The physical activity of winemaking is basically about carrying out logistical strategies, racking wine, moving barrels around and freeing up space. But the intellectual component is really about taste and that involves a creative interpretation of the grapes, vineyard, winemaking equipment and consumer preference.
Without that interpretation you have plonk or vinegar.