A lot of wine lovers fantasize about someday becoming winemakers, but I can tell you honestly that I’m not one of them. Although I do love to spend time walking amongst the vines, sampling wines, and trying to imagine how they might evolve down the road, there are far too many aspects of the job that would make me crazy.
First, there’s all that cleaning. Ask any winemaker, and he or she will tell you that much of the job -- way more than you’d think -- involves the constant hosing down or otherwise sanitizing of tanks, barrels, equipment, floors, etc. And then there’s that whole chemistry/science aspect.
If you really want to get a feel for the sort of work winemakers get up to on a day-to-day basis, get your hands on a copy of Vineyard & Winery Management magazine and check out Tom Payette’s “Wine Tech” column. In his May/June column, Tom -- a Virginia-based winemaker and consultant -- details the steps for testing for and correcting pH levels in wine. The process takes place not in a picturesque wine cellar, but a sterile laboratory setting, and requires all manner of scientific equipment and painstaking precision. Every time I read one of Tom’s articles, I say to myself: Man, I’m glad I’m not a winemaker.
Just thinking about all the variables that winemakers face from the vineyard to the bottle makes my head spin. They have a multitude of options to consider in terms of clones, yeasts, winemaking equipment, cellar practices, barrels, toast levels, and on and on. Deciding on the right combination usually involves years of experimentation -- and I just don’t have that kind of patience.
I was reminded of this recently, while having lunch with two terrific winemakers from Duckhorn Wine Company’s Anderson-Valley-based operations: Neil Bernardi of Migration and Zach Rasmuson of Goldeneye winery. (Migration was originally a part of Goldeneye, but it became a stand-alone brand in 2009.) The occasion for our meeting was the launch of the first Chardonnay in Duckhorn Wine Co.’s 30-year history: The 2008 Migration. While we munched and tasted, Bernardi and Rasmuson talked about the process of creating this new wine.
Duckhorn first set out to make Chardonnay in the late 1990s when the company founded Goldeneye, which was intended to be a Burgundy-style winery focusing on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. With this in mind, they planted three small blocks of Chardonnay on the Anderson Valley estate.
“We experimented with Chardonnay for quite a few vintages, working on winemaking technique and thinking critically about what kind of wine we wanted to make,” Bernardi recalls. “After years of making wine from these specific blocks, we felt that the wines were very good, but a little less distinctive, and not exactly in the style we had hoped.”
The Goldeneye team grafted its estate Chardonnay over to Pinot Noir in 2006, but kept up its search for great Chardonnay fruit in Anderson Valley. But still, the style they were after eluded them. “Meanwhile, Migration Pinot Noir was distinguishing itself stylistically as being bright, elegant and acid-driven,” Bernardi says, “a style that very much mirrored what we wanted to achieve with Chardonnay.”
The company eventually took its search for the ideal fruit beyond Anderson Valley, and discovered that Russian River Valley grapes -- particularly from Dutton Ranch in Sebastopol -- fit the Migration profile. This happened more than a decade after the company first set out to make Chardonnay -- and finding the right grapes was only the beginning.
“Because we barrel ferment almost all of our wines, it provides an incredible opportunity to look at many variables,” Bernardi explains. “For example, in 2008 and 2009, we looked at native vs. inoculated yeast (10 different strains), fermentation style (tank vs. barrel), malolactic fermentation (ML) vs. non-ML, various ML bacteria strains, cooperage (stainless steel vs. new wood from eight coopers vs. neutral wood), and stirring regime.” The research process took two years to complete.
The 2008 Migration underwent 100% barrel fermentation, 43% in new French oak from a variety of coopers (medium toast level) and 57% in second-vintage French oak. The wine went through 75% ML and was barrel aged for 10 months.
The resulting wine has bright, clean flavors of lemon crème brulee, with just the right amount of acidity.
“We are looking for the oak to support the fruit, acid and the sense of place of the wine, but not to overpower or drown-out the details,” Bernardi says. “We continue to hone our cooperage selections and spend quite a bit of time tasting wine from different coopers to find those that result in the most integrated, balanced wines. Over time, I expect the composition and percentage of new oak to shift as we further define our style.”
Did you catch that? After years of trials with different fruit, yeasts, fermentation styles and barrels to create the ideal Migration Chardonnay, the process still isn’t finished. What’s more, he plans to explore other California wine regions, such as the Sonoma Coast and Santa Maria, to create additional Chardonnays for the Migration line.
But for winemakers like Bernardi, that’s the fun part of the job.
“We continue to spend a great deal of energy on experimentation and innovation to fulfill the potential of each vineyard,” he says. “It’s a really enjoyable and interesting process, though managing the quantity of experimentation can be daunting, especially with Chardonnay.”
Even so, he says he is more than happy to take on the challenge. “Because of the support and relative creative freedom we have, we consider ourselves very lucky to have the ability to innovate and hone our techniques through experimentation.”
And this non-winemaker feels lucky to sit back and drink the results.