Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A chat with Oregon winemakers

Earlier this month I hopped on a plane to Portland, OR to attend the 2012 American Wine Society National Conference.  Even though the median age of AWS membership that attends exceeds retirement age, I do enjoy these conferences.  2 Days and 3 nights of wine, wine, and more wine.  Where else can you start the morning at 7:30 AM with an "educational" sparkling wine breakfast, drink until midnight, and then repeat the next morning?  For those concerned about my liver, this was an excellent opportunity to hone the "sip-n-spit" technique (lest I still be found in a gutter along the shores of the Columbia River).

One of the highlights of the conference was the Willamette Valley Wine Experience on Thursday night.  The entire group of ~450 people loaded up into buses and trekked south to Willamette Valley Vineyards where winery owner Jim Bernau greeted us with a Reidel glass of pinot noit fresh from the barrel as we exited the bus.  A brief tour through the wine cellar and then we had the rest of the evening to sample wines from ~20 local wineries  and sample a delicious buffet.  But the highlight was being handed a glass by Jim Bernau himself!

After the conference, a group of us stayed and headed south for some more in depth wine tasting--because we hadn't had enough wine yet.  The group size necessitated private appointments which ended up providing a couple of unique experiences that I'd like to share.  OK...brag about...either way they were just darn cool.

The first was our tasting with Rob Stuart, founder & winemaker at R. Stuart & Co. Winery in McMinnville.  The winery is located in a converted granary on the outskirts of downtown McMinnville.  Rob proceeded to give us a very unique tasting of wines in progress.  A pinot gris nearing the end of fermentation...freshly barrelled pinot noirs from the 2012 vintage...2011 pinot noirs after a year in barrel...a tempranillo experiment to hedge against global warming...and lastly, a unique cabernet sauvignon-based tawny dessert wine (port by any other name).  In the midst of all that wine, Rob spoke about his winemaking, best practices, beliefs, & theories of what makes great pinot noir.  For 2 solid hours, I was entranced.  Rob probably got a little tired of answering my questions, but hey, what's an aspiring winemaker to do?  We overstayed our welcome a bit so we had to mosey along to another tasting.  But we did return to the R Stuart wine bar (located a few blocks from the winery) later in the evening to purchase some bottles and had another wonderful chat with the tasting room manager.

The second extraordinary experience was our visit to Willakenzie Estate.  This visit turned into a treat thanks to some of the members in the group who had worked at Digital Equipment Corporation, a trait they shared with Willakenzie owner Bernard Lacroute.  That shared history was mentioned when the appointment was made and who showed up shortly after our arrival, but Bernard himself (along with 2 gorgeous dogs).  Bernard escorted us into a private tasting room and proceeded to pour his wines for us along with regaling us with the history of Willakenzie (what a view!) and tales of the wines we were drinking.

There were many other excellent tastings--Penner-Ash, Soter, The Four Graces, Ponzi wine bar, Argyle, and Anne Amie just to name a few.  And amazing food--The Painted Lady, Jory at the Allison Spa, The Horseradish.  Sadly, all good things must come to an end and I had to return to Boston.  I have returned enlightened, enthused, and empowered to build my own dream, just as these folks have done.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

Medal Roll Call Continues!

I haven't been submitting wines to as many amateur competitions this year as I have in the past.  The entry fees and the cost of shipping keep going up every year, plus I've been growing disillusioned with amateur wine competitions in general.  Some competitions seem to be held simply as a fund raiser or advertising venue for the sponsors.  Also, the variability in judging results between competitions is sometimes downright laughable.  However, there are a couple of competitions that I do continue to respect:  the American Wine Society Amateur and the M&M Family of Wine Amateur Classic competitions.

I'm pleased to report that my wines fared well in the 2012 competitions.  I was present at the AWS Conference in Portland, OR this past week when the results were announced (more info later) and while I was away, the results of the M&M Classic arrived in my mail box.

2012 AWS Amateur Wine Competition:
Gold medal:    2010 Amador County Zinfandel
Silver medal:   2009 Suisun Valley Petite Sirah
Silver medal:   2010 Maple-Cider "Ice Wine"
Bronze medal: 2010 Yakima Valley Lemberger

2012 M&M Amateur Classic:
Silver medal:   2010 Yakima Valley Claret (70% Merlot/30% Cabernet Franc)
Silver medal:   2009 Suisun Valley Petite Sirah
Silver medal:   2009 Carm-ah (45% Carmenere/55% Syrah)
Bronze medal: 2010 Yakima Valley Merlot
Bronze medal: 2010 Yakima Valley Lemberger
Bronze medal: 2006 Columiba Gorge Chardonnay

Pretty good haul, which makes me a pleased winemaker.  I didn't submit the same wines to both competitions primarily because the AWS competition wanted 2 bottles of each wine and I wasn't about to ship 2 cases of wine.  However, I do find some of the comparisons interesting because both competitions use AWS certified judges and the same AWS 20-pt rating system.  Given those similarities, one should reasonably expect some similarity in results.  There was some concordance (2009 Petite Sirah continues to be consistently well received), but some notable differences:

1) AWS gave the 2010 Amador County Zinfandel a Gold medal while it was deemed weak and over-oaked by the M&M judges.  I'll agree that it's not your typical high alcohol over-jammy fruit bomb of a zinfandel, but more restrained.  M&M judges were apparently looking for fruit bombs!
2) Conversely, M&M gave a silver medal to the 2010 Yakima Valley Claret, while AWS pooh-poohed it.  Granted, I am a little over-invested in that wine since I crafted it specifically for my upcoming wedding.
3) AWS loved the 2010 Maple-Cider "Ice Wine" & awarded a silver medal, while the M&M judges really didn't like it one bit.  I do have to agree with that one--you either love it or hate it.

I didn't submit any of the other wines that won medals in the M&M Classic to the AWS Competition for lack of space in the shipping box.  Perhaps next year after they've aged a little longer.

So what's the lesson in all of this?  If your wine doesn't fare as well as you'd like in a competition--submit it somewhere else!  Sooner or later, you'll find a judge that loves it.


p.s.  An updated note--these wines were made prior to Aaronap Cellars transitioning to a licensed commercial winery in 2012 and thus still qualify for amateur status.  This will probably be the last amateur competitions that I enter.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wine Faults--a fascinating seminar

I've been silent for a while, so apologies for that.  Been busy getting architects & contractors lined up to build the winery this winter.  Still not done (waiting on the architect's final plan), but I've managed to fit in a few "continuing education" experiences.  A very interesting seminar was a "wine faults" class held by the MA Farm Winery & Growers Association.  Certainly we all hope that our wine smells wonderful, but on occasion, nature throws a curve ball and we have to be able to detect off-flavors that reduce the wine value or indicate even bigger future headaches.

"Know Your Faults: A Sensory Evaluation of Wine Flaws"
Presented by Chris Gerling & Anna Katharine Mansfield from the Cornell Univeristy Enology Department.

I had actually attended a short version of this class at the Winemaker Magazine Conference earlier this year and really enjoyed it.  I went with high hopes that the full day class would be even more educational--and I was rewarded.

Now usually, I enjoy going to wine education events because you get to taste wine in the name of education, but this was the first time that I got up at 6 AM to drive 1.5 hours and spend the day evaluating bad wine!  We had 8 flights of wine that had been doctored with the chemical components responsible for the bad or unpleasant aromas in wine.

Flight 1:  Sorbate-Related Flaws in White Wine
     Sorbic acid is used to prevent re-fermentation activity in sweet wines, but ~50% of people can detect the presence of the potassium sorbate used to introduce sorbic acid to the wine.  In addition, sorbic acid eventually gets esterified by the ethanol in the wine to form ethyl sorbate, which gives a bubble-gum fruitiness to the wine.  Tolerable in fruity white wines, but not a good thing in sweet red wines.

     I learned that I'm one of the minority that can not detect ethyl sorbate.  Smells like wine to me!

Flight 2:  Oxidation in White Wine
     We had a glass of oxidized wine and 2 glasses of with low and high levels of added acetaldehyde

Flight 3:  Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) in White Wine
     Three glasses of low, medium, and high levels of free SO2.  The levels they gave us may have been over-calculated because the low level stung my nose, the medium made me gasp for air, and I couldn't even get close to the high level glass!

Flight 4:  Volatile Acidity in White Wine
     Volatile acidity is detected as a mixture of acetic acid (AcOH) and ethyl acetate (EtOAc from esterification of acetic acid and ethanol).  The low level glass was a mixture of 800 ppm AcOH/100 ppm EtOAc.  The medium glass was a mix of 1000 ppm AcOH/250 ppm EtOAc, while the high glass was 1200 ppm AcOH/500 ppm EtOAc.

     Interestingly the low level glass was immediately identifiable as vinegar (AcOH), while the medium glass was more pronounced EtOAc.  But the high level glass was pure vinegar to my nose.

Flight 5:  Trichloroanisol (TCA) in White Wine
     Low, medium, & high levels of TCA, which is the cause of "cork taint".  When fungi in the cork or other wood products in the winery come in contact with sources of chlorine (bleach or other sanitizers), they produce 2,4,6-trichloroanisol (TCA) that smells like musty cardboard at extremely low levels (3 ppt).

    This was immediately identifiable even at the low level.

Flight 6:  Sulfur Compounds in White Wine
     One glass of a high level of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) that was gagging and overpowering.
     A low & high level of dimethyl sulfide (Me2S or DMS).

     The H2S glass was simply over-doped with an overpowering smell of sewer gas.
     DMS at low levels can add earthiness or flavors like creamed corn or truffle to a wine.  At high levels, it's just rank!  These 2 glasses were simply rank to my nose.

Flight 7:  Volatile Acidity in Red Wine
     A repeat of Flight 4, but in a red wine.  Interestingly the low and medium level glasses in this flight smelled more like fingernail polish instead of vinegar, but the high level was unmistakenly vinegar.

Flight 8:  Brettanomyces in Red Wine
     This was an interesting flight.  Brett is a yeast that is usually always present in a winery.  If low levels of SO2 allow brett to flourish, then it can produce off-flavors.  At low levels, these aromas can add complexity to a wine (mushroom, forest floor, earthiness--this French wine!), but high levels result in reduced fruit flavors or added descriptors like "band-aid, burnt match, horse blanket, manure, or rubber"--not the most pleasant of smells.  :)

     Since there is no one compound solely responsible for brett-related off-aromas, the folks at Cornell have come up with a cocktail of 4 compounds that most closely replicate brett aromas:  4-ethylphenol, 4-ethylguaiacol, isovaleric acid, and guaiacol.  In this case, the low level glass smelled like a smokey campfire & mulberries.  The medium level glass tended towards band-aid, but with an interesting clove aroma.  The high level glass just smelled like strong band-aid with a sweet vinegar note. 

All in all, a very interesting class.  I thought the glass examples were a little outside of the normal levels encountered in commercial wines, but they did provide a strong signpost for future reference.  I'm pretty happy to say that these are not aromas that I have encountered in my wines, which means I'm doing something right!

The 3 best ways to avoid all of the flaws above:
1) Sanitation
2) Keep tanks/carboys/barrels topped off
3) Maintain SO2 levels