Thursday, November 28, 2013

WinePod wines vs. winery. Why your wines can be just as good!

The WinePod design and hardware has several advantages.  But, having great hardware won’t help you if you don’t have great fruit and the best methods.  The 2013 harvest was another high quality harvest in California.   Last week, there was an article on the BBC about the WinePod and a wine critic in the U.K. commented that he was quite sure that a home winemaker could not create a wine with the same complexity and quality as a commercial winery.   Of course, this is not true.   Maybe more importantly it really misses the whole point of the joy of making something of quality and sharing it with people you love.   In this post I want to explain exactly why you can make a high quality wine by way of explaining how to make great Cabernet in the WinePod. 

The Cabernet winemaking process taught via the WineCoach software is the same advanced method used to create many of the top Cabernets in the world.  Briefly explained, a warm fermentation followed by an extended maceration of the newly made wine on the skins.  Then gentle pressing and ageing in a high quality French oak barrel.   If you have high quality fruit and follow the same method, you will get the same results, right? 

Not if you don’t have the right equipment.   Does your winemaking hardware allow you to create the same conditions as those found in a winery?  Very few home winemakers have the equipment and methods necessary to do this.  The critical difference for home winemakers is small scale vs. winery scale. 
Scale means several things I want to tell you about in this post.  Scale means the size of the “biomass” All things being equal, such as punch downs, larger fermentations extract higher levels of flavor and color due to higher, more prolonged, temperatures.  Many small scale fermentations just don’t get warm enough and stay warm enough.   This is true for red wines only. In fact, the opposite is true for white wine fermentations.  Most home wineries do not have a cool enough environment. 

Last month we made Merlot from a friend’s vineyard here in Almaden.  We filled the WinePod with about 15 gallons of must and an equal amount in a food-grade 18 gallon tub.  The grapes were from from the same vineyard block and picked the same day.  Otherwise the wines were treated exactly the same way with the same yeast and same number of punch downs.  The WinePod’s heating system kept the fermentation temperature in the mid-80s during the second half of the fermentation.  The wine made in the tub was markedly cooler as the temperature at night was in the mid-50s.  The tub was not able to maintain temperatures. The heat created by the fermentation was not enough to overcome the coolness at night.    It was a cool fermentation.   The results were immediately visible: the WinePod wine was deep purple.  The tub created wine that was ruby colored.  The WinePod Merlot had much more flavors extracted.  The tub was a lighter flavor.   The tub wine was nothing like what you would get in a larger fermenter in a winery because the temperature was too low.  Therefore, being able to heat small scale fermentation is critical to making high quality Cabernets or any other red wine.  It’s not just critical during fermentation, its critical during post-fermentation too. 

But what about access to high quality fruit?  When the WinePod is coupled with high-quality frozen must from a top vineyard, the potential of what a first time winemaker can accomplish vs. a high end artisanal winery is unparalleled.

But, getting your hands on grapes from high quality vineyards is not easy.   Ignoring the proximity issue for a moment, you are competing with established wineries, with strong relationships to growers.  Wineries buy grapes literally by the truckload or buy the vineyard block.   Wineries can increase a grower’s prestige and value via a vineyard designated wine. Wineries often will agree to long term sales contracts.  So even if you are in physical proximity to a great vineyard, when you call asking to buy a couple hundred pounds of grapes, many times the grower doesn’t want to bother because they are already working 24/7 during harvest and you are small potatoes.  

But, we can help.  We can offer you great quality grapes anywhere you live.  How do we do that?  We supply frozen grape must. What?  How can that be as good as fresh grapes?  Well, actually, it is better than fresh grapes because you can store and ship them anywhere the WinePod owner lives.  
I have had tastings with winemakers where they could not tell the difference between wine made from fresh grapes or frozen.  In fact, it has been scientifically proven by several studies. 

One such study done in 2007 by the University of Adelaide claims, “Chemical analyses of six wines showed little variation in color profiles and final ethanol and organic acid concentrations. More importantly from a winemaking point of view, a descriptive sensory analysis revealed that all wines across each treatment and fermentation scale compared very well to each other. Key differences were limited to more appealing characteristics (i.e., lower tannin hardness and burnt/smoky attributes and higher fresh/fruity and red berry attributes) in the wine made on a 300 kg scale from frozen must. This study therefore provides quantitative data on the effectiveness of freezing for fruit preservation as well as the ability of small volume fermentations (20 and 50 kg) to be representative of conditions approaching those found in industry.”  Yes, you read that right.  Many of the frozen grape wines in this were superior to fresh grape wines. 

Another variable of small scale vs. winery scale is risk of over oxidation.  Everyone knows that a wine that becomes over oxidized loses its quality.  Oxidation is a very complex thing in winemaking.  Exposing a newly fermented wine to small amounts of oxygen is critical to enabling long term ageing.  The ability of your young Cabernet to absorb oxygen drops more than 100x as it ages.  Small scale winemaking invariably means that there is more surface area of wine exposed to oxygen because the volume is smaller.  This can be very good, but you have to be careful.  It means that you can age wine in a barrel more quickly.  But it also means that you should not rack your wine as often as a winery. In fact, I don’t rack my Cabernets at all and I don’t think you should either.  If you follow this method, you will not be at a disadvantage due to small volume and in fact will have an advantage in less maturation time.

The other important variable of small scale vs. winery scale is blending.  Big wineries have more individual lots to choose from.   Many wineries will sell their lower quality lots as bulk wine.  Some wineries have so many lots, that they may have trouble giving individual attention to a particular lot.  For example, did you know that very large wineries don’t even measure the Brix of all their barrel fermented wines?  They don’t have the manpower to do this.  They just use statistics to guess when the barrels are finished fermenting.  This lack of ability to babysit each fermentation gives you an advantage over a large winery.   As the saying goes, “it’s OK to keep all your eggs in one basket –just watch that basket!”  A wine made in a WinePod is normally just a single lot.  Where a wine from a small artisanal winery may be several lots from several vineyards aged in many different barrels.  The increase of lot size can create complexity due to different vineyard blocks and different fermentation temperatures, barrel treatments and other factors.  A winery will also blend in small amounts of different varietals.  A Cabernet is usually not 100% Cabernet, but may have small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Merlot or other blending wines.

So how does a small scale winemaker create complexity?   It is very simple, if you get high quality fruit, it will have complex flavors.  That is one reason why it is high quality.   In addition to that, you can blend small amounts of commercial wines into your wine and you can separate your fermented wine into several lots for ageing.  One can have American Oak and another can be French or unoaked.  In fact, I feel perfectly comfortable using good quality commercial wines to top up a barrel if necessary.  It is very convenient and it will add complexity or otherwise balance a wine.  In fact, I think it is no problem to add a couple percent of commercial wines to your wine.  A 30 liter WinePod barrel is approximately 40 bottles of wine.  If you were to add a bottle of Cabernet Franc and a bottle of Merlot would be an addition of less than 5% and can add a lot of complexity to your wine.

Home winemakers do make great wines when they have high quality fruit, good equipment and methods.  That is why the WinePod enables first time winemakers to make great wines.  As many WinePod owners can attest, creating a wine of beauty is a joy to share. 

Winemaking in China

Punching Down the Cap
In August I was invited by my  WinePod distributor in China to visit and make wine with them.  How could I say no?  I hadn’t been to China in 10 years and I wondered if this could be the next big market for the WinePod.  I had heard all the stories about China’s love of wine and wanted to see for myself.

I picked up two frozen pails of 2012 Plumb Ridge Sonoma Cabernet.   On my way to San Francisco airport, I wondered how would this wonderful Sonoma county fruit would compare to the local fruit that was being harvested in China.  I really didn’t know.  China is a big country and there are probably some decent winemaking areas.  

When I landed in Beijing I collected all my stuff and headed for customs.  I hadn’t really thought much about my belongings.  What if they have a problem with me bringing in frozen must?  So I started towards the exit.  Two choices:  “Something to Declare” and “Nothing to Declare”.   If I declare the frozen must.  Wait…I also have a case of wine -I probably need to declare for that for sure.  I could end up flying 5,000 miles to China and have all my wine and grapes taken from me.  That would be a huge problem.  So I took my stuff and walked the gauntlet of customs security personnel.   Up on a ledge there is a security guy wearing sunglasses scanning all the people walking through.  Declare or don’t declare?   In a split second the security person points at my enormous amount of boxes.  Damn, I guess I am getting inspected. What was I thinking?  Of course I was going to be stopped for having so much stuff?  I just kept on walking and somehow made it through the door and into the sea of people at the exits.

I had so much stuff that no taxi driver would let me ride in his car.  As I was driven to the hotel in a private taxi, I was struck at how Beijing reminds me of when I lived in Tokyo in the late 80’s.  There is so much wealth on display that you can’t help but wonder what do all these people do for a living?  Building cranes are visible in every direction and the feeling of optimism is contagious.  Like Tokyo in the 80’s and the US in the 2000s there is a huge real estate bubble in China.  The bubble is creating a lot of wealth.   Of course there are huge export related profits too, but exports are actually down.  While we wish we had a trade surplus, to the average Chinese it’s a two edged sword. Exports are very volatile and unpredictable.  China is trying to create stable domestic consumption with the surge of the middle class.  From the number of luxury cars and designer everything, they are doing a good job! 
Of course wine is part of the luxury mind-set and domestic consumption.  In China wine says you are worldly, refined and modern.  When I arrived in Tianjin, about an hour and a half east of Beijing, I saw several wine shops.  They even sell about 10 different brands of wine at the corner Seven-Elevens!  That says something about the penetration of wine into Chinese society. And yet, I bet less than 10% of Chinese can even afford a bottle of wine.

My distributor has bought 10 WinePods so far.  Eight are for re-sale and two are for marketing use.  Of the two units for marketing use, one was at their office and one was at Dynasty winery –the oldest winery in China.  The WinePod at office was for us to make Cabernet together. They planned on videotaping the entire process for a Chinese language instruction manual and website.   

When we opened the pails, they were still partially frozen 3 or 4 days after I picked them up in the Bay Area.  The Plumb Ridge cabernet was visually perfect and the aromas were stunning.   These grapes had been picked and flash frozen a year earlier and you could never have known it.   This has been proven technically in several peer reviewed papers, and I won’t bore you with the details, but frozen must makes great wine.  Of this, there is no doubt.

With grapes like these and in a device like the WinePod, the wine practically makes itself.  Good Brix, pH and acid levels. The only problem was I didn’t know the nutrient levels.  If the nutrient levels were below 150 ppm, I should add Nitrogen based nutrients to make sure it doesn’t get too sulphury at the end of the fermentation.  I didn’t bring any nutrients with me.  Oh well, I am sure the winemakers at Dynasty, about 30 minutes away, would have DAP.  My distributor got on the phone and spoke with the head Dynasty winemaker.   What they don’t have any nutrients at all? How is that possible?  Something must have been lost in translation.  So I pulled out my smart phone and typed in “Diammonium phosphate” and a Chinese female voice says “Linuan er an”.  Ok, no mistranslation.  They don’t use DAP.  That is really strange. What large scale winery does not use nutrients?  Well, I guess the grapes in China are not lacking in nutrients…
Oh well, there must be a winemaking shop in Tianjin.  What you have never heard of Tianjin?  It is a city of 13.5 million people.  It’s much more populated than New York City.   Surely, there is some DAP here somewhere.  Nope, there are no beer and winemaking shops in Tianjin.  Is it possible that there is not a single beer and winemaking shop in China?  Yes, there are none.
Well, that’s OK.  A few years ago, there were very few winemaking shops in China.  Wine appreciation always comes before the desire to make wine.  

As a side note, the indigenous people of China were making wine out of grapes, honey and rice thousands of  years ago.  Researchers found residue in pottery chards.  In fact, there is evidence they were making rice wine 9,000 years ago.   Somewhere in the Chinese DNA is a winemaking gene waiting to replicate! 
Back at the office, I pitched the yeast and turned on the automatic temperature control.  It heated up the must to 73 F and I set the upper set point to 89F.   If you haven’t been to China in August it is blazing hot!  The daytime temperature was 100F and 70% humidity.  It is like a sauna.  I was thankful that the WinePod had a cooling system because with that kind of heat and the heat generated by the fermentation, the yeast were on a suicide mission.  Yes we were in an air conditioned office, but when the air conditioner didn’t sense motion it turned off and it got really hot in there.  

I noticed that my distributor was looking very confused.  I didn’t really need to do anything.  Just three punch downs a day, smell and taste the wine to check for any off smells. 

“So we are done for today?” my distributor asked.

“Yes, that’s all there is”, I replied.

“OK, let’s go to Dynasty winery”, and visit my friend.

Driving out of Tianjin, on a road shared with bicycles and scooters and strange tractors, out in the distance there was something that looked like a large French Chateau.  As you get closer, you realize it is a “French Chateau”.   And, in front of it is a triangular glass structure that looks like a mini-Louvre.  
This Chateau is without a doubt, the largest winery I have ever seen.   It is simply massive.  There is really nothing in my experience that even comes close.   I was thinking maybe Castella di Amorosa in Napa Valley was big.   You could fit 3 or 4 Castella’s in this place. Wow! 

Next to the massive Chateau is a series of large buildings which must house the actual winery.   We pull up to the winery gate and a security guard lets us in.  We meet one of the winemakers from Dynasty and he brings us upstairs to the office.  There are internal windows overlooking the fermentation tanks.  These tanks are huge.  100,000 gallons each.  The friendly winemaker, who has been using the WinePod, sits us down and offers me a cigarette.  I politely refuse, and everyone at the table, except me lights up and starts to chat in Chinese.  I have heard of winemakers smoking before, the famous American winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff was a chain smoker, and it didn’t seem to hinder his nose.  My distributor informs me that gentleman in front of me is the 6th best wine taster in China based on a national competition.  

Back at the office, we continued the winemaking.  We punched down the cap three times a day and on day six we pressed the wine into a French Oak barrel.  It is going to be a terrific wine.  In all, we probably spent only a few hours making wine.  My goal was to show them how simple it is to make wine with frozen must.  The WinePod did almost all the work.  It cooled the must, it measured the Brix, and it pressed the wine and removed the pomace automatically.  We just did the fun stuff. We punched down the cap and we smelled and tasted the wine.  

It’s been a few months since I left China.  Now they are in the process of bottling the 2012 Plumb Ridge cabernet.  It is going to be a great wine!  

Thursday, July 11, 2013

All about the amazing WinePod Brix sensor

One of the coolest and most useful things about the WinePod is the incredible Brix sensor.   The brains behind the Brix sensor are a semiconductor scientist named Michael Ravkin and an inventor named Tom Lorincz.  Believe me, many people have tried to develop Brix sensors for the commercial wine industry and have failed.  Every year at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium there is someone with a Brix sensor and then you never see them again.  It is a difficult thing to measure cost effectively  in an opaque liquid with lots of stems, grape skins, and bubbles.   In the commercial wine world, cost effectively probably means for the cost of a new barrel (all commercial winemakers sub-consciously measure everything in a currency I like to call NBs –new barrels)

Brix is simply the % of sugar in grape juice by weight.  We talk about degrees Brix.  1° Brix is 1% sugar by weight.  When wine ferments the yeast turn the sugars primarily into ethanol and CO2.  The WinePod teaching method relies on using Brix to prompt the winemaker to make important decisions.  For example, when the fermentation kicks into high gear, you may need to add nutrients.  Or when it is in decline, we may artificially boost the temperature.  Hitting that window to make a decision can be small -just a few hours.  So Brix is really an important piece of data when making wine.  Of course you can manually measure Brix with a hydrometer, but hydrometers don’t give you continuous data and they don’t send you messages to hurry up and make that final addition.

Density is the weight of the juice per a given volume so it is more general way of talking about Brix.  Water has a density of 1.   So if 100 ml of juice weighs 110 grams, the density is 1.10.   It is 10% heavier than water because the dissolved grape sugars make the liquid more dense than water.   When the wine ferments, it actually drops to below the density of water because alcohol weighs less than water.  

A wine with a Brix of 25° is about the average when we pick grapes.   It has 25% sugar by weight.  It turns out that 25% sugar in water is about 1.1 density.   An average fermentation will start at 25° Brix and end at -2°. Our Brix sensor measures that roughly 10% change and divides it by 25° Brix.   A rule of thumb is that every 1% change in weight is 2.5° Brix.    

So what we just learned is that the weight of your fermenting wine drops about 10% during the fermentation.  In the WinePod, we use this physical change in a very creative way to measure the sugar levels in the grapes.   How do we do this?  We put a float of a known weight and volume in the juice and we continuously measure its weight change wirelessly via magnetic load transfer.  Imagine if you had a water balloon filled with water in a bathtub.  That water balloon wouldn’t sink and it wouldn’t float.  It would be neutral buoyancy.  Now imagine that you start filling your bathtub with big bags of sugar.  The water in the balloon would be less heavy than the sugar water in the tub and it would increasingly float as you add sugar.  Well that is exactly how we measure the amount of sugars in the WinePod.   We measure the change in the weight.  We calculate the weight of a float using magnets.

How accurate is the Brix sensor?  It is usually +/- 1° Brix.  However, when using frozen must, there is a tendency for the dense sugars to fall to the bottom where we measure Brix.  This sometimes will cause the Brix to appear to be much higher (the Sugars are heavier and fall to the bottom).  When the fermentation begins, it all averages out.  So be careful when you are making water additions to understand that the Brix at the bottom of the tank will be higher than the top. 

One more thing about the Brix sensor, like any sensor, it needs to be calibrated from time to time.   There is an easy way to do this.   The Brix sensor was designed to be neutral buoyancy at 35° Brix.  In other words it free floats at 35° Brix.   It is like a balloon filled with 35% sugar by weight.  So if you calibrate at 35° Brix without the float present, it will appear to the sensor to be free floating.  Then you can calibrate 0° Brix with water.  This means you don’t need to calibrate it with real sugar water or juice.   All of this calibration information is provided step by step in the WineCoach software, but now you know the principles of measuring Brix with the amazing WinePod Brix sensor.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Secondary Fermentation

Thanks for reading the new WinePod Winemaker Blog.  I will try to keep it focused and unfiltered.  I don’t know how often I will post, but I will post when I have something to say about the world of winemaking.

I think I should start by telling you the story of what actually happened to ProVina, Inc., the former company that created the WinePod.

In 2008, business was booming.  We were shipping a lot of units and nearly all customers were  happy with the experience and the results.  We had the typical problems of a start-up, such as lower than planned gross margins and technical glitches here and there, but overall things were very well.   I remember flying to New York when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt.  I knew everything had just changed, but I was still confident that somehow we would get funded to keep on moving.   However, orders slowed down, the economy went into a deep freeze and the WinePod, like that rare fermentation, got stuck.

We decided that our only choice was shutdown the company and surrender the physical assets to ProVina’s creditors and auction off the intellectual property.  In time, I was able to reunite the intellectual property and some inventory.  But to unstick things, we needed to sit it out till economic spring came. 

Despite it all, during this period, people still kept coming looking for WinePods and it began to become more and more common even though we weren’t in business anymore.   As time moved on, wines made in the WinePod matured and I was able to enjoy the wines that I and my friends had made and I also sometimes got to taste wines that WinePod customers made.  A lot of people made a lot of great wine!   I began to notice a common characteristic to the wines made in the WinePod from the great fruit we supplied.  Sure there were a few duds.  I myself  made a particularly heavy handed dry Syrah that was so over extracted and alcoholic that it wasn’t  pleasurable to drink.  As a result, I learned not to experiment with a submerged cap fermentation on unacidulated 26° Brix Syrah!  Live and learn.

But the wines made using the normal WinePod methods had a naturalness and focus to them that was unique.  Unlike almost all commercial wines, they are single lot, unfined, unfiltered, unblended wines, 100% varietal and gently made.   The whites retained there fruitiness and the reds had great mouthfeel.    I think the latter two things are a direct result of the low temperature and the extended warm maceration capability of the WinePod, respectively.   There really is a big quality difference when you have the ability to heat and cool a small scale fermentation.  

Today the economy has come out of its deep freeze.  It feels like the time to start again.  Actually, it seemed like it was time to start again about eight months ago, but putting things back together again was harder than we thought.

Like anything challenging its always the “unknown unknowns” that you can’t plan.  Sure there were issues getting suppliers to supply parts, I figured that much would be problematic.  In some cases, the suppliers disappeared.  But one thing I could never have anticipated was a conflict between two WinePod parts suppliers relating to some other company that they jointly supplied.   Our parts were quite literally held ransom at a factory in Asia due to a financial, and apparently deeply personal conflict, between these respective companies.  Five months later and after many thousands of dollars wired to Asia,  I got the parts and we were able to build WinePods again.  The U.S. company held their nose, paid off the Asian ransom and made good on their promise to get me the parts.  

We finally made it to the part where we could start again!   This new company of ours will happily support all the installed base of WinePods with service, spare parts and winemaking advice and support.  And of course we will be shipping WinePods again.  So far, we have built and shipped 15 WinePods to test our supply chain, improved designs and our assembly techniques.  We have a better temperature control system and a better wine press.  The WineCoach software is unchanged Rev. 2.1.4 and is fully compatible on Windows 7 and 8.  My hope is to update that software.  I have so many ideas on how to make it even better, but it will have to wait for now.

The website still allows you to upload data and see videos and the other things it did before.  The store, however, isn't working.  We had an issue with a customer who wanted to return his WinePod when the company shutdown.  He got his money refunded, kept the WinePod and I got put on the credit card company's naughty list. We can do PayPal now with all the protections it affords, and I am working on getting the WinePod back on the nice list.

I should mention something else interesting:  We have begun exporting WinePods to China.  We signed an exclusive export deal with a large Chinese company with a focus on wine lifestyle products.  Wine is booming in China and we want to teach people in China how to make great wines with the WinePod.  We are making Chinese versions of our winemaking methods via online and video tutorials to be served from the Chinese mainland.  The WinePods we have shipped are doing a 10 city tour of China this summer.

So that's whats happened in the last few years. Starting again is not really a fermentation, of course, but it seems like it.  This journey, like a wine, isn't complete without secondary fermentation.   I hope that I can help you create your dream wine some day.

-Greg Snell