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!