Thursday, November 28, 2013

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!  

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