Case of the stolen yeast

One of my favorite winemakers is Tony Coturri. The first I heard of him was maybe eight or so years ago, when a friend was describing his tasting trip up to Sonoma/Napa. Something like: “He doesn’t add any yeast, but only uses what’s in the air or comes from his beard.” Beard-yeast. That stuck with me and not in the most positive way. I understood that the secondhand story was merely illustrative and he wasn’t dipping his beard in the juice, but still . . . beard-yeast.

That story aside, my friend’s enthusiasm was infectious, so I had to check it out. I made my own way to Coturri the following summer and became a loyalist in short order. It was really an eye-opening moment for me. His was unlike any other wine I had had up until that point. I was never really big into wine and had been a whiskey blogger for a number of years at that point. But Tony’s wine was something else. It had a character that was exciting and unfamiliar to me; it felt like you could read the production from the flavor; it alluded to the existence of a similar expansiveness that could exist in the wine world that I was following in my whiskey blogging life.

That was perhaps the seed from which my interest in winemaking grew, so after my first two steps into making wine resulted in results that weren’t that thrilling, I wanted to make something I enjoyed drinking, something that excited me. Now, let it be known that in most pursuits, I’ll want to design the laziest way of doing things. So, I wasn’t ready to figure out and replicate all of the Coturri steps, become a biodymanic farmer/vintner, and make some sort of clone. That would be an expensive recipe for guaranteed failure. But, I figured if I could take one element of it, replicate his practice in a single way, I might edge closer to my goals.

What if that was the yeast?

Tony is outspoken about his refusal to use added sulfites or other chemicals with his wine. (Check out this podcast to get a sense of his views.) Coturri bottles also proudly declare that their contents are unfined and unfiltered. As a result, a bottle likely contains living or dormant elements of the original yeast populations. I figured with that being the case, I could culture and grow a starter from one of his wines, which I could then pitch into a batch of my own.

OK, yes, the problem here abound. (1) The remnant yeast population that exists in a wine when it is bottled is very likely different from the populations that were doing the fermenting of that very same wine. Different yeasts will act at different times and die off. Even if this worked, then, to the extent Coturri’s je ne sais quoi comes from the yeast, that wouldn’t be translated. (2) That je ne sais quoi would almost certainly not come from yeast alone, but from Tony’s holistic, vine-to-cellar, minimal interventionist strategy. I was planning on running another cheap kit and just swapping out the yeast. These two things would be night and day along, but (3) I was going to grow this wine-starter in my kitchen, even if the Coturri yeast caught on, there would be innumerable other and different yeasts introduced that are just hanging out in the kitchen. So, there would be no way that I could confidently say that the yeast fermenting my cheap kit was sourced from where I thought it was.

Tl;dr: nice idea, but if it works at all it won’t be what you think it is.

Regardless, I was willing to bet that using this stolen frankenyeast would spice things up a bit. The next post will cover what I did and how it turned out.

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