On natural wine and its influence on my winemaking

I’ve written about it on the blog before, but I wanted to write a more dedicated post on my thoughts on natural wines, why everyone is buzzing about them, and their role in my own wine world.

What is natural wine?

This is the question you’ll see most debated online it seems. Not just the question being asked, but wine-insiders debating the asking of the question in the first place. There are some who want precise, legalistic definitions; and there are those who prefer the rougher, holistic perspective of determining the boundaries.

How much sulphur added is too much? Does the colonization of cellars by commercial yeasts complicate the reliance on native yeasts? Or, ultimately, is the term “natural” simply used to define a millennialhipster culture or is it about greater questions of sustainability? If the former, is that a result of the exclusion of a new generation of wine consumers through the exponential price inflation?

If you squint past the cultural debates and try to focus on the winemaking practices that are connected to what’s considered natural wine, I think it can be boiled down to a few elements: sustainably grown and sourced grapes; no adjustments for acid, tannin, etc.; minimal (if any) sulfite addition; no added commercial yeast.

There are a lot of holes, debates, and expansions in that list above, for sure. But, when you get tired of going deep into these debates, that’s perhaps the least objectionable zone that could get closest to a definition.

Why is everyone talking about natural wine right now?

I linked to a bunch of articles and blog posts above. But, there are many more where those came from.

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2018 Chardonnay: Using fresh juice

Sporting one of the fancy new labels

That whole FroZin affair I wrote about? That was all in preparation for an attempt using fresh grapes from last years harvest. I thought of the frozen must as a test run for the real thing come September.

Choosing the varietal

I did want to make it a bit easier on myself though, so I decided I’d use pressed white juice bought through Brehm. Other than the frozen Zinfandel must, my experience up until this point had been with kits: a successful white and two mediocre reds. The choice of pressed white juice was playing it safe: better memories of success and no skins to deal with.

I browsed Brehm’s site for white varietals that could be picked up within driving distance of San Francisco and settled on the Chardonnay from Tolay Springs Vineyard (basically the only option that suited my criteria). I ordered 6.5 gallons of it in August and waited.

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FroZin, pt. 2: The verdict

Here it comes

Last week, I started recounting my first non-kit winemaking attempt last summer, using frozen Zinfandel must from Brehm. Check out part 1, here.

Topping Up

Immediately after racking the freshly fermented must to a 3 gallon carboy, I could see a problem coming. There was a good amount of headspace at the top of the carboy. I planned to use this vessel for the aging process after fermentation as well and by that point, there wouldn’t be any protective CO2 coming off of the wine. Doing most of your winemaking education online leaves you with a distinct fear of oxygen exposure. So before the fermentation stopped, I had to get that level up.

I tried to read all I could about what folks do in this situation: marbles, bladders, vacuums, water. The easiest (lazy winemaker here!) seemed to be simply adding other, similar wine. This is a little disappointing since it’s diluting the originality of the final product, but it seemed better than diluting it with water, buying expensive equipment, or risking the marbles breaking the carboy.

I didn’t want to top up with Carlo Rossi, or the closest to cheap, bulk wine that I could find. I wanted something that would minimally mess with any further development that it still had to go through, so stuff loaded with additives wasn’t in the picture. I visited one of our local natural wine–focused spots, Terroir, and their bartenders recommended the cheapest, no-added-sulfites red blend containing Zinfandel that they were able to think of. I’m sadly forgetting the brand.

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FroZin: Fermenting frozen must

Now being used as a garden bucket

After my janky attempt to steal a sliver of the essence of Coturri wines through residual yeast, it was time to graduate from the cheap kits. And now, having tasted the year-aged results, it was the right move. It was the summer of 2018, so I also had my eye on using fresh juice in that coming harvest, but wanted to get a bit more practice under my belt. This led me to the buckets of frozen grapes sold by Brehm.

I spent a few hours on their site, sorting through all the grape possibilities, and judging volumes and quantities. They sell frozen red grape must in pails containing about 5 gallons, which they tell us ends up as a bit less than 3 gallons of finished wine. After some internet research, it seemed that my 6.5 gallon fermenting bucket might not be quite big enough for the cap, foam, etc. that would come into play. So, the first new thing I needed to buy was a new, 8 gallon fermenting bucket, for about $20.

Since I was making red wine, I’d also need a tool to separate the skins from the juice after fermentation. Hence my search for a press. This led me down some odd roads, such as researching the possibility of renting a very large press and somehow transporting it to my basement. Turns out, Walmart sells a reasonably priced small fruit press. 1.6 gallons, $40. Obviously larger would have been better, but I wasn’t looking to drop hundreds just yet. (Though, with my plans for this year, 1.6 gallons is looking woefully insufficient!)

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Rough plan for sourcing fresh grapes

Fingers crossed

A motivating factor for getting this blog going and documenting my first attempts at winemaking was that I plan on doing a batch with fresh grapes this coming harvest season — not just pressed juice like last year, or frozen grapes and concentrate-based kits previously. And, not just a 5 or 6 gallon carboy’s worth, but (hopefully) about double that.

That feels like a daunting goal that I’ve set for myself. It’ll take a few pieces of new equipment, the straining of existing capacity (especially given the size of my press), and probably a good number of bumps in the road — one hopes none critical.

Adding to the complexity a bit is that I want to make a skin contact white.

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Case of the stolen yeast: continued

I wrote last weekend that I loved Tony Coturri’s wine, was generally not impressed by my own cheap-kit attempts (surprise), and planned to nab some of the yeast from Coturri despite that it was virtually guaranteed to not translate any of that wine’s character. Smart.

It started with a starter, however. To create a starter, you need to have something for the yeast to eat, namely sugar. In my previous experience with apples, I’d often pitched commercial yeast in a small mixture of cider and honey just to kickstart it before pitching into the juice. It always worked reasonably well, but this time I would use organic, preservative-free grape juice as the base. I could only find Concord grape juice, so that’s what I used. I figured this would be enough sugar to get any yeast in the Coturri going again.

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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.

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