October 25, 2010

Art, science and luck - harvest 2010

A friend gave me this terrific phrase that pretty much sums up my view of making wine - art, science, luck. It doesn't just have the right elements. It has them in order.

Great wine is an expression of specific grapes, of a place and a season. It is an artistic expression, and not simply that of the winemaker. Wine as we know it is not natural without human intervention. Still, humans are a part of nature and our role in guiding grapes to reflect what we at least perceive to be their nature is fundamental to what's interesting and artful in wine. Anyone can ferment something and make it drinkable. I believe the art of making great wine is about helping the uniqueness of a specific lot of grapes become real and beautiful. Something you can smell and taste.

Of course, there is science. We study the biology and chemistry of soil, plants and fruit in the vineyard. Then we take the grapes at harvest and analyze their components, perhaps intervening to preserve the integrity of what's there. We monitor sugar, acidity levels and temperature throughout fermentation, observing smells, tastes and textures along the way. For me, the goal of science is to understand what's present and what's happening, all with the intent of allowing what's there to best reveal itself in the finished wine.

And there's luck. Luck implies something happening that won't usually happen, and great wine is undoubtedly the product of luck. Luck in the growing season and luck in the winery, where things that you've done before, perhaps after a season that might not have been entirely unprecedented, somehow delivers something truly exceptional. Doesn't this happen in so many walks of life? From sports championships to a great novel, how many times do people produce something extraordinary and spend the rest of their time trying to recapture that result?

But luck has another side. My dad, like many dads I suppose, used to say that luck happened to people who worked hard. Luck in this way being fortune, something that might be repeatable with a certain diligence. I think of the best improvisational musicians. They study and practice, tune their instruments and set things just right, then let go and allow fortune to reveal something great. The result is usually not something anyone had in mind, which is the point, as if there's a combination of artistry in the musician and the music itself, so that the musician is channeling or funneling something more essential than he or she would have consciously delivered. How many times do we hear winemakers talk about talking great grapes and simply trying to not screw things up? It's really true.

That's winemaking to me. You go into it looking for expression. That's the point. You are diligent about analysis and technique, with the goal of preserving that expression. You then let go to allow something greater than you to happen. So, harvest 2010 has been about harvesting, sorting and destemming, adding some sulfur to preserve integrity, and largely letting the grapes ferment without interference. Each fermenter was mixed once, then left alone for a week or more until it became active, then monitored for a complete fermentation.

The goal isn't to say this is the right or best way to make wine. Rather, to see if the result will be reflective of the grapes, their place and season. And perhaps something lucky, either chance or fortune, will come from it. At the least it should be unique. So far, I think it's a mix of both. I'm excited for what harvest 2010 in the northern Willamette Valley is producing. Stay tuned as the new wines age through the winter and spring.

1 comment:

Todd Hansen said...

Luck (both good and bad) played a starring role this year! That ridiculous "June-uary" nightmare! And then that final week of beautiful sunshine going into harvest. Can't wait to taste the wines on the other side of fermentation ...