Question for winemakers: luck or skill?

Query for the vintners here:

When you bottle a wine do you “know” you’ve nailed a certain wine? That it’s gonna sing in a few years?

And conversely do you sometimes bottle a wine and know it’s just OK … that you misjudged some element or failed to do something (e.g. pick earlier)? That’s it’s just going to be a middle of the pack wine at best.

And are you sometimes crestfallen when your sure thing just doesn’t soar after a few years?

And conversely, have you been surprised at how a meh wine at bottling blossomed into something sublime?

I know your wines are like your kids and you may not be as honest publicly as you’d like. But I’m just curious if you guys/gals are pretty confident in your prognostication skills when it comes to your wines.

Btw, I find it so refreshing when winemakers admit that some of their wines just aren’t very good. It’s rare though.

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Good question. You might not get the full truth from winemakers, but I’ll give a few… [wink.gif]

As a general rule, I don’t bottle stuff that I’m not happy with. In fact, just now I declassified a wine that is sold out and is desperately asked for, but it was not up the quality it represented in the previous vintages. But out of the ones that I do bottle, there will of course always be ones that you feel you hit out of the park with and then others that are decent, good wines, but perhaps not amazing.

But patience is very important as a winemaker - wines you think you’ll have to give up on, can surprise you after a few years. My Tinta Caõ was that way - just turned a corner in year 2 when tannins subsided and became really nice.

As a general rule for me, if you nail the acid level, then that’s the most important part. The tannins will resolve themselves with time, but too much acid or a lack of acid, won’t.

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Generally, very good wines make themselves evident from beginning to end. You can taste it in the grapes.

There are occasional surprises, but they tend to be mild.

Peter Rosback

Sineann

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That’s a great question - and you are right that winemakers probably won’t be as ‘open’ about this as you’d hope they would be.

As Peter and Adam said, the starting materials are the most important part of this process - and sometimes they come in ‘exactly as you’d hope’ and the subsequent wine does not live up to your expectations, and other times, the incoming grapes are not optimal but the subsequent wine is outstanding. In other words, there is no guarantee of ANYTHING in winemaking . . .

I did produce and bottle one wine that I have chosen not to release because it was over-oxidized and I was ‘hopeful’ things would change . . . and they did not. It remains in bottle, in storage, but at some point soon, it will be disposed of.

I’m also as honest as I can with people - when they make the assumption that I aim to make ‘good’ wine, I tell them I don’t - because it’s impossible to define ‘good’. And that’s clear as can be on this board for sure!!! What I try to do is make distinctive wines that, to me, speak of place, time, and who I am as a winemaker when I make them. My goal is that when someone goes through my lineup, they do not feel that they are tasting the ‘same wine’ again and again with iterations that are too minor to note differences . . .

Cheers.

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For me, my best wines are evident right from barreling. I keep all wine in their original barrels right through to bottling. This way I can call out a single barrel or combination of some parts of some barrels as “special.”

All good answers here. You taste your components and blends pretty consistently (or at least you should be!), and by the time you bottle the resulting wine is highly unlikely to be a surprise. That assumes of course that your bottling goes smoothly, your free sulfur is at the proper levels, and the DO’s are low. That’s not always a given.

What I find personally most difficult is precisely predicting the trajectory a wine will take once it’s bottled. I’ve made the mistake of releasing a wine too early and not having it show well initially, but that’s an error in patience, not a winemaking flaw. The wine came around beautifully, though a year later than I would have preferred.

Good question, Matthew. I would say that it’s hard to consistently make great wine without skill and experience, but every vintage gives us radically or slightly different grapes (is this partly what you mean by luck?). Even the best Domaines and winemakers have off years as a result but we all have basic underlying techniques that hopefully show skill in avoiding spoilage, VA, EA and prem-ox, etc. Some wine makers keep their practices exactly the same from year-to-year (for good reason!) highlighting vintage differences to the nth degree; others will adapt practices to each vintage with certain goals in mind. For example, I know some Domaines and wine makers have a set maceration time (pre- and post-AF) and are locked in to a percentage of new oak regardless (just to point out two examples). I prefer to evaluate the need for extended maceration depending on the vintage, but I’m pretty well locked into a “no new oak barrel” style (for Pinot Noir).

On the luck side of the equation, the grapes and resulting wine matrix are never exactly the same for a host of reasons and sometimes we find unexpected results. I’ve had wines that tasted great after alcoholic and malo-lactic fermentation and then boom, they go through a “dumb” or “reductive” phase and I’m thinking, where did that come from. (Then I reconstruct events and develop a theory—keeping it in mind for the next time we encounter similar circumstances.)

Finally, for me, I find that the journey is particularly difficult to predict for my 100% whole cluster Pinot Noir (Ariane) as compared to the 100% destemmed (Colette) or blend of the two (Marie-Paule). As an example, for the 2019 Ariane I really felt the pyrazines were too pronounced even after 16 months in barrel. I almost pulled the plug on it, but decided to go ahead with the planned bottling. It’s a good thing I did because the wine settled down nicely and now almost a year after bottling, it is showing beautifully. I feel lucky on this one because I really felt this wine was not in balance but perhaps with more experience I will feel more confident about this type of issue.

Cheers,

I would guess that there are regional differences in this equation, as well as varietal ones, and the style preferences of the producer.

In the extremely challenging 2007 vintage in the Willamette Valley, I felt that I had made nice wines that were good work for the vintage but far from extraordinary. With 5-7 years in the bottle it became apparent that they were much better than I anticipated. As they have reached and passed the decade mark, these wines continue to prove to me that the Willamette Valley is truly a great winegrowing region. The weather that year at harvest was appalling, the fruit was visually less than stellar, but the wines are lovely. And notably as French winemakers become more common in the Valley, they universally seem to tout how little disease pressure we normally face.

The following year we had remarkable conditions for harvest, and the hype for the 2008 vintage started in the wineries immediately. Most of the wines have been very good, and perhaps as many great vintages go, simply still need time. But many 08s I have had have been blockish and a bit foursquare. Within my own wines, as much as I feel our style helped avoid the blockishness, my 2008 Willamette Valley is one of my least favorite wines. The top wines from our cellar seem like they are finally evolving into more magical creatures, but in general the vintage hasn’t really separated itself in quality from many other less heralded Oregon vintages.

2010 was a remarkably cool year for us, but quality was very, very good. These wines were extremely pretty when they were in the cellar and first in bottle. As they have aged, they have really held steady. I really enjoy the wines and look forward to seeing them in the coming decade. That said, I began making Willamette valley Syrah from Deux Vert in 2008 which finished quite warm, and the 2009 vintage was quite warm. In 2010 I picked the Syrah on Halloween at 19.0 Brix, which was the lowest Brix level I had ever seen for red fruit at the time. All of the Pinot Noirs came in at 20.0-22.0, also the lowest I had seen for a vintage. However, nothing was green and malic acids were in balance. The Syrah, which I had no idea how it was going to turn out, remains my favorite wine that I have made from that grape and that vineyard. And post 2010, I started pushing to get ripeness at sugars much closer to 20-22 than the traditional 23-24.5 that was/is prevalent through much of the Willamette Valley(while still keeping acids in balance). That’s a stylistic choice and statement rather than a statement of quality. I like wines at 12.5-13.0, but there are lots of wines made at higher Brix that are also very, very good wines…

Enter 2014. Early, warm spring and budbreak, then a hot summer had us all looking at early September for picking. We caught a small break as harvest approached and temps cooled for the final week of August. We hung into the first days of September and picked in cool weather. Fruit was ripe but not dehydrated, and some of our farming choices had helped hold Brix in check. But my desired 20-22 Brix was not possible. I worked hard to rein in the extraction(2014 is the birth year of my oldest son, so I busted my behind to make the very best wines possible), but my overwhelming feeling about the fruit was “meh”. Yields were large, clusters were huge. Days on the vine were barely 100. Everything was spotlessly free from disease but just seemed nice. Going to bottle, I was happy with many of our choices but still hadn’t shaken the idea that these wines were just good, and not my personal style. I bottled only a single barrel of wine as a Heritage wine, and that only because it was my son’s birth year. That wine has never been sold, except for a bottle or two to Bob Hughes to complete his Heritage vertical. The whites showed excellent potential, and we had managed to pick them at correct sugars mostly due to have such a large crop. In bottle for a year, it became obvious that the Chardonnays were well beyond our hopes, and that was validated with the 95s from the Wine Advocate. But the basic Pinot Gris was extremely delicious(even Jim Anderson would have loved it). The Pinot Noirs took longer to come around though, and their dumb phase was VERY dumb. There is a CT note from someone describing the 2014 Bishop Creek PN as “swampwater”. I opened a bottle after seeing the note, and could see their point. But that is the magic of Pinot Noir, and as the years have passed, those 2014s have begun to open up and show themselves. The Bishop Creek is pretty delicious swampwater now, and we offered the 2014 Whistling Ridge as an add on to our fall release for the mailing list. The response from people who have opened the 2014 Whistling Ridge has been remarkable, from very positive TNs, personal emails, and additional orders of current wines. To be fair, it was my favorite of the 2014s on release and the wine that I set aside cases of for my son, but it is pretty easily outperforming my expectations.


So, yes. Cool climate Pinot Noir, and ludicrously cool climate Syrah have plenty of surprises. That said, like Merrill, I also keep wines in the same barrel until bottling. While there have been many times a wine has been up or down from my expectations, I can’t think of any situations where the selections and blends are something that I would redo.

But harvest happens at speed and with unique fruit every year. I can think of tons of things that I would tweak if I had the chance to do them over again. The great Helmut Donnhoff is credited with saying, “winemakers should get to do every vintage twice”, so it’s challenging for me to believe that there is a winemaker out there that has done everything perfectly in every vintage. But ultimately, great wines are made by the vineyard. And winemakers being perfect isn’t always the deciding factor that some of us like to present it as.

But I have always wanted to KNOW what happens when choices are made, rather than simply parrot beliefs. So I would guess that I have had a lot more surprises than many other winemakers, except perhaps Todd Hamina. I truly dislike the reality of winemaking, that if enough people say something is true that it starts to become a “truism” rather than being something that is tested to see if it is a reality.

Two easy examples of this are: green stems being vegetal and pulling West side leaves during summer. Both are regionally(as in Oregon only, I don’t speak for other areas) held beliefs that drive me crazy. We’ve been pulling West side leaves near the first of August since 2014 and have yet to see any sunburn or dehydration from the fruit exposure. What we have seen is more sunshine on the skins leads to thicker skins, more dry extract, and ripe flavors at lower sugars. And maybe my biggest pet peeve with winemakers is listening to someone who didn’t use any stems pontificating on how they were too green to use. If you didn’t use them, then you don’t know whether they were too green or not. I’ve been vinifying with stems every year since 2003, green, brown, or both. And for anyone who wants to claim a vintage since 2002 that stems were too green to use in the Willamette Valley, I am happy to open bottles that will disagree with them.

If you’re never surprised by your work, then you’re probably not taking many risks, says Captain Obvious. And the wines will reflect that. And the reverse as well, as my wines can generally attest. For 20 years I have made wines that are definitely risky and show the effects of those choices. Pick your poison.

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I appreciate your use of “For me,”. I should start every post that way, but somehow rarely do.

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Thanks all for such detailed responses. The attention to detail and thoughtfulness are readily apparent.

I keep thinking of winemaking and the raising a child analogy … you do the best you can and ultimately all you can do is hope for the best. No matter how much you put in, some things are simply out of your control. There are no guarantees.

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For me, that’s as it should be. I’ve never met any person who could create something as beautiful as a sunset can be. It’s a wild occurrence that a bin full of fruit can somehow transform into such an amazing beverage, via a very kinetic, and alive, natural process. Trusting in the process, believing that things will work is so important. And so is trusting in the vineyard (or your kids for that matter) to live up to what you hope it can be (IMO). And when we fear even the possibility of being wrong, we are putting severe limitations in what we can achieve. If I never leave the safety of my front porch, I can never know anything except what my front porch looks like. If I fail, I can always make another wine, and I’ll be smarter about it the next time.

There are no guarantees. And if you are batting 1.000, then you are probably playing tee-ball.

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I never knew anything, and I have witnesses to prove it.

I think you knew quite a lot, but weren’t at all afraid to learn something new.

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What kind of notes do you keep on these details? I’m always amazed at winemakers ability to recall details about a vintage.

Notes? We don’t need no stinking notes!

I should be able to insert a gif of the original scene here, but no…

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I assemble 5 oz bottles (woozies) from each barrel, and taste them blind. Each barrel has a number, and off to the side is a key of what type of barrel and how many uses that barrel has had. I make regular tasting notes, rank the barrels, and then consult the key as to what I am tasting. Then I file it away - dated - and repeat that process through the wines’ time in barrel. When it comes closer to bottling time, I blend (or not) the barrels into what I think are the best representations from my vineyard.

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It’s always interesting to see the process each winemaker takes with assessment.

Our process for evaluation is fairly similar. We taste from barrel throughout the elevage. In the first 6-months, I don’t do anything but taste, no opinions allowed(unless there is a problem with the barrel of a microbial sort). After that we start to look at the individual personalities of the barrels, but I still avoid qualitative decisions. After the next harvest, I’ll rank the barrels but mentally I try to function more like a matchmaker, thinking about which barrels would fold together seamlessly. As we get closer to bottling we’ll do a few test blends, but I trust the longer process more than a single tasting point. And since we spend so much time with the wines, they’re more like old friends and it usually seems pretty obvious where they belong by bottling.

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It’s some of everything. Some wines are clearly going to be good from the fermenter. Some confound me during elevage, such that they seem like they are going to be great, then oh no what’s happened, then they’re great again but maybe different from the original thought. The brooding wine eases up some, the light wine truly fills out. Some wines in bottle, as Marcus writes, maybe underwhelm or are fine at first, but with time truly come together and reveal themselves even years later. Mostly I lean in to the idea that we’re going to find out about the wines, on their time or schedule. I’m committed to that, letting the wines be and become what they are, resisting the temptations to steer. That’s part of what’s most interesting to me about the whole thing.

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The wine will always have the last word.

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One of the things that really surprised me when I started making wine, is just how much they change over the course of the elevage. Marcus’s talk of dumb phases in wines, is really quite a remarkable and true thing. And it can be pretty nerve-wracking in the beginning. Every month the wine shape-shifts and develops and if you catch it in a bad phase, it’s very easy to think the whole thing might be going south. That’s where patience comes in and perhaps a little experience. Same with oaking - I can almost guarantee you that about 3-6 months in into a new barrel, the wine will taste like sucking on a 2x4" from Home Depot. Awful. It’s very easy to think you’ve over-oaked it and ruined it and many winemakers have racked a wine off at this phase. Then magically, another 6 months later, the oak has integrated beautifully and is now very elegant.

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