Winemaker Skills

Has the winemaker’s skills and available technology advanced far enough to make exceptional wines from non-exceptional fruits? It seems that way if one is to believe the glowing reviews and hype for the 2008 bordeaux vintage given the previously low expectation due to difficult growing season. What do you think?

Appreciate your comments.

Depends on your definition of excellent, I’d say. If you think 08 BDX is terrific across the board then perhaps so.

Having gone to school at Fresno State and learned winemaking using oftentimes sub-par SJV fruit, you do tend to learn every trick in the book under those circumstances, but to make world class wines from inferior fruit? Not likely. Don’t get me wrong, we pulled off some minor miracles at times, but I doubt that wine from that fruit would ever become a critics darling. It does tend to ramp up your skill level pretty quickly, though. [shock.gif]

I agree with Linda. In difficult vintages, the key is to somehow bring in good fruit. And winemaking skill (maybe read this as experience) can play a role. If the winemaker and grower are willing to take the risks necessary to get as much great fruit as possible despite less than optimal circumstances, then you have shot at making great wine. But it pretty much has to happen in the vineyard.

In 2008, we faced a difficult vintage for Pinot in CA. Uneven ripening due to frost damage required us to push ripeness in some vineyards to get all the fruit ripe - then required draconian sorting - and forced us to use all our toolset (water additions, acid additions) to bring everything into balance. But the ingredients, ie flavors, had to be there in the fruit. We just had to find it. [wow.gif]

It takes winemaking skills… numchuck skills… computer hacking skills…and bow hunting skills to make great wine out of inferior fruit. [tease.gif]

THEN you take the fruit over some sweet jumps.


I agree 100 percent but… After all the years I realized one of the most important winemaking skills anyone can learn is selecting your fruit. Not to say it’s not fun testing your skills on a tricky lot every now and then but we like to “Work easier not harder”.

silk purse/sows ear.

Perhaps the only absolute in winemaking is that wine can NEVER be better than the grapes from which it comes. You can coax the best out of it, you can totally fuck it up, but the moment you pick those grapes you have defined the highest possibility.

I love Brian Loring’s post above where he writes about having to push ripeness in the 08 vintage! [rofl.gif]

Brian pushes ripeness, in every vintage, to extreme levels. That’s Loring’s trademark!

While we do usually pick riper than most, we’re not always the last to pick. Even when we are, it’s usually the case that everyone within the same area of the vineyard as us is picking within a few days of each other. And we don’t think the fruit is over-ripe. 2008 was a year where I think we actually did have to let some fruit get over-ripe.


I think that the interesting part of the conversation rotates around the discussion of:

The wine is made in the vineyard vs. the winemakers role in crafting the wine.

I have often pushed the first part of the argument. However great the vineyard produces the fruit, it is the winemaker that often decides when that fruit is picked. So if someone decides to wait on near raisining, or even picking a bit green, that is all winemaker influence. The vineyard gets no say in the matter. You procure grapes from the same vineyards as other winemakers, but because of your ripening preferences, you often produce an entirely different style wine from that vineyard. So one can then say that perhaps its all winemaker, with Mother Nature pitching some curves.

Just made reservations for the next Pinot Posse Dinner. Will be interested in seeing what you serve up this year! Am I hearing over ripe fruit?

Brian, I ofter push ripeness as well. Question. Do you water back if you go to far? I trust one vineyard to make the best choice because he has won grapegrower of the year 15 times. All the other vineyards I work with are told by me when to pick based on daily visits.

I think the various tools of the trade are mostly usefully applicable to the balance and texture facets of a particular wine, but I don’t think flavors and aromas, other than oak, can be conjured up in the cellar. So, no, I don’t think exceptional wine can be made from fruit that comes out of the vineyard lacking exciting flavors. I also think that most of the tools for improving balance and mouthfeel are best used exceedingly lightly. For example, almost any add or fining trial I’ve tried has seemed heavy handed at anything like the manufacturers’ suggested dosage rates. This leads me to feel that exceptional wines probably have to be “in the ballpark” coming out of the vineyard so as to avoid having to make big moves in the cellar. That said, having seen the impact of tiny variations in acid, alcohol, fining, etc. adjustments, I’ve been disabused of the notion that all I need to do is grow good fruit and then stay out of it’s way or not screw it up in the cellar.


Great blog! Perhaps with you itbers it goes without saying, but it seems to me a huge impact is made by the choice of yeast. Again a winemaker’s decision. From what I’ve witnessed a huge difference of flavors will present itself based upon the yeast.

Blueberry flavors in syrah may be a good example. I’ve been told those flavors are derived 100% by yeast selection.

After having made the comments that suggest the winemakers skills and actions mean more than the fruit, I still buy based on vintage not winemaker/brand! Guess I’m still to old fashion!

Thanks, for the comments!

I’m not yet convinced about yeast. I use a bunch of different ones each year plus some uninnoculated. I find that the pace of the ferment can vary with yeast, and temps can vary as a result, but I haven’t gotten it down to associating particular flavors with a particular yeast. I have a better controlled effort to differentiate the effects of yeast strains going on this year (in the best example, 4 barrels of the same clone with three commercial strains and 1 uninnoculated) that I hope to follow out over time. You are welcome to come taste through the barrels and see what you think.

I’ve mentioned this before, but some of you were not here at the time, so…
When I was at Fresno State I worked for part of my time there on our sensory panel. Our first paying client was Ch Hansen/Gusmer, who were doing trials on their mixed culture yeasts. We had Chards and Pinots made at different wineries using these yeasts (approx 20 wineries), and each winery made a control version (Saccharomyces), a version using what is now known as the Ch Hansen Rhythm (Sacc and Kluyveromyces), one with Sacc and Torulaspora (they do not have a commercial blend of just these two), and a fourth using what is now known as their Melody blend (Sacc, Kluyveromyces, and Torulaspora). The first trial was a difference test which was performed in the spring after the wines were made (so approx 5-7 months old). There was a statistical difference between the control and the mixed culture yeast, moreso in the Chard than the Pinot, though. The second trial performed on these same wines were approx 1 year after vintage, and by this point the trained panel saw no statistical difference between the control wine and the mixed cultures. I have noticed this myself during and not too long after fermentation- I have used different yeasts on the same lot in different bins, but over time they all begin to taste the same.

Steward and Linda;

Really great info! I have honestly been told by winemakers that the yeast selection affects the final tastes.

Steward, the next time I come to the Amador County region, I would love to visit your winery. Thanks!

Generally, this seems to be true:

There are several ways or styles in which you can make wine for great fruit that all turn out well. If you pick your vineyards well, you really don’t have to be much of a winemaker. With poorer fruit, there is usually one or two ways in which you have to manage the winemaking in order to turn out a solid wine. Any missteps and the final product noticeably suffers. Working with good fruit makes me feel real good about myself, but working with subpar material is when I really learn what’s what.

I’ve heard a few winemakers who feel strongly about a particular strain, but I think there are probably more in Linda’s camp.
BTW – I’m originally from Amador County and my mom has a vineyard there, but the pinot vineyard and winery are in Marin.