Skip to content

Vineyard Enology

The notion of enology in the vineyard is foreign to modern thinking. McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc famously remarked, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Twentieth Century scientific viticulture obediently concerned itself with things easily measured: crop yields, pruning weights, buds per shoot, brix, pH, and TA and these indices comprise the lion’s share of research results in the last fifty years. Unfortunately, none of that has anything to do with the things we care about in winemaking: soulfulness, harmony, viscerality, structure, finesse, minerality, or longevity. For the most part, enologists and viticulturalists don’t get along very well, and haven’t much studied one another’s disciplines.

We view growing and making wine as a continuum of winegrowing, and the GrapeCraft circular calendar connects the dots. We start from a belief that “touching the human soul with the soul of a place” is fundamentally mysterious, and that organized knowledge is not our goal. Our job is to perfect our technique, not to automate. We respect the centrality of a highly skilled human being in the winegrowing process. Universities today are under a lot of pressure from corporate wineries to minimize labor and centralize management into fewer hands. We reject this direction, and instead seek to empower the passionate vineyard enologist on the scene. Our mission in the vineyard is to ensure that grapes are richly expressive of their terroir and contain ample building blocks for good wine structure.
Because optimum results are incumbent upon fruit composition, we actively support winegrape quality by simply going to the vineyard and paying attention. We are not viticulturists. Our expertise is relating vineyard circumstances to the needs of the client winery. The vineyard enologist’s presence throughout the growing season is the surest path to optimum fruit quality. Our role is to address winery goals in a professional manner within the context of the grower’s best interest.

GrapeCraft vineyard enology programs include pre-season planning, nitrogen assessment at bloom, vine-based stress monitoring utilizing leaf water potential (including recommendations, where appropriate, for regulated deficit irrigation), and maturity assessment linked to wine quality to promote harvest decisions independent of Brix. The vineyard presence these programs require confers a benefit which comprises at least half of our value: early detection of the unexpected: disease or insect pressures, damaged irrigation lines, canopy imbalances, ripening abnormalities, and undocumented variabilities.
While this approach is not exclusive to our company, we are willing to maintain a professional presence in the vineyard that surprises many clients. Our secret weapon: we show up! Pliny the Elder said “the best manure is the Master’s footsteps.” We have found that the labor investment to support proper winegrowing conditions is repaid many times in the economic stability resulting from long-term, continual quality based relationships between growers and motivated winery clients.

Promote Soil Health

The primary unifying principle is the importance of living soil. According to Claude Bourgignon, practices which foster a healthy ecology in the soil, primarily through minimizing the use of pesticides, herbicides and tillage, result in the formation of a symbiotic relationship between grape rootlets and mycorrhizal fungi which permits the uptake of many trace minerals grapes alone can’t take up.

It’s easy to taste the difference between wine grown in living soil vs. one where pesticides and herbicides are employed excessively — the latter have no finish, and the former have a lively energy on the back palate. I see this difference between rieslings from the Mosel and those from California and Australia, and I think it accounts for the ability of the former to age ten times as long despite having no tannin.

The simplest way to monitor the success of a living soil regimen is to look for the presence of earthworms and the friability of the soil which results from their labors. “Living soil” is a term we have coined in order to express what is positive about the organic movement while distancing ourselves from the politics of labeling. We are more interested in actual practices which promote living soil than we are in the legalistic certification procedure which takes place in the U.S..

Far more enlightened is the South African system Non-exclusionary in nature, this program has shepherded their entire country in the direction of sustainable farming, decades ahead of the American system, whose snobbish cliquism has failed to inspire the rank and file grower. Andries Tromp’s brilliant scheme was to create a scoring system for sustainable farming, set the initial bar low enough that over 99% of vineyards could initially comply, and then to raise the bar every year, providing education and incentives along the way so a clear path was made available for every sector of the economy, even the chemical companies.

By contrast, U.S. efforts have resulted in less than 1% vineyard participation. In contrast to South African wines, U.S. Certified Organic wine quality is currently so pathetic that we urge our GrapeCraft clients not to use the term “organic” on their labels at this time, even if they are fully compliant.

In service to the mystery and vitality imparted by living soil, our complementary focus is on the building blocks of structure. As any trained chef, the GrapeCraft winemaker’s goal is to put on the table a creation which presents distinctive terroir expression with finesse. Vineyard enology seeks to optimize within harvested grapes the elements necessary to optimize the process of élevage in order to render the wine distinctive, accessible and age worthy.

To do so, we focus on specific attributes. The most important of these is “reactive color,” known in geek circles as “monomeric anthocyanins,” or “bleachable pigments.”

Anthocyanins are the key to good texture. We instinctively crave refined texture – that’s because tinier particles in a sauce or a wine mean more exchangeable surface between the liquid part of wine and its flavor-integrating suspended colloids. Wine is similar to chocolate fudge, and is made up of microscopic particles of goodge that determine its texture and flavor. These particles can get pretty big if left alone, or we can keep them small and fine if we work with the wine when it’s very young.

Our options are limited by what nature has given us in the young wine and our skill in extracting nature’s goodies while fermenting it. Principally we are interested in tannins and reactive color, which we call anthocyanins.

Tannins by themselves are nasty – they cause harshness and bitterness. They also react aggressively with oxygen and daisy-chain into polymers, and if left unchecked for long become dry, nasty, and astringent. The more they do that, the nastier the wine will taste later. Color molecules are one-handed – they can’t polymerize, and play the role of bookends on tannin polymerization.

Simply put, the more purple color you have, the richer and softer the wine you’re drinking. That’s why Syrahs, which can be pretty tannic, are always soft and rich, but Pinot Noirs, which have little tannin but also very poor color, tend to be dry and simple if not well made. Color only works this way if the grapes aren’t harvested overripe. Otherwise the color arrives at the winery already in an oxidatively polymerized state. You can’t make a tannin soufflé if the eggs are already scrambled!

Anthocyanins and related grape bioflavonoids also confer tremendous health benefits as anti-oxidants and anti-carcinogens. Our presence in the vineyard from the Spring emergence of foliage through bloom, set, veraison and harvest in Autumn focuses on maximizing anthocyanins and harvesting them at their peak of extractability and reactivity.

Balance Vine Metabolism

Our vigilance from budbreak through harvest focuses on vine balance. Every vineyard manifests a particular set of soil characteristics, water availability, canopy temperature, incident light, air movement around the clusters, and nitrogen status. Each must be present in moderation for proper maturation to occur. Growing great wines means smart and dedicated people showing up to maintain overall vine balance in reaction to the weather Mother Nature throws at us, never quite the same form vintage to vintage. California has an extremely temperate climate for grapes, and seldom produces significant rain on the harvest. Yet observing California vintages since 1972, I’m still waiting for a “normal” harvest. Hence, vine balance must be borne in mind at all times if we are to provide grapes suitable for refinement into great vintage wines of distinction, finesse and longevity.

Harvest at Optimum

The third basic distinction of Vineyard Enology is harvest at optimum ripeness. This has little to do with grape sugar content, which is largely a function of autumnal rainfall. High Brix results in high alcohol in the fermented wine, but this can be adjusted by Memstar filtration, and should not be considered as part of maturity determination. Grape flavor training, which has never been systematically taught in any California University program, is an essential aspect of GrapeCraft.

Flavor Maturity

High alcohol wines don’t age very well. A key distinction must be made between a wine’s alcohol level and the state of ripeness of the grapes, which leads to the compositional status of the resulting wine. Depending on the climate in which grapes are grown, and particularly the weather at harvest, grapes may reach the same state of compositional ripeness (color, flavor, tannin status) at anywhere from 20 to 30 degrees brix. The low numbers are common in France, and in fact in many parts of Germany, 20 brix is considered late harvest for riesling. In California, which lacks autumnal rainfall, riesling often doesn’t reach the same degree of ripeness until the high 20’s, and cabernet is typically also picked between 25 and 27 brix. But in a cool year like 1999 or 2005, much California fruit got overripe by hanging too long while winemakers were waiting for these numbers.

Overripe red wines lack fresh aromas, have low reductive strength, develop pruney aromas and fail to age well. In technical terms, the degree of oxidative polymerization of the tannins has proceeded on the vine to an excessive extent. It might be said that the wine has run down the chemical battery it normally uses to protect itself from oxygen during ageing in barrel and in bottle and to defend itself from oxygen-loving microbes like Acetobacter, or vinegar bacteria. High ripeness also tends to be associated with high pH, which is the “gas pedal” of ageing, and controls the rate of oxidation of many wine constituents. Such “over the hill” wines tend to brown early and their tannins dry out — that is, they become grainy and move from the top of the tongue to under the tongue and into the cheeks, giving a dirty impression which obscures flavor perception. The tannins have essentially curdled, and just like a botched bearnaise sauce, they fail to integrate aromas. As a consequence these wines show, along with oxidative notes of caramel and prune, also disjointed aromas of oak, vegetal notes and microbial smells, which then protrude in the nose in unpleasant disarray.

On the other hand, sometimes grapes achieve very high brix without these problems. A case in point is the 1999 CSU Fresno Syrah in our study, which came in on September 17th at 31 brix, but possessed fresh blueberry aromas and fine, firm tannin, and is still drinking quite well today. So high alcohol per se does not necessarily indicate overripeness. This wine was, however, quite hot on the palate, and the high level of alcohol caused a bitterness in the finish and also exacerbated the astringency of the tannins. When we adjusted the alcohol down to the normal range, these imbalances disappeared, and the wine did well in competitions and aged well.

Not so the unadjusted 18% wine, which more rapidly developed raisiny notes, browning, and oxidation. A dozen or so trials over the years have shown us that high alcohol wines develop differently than their counterparts in which we have reduced the alcohol, wines with exactly the same composition of color, flavor and tannin. We often see zinfandels developing raisiny notes more rapidly at higher alcohol, for example.

We don’t know why this is happening, but our recently enhanced understanding of the nature of wine offers clues. The answer may lay in the weakness of high alcohol wines to preserve macromolecular structure. GrapeCraft contends that the color and tannin molecules in red wine aren’t soluble in its 13% alcohol solution. They can only leave the skins if carried into the fermenter, and eventually into the glass, by suspended tiny tarry colloids – liquid chocolate, if you will.

The Vineyard Enologist is the skilled chef on the scene who is concerned on a weekly or sometimes twice-weekly basis with monitoring vine water pressure, soil life, and berry sensory maturity. Her presence also facilitates observations of insect ecology, disease pressures and other contingencies.

The term “Vineyard Enology” was coined by Kay Bogart, who remains its foremost practitioner, a solid GrapreCrafter extraordinaire, and also has her own Bogart label for which she produces, from 120 year old Cinsault, a remarkable red wine as well as a dry rosé named Beautiful Friendship, the last two words of Bogie’s Casablanca.