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John On Wine ­ – Grapes or Winemaker?

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on March 20, 2014 by John Cesano

I received a great question from Toronto, Canada; Jason Gonsalves asked, “Which has the greatest impact on the quality of a good wine: the winemaker or the grapes?”

I loved the question because there is not an absolute right answer as both are important, impactful. There are clichés in the wine industry about anybody being able to make good wine in great vintages, some vintages being winemaker proof, and these notions suggest that grapes are most impactful, although I would suggest that the vintage impacts the quality of the grape and therefore vintage may be most impactful. It is also oft said that winemakers earn their salaries making good wine in bad vintages. It is true that many wines were saved by skilled winemakers in bad, or tough, vintages.

Let’s look at grapes and then winemakers. The quality of a grape, the impact the grape will have is dependent on many factors. The first factor is varietal. In hotter areas, many folks plant big reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, and see the heat bring sugar that leads to alcohol and body.

In cooler areas, many folks plant cool climate varietals like the Alsatian whites, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling, or Burgundian varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Viticulture, grape growing choices, impacts the quality of the fruit; head pruning vs. trellising, dry farming, vs. drip irrigation, rocky hill sides vs. loamy river banks, pulling leaves (canopy management) vs. leaving all the leaves, organic compost vs. commercial fertilizer, dropping fruit or not, picking by hand vs. machine.

There are many decisions made in the vineyard that affect the quality of a grape and impact the wine. Vintage matters. Remember the fires of 2008? Remember the smoke, soot, and ash that blanketed nearly all of Mendocino County? I remember soaking a bandana in water, covering my mouth and nose, and using it as a filter to breathe through on the way to my black car. Mind you, I owned a white car, but it was black. Everything was black. Grapes in 2008 sat under the same smoke, ash, and soot.

2011 was tough for a lot of folks. That was the year without a summer. I’m looking out a window in March at flowers that sprung from buds that broke in February this year. In 2011, bud break didn’t occur in many places until late May, and was followed almost immediately in early June by torrential rains which took the buds right off the vines. Vineyards that regularly harvested four tons per acre in other years ended up harvesting about a ton and a half, an enormous reduction in tonnage. After the disastrous rain of early June, temperatures remained cool, sugars were very low.

Winemakers impact the quality of wine enormously too. Name 20 Mendocino County winemakers. I’ll choose 10 and the wines they would make would be better, much better, than the wines made by the 10 I didn’t choose. Winemakers saved the 2008 vintage, reducing or eliminating the smoke taint through reverse osmosis. Winemakers made bigger red wines than the 2011 vintage grapes would have allowed with additions of fruit concentrates and color. I have been fortunate, I have seen a winemaker take good grapes from a great vintage that yielded wine that wasn’t great and let them sing with a tiny addition of tartaric acid. Winemakers have a host of choices that impact the quality of a wine: oak vs. stainless, barrel vs. staves or chips, malolactic butter vs. zero ml apple flavors, 100 percent varietal composition vs. blend, filter and fine vs. not, vineyard designate vs. mixing fruit from more than one location source, bottle age vs. truck age. Frankly, there are so many choices winemakers have, so many tools in their toolbox, that it is ridiculous to minimize the impact of the winemaker on a quality wine.

I work for Guinness McFadden, one of Mendocino County’s top growers. Organic from day one, 44 years ago, and biodiverse, Guinness has experimented and found what grows best on his farm and under what conditions. Planting cool climate grapes on his high altitude river valley property, and then treating each of many blocks like the separate micro climates they are has led to the most possible flavor for each varietal planted. Guinness dry farms some, and irrigates other; head prunes some, and trellises other, and sure enough he grows some grapes on rocky hillsides where vines fight for moisture and has other grapes planted very near the Russian River.

I used to work with Carol Shelton, one of California’s best winemakers. I tasted the results of her winemaking, over 40 releases each year, from over a dozen varietals. The top awarded winemaker in the nation, several years running, Carol worked with grapes from all over, and transformed them into amazing wines. If pressed, I would say that grapes are the first and most important factor, winemaker is second, in what makes a great wine; but I wholly respect anyone who disagrees, and there are plenty of great winemakers in the county to point to as examples of impact on wine. Thanks for your question Jason, it was great because there is no wrong ­ or right ­ answer, but an excellent jumping off point to explore some of the complexities of wine.

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Get your ticket for April 5’s A Showcase of Mendocino Sparkling Wine where a dozen local producers will come together at Terra Sávia winery in Hopland to showcase their finest offerings. Graziano Family of Wines, Handley Cellars, McFadden Vineyards, Nelson Family Vineyards, Paul Dolan Vineyards, Rack & Riddle, Ray’s Station, Roederer Estate, Scharffenberger Cellars, Signal Ridge, Terra Savia, and Yorkville Cellars will all pour their sparkling wines. Enjoy smoked salmon, local oysters, pate, canapés, fresh strawberries, artisan breads, and for dessert, a delicious lavender infused sponge cake, to pair with your bubbly tastes. Classical guitarist Joel DiMauro will be perform. I’ll be there, and hope to see you there too. Tickets are $55, online, at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/590621