There is a wine industry joke that goes something like…
What’s the difference between God and a winemaker?
God knows he’s NOT a winemaker.
The folks at Roots Run Deep Winery, which brings you the popular Educated Guess line of wines, might not get the humor. If we’re to believe their complexities-of-winemaking-revealed labels, showing all the technical gobbledygook that goes into making wine, you’d think they have their hands on the divine controls of fermentation.
The fact is, stuff ferments. At best, winemakers are shepherds, keeping grapes safe as they grow and not screwing up anything as yeasts turn the juice into wine. You want a god-like figure? Look to a brewer or a distiller. They have a much more say in what a beer or spirit ultimately looks, smells and tastes like. They decide on pre-fermentation flavoring agents, types of grains, number of times to distill, post-fermentation flavoring agents, just to name a few key choices. They not only hold the recipe cards for their beverages, they write and re-write them at will.
What does a winemaker have? Grapes and grape juice. That’s about it. Adding yeasts is common, but many wine shepherds rely on ambient yeasts to do the heavy lifting. Yeasts, which feed on the sugars found in grape juice, are everywhere. They metabolize sugars and produce alcohol, carbon dioxide and heat. Mother Nature, in one of her more elegantly efficient designs, even decided to have yeast cells collect on the skins of grapes, just waiting for the moment that membrane to breakdown so they can get at the sweet juice inside.
Where’s the winemaker in that process? Nervously standing by, hoping the magic of fermentation strikes again.
Am I over-simplifying? Perhaps, but not by much. Packed with graphs, formulas, compounds and diagrams of polyphenolic chains, Educated Guess wine labels show that we understand quite a lot about the process of fermentation and what is happening in a bottle of wine. But even the best winemaker is merely a head coach prohibited from stepping on the field of fermentation.
To their credit, the folks at Roots Run Deep admit their control of the winemaking process is limited. As it states on their website: “We use our knowledge, intuition and years of experience t make the best possible decisions; however at the end of the day it still remains an ‘Educated Guess.’”
While they may say their power over fermentation is restricted, that does not keep Roots Run Deep and its winemaker, Barry Gnekow, from trying to gain the upper hand. With their latest release called Hypothesis, a reserve Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, they unleashed a force called flash détente.
Flash détente (loosely translated means quick relaxation) is a process that has been around about 10 years. Gnekow and dozens (maybe hundreds) of winemakers around the world subscribe to this process that heats grapes to 180 degrees and then quickly cools them in a vacuum. Without describing the numbing details, flash détente changes a wine’s color, aromas and flavors, while removing undesirable compounds.
Does it work? Not an easy question. What can be said is this: Educated Guess offers bold, flavorful, mostly balanced wines (cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot noir). They appeal to a growing audience of wine lovers seeking full-bodied wines. Hypothesis fits in neatly with its lineup. Along with its nearly neon-purple color, it has expected aromas and flavors of cabernet sauvignon that are perhaps a little fresher and brighter than usual. Napa cabernet lovers—and especially Educated Guess enthusiasts—will love it.
While I’m sure Gnekow does not buy into the winemaker-as-God concept, ceding control to the magic (and uncertainty) of fermentation is frustrating. Efforts to meddle with or support the process are only natural. A wise winemaker merely knows the difference.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.