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Kristofor Husted/MEDILL

Napa Valley, Calif. winemakers and analysts keep busy during the winter season by monitoring the dormant vines and aging wines.


For winemakers, winter not offseason

by Kristofor Husted
Feb 25, 2011


Just because the vines are sleeping in Napa Valley, Calif., it doesn’t mean the winemakers are.

To them, there is no offseason.

Napa's wine industry’s economic impact on the country reaches more than $42 billion, according to the 2008 Stonebridge research report. It doesn’t get to those levels without around-the-clock attention.

So while the vines slumber and prepare to push out the first buds in a few weeks, the winemakers are working on both sides of the grape: before the grape appears and after the grape is crushed.

Before the grape

Winemaker Kristin Belair of Honig Vineyard and Winery monitors the weather, soil and plant conditions of the property.

“It’s a maritime climate,” she said. “The valley is influenced by the fog coming in from the San Francisco Bay, up through San Pablo Bay and also from the Russian River.”

The temperature can swing 30 degrees throughout the course of a day. Because of that, winemakers and vineyard managers have to keep an eye on frost and overheating.

That heat wave in early February, which hit 80, concerned the winemakers who were worried about the heat forcing an early budding season.

The Honig winery is located in the Rutherford district. Each district, or appellation, comprises diverse soil types.

“I think there are as many as 30 different soil types in the Napa Valley,” Belair said.

The sand, loam and gravel soil composition of the Honig winery site lends itself to growing some of the valley’s premiere Sauvignon Blanc.

Ensuring the vines have a healthy environment to sleep in protects the future quality of the grape and eventually the wine.

After the grape

The already crushed grapes sit aging in barrels and tanks across the valley. Winemakers monitor the levels of multiple components in the wine.

Balancing the qualitative tastes of a winemaker’s palate and the quantitative measurements of components helps guide a winemaker with blending, aging and bottling decisions.

At Napa Valley Think Tank in St. Helena, Calif., wine analysts calculate these quantitative values for winemakers.

The most important test is a quality control panel, according to Mona Ostrander, technical director of Think Tank.

“The three main components that winemakers are really interested in are free [sulfur dioxide] levels, total [sulfur dioxide] and volatile acidity,” Ostrander said.

Sulfur dioxide works as a preservative and each type of wine requires a specific level.

Winemakers use these measurements to monitor the levels of components, to test levels within experimental trials and to keep a historical record for reference.

Expanding

Think Tank just finished up a successful first harvest in 2011 and in turn is expanding the analyses available for winemakers.

As a brand new lab, Think Tank is as clean as it is sleek. And because not all wineries can afford to keep an enologist or wine analyst on staff full-time, winemakers in the valley are starting to pop in to the white stucco building on Main Street for help.

“A real treat is you have real well-known winemakers from Napa Valley walking in here with their samples,” Ostrander said. “You get to meet them and talk to them directly.”

Ostrander’s office is stacked to ceiling with recently delivered, large boxes. The cardboard building looks like the fortress most kids would dream of playing in. She doesn’t mind her office being overtaken though, because unlike the kids, she is more excited about the brand new equipment in the boxes.

“The new equipment will allow us to do a whole range of new analyses on the microbiological characteristics of wine,” said Think Tank general manager Karen Fischer. “We’re also bringing a whole bunch of new equipment for phenolic, color, aroma and flavor analyses.” (Phenols are chemical compounds found in plants.)

One-stop shop

Think Tank isn’t just a lab though. Visitors can pick up everything from a bag of yeast to a spare part for a broken tank. They can also use the conference room to host technical tastings. It’s become somewhat of a community center for winemakers.

“I’ve felt for the past six or seven years that there should be a place that appeals to winemakers where you can come and get the tools you need, analysis you need, a place to share ideas—something that will become part of the community,” said managing partner Andy Erickson.

Relaying and sharing information between winemakers is important for improving the quality of wine in Napa as a whole, according to Erickson.

“There’s data and there’s information,” he said. “Data is what you get when you measure all these things. What we really want is information. Information is what you can use to make a decision.”