There Is No Such Thing As A Winemaker

As the first Centralas harvest is winding down, I’m overwhelmed – not with a feeling of pride, but with a sense of gratitude.

Wine starts in the vineyard
Some of the most important characteristics of wine are created and overseen by vineyard workers, many of whom never taste the finished wine.

After making wine at home for 10 years, I was used to doing almost everything myself. From picking to bottling, my physical labor and decision making is what got the job done. I didn’t realize it, but this blinded me to huge aspects of the winemaking process that weren’t in my control.

With my first experience of the scale of commercial winemaking, however, I began to experience a strange out-of-body experience. I kept expecting to have that sense of ownership of the process – after the long day of processing the first tons of organic Pinot Noir, for example. Instead, I kept feeling like I was watching the process unfold, as if I was observing the natural process of a flower growing from a seed and blooming.

Even when I was wet and sticky, elbow deep in grape must – as active as I could be in the process – I realized I wasn’t alone. There was a team of harvest workers next to me sorting the grapes with me, pulling stems from the must with me, cleaning with me.

I couldn’t have done it without them, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it without them.

When the wines went into barrel, and the heavy-lifting of harvest was behind us, I still had this sense of waiting to feel like I was the one making it happen. But I finally had to admit that I wasn’t the one making it happen.

I mean, sure, Wendy and I put up our life savings to initiate this process, that we hope will result in a self-sustaining business that allows us to promote organic wines – something we love and care about. In a real sense, we planted the seed.

But could we say that we made the wine? With time to reflect on our first harvest, I had to admit that the answer was a big fat “No.”

We didn’t pick the vineyard site. And even if we did, this choice would have been constrained by our budget, availability of land for purchase, zoning laws, environmental suitability, and many other factors completely outside of our control. Yet the vineyard site is one of the single most important factors that influences how and what type of wine is made.

Even if we could control for nearly every factor of vineyard site location – and since we don’t own a vineyard we can select vineyards based on exactly the type of site that makes the kind of wine we want – tending a large vineyard is far too much work for any one person to do. Yet how the grapes are grown is, again, massively important to wine flavor and quality.

Vineyard management, especially of the best organic and biodynamic vineyards, is a science that attracts brilliant minds with years of study and training, as well as a team of workers who are experts in the nuanced labor of leafing, pruning, training, thinning, and picking vines, not to mention the proper use and application of cover crops, composts, and sprays.

Then there are the uncontrollable factors of vintage and environmental shift. Even when we pick is sometimes out of our control, yet this single choice has a huge impact on the finished wine. We may have a sweet spot for brix and pH that we want to hit, but the vintage may never make that possible. Or we’ll decide when we want to pick, but then a vineyard team isn’t available until two days later and during that time there’s a heat spike, or rain.

Once the grapes are in the winery, as I mentioned, there is a team of women and men who usher them along the way from the sorting table to the fermenter to the the press to the barrel or vat. Even the decisions you make about how you treat the grapes, and whether you add acid or water or yeast nutrients, etc., is sort of pre-determined by all of the factors mentioned above – vineyard site, vintage irregularities, and pick date.

We aren’t making decisions as much as reacting to all of the uncontrollable factors. Even our reactions are most often guided by the experience of seeing how things unfolded in previous vintages, not our own brilliance. That’s trial and error – observing a process and learning how to facilitate it again, rather than guiding it.

We didn’t coop the barrels either. We didn’t grow the oak, select it, age it, shape it, and toast it. At every step we simply enable the conditions by which wine is made, as it has been for thousands of years, by a whole community of people working with the great winemaker: Mother Nature.

So where do we get off calling ourselves winemakers?

Okay, sure, if I heavily manipulated the grapes using all the latest technologies of flash-detente and the like, and added this or that yeast, or Mega Purple, or powdered tannin, and played chemist with any of the other dozens of potential substances you can add, and fined it and filtered it and dialed it in to exactly the kind of commercial beverage that the marketing team guarantees will fly off the shelf in BevMo – then yes, sure, maybe I could call myself a winemaker.

But then, in my opinion, I would no longer be making wine. At least not the kind of wine that I want to drink – the kind that is expressive of the uniqueness of its place and time.

So I’ve been humbled by this first harvest. The word “winemaker” now seems extravagantly egotistical, full of hubris, and ungrateful.

The French don’t have a word for winemaker. The closest word they have – vingneron – is connected more to wine growing, as in the vineyard. The German word is similar. In Italy and Spain the closest word they have is Enologist – which is really someone who is a student of the chemistry of grape fermentation.

Maybe that’s because there really is no such thing as a “winemaker.”

At Centralas, at least, that word has been replaced with a sense of gratitude for everyone and everything who makes it possible for our wine to happen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *