Friday, April 29, 2011

The French Winemaker

This title is slightly misleading, purposefully.  You see, the French don't really have a term for winemaker.  They call them vigneron, or basically the person who works the vines.  For us, that generally means "grapegrower", but some folks like to get a bit fancy and refer to themselves as "winegrowers".  There's a distinction, of course, because a person can grow grapes without thinking of what they are to become--juice grapes, for example.

Winegrowers, on the other hand, do tend to aim more for quality than quantity.  We tend to think that the reason we are growing grapes is not for grapes to be harvested in the fall, but for wine to be enjoyed a year or three down the road.  It's a whole other way of approaching viticulture.

That aside, we make wine.  While the French term of vigneron implies a tending of vines, here on this side of the big Pond we MAKE wine.  We are "winemakers."  Not winetenders, not wine-nurturers.  We're winemakers. 

And with this shift in terminology comes a twist of focus as well.  I've written about what I consider the cult of the winemaker.  (This seems to go along with the cult of the chef, musician, writer, etc.)  People are fascinated by the creation of creative arts, in one way or the other.  I am, too, but I am not so interested in winemakers as people but winemakers as winemakers.  I guess what makes us a little different is that we not only create, but we create with alcohol, the feel-good classic influencer of the past couple millenia.  We make stuff that tastes good AND makes you feel happy.

This shift in thought--from tending vines to making wines--also changes us who are involved with it.  It makes us think that we are actually in control of the process.  And it is true to some extent.  We definitely have a lot more control over our day-to-day actions than the farmer trying to raise some grapes.  When bad weather hits, there's not much you can do.  But when a bad ferment takes off, we can spring into action.

Is all this just a bunch of ego-stroking?  Perhaps.  But in that sense it would seem that we're missing out on a key part of the puzzle.  Or at least my puzzle.  My long-gone friend John once told me that he aspired to be a wine-sitter.  Not a maker, but a sitter.  Kind of like being a babysitter.  Don't push the wines, just let them be raised up, like kids, as you watch them.

All of which brings me to the French term for the general procedure for making wine: elevage.  It means "raising up".  They view making wines almost the same way as they see raising kids.  Interesting.  Now, only if I could get my kids to follow me as easily as the wines do.....

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Looking back on what I could have said better....

I just wrote a little piece for our newsletter, basically summing up what our Tour de Tanks event was like for us this past month.  It was a warm-and-fuzzy, feel-good essay which in retrospect isn't quite what Tour de Tanks is all about, at least for us on the work side of the equation.

First off, it's not warm.  Average temperature back in the cellar was 53F.  And, second, after a long day speechifying, the only thing that made me feel good was a glass of wine or four.  And the only thing fuzzy was my beard.

Granted, we all try to make everyone's visit as nice as possible.  And I, for one, have a unique position in that I get to get up in front of almost two thousand people during the month and say something.  Stuff.  Whatever seems to come out of my mouth.  I've learned over the years that it's sometimes best to not put too much of a filter between my brain and my tongue, even though I think I've said a couple wine-world shocking comments.  (It's kind of the point in making a point: nobody ever remember the safe slow talker, just the loony who let his mouth run and made a couple interesting points.)

I spent a lot of time trying to push the idea--that I have been pushing since the very beginning--that we in this part of the world need to get off our collective asses and focus on something.  The idea of "diversity is our strength" has reared its head in our grapegrower/winemaking conferences, and I have to say it makes me sick.  Just think if there were 50 varieties of grapes in Bordeaux or Burgundy?  Those places would cease to exist in anything that even mildy resembles their current form.  Additionally, I doubt we would have such unearthly pleasures as Chateau Cheval-Blanc and Domanine de al Romanee-Conti.  Generalization is anathema to beauty and wonder.

I harped on Chambourcin a lot during the past month.  It's an easy target here in PA because for some reason it seems to be ubiquitous for a local winery.  It usually produces an tart, acidic nicely colored red wine with an interesting flavor profile.  Most importantly for local growers, it yields well, is disease resistant, and seems not to exhibit any of the obnoxious herbaceous flavors that vinifera reds seem to show when not ripened fully.  But ultimately my issue with the grape is the fact that it allows us to lose focus on the task at hand.

Chambourcin is grown in the Beaujolais region of France with perhaps 6000 acres planted (so I'm told.)  The French who have been making great wine for many more years than all of the wineries in PA combined relegate the grape to their table wines.  Mind you, this isn't a bad thing.  Chambourcin makes really nice red wine when it's grown properly.  It's good juice.  (I personally think it's best as a rose or perhaps a Port-style wine.)

See, I got distracted again.  The task is to find out what our region can be known for, what we're best at, and what can put us on the map.  What will make world-class wine in our region?  I have stuck my neck out time and time again and said that Merlot is probably our star, or at least one of them.  It's not easy to grow, it's not easy to ferment, but once it's in a bottle, it's easy to sell.  (Don't kid yourselves....Sideways the Movie did not slow down sales of the variety.) 

So, what does it take?  If I knew, I'd be doing it already.  Maybe we need consistency.  Maybe we need a little luck.  Who knows.  If you have any ideas, I'm game.