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Although many points of contention may exist in the world of wine regarding the importance and influence of countless individual aspects of winemaking, there is clear agreement by all that it takes great fruit to make great wine.

This is not meant to diminish the winemaker’s role in any way but only serves as validation of the vineyard’s pivotal role as both contribute toward the creation of a great wine.

Warren Winiarski, the iconic founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars — the red wine winner of the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris Tasting” with his memorable 1973 cabernet sauvignon — once said, “Wine is the three ‘Gs’ – the ground, the grape and the guy (or gal).”  

Steven Spurrier, British wine authority, writer and organizer of the 1976 Judgment of Paris Tasting has said, “Wine is the three ‘Ps’ – the place, the product and the people.”

Are they saying the same thing with different letters? For me, that’s pretty much the case.

Arguments abound regarding the rationale for oak, tank or barrel fermentation, extended maceration, ripeness of fruit, alcohol content, organic and sustainable farming as well as a plethora of other subjects with solid and passionate opinions expressed on all sides.  

But it is generally accepted by the trade, press and consumer alike that “great wines are made in the vineyard and shepherded in the winery.”

While a skilled winemaker is essential to the creation of a superb wine all of his or her expertise is not confined within the four walls of the winery. Truly great winemakers often spend as much or even more time in the vineyard throughout the year — not just the growing season — as they do in the winery.

No agricultural product grown anywhere in the world is even remotely as site specific as the wine grape. Vineyards, as opposed to orchards and fields, are extremely precise growing areas and even the slightest variation in soil type, drainage and/or exposure will produce atypical results often necessitating the planting of different varietals in order to succeed.

Wine grape growing is a complicated task whether striving to produce the finest wine the vineyard can offer or copious quantities of mediocre wines for the mass market. This work doesn’t end with the harvest but rather begins there for the next vintage. The skills of the vineyard management team and winemaker must work in tandem all along the way to accomplish their goals.   

Not unlike many notable chefs working with local farmers to grow the highest quality produce for their kitchens, savvy winemakers work closely with the vineyard manager and viticulturist to do the same for the winery. And while facing the ever present challenges in the vineyard, the winemaker always has an eye on how the decisions made will ultimately be expressed in the wine.

In real life, non-interventional winemaking will trump manipulation in the winery when making a fine wine. Nevertheless, in its most literal sense I tend to dismiss the old adage that “great wine makes itself and the winemaker just has to stay out of the way” as a gross oversimplification.  

Skilled winemakers, like all great artists, have an innate ability to know when they should stand back and be patient as well as when their intervention and talent will guide them in the production of an exceptional wine. While the vineyard must speak of its individual character, it’s the talent of the winemaker to express his or her expertise when most appropriate to maximize the quality of the wine.  

So whether we look to Winiarski’s three “Gs” or Spurrier’s three “Ps” it all starts with the ground (or place) and is advanced by the people to produce the finest “product” possible from the vineyard’s “grape.”

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Questions and Comments

My April 20 column, “Wine — a chef’s delight,” attracted several insightful and thought-provoking questions on wine’s role in cooking.

RMD — Is there a difference in the preparation when you add wine early in the cooking process versus adding it late or even at the end of the cooking process? How does this affect both the final product of the food and the pairing?

When wine is added early it becomes an integral part of the dish. The alcohol dissipates and the flavors intensify to integrate into the flavor profile of the entire dish. When added late or even at the time of serving it tends to be more of an accent highlighting the other flavors of the dish. Think of a shellfish pasta prepared simply with white wine and olive oil in contrast to a dash of Sherry drizzled over a cold tomato soup and you can appreciate the difference.

Oenophile — Basic wine/food pairing would say that whites go with certain proteins (fish, poultry) whereas reds go with heavier meats (beef, lamb, etc.).  Does that translate to cooking? Is there ever an occasion when one can cook with red wine for fish or poultry or white wine with heavier meats?

Absolutely, even though cooking with white wines — sometimes sweet and often fortified — is far more common than reds, except for reductions and deglazing. Veal Marsala is a good example of a white (fortified in this case) used in the preparation with veal. You can also look to a grilled salmon in a red wine morel sauce or a classic Coq au Vin where reds are used with fish and poultry. Filet of Sole Veronique and Beef Bourguignon highlight the more traditional preparations of white wine with fish and red wine with beef.

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Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 30 years.

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