To paraphrase what a winemaker friend once told me, “The art of winemaking is to harness a wine’s complex components into a seamless, harmonious expression where none dominates the other. Yet, it is only through a respect for the science behind winemaking that this goal can be achieved.”
Although wines have been produced globally for millennia, the term “winemaker” is relatively new and used primarily in the New World with no direct translation to most European languages. In the Old World, winemaking has been considered a part of the overall process from vineyard to bottle and not merely the influence of a specific individual in the winery.
In France, the closest terms related to winemaker are maître de chai (e.g. cellar master) or chef de cave as he is known in Champagne. Both are meant to convey the concept that this person is the head of a team making wine and not just an individual solely responsible for the cellar or process. In the New World, the concept of the “team” leader seems to have morphed into an individual’s role as a winemaker despite the historical connotation.
Although a winemaker’s role is often compared to a chef’s, I have long observed a distinct difference since the winemaker is solely dependent on the grape as the base ingredient, whereas a chef has a far broader ingredient selection at his disposal for each preparation.
A chef is truly a “creator” sourcing many individual ingredients and skillfully blending them to fashion a dish that until the final moment, may have existed only in his imagination. A winemaker on the other hand, is dependent on the “fruit of the vine” as the base ingredient and must rely on enthusiasm, experience, technique and vision to “shepherd” the fruit, with all its nuances. from vine to bottle.
Coming from a scientific background myself, I’ve always appreciated the intricate and subtle ways science and art – two seemingly disparate values – can meld into the creation of wine. While the lines may often seem blurred, the basic elements are always there. I decided to delve into this a bit further through the eyes of several highly respected and talented professionals who have honed their skills on somewhat different paths.
Randle Johnson is the owner/winemaker for Calafia Cellars and also winemaker for Artezin and The Hess Collection as well as consulting winemaker for Colomé and Amalaya in Argentina.
Counting both hemispheres, he has participated in 61 harvests and gained a wealth of experience encompassing all aspects in the vineyard and winery with numerous varieties, terroirs and growing areas. Randle is involved with all vineyard and growing decisions and says, “Wine is made in the vineyard so decisions made there are very impactful to the final wine.”
He appreciates the team effort in the winery especially when it comes to tastings and blending but feels, “It’s the team leader’s (i.e. winemaker’s) decisions that breaks all tie votes.”
The conditions in the Salta Provence of Argentina (Colomé in particular) exhibited some similarities to Mt. Veeder and Hess (elevation, cool weather and aspect). Yet, there is also a striking difference with Salta’s extremely dry/arid climate and only 4 inches annual rainfall.
His biggest learning experience came with exposure to vines growing on their native rootstock in Argentina (due to the vineyards’ isolation, phylloxera is not a problem) rather than on grafted rootstock so common here and elsewhere. He found that, “Vines on their native rootstock were balanced, have minimal growing issues, yielded a respectable crop and produced outstanding wines.”
Randle’s experience with many “under-the-radar” and heritage varieties has always been a fulfilling venture. But he does say, “They require an extra measure of vision, persistence, perseverance and persuasion.”
Having enjoyed many of these wines over the years, I can only say thank you for the extra effort!
Ana Diogo-Draper is director of winemaking for Artesa (the U.S extension of Spain’s Raventós Codorníu group) in Carneros and has the advantage of having worked in both the New and Old Worlds. She graduated from the University of Evora in Portugal with a degree in agricultural engineering and always knew she wanted a career in agriculture. Then she took a class in winemaking and connected with her professor’s passion on the subject saying, “I was hooked from Day 1.”
Ana worked in Portugal for a time and then decided on an internship in Napa. “I loved all the possibilities that existed for women in California, so different from my experiences in Portugal.”
During this time, she also began to appreciate the higher level of collaboration between California winemakers than those in Europe along with increased levels of experimentation.
During her five-month internship, she fell in love with California and missed Napa terribly when she returned to Portugal to finish her thesis. The following year, Ana eagerly accepted an invitation to return to Napa, thinking it would be for year or so. “But once here, I never left.”
Ana is responsible for managing all production crews, working on grower relations, managing the estate vineyard and is in charge of all harvest logistics. In short, she’s responsible for all winemaking (both still and sparkling) from vineyard to bottle. Harvest is her favorite time of year. “I love the alchemy of it, the overwhelming range of possibilities and when I just need inspiration, I love [going] into the vineyards, assessing what the vintage might look like and daydreaming with anticipation about the vintage ahead.”
Ana sees herself in the Old World model of a team player and is careful to point out the importance of her role as part of that team. “You can be an amazing winemaker, but if you can’t inspire and motivate your team, you will never be able to achieve what you envision for your wines.”
Scott Harvey is owner/winemaker for Scott Harvey Wines in Amador. As a European trained winemaker, he began his career in 1979 and is considered (among other accomplishments) a king-pin in establishing Amador County in the Sierra foothills as an internationally respected growing area.
Scott appreciates varietal diversity and takes pride in producing wines that, “Tell the story of variety, place and vintage.” He is thankful that, “California has so many wonderful wine flavors with the different areas, varieties and climates that an excited winemaker can have so much fun.”
Passion is a key component in Scott’s methodology and suggests that “A good winemaker has to be in love with making wine… If this excitement does not exist, he or she will have a hard time creating a product that will sell.”
He also sees the advantage of reaching out to the consumer with hopes that his excitement is further transmitted to them by the wines he produces.
Scott expressed an interesting view on the roles played by art and science in winemaking. “Science demonstrates the winemaking team’s application of lessons learned and knowledge gained over thousands of years and quantified in many respects by Louis Pasteur with his work on fermentation science. While art showcases the winemaker’s ability to trap the entire story of the grape’s journey from vine to wine as expressed in the glass for us to enjoy.”
A great part of a wine’s allure is the challenge in accurately separating the influences of art and science, for at every step both are intertwined in the decision making process. Beneath each manifestation of art and spirit lies an influence of science.
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Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an e-mail to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.