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KD: It gets back to the approach we're taking to make elegant wines. The Maple Vineyard itself has a fairly low pH and high acidity. The wine, for course, finishes with ML, but it has a fairly high natural acidity. So, understanding that component of the wine gives it an elegance without being overblown in the first place. But it wouldn't be my style anyway to make a port-like [table] wine. I just wouldn't do it. Now, there's a lot of good Zinfandels made like that and I'll drink them! I don't mind them. But I don't think I'd make one [in that style].
DM: I think that there's a lot of unbalanced wines in the marketplace. Is that consumer-driven? I don't know. I don't really drink Zin unless it's ours, just because I'm confident of what can be matched with it [foodwise].
[In illustration of a decidedly different but equally lean and well-balanced wine based on the same varietal, the Bernier-Sibary 2007 Zinfandel was poured.]
KD: The fruit for this wine comes from the Bernier vineyard, which is across from Pedroncelli, up on a hillside. So, it's on the southside of Canyon Road. I don't think it's dry farmed; I think he has it on drip irrigation. But it's organically farmed. The grapes I co-ferment — everything goes into one big pot. We're tasting this because it's a different wine from the Maple. It's a big wine, but it has a leanness from the Carignan. It might be about 5% or 8% Carignan, along with some Mourvedre and Petite Syrah. We actually decided to bottle it unfiltered.
The Damskey Technique
NM: Tell me more about that: what are your feelings about filtering wines? How about with some other debatable winemaking practices: fining, pump-overs, punchdowns? Do you employ any usual techniques?
KD: I generally don't fine. It's not that I have anything against fining but because of the way we handle the fruit, it's generally not necessary. If you're fining, you're more than likely taking something out that got in there because of winemaking — tannin or color. With our Chardonnays we whole-cluster press everything, all of our fruit. And when you do that, you just don't get a lot of phenolics in your white wines. With our reds, everything we make is with punch-down [fermenters], and punching down gives you tannins but doesn't give you drying tannins. Basically, across the board, almost every wine I make everywhere, is punched down. And we don't pump our must. The grapes are dumped into our tanks and then when we drain, we pump the juice, but our pumice itself never gets pumped. So, it's pretty gentle. Consequently, we never have to fine. I don't think I've ever fined a Dutcher Crossing wine.
So, then the next 'Damskey technique' that not many [other winemakers] do is that once I feel that a red wine has enough mouth substance — and it may not yet be dry, close to dry, but not entirely — I may stop punching down and then I turn the heat on. And this is critical! We then put the top on the tank, heat it up to about 90º, and we just let it cook. We don't touch it all, but just taste it, day by day. And most of the time, it's another 10 to 14 days just sitting there. It just sits there. What happens is that the [phenolic] chains get longer and longer, which gives it a mouthfeel without getting tannin. If you were to punch it down at the same time, you'd get [too much] tannin.
Now, filtration versus non-filtration. We haven't really talked about doing whites unfiltered. With those there's much more risk: if you bottle a white wine unfiltered, it's probably going to be cloudy, or in the very least not brilliant[ly clear]. You have to be able to accept that. Whether or not our customers are ready for that, is the question. I don't have any problem with it, but that's a marketing question. Now, with respect to reds (and even still with whites), whether or not to filter is entirely a scientific, microbiological question. If you've not finished ML, you have to filter. If you still have any [residual] sugar in your wine, even the smallest amount, you have to filter. Because otherwise there's a likelihood, statistically speaking, that the wine could re-ferment. For our reds, the issue hinges entirely on microbiological concerns. We lab-test for [bacteria that might be in the wine]. And from there it comes down into experience: we look at what's there, what's growing, what could support growth. This is another very true example of risk-reward. Because what's growing in a petri dish is like being in a womb; it has nutrients, it's warm — that doesn't mean the same bacteria is going to grow in a hostile environment of 15% alcohol and SO2.