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JM: (con'd) But I think that what happens with any native fermentation — if you're in a really clean winery that doesn't have a lot of commercially propagated yeast — is that you're going to get a much, much more diverse fermentation, because you're going to have all these different families of yeast starting to ferment in the beginning. The weakest ones die off, strong ones propagate, and then the stronger ones take over the weaker ones. You get this chain that builds up until the last couple of dominant strains of yeast finish the fermentation out. And within that curve, I feel you get many more complexities and nuances that show up in your wine because of that. But with that, I think some winemakers would say that there's no such thing as a native yeast; you're just using a yeast that's floating around within the industry. They don't feel that going native in a fermentation is going to make that wine any better than going with a commercial yeast that they choose.
NM: Okay, so instead of 'native' yeast, let's just call it 'ambient' yeast. Other than the use of ambient yeast, are there any other winemaking practices that you feel produce the results that you're most pleased with, and which your neighbor perhaps might not?
JM: Extended cold soaks are another thing Karen and I do. We're cold-soaking some lots for two weeks before we let them warm up and start to ferment. And we do all our fermentations with whole-berries; we don't crush them. We get all those berries into a tank, adding about 150 pounds of dry ice per ton in order to get those tanks chilled and sparged down with CO2 to remove as much oxygen off the fresh fruit as possible (the more oxygen you get on that juice before it starts to ferment will oxidize it and make it lose fruit freshness, nuances, and aromatics). In that process we hold [the berries] in tank for one to two weeks, and punch them down about three to four times per day to fully macerate the fruit. In doing so, we're breaking up the skins gently in the juice in a non-oxygenated environment, extracting as much color and flavor that we possibly can off of those skins — all before we start the fermentation. Karen and I have always felt that when fruit is really cold in a tank, just cold berries and juice, you can get away with really beating those things up! I mean, you can beat them up hard, and you don't get the harsh tannins. As soon as you start the fermentation and allow it to warm up, if you beat up the fruit too hard then, you start to extract some pretty serious tannins. So the cold soaking allows us to extract a lot of depth out of the fruit before we start the fermentation. Once we get to the fermentation stage, we've already got all the extraction we want, so we take the yeast and say, "Hey, you know what, you guys? You consume the sugar, and we'll manage you with some air and some pump-overs to build the tannins right where we want them." And in most cases, we get the tanks down to 2 brix, then we close them up and let them sit; we don't even touch them after 2 brix. The wines then goes dry on their own, the cap sits on top, and we let them go through an extended maceration. This is all done instead of starting the fermentation immediately and worrying about extracting a bunch of color in the first two days before it really gets going.
NM: You mentioned pump-overs. Isn't that a harsher technique?
"We want to make a wine that is unique to our soil, our vines, whom we are, the climate that we're in. To do that, one of the things we do is letting the fermentations go naturally."
JM: Well, let me clarify what our pump-overs are. We do a gravity splash. So, in a traditional pump-over you usually have a splash cart underneath the tank, the wine goes into the splash cart, aerates a bit, and then gets pumped to the top of the tank and over the cap, breaking the cap up. Karen and I use little transfer tanks that are stackable. So when I speak of a 'pump-over,' we lift the tank up in the air, put an '90' on it, open the valve that splashes down into the splash cart (which is about 100 gallons), fill the splash cart up, set the tank down, lift the splash cart up over the top of that tank, open the valve up… So we're not using a pump; we're using gravity.
NM: So it's technically not a pump. But might not one argue that even the gravity splash, although to a lesser degree, is still rough on the fruit — as opposed to allowing the entire tank to just be, and periodically submerging the cap gently?
JM: Yes, definitely so. But what we're also doing is keeping air on the yeast. All fermentations (besides whites), if you're going to have skins in there, are going to get warm. I think it's really important to keep a healthy, clean-smelling fermentation. I don't know if you've smelled tanks that smell a little funky or rotten-eggy — what we call 'reduced' — no good! You can walk into the winery and when one of those guys starts smelling a little funky, you smell it immediately! I'll go hunting down for which one it is, lifting the tops up, then find it, pull it out, give it a little bit of air, and in a few minutes it smells clean again. Everybody makes wine differently, but I think keeping a clean, healthy, fresh fermentation plays a very important role.