the magic of montemaggiore Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   


An Interview with the Winemaker of Dry Creek Valley's Montemaggiore

Biodynamics.  Based in a holistic and largely spiritual world view, it seeks to balance the interrelationship of land with the plants and animals thriving on it as a tightly integrated and self-nourishing system.  While a great deal of biodynamic principles remain unexplained and in many cases even questionable, increasingly more grape growers in the wine industry are embracing its practices.  They do so in an effort to bring better balance not only to their vineyards but also to the wines ultimately made from them.  One such producer is Montemaggiore, located on a hill overlooking Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley.  I initially met its winemaker, Lise Ciolino, at the 2009 Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting event whereupon I was struck with her candor and enthusiasm in discussing the close relationship between her land and her wines.  It was only upon sitting down with her later, while taking in the stunning vistas of the estate she shares with her husband Vince, that I learned of the unexpected route that led her to winemaking.

After a successful career in computer science, Lise found herself drawn to wine with a passion that really began in childhood.  She followed in her father's footsteps not only initially by virtue of pursuing higher academics, but ultimately by way of embracing artisan-driven wine inspired by old world craftsmanship.  But as with any truly successful endeavor or captivating drama, Montemaggiore bears beneath its surface a finely balanced tension, a dance between proactive empiricism and intuitive artisanship.  Hearing Lise describe the challenges and rewards of this duality was nothing short of inspiring, as it beautifully encapsulated the struggle that all quality-minded modern winemakers face today.

NM:  Before we discuss how you're growing, tell me about what you're growing: Syrah.

"Syrah has had a special place on my palate! I love the diversity and the surprise of it, and I love the fact that it has so many faces."

LC:  When I was a kid, I never liked red wine.  I would always taste the white wines and loved them all.  When I was sixteen, I went on a trip to the Northern Rhône and had my first Chapoutier Hermitage at one of the those luncheons that only the French can do — the large swathes of white linen on the tables, three waiters for every diner, and all the wonderful foods and wines — and the experience made me fall in love with Hermitage.  Ever since then, Syrah has had a special place on my palate!  I love the diversity and the surprise of it, and I love the fact that it has so many faces.  In fact, there are aspects of Syrah that make it not such a good varietal to take off in the marketplace, because it's so dependent on where it's grown; there is no classic Syrah style.  So when people buy it, they don't really know what kind of Syrah they're going to get.  As we know, at the extremes, warm climate Aussie Shiraz is very different from cool climate Northern Rhône Syrah.  So, understandably, it's confusing for consumers.  But that's actually a big part of what I love about it, that it's inherently so diverse that you can make so many types of Syrah, depending on where you grow it.  There is no single, accepted style; there's a spectrum.  Overall, it's the earthy character, the fruit character, the complexity, and the versatility of Syrah that I just love.  So when [my husband and I] were first looking to buy a vineyard, we looked at those where Syrah was grown. And, of course, that narrowed the choices down quite a bit and made things easier. Although, the vineyard here wasn't entirely what we wanted — originally it started out as five acres of Syrah and five acres of Cabernet — but we've moved that over to what we really wanted [by replacing some of the Cabernet with Syrah].

Montemaggiore SyrahIt had also been conventionally farmed [with chemicals], whereas now we're not only organic but biodynamic.  The former owners had really sprayed the heck out of the vineyard floor, so it was always devoid of life.  And then they had pumped in the steroids with the fertilizers.  That little vineyard up there {pointing to 2.5 acre patch on hillside} was planted in 1994, and in '97 yielded 16 tons out of just that small area — which is just outrageous!  We get maybe 2 tons if we're lucky.  Back then, [the former owner] didn't really care what the quality of the grapes was; he was selling to get his investment back.  But when we moved here in 2001, we knew we wanted to be organic — after all, we were going to live on the property, with our dog, two cats and our son all running around on it.  We never liked the idea of putting all these harsh chemicals in a vineyard that people are going to breathe!  It's ridiculous!  And I don't know if you've heard this, but the latest thing is that there's a [legislative] bill that's been proposed against organic farming!  Somehow the chemical companies have put this bill on the agenda of Congress to prevent not only farmers but also private citizens from growing organically, because somehow they've convinced people that [by virtue of using organic methods] we're poisoning the food system!!  What has this world come to?!  What are these people thinking?!  {laughing}  As you can see, I don't have many opinions…

NM:  {laughing} No, I love hearing strong opinions!  They're necessary to have in order to exact change in the world.  And in your case, it sounds as if, because of your connection and affinity with the environment, your position is one that values the principles behind organic and, apparently, biodynamic farming — all in an effort to bring the land and its environment back into harmony after the imbalancing effects of more invasive farming practices.

LC:  Yes, and Demeter is coming later this month to officially certify us [as biodynamic].  But we really began with organic farming simply to eliminate chemical use.  Because roaming the property we've got animals — not only the dog and cats, but the six sheep that mow our vineyards — and also our drinking water, the very water you're drinking, comes from our property.  You don't want all these wacky chemicals floating around!  Plus, we've learned that you have to work with nature, instead of against it.  Whether it's vine spacing, deficit irrigation, aggressive pruning, or whatever, you want to have the vine take care of itself so it doesn't produce lots of canopy to shade the grapes or tons of bunches that you're just going to end up green harvesting in the end.

"We never liked the idea of putting all these harsh chemicals in a vineyard that people are going to breathe!"

For example, as veraison occurs (as the grapes turn from green to red) typically what most people do in the case of an ultra-premium wine is to go through and do what's called a green harvest, or gathering those bunches that are slightly behind in ripening.  Because, ideally, when you make a wine you want every single grape to be at the same degree of ripeness — otherwise you might end up with a wine that has has overripe and underripe flavors.  So, you try to narrow the range of ripeness as much as possible, and the best time to do that is at veraison since that's the only time you can do non-destructive testing, where you can actually look at a bunch and determine where it is in terms of ripeness.  Otherwise, you have to destroy it by picking a berry and squeezing it to find out how ripe it is.  And sure, you could do sampling, but overall veraison is just a really easy time to go through [the vineyard] and get all your bunches within that narrow range of ripeness.

NM:  Plus, in dropping fruit at that early stage, I imagine that you're maximizing the efficiency in the plant's expenditure of energy — as opposed to dropping that fruit after the vine has already spent energy to ripen it.

LC:  Yes!  But you also don't want to do it too early.  Otherwise, the vine would ultimately figure out that it doesn't have as much fruit as it should and then put out more bunches later on — you'd get what's called a second crop.  So, dropping fruit at veraison strikes that balance in time, where it's not too early and not too late.  It's a perfect window.   But [we learned all this later, because] when we first came [to this property], we didn't really know how to do things.  During one of our first years, we dropped probably about 30% of our Syrah crop— which, if you're just a grower, makes you want to cry, because that's money you're throwing away.  Of course, we're also a producer and that was consistent with what we wanted in terms of increasing the quality of our fruit.  But still, it was a lot of work to drop all that fruit!

Montemaggiore VineyardLeaf-pulling is another example: if you have a huge canopy, then what you'll do is pull leaves in certain spots so that light gets through; you'll want to have some leaves but not a lot.  But again, [just as with dropping bunches], it takes a lot of hand labor to pull those leaves.  [Going through those experiences have since taught us that] if you do your severe pruning and do it right, then you don't get those extra bunches of fruit that you would otherwise have to green harvest, and if you limit you're watering, you don't get such a huge canopy that you would later have to pull leaves from.  It's all about balance.  You want a healthy vine, but you don't want it to do what Syrah naturally does: put out lots of bunches and grow a huge canopy.  All of these lessons went into the decision to plant the Syrah vines on 4x4 spacing — to encourage competition between the vines so that in the end, the canopy is smaller and the number of bunches it produces is small, and we don't have expend as much manual labor to make it all happen.

NM:  In light of the path that you took in learning to grow grapes and make wine, to what extent are the methods and techniques that you practice based in a priori knowledge you learned academically as opposed to more empirical discovery you gained through experience?

LC:  Let me answer that by going back a little bit.  There are many things I know about the wine business now that I never would have imagined before I started.  I came from a relatively scientific background —there are rules, you read the research, you do the work, and it's all going to work out.  The thing I've learned is, that is not how it works in the wine business!  You can read the research and it will prove, without a hair of a doubt, that in this ten square meter plot of land this particular thing will happen.  Well, guess what?… What can happen on your ten square meter plot of land is completely different from somebody else's ten square meter plot of land.  In fact, even within your own vineyard, completely different things occur from one plot to the next!  Everything in wine is relative.  And that's one of the most frustrating but also one of the most wonderful things about wine, from a scientific standpoint.  You read these papers in respected journals that are very inspirational, and say "Ah, I think this is going to work for me!"  And either it doesn't actually work for you or you read another paper that unequivocally contradicts it!  {laughing}  For example, one of the anecdotes in the wine industry is that the lower you crop your grapes, the more intense flavors you end up having in your wine…

NM:  But there's a point of diminishing returns.

"What can happen on your ten square meter plot of land is completely different from somebody else's ten square meter plot of land."

LC:  … There's definitely a point of diminishing returns.  But not only that.  Every year, the American Society of Enology and Viticulture holds their annual meeting where they award the top two papers, one in each of the disciplines.  Last year's top award in viticulture absolutely flatly denied [the correlation between crop levels and flavor intensity]!  There are so many other factors involved, like pruning, training, trellising.  So, even taking diminishing returns into consideration, you still can't really depend on that anecdote as a rule.  You just have to figure it out for yourself!

NM:  Lowering crops evidently has other risks, as well.  I'm currently reading New Classic Winemakers of California, and in it (during an interview with author Steve Heimoff) Andy Beckstoffer makes what I feel is the very provocative assertion that there's a point beyond which cutting yields actually throws the vine out of its natural balance, resulting in vegetal flavors, which in turn encourages growers to allow for longer hang time, which ultimately increases potential alcohol.  In short, cutting yields in the vineyard may be part of what's causing increasing levels of alcohol in wines worldwide!  I was stunned on reading that!  It's just not something we read about in the press or hear about when commonly discussing the prevalance of high alcohol.

LC:  I could certainly believe that, to a certain degree.  I would also say that one of my life's philosophies is balance.  Everything is about balance.  Of course, balance for one person is different from that of somebody else.  Similarly, a balance in one vineyard is different from that of another.  You have to find what that balance is in your own vineyard.  And I don't mean that in some nebulous, metaphysical way; there are some very real considerations — things like crop level, soil fertility, pruning.  Nothing is bad except when it's at an extreme.

Montemaggiore in a GlassNM:  And therein lies the salient challenge for someone in this business, whether it be tending the vineyard and raising the vines or taking the grapes and making the wines — or even more so, as in your case, doing both.  With every step along the way, it's important to be mindful of balance and establish a sort of dialogue with the process.  How would you describe the dialogue that you personally have with the winemaking process?

LC:  Ay, ay, ay!  {chuckling}  That's a loaded question!  I'm not sure I'll answer it directly, but allow me to come at it from the side.  One of the reasons why we like biodynamic practices is because it takes into account the bigger picture, and with the bigger picture comes some of that balance.  For example, our vineyard (quite luckily for us) is carved out of a forest; we've got forest land all around us, with all its naturally occurring flora and fauna.  My firm belief is that Mother Nature has found a balance in every single area of the world.  But we humans tend to disrupt it, especially when we plant a monoculture of grapes for as far as the eye can see; things get way out of balance.  [In that case], if you get one little pest in a corner of your vineyard, you no longer have its natural predator near enough to it to keep it in check.  I think one of the reasons we can be organic and biodynamic is because we're carved out of a forest: although we may get pests, we don't get huge infestations of them because whatever pest is indigenous to here, its natural predator is only a few feet away in the forest and will come and eat it before its population gets too large.  Infestations happen when things get out of balance.

So, in answer your question about dialogue, I harken back to my thing for balance.  It's a give and take.  We don't have the world's most gorgeous vineyard with the flat, brown floor, and the uniform rows that are perfectly trimmed and clipped — things that visitors love to see.  Heck, when I was first visiting producers, I loved vineyards like that, too.  But now I look at our native grasses (some people would call them weeds; I call them native grasses) growing in the vineyard, and our scraggly-looking vines that lack these huge, lush green canopies, and I say, "This is what I want!"  It may not look gorgeous, but I believe it's still the best thing for the way that I want to grow grapes and make wine.

NM:  So, you seem to have some very clear approach about how to manage your vines, not only to keep them harmony with the broader environment, but also to have them produce the kind of fruit you want to produce wines under the Montemaggiore label.  How do you continue that approach in the cellar, once you've harvested the fruit from the vineyards?

"I think there are advantages to adding yeast, and many times I exploit those advantages."

LC:  I'd have to go back to that word, balance.  There's two extremes in winemaking.  At one extreme is the aspiration for the Robert Parker score, which does whatever it takes to make that bottle of wine perfect according to some one else or some external ideal.  The other extreme strives to do things completely naturally with minimal intervention and simply express the grapes and where they came from.  I'm more or less a balance between the two.  I'm a fan of adding sulfur to wine — it may not be the most talked about aspect of winemaking and ideally I'd love to make a natural wine, but there are so many things that can go wrong.  I believe in cleanliness and not having things grow in your wine, and I believe in some sort of repeatability from bottle to bottle.  After all, I'm a scientist at heart!  There are certain advances that mankind has made that I choose to take advantage of, even if it may not be the most 'natural.'  In general, I add yeast to my wine.  Syrah can be a very stinky wine, and it's risky to do a native fermentation.  The wine that we're drinking now, half of it was done with a spontaneous fermentation, the other half I innoculated.  And I go back and forth with that issue; it's a dialogue I'm still having with myself.  I think there are advantages to adding yeast, and many times I exploit those advantages.  Even so, my ideal is to make a completely natural wine.  I'd like to get there someday, but I'm not sure if ever will.  I have a variety of friends who make wines is the most natural manner and I definitely appreciate them but I don't always like them!  {laughing}  I guess I just need that cleanliness there, because in the end I'm German at heart and I like things to be clean and precise.

NM:  Apropos, how are you able to reconcile your pragmatism with the deep respect you have for biodynamic practices?  While not all, quite a few of those practices simply can't be explained or validated empirically.  As a scientist, how do you sit with that?

Montemaggiore GrapesLC:  I read an article a couple of years ago that discussed one of the differences between men and women being that women can take completely disparate beliefs, those that on their face are completely contradictory, and still believe in them — whereas men have a harder time doing that.  It might be a bit of a generalization, but I do think women are able to embrace things that conflict with each other!  {laughing}  But to answer your question more directly, biodynamics is a very sophisticated and involved set of principles and practices, not all of which I understand or believe in, and I have my own interpretation of them.  As far as the mystical aspect of biodynamics, I don't really go there.  But I do think that many aspects of what happens in this world come from greater forces that I don't understand and never will.  I don't know whether any of [the more mystical practices] have any effect or not; I can't prove it one way or another.  The mathematician in me believes that we simply can't see things we can't see, and so we can't explain things we can't see.  We have our particular set of dimensions that we can appreciate, but I have no doubt there are others that we can't nor ever will!  But that allows me to live with contradictions and the realization that I will never have a complete, rational answer for the world, and so I have to do what makes sense for me and what I currently believe in at a particular moment in time.

With biodynamics, for example, there are many aspects that are not proven, but there are many aspects that are.  I don't think you'll find many people who would argue that composting is not a good thing.  Composting is just one of those fundamental things you do in biodynamics.  There are certain preparations you add to your compost that make nutrients more available to the plants.  I can't say I have a full scientific explanation for it all, but I can absolutely believe it to be true.  People have been farming for thousands of years in this way; I have to believe that they learned something through experience that maybe we still haven't been able to prove or explain by science today.  And I feel perfectly comfortable with that.

On the other hand, there are certain things in biodynamics that I don't really believe — like some of the preparations you're supposed to stir in one direction until you get a vortex and then stir in the opposite direction.  My explanation for that?… Stir well!  {laughing}  In some cases you're supposed to bury a horn at one equinox and unearth it at another — well, you know, back then they didn't have calendars!  So nowadays, just bury it and unearth it during this season for that length of time.  Whether it's the exact equinox, I don't think it matters, personally.  For me, I have my fanciful explanations for certain things that are supposed to happen in biodynamics that I may or may not follow, and I think there could be perfectly good explanations for a lot of them.  We follow the ones that we believe in.  Do I look at the calendar and track the phases of the moon?… No.  But, in general, I believe in composting, paying attention to soil fertility, treating your farm as a holistic entity and trying not to import too much into it nor export too much out of it.

Unlike organics which focuses just on the materials that you use in your vineyard or on your farm, one of the great things about biodynamics is that it marries materials with methods.  I think you have to go beyond just materials.  There are definitely things that are beneficial to implement, but organics really only tells you what's bad without telling you necessarily what's good.  Biodynamics actually says 'this is good, this is the right thing to do' and I believe in that type of philosophy.

NM:  It sounds like your approach to grape growing and winemaking isn't in the slightest bit dogmatic — nor even a paradigmatic.  You don't need for everything to fit into a nice, neat box.  And when in reality it doesn't, you don't feel compelled to undergo any significant shift in your thinking.  You're able to sit with this inability to reconcile everything to the letter.  This is clearly where you're really more artisanal in your approach, something that counterbalances your scientific background.

LC:  Right.  I'm not burdened by the past 50 years of growing up in the wine industry, believing that because things have been a certain way in the past that that's how they need to be done in the future.  I'm not burdened by knowing a lot about winemaking or grape-growing.  Yet I do pay attention to the current literature, I do talk to a lot of people [in the industry], and I do believe in learning about it.  But I'm coming from another industry altogether and I'm attacking this afresh.  There's a lot of people in Dry Creek Valley who've been here for generations, and while I don't know anything about their grape-growing, my assumption is that in many cases they grow their grapes in the way that their parents did.  They have a whole family history of raising vines and know a lot more about it than I do.  But some of those people might actually spray herbicides and use fertilizers precisely because their parents did.  My parents never did — my parents never grew grapes — so I'm not burdened with that history.

Lise CiolinoMy husband, on the other hand, did have some history that influenced our choices.  Of course, we always knew we wanted to be organic, so we started off with that, but then we thought there had to be something more.  And we started hearing about biodynamics, and it made sense to us.  But it was especially because of my husband's background that we went into biodynamics.  His family all came from Sicily — in fact, a town called Montemaggiore, a small farming community of perhaps about 3,000 people.  It was your classic Italian farming town where everybody lives in a compact area with fields surrounding it.  His family was all farmers: they raised grapes for their wine, wheat for their bread, pigs for their procuitto, sheep for their cheese, etcetera.  And they came over [to the U.S.] in the late '50s to find a better life in the New World.  The funny thing is, when we purchased this place, Vince's dad said to him, "Vincey!  I came to America so you wouldn't have to be a farmer!"  {laughter}  Lo and behold, one generation later, he buys a farm!  But that's what [his family was] trying to do, lift themselves out of the agricultural world.  Once the family settled in the suburbs of Chicago, Vince's dad had a planted an entire garden in their backyard, where he grew tomatoes and peppers and everything.  And there were so many summer mornings he would wake up furious at finding that his tomatoes were all gone.  It was because Vince's brother's friends, who were all cops patrolling the alleyways [adjacent to the backyards], would always steal the tomatoes, knowing that Vince's dad had the best tomatoes!  And he farmed according to the phases of the moon, and used the compost and the horse manure — that's the way they'd farmed in Italy and then continued it in Chicago.  And that's ultimately what biodynamics is all about — it's peasant farming methods that were used for thousands of years until the chemical companies came about.

But Vince always jokes that while he didn't have a lot to do with his dad's garden, he was always the one who was forced to go get the manure for the garden.  He would haul it in the trunk of his first car, one of the huge clunkers that people had in those days.  And that's the one thing that we import into our farm today: cow manure from an organic farmer from around Santa Rosa.  Now, ideally, if we had a true biodynamic farm, we would have our own cows producing the manure.  In fact, that reminds me of one book I read a couple of years ago — one of a handful that had a big effect on the way that I look at food, although I'll never remember the name of it.  It featured a vignette about a man who had this farm in Pennsylvania that from my perspective was truly the ideal farm: it was basically a self-feeding cycle where the output from one part (the animals producing manure) was the input into another (the manure fertilizing the crop soil) and so on; it was a perfectly continuous ecosystem.  With that, you don't have to import all this stuff, which god only knows where it came from, and then export all this waste, which god only knows where it goes to!  Reading that really made me focus more on where my food comes from and what goal to aspire to, even though I may never really reach it or really have any hope to.  But ideally it's a nice ecosystem to at least take steps in emulating.  I hope to get close, but I'm not sure I'll ever get there.

NM:  So, clearly, learning about biodynamics and other gentle farming methods has inspired you to incorporate a number of holistic practices in your grape growing.  But taking a step back and looking at your experiences more broadly, what have you learned in the process of raising vines and making wines that you've applied to other parts of your life and which perhaps even made you a better person for it?

LC:  So many things… so many things.  One of the great things about life is that if you're eyes are open, you get to learn about yourself and you can improve and aspire to be even better by understanding things and having those 'a-ha' moments.  I think one of the most profound things that I've… I hesitate to say 'learned' because I'm not sure I'm there yet — but at least am aware of — is to simply let things be.  I grew up in an academic environment, in mathematics where your world is constructed; you construct it, you fix it, you resolve it.  I'm definitely a problem-solver.  When somebody tells me a problem, they might be just looking for a shoulder to cry on, but nooo, I try to solve it!  {laughing}  But there are situations where really the best thing to do is nothing.  I took this wine microbiology class last week at UC Davis and one of the things that I'll never forget from that class is a great quote, a mantra really: "When you have various things going on in your wine, sometimes you just need to take the option of getting up and going to Tahoe."  {laughter}  Take the Tahoe option!  In other words, get away and the problem might solve itself; at that point there's not much you can do, anyway.  And if you come back and the problem hasn't solved itself, at least you'll have had a good time over the last few days!  For me, that attitude crystallizes exactly what I feel I need to aspire to: greater acceptance of what is.

Montemaggiore FermentationThere have been two occasions where that sort of experience had a profound effect on me.  One was when we first started out in 2002, our very first vintage, when we did a custom crush at another winery (we hadn't built our winery until 2004, so for our first two years we made our wine at other wineries' facilities).  In 2002, we happened to make our wine down in the Russian River Valley, which is about a half hour away, so I would go by maybe once a week just to taste the wine and see how it was doing.  And I'll never forget one time around the end of January, Vince was with me, and we tasted the wine together… {pausing} and that wine was just terrible!  It was absolutely awful!  I said, "We're doomed!  This thing that we've put all this time and energy and money into is a big disaster!  This wine is just terrible!"  We had a consulting winemaker at the time, so I called him at like 8 o'clock on a Friday night: "Help!  Our wine is terrible!"  And his response was like, "It's Syrah.  Calm down."  Lo and behold, two weeks later, the wine was completely different!  Syrah, when it's really young goes through a roller-coaster.  You may taste it at one point, and think it's the worst wine you've ever tasted.  But then a couple of weeks later, you taste it again and might think, "Wow, I make a pretty good wine!"  And then two weeks after that, "What happened to my wine?!"

NM:  Wow!  So it really goes through a tumultuous phase — and this while it's aging in barrel, long after fermentation?!

LC:  Yes, absolutely!  And so, for me, I'd been used to making Zinfandel as a home winemaker; I'd focused pretty much exclusively on Zinfandel.  If you put Zinfandel in a barrel, it gradually and slowly matures — same thing with Cabernet.  They just go along smoothly.  Well, Syrah goes through these [up and down] cycles, which gradually narrow and then settle out.  But especially for the first six months, you just can't get too hung up over what you're tasting — good or bad, frankly.  And so that's one of the instances where you have to take the Tahoe option!  {laughing}

Another example with our latest vintage, the 2005 Syrah, happened a few years later, after I'd gotten used to the early roller-coasters.  I'd gone so far as to do the bottling, then tasted the wine in bottle a week or two later: "Oh, my god!  What happened to this wine?!  This is terrible; I'm doomed!  I have 725 cases of this wine, and it's just awful!"  Now, as computer scientist, I'm used to the fact that if there's a bug [in a program I've written], I just do another release — no problem!  Well, with wine, when you put it in bottle, that's it, you're name is on it and you have to stand by it from now until eternity.  I panicked.  I figured that all the hard work I've done to build up our reputation was all going down the tubes.  And so after all that, I finally just decided that there was nothing I could do about it and that for the next six months I was just going to ignore the problem as if I'd never tasted the wine.  I decided I just couldn't deal with it and that I was play ostrich, stick my head in the sand, and pretend that it never existed.  Six months later, I tasted the wine again: "Oh!  Well, that's actually pretty good!"  At first, I thought it was good only compared to how I thought it was going to be — kind of like when you stop knocking your head against the wall; it feels better once you stop.  But then as I continued tasting it, I decided that it wasn't just because I expected to still be awful; it really was pretty good!

So, in talking to a friend of mine — I have a lot of friends who are way more experienced in winemaking than I am — I said to him: "I don't know what's going on.  This wine was just terrible, and then six months later it's actually decent.  Am I deluding myself?  Is it going to be terrible again in another six months?"  So he said, "The thing is, we're very lucky to be working with a very forgiving product."  And that's just it: wine is something very forgiving, very resilient.  You may have problems, perceived or actual, but sometimes the best thing to do is just take the Tahoe option!

NM:  It sounds like what you're describing is bottle shock — only much more extreme!  What did you finally discover as the cause or explanation?

LC:  Well, I didn't discover anything in particular.  Because, as I said, I stuck my head in the sand; I wasn't about to investigate!  But, if I were to speculate, I think it was a combination of two things.  First off, right after bottling wine does go into bottle shock.  And usually that's characterized by what I'll call the 'dumbing down' of the wine, where all those beautiful aromas and subtleties that you got on the palate [just before bottling] have seemingly vanished.  At that point, it's an okay wine but nothing all that exciting.  That's how bottle shock typically manifests itself.  My thinking is that somehow with this wine, bottle shock manifested itself in a different way.  There was something about this wine in that year — it had been a spontaneous fermentation to begin with, so it already had things going on that I'd never experienced before.  Maybe it was something to do with that, maybe it was just this natural cycle that all wines go through.  Who knows.  All I know is that it worked itself out, and I'm very happy for that!

Montemaggiore Vineyard, AerialAnd that's one of the tough things about winemaking that's really hard for me to get used to.  I'm used to solving problems: you see a problem, you solve it; put out a new release of software; work on it harder, think about it, ask people.  But in the case of wine, there are some things that are just better left to work themselves out.

NM:  Making peace with the process, allowing it to unfold on its own, and seeing where it takes you.  Is there any other significant life lesson that you've learned from making wine?

LC:  The one thing that I think I've learned is not just from making wine but from being in the wine business with my husband, who has a very different approach to life than I do.  I'm very German, very analytic, and the type who can fix anything if I work hard at it, whereas Vince is very Italian, very laid back, and the type for whom life is for enjoying.  I might want to spend every single available moment out in the vineyard making it absolutely perfect, but you just can't do that when you have a business and are trying to produce something in any sort of viable quantity.  So, from a combination of managing the vineyard, making the wine, and running a business from it all, you always have to be asking yourself, "Am I enjoying life?  Am I having fun?"  Because that's what it's all about.  Otherwise you can work too hard and make life miserable for yourself and your family.  I mean, the wine business is already a lot of hard work: we might project this image of sitting under the trees, enjoying food and wine, with not a care in the world, but that's just an image; it's not reality.  Making wine is hard work, so you have be sure you're also enjoying it and enjoying life.

It is said that the challenges we come across in our lives are tailored precisely to where we need them the most in order to grow as human beings.  The same could be said of Lise Ciolino in her second career as winemaker, coming from her first one wherein she held a vastly different role as computer scientist.  Much of the concrete thinking, pragmatism, and empiricism that are valuable assets in building technology can actually confound the practices of viticulture and enology, as they deal with a dizzying myriad of variables in the natural domain and are therefore prone to influences beyond our direct control.  Understanding that these influences have a language and set of rules of their own is perhaps the most important step in crafting truly great wines like those of Montemaggiore's.  Hearing the story of how Lise and her husband Vince continue to evolve in that process was truly inspiring.  To learn more about their story and taste the fruits of their labor, visit Montemaggiore online.  v