Vanessa Wong is…looking for yeast


I must confess, though I am not a total Luddite, I am not exactly what you’d call a cutting-edge techie, either. To the dismay of some of the winery’s distributor reps, I don’t “do” texting. As for “tweeting”, I prefer the cute, yellow bird from Saturday morning cartoons. Technically speaking, even if I wanted to use these tools, it would be impossible with my Paleolithic 8 year-old cell phone. And I don’t quite “get” social networking sites. Okay, so I can check on the status updates of my friends and the minutiae of their daily lives, but I would much rather have these friends over for dinner, drink some wine, and find out what is really going on with them. So it is not so much that I am a technophobe, I am more of what you would consider old-fashioned—more into face-time rather than Facebook.

It is not like I shun technology, however. I’ve been known to post a picture or two of my boy on my cyber “wall” to let everyone know how pretty darn cute he is. But the utility of technology is to make the things I do easier, not to serve as a substitute or a stand in for accomplishing my work or living my life. I am sort of the same way with my approach to growing grapes and making wine.

For example, to ferment our white wines, I allow the indigenous yeasts that naturally live in the vineyard and winery to create alcohol instead of adding commercially-selected yeasts. Some winemakers ask whether I am concerned that the fermentation might go badly – by creating off-aromas or ending up with an un-finished, “stuck” fermentation – with this “uncontrolled” approach. Obviously, these outcomes are a huge concern to me. So I monitor each barrel very carefully during the primary alcoholic fermentation and the secondary malolactic fermentation. How do I do this? One way is to regularly measure the fermentable sugars – glucose and fructose – and to measure the malic acid in the wine by enzymatic assays with a nifty little lab instrument. Another is to look at the wine under a microscope to monitor the populations of yeast and bacteria. Okay, so given that the microscope has been used to view microbes since their discovery in 1676 by van Leeuwenhoek and  later by Louis Pasteur in the mid 1800’s to explain the process of fermentation, you can hardly call a microscope “high tech.” It is an important tool that I use to gather information and data to understand how the fermentations are progressing. But more often than not, my preferred method is to check on the barrels using the “low tech” tool of my own senses. I use my eyes to assess the clarity (or preferably cloudiness) of the wine in each barrel. I listen for bubbles that indicate that carbon dioxide is being released from microbial activity. And, of course, I smell and taste the wines. An intern once laughed when I asked him to check on some barrels and to fill out a chart on my notepad whose columns were headed by the following symbols:

                   

“Should I draw pictures or write something?” he asked, pointing at the hieroglyphics at the top of my page. Ha, funny. You’d think I was asking him to chisel observations on a stone tablet. Now, if my barrels could somehow post their fermentation status or Tweet how they were doing, I would definitely go higher tech. As it stands, I am just going to have to rely on the old eyes, ears and nose and record my observations on paper. I know, some may ask why not record it on an iPhone or something comparable, but I ask, “Have you seen what dropping an electronic device into a fermentor does to it?”

Speaking of fermentors, my method is similar for monitoring our red fermentations of Pinot noir and Syrah. One harvest another winemaker came by the winery for a visit. Looking at our fermentors he told me about these monitoring devices for your fermentors that were linked to a computer so that he could check the temperatures of the tanks. “From where?” I asked. “From anywhere. Isn’t that neat?” I paused trying to be sure I understood. “But I need to smell each tank every day to monitor their progress and to watch out for off aromas. While I am there I check the temperatures by looking at the stat whose probe goes into the side of the tank and by sticking a 3 foot long thermometer into the top cap of the fermenting grapes. So what is the benefit?” For me, being there and observing directly with all my senses reassures me and tells me more about what is going on than just knowing the information. I have only a small window of time during the fermentation to get it just right. In addition, where else would I be during harvest? My office, 20 feet away? Admittedly, tramping through our fog-drenched vineyard at 6 a.m. sampling grapes I often fantasize about how much warmer it is in Hawaii at that precise moment. Pineapple wine, anyone?

When deciding when to pick, this “being there” approach is most important to me. There are myriad analyses you can run to generate a plethora of data: measurements of sugar, acid and phenolic compounds, just to name a few. Now, the scientist in me likes data and, theoretically, the more the better. There is even a company that takes your grape samples, performs a battery of proprietary analyses, and then spits out some unit-less, arbitrary number that purportedly signifies its quality parameters and therefore the right time to pick. Even if this actually works – which is all very fine and well, though I am dubious – I much prefer to walk the vineyard, taste the grapes to assess how the flavors and texture are progressing, look at the condition of the vines and grapes, and  based on these visceral indications and my experience with the vineyard determine for myself when to pick the grapes. You can bet that if they had a HAL 9000 for wineries I would be the first one to make it sing Daisy sooner than letting it decide when to harvest.

Besides, who wants to plan their own job obsolescence? There are many things that can make work and life easier but not necessarily simpler. I appreciate these things and recognize that they can be very helpful and powerful tools for planning and making decisions. Yet, I feel that sometimes the more sensitive and discerning instrument is the personal one. My young son, Julian, received as a present a handheld electronic reading wand that reads the text of a book aloud when he waves it over specific books. I showed him how it worked and handed it to him.

“What is this thing?”
“Umm…it is an electronic reading device.”
“What’s it for?”
“Hmm…it is for when you want to read a book. This will read it to you instead of mommy.”

He took great delight in running the wand over the pictures in the book which would elicit different sound effects related to the story. I reminded him to scan the words, “Julian, put it on top of the words and it will read to you.”

“NO! I want mama to read the book to me!”

It is nice to know that someone else shares my fondness for the old-fashioned way of doing things.

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