The 10 Biggest Fears of a Winemaker
Posted on by Jay Stoeger
Many People have asked me as a winemaker, What kind of problems do you have making wine? Well I’ve had plenty. It’s not just the problems I have either. It’s problems that we have to avoid if at all possible. There are many pitfalls in wine-making, and I’m not even going to go into the problems we have with the vineyard. This is a list of a few of the obvious pitfalls that keep me up some nights.
Over-oaking – is not that much of a fear of winemakers but it happens so often, even in commercial wine making that it really needs to be feared. What is the solution? Split your batch and only oak half. Then blend to obtain the perfect batch. Of course, that means you now have to have an extra tank to hold the batch not oaking. And what are you going to do with the leftovers after you’ve blended?
Tartrate Crystals – little transparent crystals on the bottom of the bottle after the wine has been chilled is not considered defect by traditional winemaking standards but the majority of consumers will not stand for it. This is caused by an excess of tartrate in the wine after fermentation. It is normally chilled to 32 or lower, for a pre-determined amount of time to precipitate out the excess. More recently there are chemical means to prevent precipitation in the bottle. Once in the bottle however you have two choices; 1. Re-bottle or 2. lose credibility. To Be Continued shortly.
Cork Taint – this is as old a problem as wine making itself. And contrary to its name, it doesn’t necessarily come from corks. It can, of course, but it also can come from barrels, barrel racks, tanks, scaffolding, walls, stairs, pallets, cardboard boxes, etc. The chemical that causes the problem is TCA, (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), which is produced by a reaction between certain molds and certain chemicals used in cleaning the winery. The cure? There is no sure thing, but you can reduce your probability by removing wood and wood products from the winery and avoiding the use of chlorine in cleaning in your winery.
Brettanomyces – or Brett as it is known in the industry, is actually another yeast that does its’ work after fermentation. It is a very tough strain and is a constant battle of commercial winemakers. If your winery gets infected with Brett, it is a long and hard battle back to clean. Some famous European wineries, actually allow Brett to grow in the wine to add complexity. Once you’ve tasted how bad it can get, it’s hard to convince yourself that a Brett contaminated wine is delicious. If you’re a red wine drinker, chances are you’ve tasted it already. It’s a wet dog smell/taste. Others describe it as horse blanket.
Acetobactor – another ancient problem. This one involves bacteria that eats alcohol and excretes vinegar. A little less common than Brett, Acetobactor is obvious even to novice wine drinkers. As with Brett, Acetobactor is controlled by cleanliness.
Oxygenation – This is noticed by wine making professionals more than everyday wine drinkers. Many of my friends, who are significantly educated in wine, cannot detect over oxygenation. Winemakers on the other hand, who are always opening up the top of tanks where the top layer is always over oxygenated, get very sensitive to the smell of this defect. It’s a wet newspaper or moldy basement smell. I have done tastings in several wineries, where the sample they serve is totally oxygenated. Surprising to me, is that most of the time I’m the only one who notices it even after I point it out.
Re-fermentation in the bottle – In today’s new world of Muscato lovers we have the ever present possibility of re-fermentation in the bottle, due to the excess sugar these wines contain. This can really hurt the winery’s reputation because the bottle can actually blow the cork out, wherever the bottle happens to be stored. This results from incomplete sterilization of the finished wine. Dry wines do not need to be sterilized because the yeast has no sugar to feed on. Careful filtering and follow-up testing are the only ways to reduce the number of re-ferments you will get on any given batch.
Press Failure during harvest season – will likely end in spoiled fruit, or a rush to get the fruit to cold storage while the press is under repair. Of course, I’m talking about catastrophic failure that results in days or weeks of repair time. You might borrow someone else’s press but they are going through harvest themselves. If you happen to live in California you may be able to convince the other winery down the street to press for you, but here in the Midwest it’s not quite that easy.
Fitting or hose failure – You hear stories about this every once in a while. The crew gets the filter pump running from one tank to the next. Everything looks like it’s going well so they decide to take a lunch break. They come back an hour later and find that a hose fitting failed and the tank emptied into the floor drain. Anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000 worth of wine was lost. This usually only happens once to any particular winemaker. He’s not likely to leave a transfer unattended again.
Excessive H2S – This may not be every winemaker’s worst fear but it is definitely my worse fear. H2s, (Hydrogen Sulfide), is a compound usually formed during a nitrogen deprived fermentation. This can be avoided relatively easily, but there are circumstances that will render the wine unfix-able. A small amount of H2S production can easily be corrected for by judiciously adding small amounts of copper sulfate however if the contamination is excessive, it cannot be eliminated completely and will come back out of hiding once the wine is bottled. This is a real problem considering your wine now has the bouquet of rotten eggs. This happened in our second year of commercial production. Apparently sulfur can be picked up by the roots from the ground water and deposit it in the fruit. The fermentation will go great and the wine will seem perfect. Then two weeks after press you’ll notice the bad smell coming from the vent. At that point it was too late for me. Subsequent years, I’ve filtered and racked several times during those first two weeks to reduce the problem to something much more correctable.
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Cold Country Vines & Wines
E3207 Nuclear Rd. (Carlton)
Kewaunee, WI 54216
Kewaunee, WI 54216