Archives: Winemaking 101
Some of you know that in addition to being a winemaker, I also dabble in writing on the side. I published The Winemaker’s Answer Book in 2007, pen the occasional piece for trade magazines and in 1998 helped found WineMaker Magazine, the first “for home winemakers” magazine, as the “Wine Wizard” Q&A columnist. Readers from all over the nation write to me with their fermentation foibles and crushing conundrums and I do my best to help them troubleshoot their wine making difficulties, sort of like the Dear Abby of Wine. It’s a fun gig that keeps me grounded and serves to remind me of the joy of discovery, creation and creativity. Usually the questions are in the realm of, “Dear Wine Wizard, the pH of my Vidal Blanc came in at 2.75 post-pressing, what do I do now?” Occasionally there are questions that cross-pollinate into the world of the consumer and bring up an issue that is appropriate to a wider audience. This is one of them.
Dear Wine Wiz,
I recently had a friend post an article on Facebook about how “natural” wines don’t get you drunk like regular wine and even don’t cause hangovers (“The No Hangover Wine” by Jordan Salcito from the news/opinion website The Daily Beast). Is this true?
Los Gatos, CA
I just read the article you refer to, which seems to claim that “natural wine” (an ill- defined term which in the article seems to mean “minimal sulfites added except at bottling” or “wine made from grapes, yeast and little else”-which, as an aside, defines almost all wine) doesn’t cause hangovers. The definition of “natural wine” (and the merits- or demerits as the case may be) is fodder for further articles because of the confusion (and lack of scientific, objective facts) surrounding the issue. But in our remaining column space, let me get down to the proverbial brass tacks and answer your question- is it possible that there are wines out there (however they are defined) that because they lack certain components or weren’t “manipulated” (again, no good definition) don’t affect you as much as others and don’t cause hangovers? Note that these are table wines with “normal” alcohol levels, i.e. generally over 12.5% alcohol and not specifically low-alcohol wines.
I forwarded the article to Dr. Linda Bisson at the Department of Viticulture & Enology at UC Davis. She replied: “I looked at this article and have to say I think it is irresponsible to suggest that you can drink as much “natural” wine as you want and never get a hangover – the real hangovers are based completely on level of ethanol consumed, innate metabolic rates and dehydration of tissues – it has nothing to do with other components in the beverage.”
I have to admit I agree with Dr. Bisson. Even if a wine has less sulfur dioxide (or less tannin, less oak….but wait, what are barrels made out of?), it still contains plenty of alcohol, which is what causes intoxication, dehydration and hangovers. I would hate for someone to read the Daily Beast article and get the impression that just by choosing certain brands over others they could blissfully ignore the fact that ethyl alcohol, whether lab-distilled so it contains no compounds other than carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (is that “pure” enough for you?) or delivered in an aqueous solution of Domain Jean-Louis Chave (one of the “natural wines” cited in the article), will still get you drunk, plastered, blistered, pissed, blotto or whatever you choose to call it. It’s like suggesting that because you drive a Volvo (a vehicle marketed as one of the “safest” on the road) you can blithely tear up the road at 90 miles an hour on a rainy night while texting your BFF. Heaven forbid you also attempt to do so after having had a few glasses of so-called “natural” wine.
That is the end of my Wine Wizard response, and before everyone starts talking about all those suspicious sulfites and other “added ingredients” in wines that really cause the hangovers and wine headaches, I want to write that we will tackle the “red wine headache” and “natural wines” in another blog post. As the comment by “winethinker” in Mr. Salcito’s comment chain states, “The facts do get in the way of a good story”. Sorry Mr. Salcito, the real story is as follows: Sulfites are not the culprit of “wine malaise”, there is less than 0.1% of the population with a true “sulfite allergy” and these people lack the digestive enzyme sulfite dehydrogenase and also know to stay away from things like beer, dried fruits, cheese, deli meats and a host of other foods, all of which can contain sulfur dioxide. There is also no such thing as a sulfur-dioxide free wine because yeast naturally produce 10 ppm or more sulfur dioxide as part of the fermentation process. Indeed our own bodies are awash with sulfites. Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, a colleague of Dr. Bisson, explains, “Most studies of sulfites overlook the fact that we produce almost a gram of sulfites in our cells every day. Thus a few milligrams from a glass of wine, etc, is hardly going to overload our natural systems for breaking down the sulfite.” White wines actually tend to be fermented and bottled with more sulfites than red wines.
Dr. Bisson believes that biogenic amines are largely the culprit and states, “Histamines are the main cause of headaches in people susceptible to such headaches, not SO2.” Ironically, biogenic amines and histamines are much more likely to be elevated in wines that are not inoculated and which have inadequate sulfur dioxide, two hallmarks of many self-proclaimed “natural wines”. Dr. Waterhouse also posits that, “It is possible that the flavonoids (epicatechin) in red wine can cause vasorelaxation, and blood vessel relaxation is surely related to headaches.”
Hmmm- possibly one more reason to avoid over-oaked, over-extracted overly-tannic red wines. On that note, time to go pop open a bottle of Pinot Noir…..
Read Tom Wark’s brilliant response to “The No Hangover Wine” article here: “Natural Wine Cures Cancer!”
Check out the Wine Wizard and all the rest of my fabulous wine-writing colleagues at WineMaker Magazine: www.winemakermag.com
This last week there was a major internet flap when mom and blogger Claire Gross posted a blog on Babble.com that she bathed her three-month-old son Charlie maybe once every week or so. “Yep, total confession time,” Claire writes. ” I really don’t bathe my baby.” This blog post prompted an online firestorm of negativity wherein parents around the globe heaped on criticism upon criticism, accusing her of neglecting her child at worst and losing valuable maternal bonding time at best. In further media interviews after the story went viral Ms. Gross has revealed her pediatrician advised her that her second child’s delicate skin was drying out too much due to daily bathing so she scaled it down a notch and found a happy balance that worked for them.
So yes, total confession time. I really don’t wash my grapes. And well, neither does any winemaker I know or have worked with in the decade and a half I’ve been making wine. This sometimes comes as a surprise to a public accustomed to salad spinners, special vegetable-washing soap and double and triple-washed and cellophane-bagged spinach in the supermarket. On numerous occasions giving winery tours, I’ll grab a handful of grapes from the picking bins as my group of visitors watches the grapes poised over the destemmer. I’ll pop a delicious Pinot Noir berry in my mouth and offer the cluster around, only to hear, “Oh…..don’t you wash them first?”
Nope. We don’t.
Nowhere in my winemaking education, formal or on-the-job, across the state of California and over two continents, was I shown that washing grapes before fermentation was necessary.
The reality is that “No human pathogen can survive in wine,” as one of my favorite UC Davis professors, Dr. Linda Bisson used to tell us in the first-year winemaking class. Because of the high acidity (low pH) and high alcohol levels in a typical wine, no bacteria or virus that could infect a person (like a cold or flu bug, or even worse) can survive in that environment. This is part of the reason why, for the ancient Romans, Greeks and many other societies, wine was used to help treat wounds and was considered a medicine. Even though wine microbes like Lactobacilli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae are happy in that kind of harsh environment, bugs that live in the human body are not.
Winemakers also know what was sprayed (or in most cases, not sprayed, as grapes are a low-input crop compared to others) in the vineyard during the growing year. In fact, residual fungicides or other chemicals disrupt a healthy fermentation, which is why winegrape growers are more limited than other fruit and vegetable growers in what they may use in a vineyard and why we ask our growers (or do it ourselves, if we are the grower) to provide meticulous records of anything applied.
Are there sometimes mites, dust and bugs from the vineyard? Sure. Once I even spent an hour rescuing a dozen little green frogs from a bin of grapes as they went across the sorting table (no idea how they got there, must have been hanging out on the vine for some reason). But most importantly, there are also valuable indigenous yeast and bacteria cells that can help contribute to a healthy and more interesting fermentation and eventually, wine. From Bordeaux to Burgundy, Modesto to Mendocino, grapes get picked, come into the winery, get crushed and become wine, without a grape-washing step involved*.
I really never gave it much thought before, but I suppose we could add grape-washing to our litany of winemaking steps. Some might welcome it as a way to make squeaky-clean wine that they could market as “Triple Washed!” Some would no doubt decry it as yet one more unnatural and non-traditional winemaking “intervention”. It would undoubtedly be a waste of precious water and depending on residual levels, might dilute the wine. Every day we are learning more and more about the microbial world within and around us and its valuable contribution to our health and well-being. Why wash off microbes that might be beneficial in fermentation, or at least benign? The dust that comes in on the grapes settles down to the bottom of the fermenter and gets racked off and left behind anyway.
To side with Claire Gross, I really don’t bathe my baby much either (Bryce is now almost eight months old). He has dry skin and as per his pediatrician we find a once-a-week dunk works just fine for us, thanks very much. So here’s to the great unwashed! Winemaking, like parenting, is an ancient, and yes sometimes dirty, art.
*If someone does wash their grapes first, contact me! I’d be curious to do a follow-up blog post!
Alison loves answering questions about the weird in wine and published the WineMaker’s Answer Book in 2007. Interact with us at Garnetvineyards.com @GarnetVineyards and on Facebook!
Winemaking 101: How to Properly Un-Bung a Barrel
Worried you won’t know the proper protocol next time someone invites you barrel tasting? Applying for your first harvest job in the cellar and want to exhibit perfectly turned barrel-care etiquette? Don’t know your bung-hole from your wine thief? I’m here to help. Here’s how to expertly broach a barrel. Simplicity, swiftness (in the case of harvest intern barrel sampling work orders) and cleanliness (always!) are the rules of the game.
First step: Gently rock the bung back and forth to dislodge. Don’t just pull straight up. Especially if there’s a vacuum, which is a good thing when the wine is aging, this will take a couple of tries.
Pull it out and place it wet end up on the barrel- very important!. This keeps the portion that touches the wine clean. The tops of barrels can be amazingly dusty and dirty.
Insert your barrel thief (yes, it really is called that!) into the bunghole (yes, it’s really called that too) with your finger out. This way the wine floats up into the barrel thief’s tube for sampling.
Put your finger over the barrel thief to create a vacuum and trap a sample of wine.
Take it over to your glass and release your finger, letting the wine flow into your glass.
Take an appreciative swirl and sniff! Spit into a bucket or the drain (If you are a cellar intern, be sure that bottles are labeled appropriately, that you’ve siphoned out the requisite volume, and that caps are replaced tightly on the samples. If you are a winery visitor, be sure your hip flask is unlabeled, you’ve siphoned out the requisite volume and the cap is replaced tightly before putting said flask into your hip pocket…….)
Replace the bung in the barrel and give it a good twist.
Now bang it with your fist so the bung is tight in there- a good seal is imperative for good aging! Sometimes barrels can off-gas slightly during aging (carbon dioxide is often naturally produced during the process) so we don’t want any bungs popping off! Once bunged up again tightly, hose off any wine drops that have dripped onto the top of the barrel.
Thanks for taking our un-bunging tutorial. May your glasses always be full, your pours generous and your bungs easy to remove!
photo credit: Barbara Ignatowski, Garnet Vineyards Assistant Winemaker