Wine Ink: The modern age of wine making
March 7, 2018
I know, you think that is a stupid question.
I mean, we all know that wines come from grapes. And grapes grow on vines. And vines grow in vineyards. And anyone who has read this column knows that we are of the belief that the single most important factor in the quality of any and all wines is the source, the place where the wine was grown and hails from.
But there is another answer to the "Where do wines come from?" question. And that is, duh, wineries. The places that actually process grapes, ferment them, age them, blend them, bottle them and ultimately sell them to us as wine. They are the factories, if you will, that harvest a raw product and turn it into the one that we all love to drink.
Water into wine is the Biblical analogy, of course, but unless you are endowed with well, supernatural skills, making wine is not quite that easy. But, at its most basic level it's not really that hard to make wine either.
Pick some fruit, gently crush it, put it into a container and nature will take its course. The sweet sugars will interact with natural yeasts that are found on the skins of the grapes and begin a process that turns the sugars into alcohol. The resulting juice may not be a Stags Leap Cabernet, but for many generations it was the stuff of dreams. Ancient wines were made in just this way, with fruit being packed into urns or jugs and fermenting until someone, perhaps the gods or a consultant, suggested the wine was ready for consumption.
Today, in the modern age, wineries come in all shapes and sizes. According to statistics released by Wines and Vines Magazine, which does an amazingly good job of keeping track of such things, as of Feb. 15, there were 9,654 wineries in the United States. And wineries exist in all 50 states, though some still produce wine from fruits other than grapes. Think pineapple wine from, you guessed it, Hawaii, or honey and raspberry wines from Alaska.
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Of course the vast, vast majority of wineries are found in the Golden State, California, which not only has nearly 4,400 wineries but produced a staggering 86 percent of all American-made wine in 2017. Add in the production totals of Washington state, New York and Oregon, the next four largest wine-producing states, and you'll see that 97 percent of all wine comes from just five states. That leaves precious little for the remaining 45.
You may have been to massive wineries, such as those that belong to producers like Mondavi or even Gallo. These facilities work 24/7 in the harvest season crushing tons of grapes. Gallo, the largest producer of American wines with labels ranging from Barefoot to Orin Swift, produces upwards of 75 million cases of wine annually.
Wineries with huge volumes are marvels of efficiency, with trucks, fermentation tanks, barrel rooms and myriad winemaking equipment.
But then there are the little guys. According to the Wines and Vines metrics, 80 percent of all wineries are considered to be either "limited production" or "very small," producing less than 5,000 cases a year. Of course, that includes many of the most well-known and quality driven brands which make small lot wines with care and attention.
Among the emerging trends in wineries are urban wineries in major cities, and those that provide custom crush or private winemaking in their facilities for a number of different winemakers.
This past week I was in a winemaking facility in a warehouse district in San Francisco that makes singe-vineyard wine using grapes from a Sonoma County vineyard and also makes wines from a vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The Sonoma County wines are 70 miles north and the Santa Lucia Vineyards are about a 160 miles south of the winery. The grapes are harvested and cooled as they make the journey from the vineyards to the city for vinification (wine production).
At another facility just outside of St. Helena, 22 separate labels are produced at one state-of-the-art winery that serves as a studio for small-lot winemakers who produce high-end wines. This model requires intense organizational skills, but it also helps to promote a cadre of skilled winemakers who have different needs than the major wine-producing companies.
While grapes rule, it is the wineries that produce the wines.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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