Ten years ago, when I was a neophyte oenophile, the Benziger family came to do a tasting. They brought fresh pressed, 9-hour old, raw, unfiltered Syrah grape juice.
The flavors in the juice were overwhelming: the free run Syrah juice bore absolutely no resemblance to Syrah wines. I tasted blackberry, green tea, lime, pineapple, cream and bramble. The texture was rich and creamy, coated the mouth and tongue and left a good impression of tannin. Above all, what threw me was that it was sweet – palate shocking sweet.
That libation, however divine, wasn’t what struck me the most. How on earth could the winemaker know that the sweet, viscous, complex fluid I had just tasted would end up with a wine so dark, in flavor, color and impression? How could something sweet and lively become so brooding and even a little sweaty? How did winemakers do this?
There was only one answer: they were allied with the black arts.
I had no choice but to devote the next decade of my life to questing for this arcane knowledge. I now know the most clandestine of their ways, dear reader, and will reveal them to you!
Secret one: Winemakers are really just farmers
This is the biggest secret of the winemaker – they’re no different than tomato or corn or apple farmers. They get up early and eat massive breakfasts. They work all damn day, from first light to well after dark. They love the fruit of the vine as much as the fruit of their loins. Their days are dedicated to sweat, dirt, vines, sun, fertilizer, tractors and pruning shears. Just simple farmers…who make the best drink known to heaven and earth.
Secret two: Winemakers do a Herculean task
Think your job is complex? Balderdash! In addition to being a farmer, winemakers must be part biochemist, meteorologist, tour guide, PR specialist, gambler, artist, educator, gourmand and pioneer! Bottling line break down? Add mechanic to that list. Iowa legislature make direct sales legal? There’s tax attorney, accountant and shipper added to the job description. Too much alcohol in your wine? Reverse osmosis will fix your problem – add physicist to the resumé!
You see the point – winemakers must be experts at becoming experts. This is not a job everyone can do…it’s beyond , the actuarial accountant, the Navy Seal and the brain surgeon. I certainly couldn’t do it!
Secret three: Winemakers know their job is waaaay better than yours
Winemakers must feel some of the greatest job satisfaction on the planet. The love of wine is everywhere. It’s in the eyes of the couple toasting their 50th wedding anniversary with a bottle of Champagne. It’s in the boardroom, where a cluster of executives celebrate their IPO with cigars and a glass of Port. It’s in the shy girl’s million candlewatt smile as she watches her new fiancé pour their first glass of Chardonnay as a betrothed couple.
They must jump out of their beds to start the day.
Secret four: Winemakers love beer
Winemakers love beer. I went to an industry event in 2004 called Pinot Camp, a kind of school to promote Oregon wines. Yes, we drank oceans of great Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling, but I haven’t drunk so much beer since college!
And winemakers don’t just like beer, they drink beer at every step along the winemaking path – planting, pruning, harvest, crush, aging and bottling. Winemaking is dirty, hot work – beer is an ideal refreshment when the job is done.
One other thing – winemakers don’t understand beverage rivalry. It doesn’t exist. This isn’t politics and it’s certainly not dogs vs. cats! There’s just no time for this kind of nonsense.
Secret five: Winemakers are a humble lot
This love of beer lead me to discover the winemaker’s truest, most shameful secret! With enough beers in them, they will admit their most shameful secret – each time they interfere with Mother Nature, the best they can hope for is NOT to screw up the wine. The old saw about good wine starting in the vineyards really is true – a winemaker can help a wine along at certain phases of its construction, but these actions come at great risk of ruining it. Winemakers know that they are genuinely at the mercy of God, the vagaries of the environment and randomness of luck.
Naturally (pun intended), these aren’t the only secrets of the winemaker, but I can’t reveal all of them. I will leave you with one thought, however, to put this all in perspective. Winemakers, above all, are agents of the human spirit, no matter how mysterious (and I do mean genuine mystery) they seem. Danish writer Isaak Dinesen gives us perspective here, on wine and the human condition:
“What is man, when you come to think upon him, but a minutely set, ingenious machine for turning, with mindful artfulness, the red wine of Shiraz into urine?”