A few weekends ago we held our first annual Valentine’s Winemaker Dinner at the Scottsdale Tasting room. It was a real treat for me to get the opportunity to meet some of our wine club members who have been with us from the beginning, and to once again see those whom I’d met here in Willcox. It’s such a pleasure to hear the stories that everyone brings to the table, from tales of the family’s pet tortoise to a couple first getting together following a wake… everyone’s life is different and interesting, and I’m grateful that wine and food can bring us together at the same table to share with one another.
Over a dessert of crème brulee, we popped open a few unreleased bottles of the sparkling Malvasia Bianca that we made this past harvest, and I spoke a bit about the wine—specifically how much I enjoy its peach and slightly bitter grapefruit aromas and flavors. One of my fellow diners exclaimed over the grapefruit bitterness, and asked if we’d actually included grapefruit in the fermentation. This is a pretty logical question, and I’ve been asked more than once some sort of variation on it.
While there are some wines that are made with an addition of some other fruit juice, most of the wines you encounter at your local liquor store, supermarket, or restaurant do not. And yet, they’re nearly all accompanied by a tasting note evoking a veritable fruit salad. They’re just grapes, you might think. How is it possible for this glorified grape juice to taste like all these wacky things?
In the laboratory, there have been over 1,000 different aromatic compounds isolated from wine and these all come from just a few sources: the grapes, the yeast, the malolactic bacteria, and the oak, if it was used. Stay tuned-- once a month, I'll break down one of these components, and talk about what it contriubtes to the aromas and flavors of wine. Hopefully by the end of this, you'll have a better understanding of what's going on to make a wine smell and taste like it does, and I'll have reminded myself of all the stuff that slipped out of my brain since school and all the bottles of wine Ive drunk since then. I hope this will be a fun journey for all of us.
Last month, we had a tour come through the facility with Wings over Willcox, and once we hit the bottling line, it was the first thing asked.
I like both screwcaps and corks. Here at Aridus, we have the capability to either cork or screwcap, which is nice, but really—why do we choose one over the other?
The short answer is this: we use screwcaps for wines we expect that you’ll drink right away, and corks for those that we hope you’ll lay down and age for a little bit before breaking into them.
In reality, it’s a little more nuanced than that. There are a number of factors that we take into consideration when deciding on a cork or a screwcap. The first of which is type of wine. When you choose a screwcap over a cork, one consideration is that you’ve suddenly got a lot more headspace in the bottle. During bottling, the bottle is evacuated and the air replaced with nitrogen prior to filling, which minimizes the amount of oxygen present in the bottle, but it is still a larger volume of gas in bottle than with a cork.
With that in mind, it’s also important to consider when the bottle is going to be drunk. Is it tonight? In two weeks? Or maybe in ten years? The shorter a time span between when a wine is purchased and when it is drunk, the more a screwcap makes sense.
Besides, how easy is it to use a screwcap? It’s just downright fun— one twist, that delightful cracking sound, the give of the cap in your hand, and it’s instant party. As Scott likes to say, easy breezy. They can be downright gorgeous, too. I can get lost for hours browsing the Mala closures website.
A cork seems to lend itself to situations with a bit more gravitas. You cut through the foil, then twist the spiraled helix into the pliant center of the cork. Brace the arm on the lip of the bottle and pray a little bit as you lever the cork out the bottle’s neck. Phew, it didn’t crumble or crack. Yes, corks are definitely for wines that want you to muster your skills and bring all your attention to hand.
There's also a price difference. A screwcap costs 25 cents, whereas a cork and a foil cost 60 cents. That may not sound like much, but when you think about something like the Sauvignon Blanc that we recently bottled, totaling 6000 bottles, it’s a difference of over $2100. (We corked that one.)
At the end of the day, we’re always going to aim to deliver a quality bottle of wine. And only your own rules apply once it’s in your own home. But if this little post helps you out at all by giving you some insight into our decision-making, that’s all that really matters.
As a winemaker, one of the questions that I’m asked frequently is, “What is your favorite wine?”
As with all simple questions, there’s not a simple answer. At least not for me. But nobody wants to hear, “Well, it depends…” And I completely agree! It’s a cop-out of an answer. The reality of it is that I’d GLADLY spend the next hour telling the inquirer about all the wines that I love, for what reasons, at which occasions, and so on. But I’m also self-aware enough to realize that in the moment, a short answer is probably best, so in my attempts to be truthful—to say that I have many favorites—I wind up sounding wishy-washy.
Once a month or so, I’m going to take the opportunity to tell you about one of my favorite wines, in as much detail as I can, because in a blog format, you can opt out the moment I start boring you. Or come back after you’ve filled up your glass. I’ll be none the wiser, whatever you choose to do.
Without further ado: Graciano.
Variously known as Tinta Miuda in Portugal, Bovale Sardo in Sardinia, and Morrastel in France’s Languedoc, this grape originates in Spain, where it is perhaps best known for its supporting role in some of Rioja’s longest-lived and most perfumed wines. The vine itself is drought resistant, which makes it a good fit for Arizona’s climate. Because we’re so dry during most of the growing season, its susceptibility to rot and mildew is mitigated.
In 2016, we fermented out three different lots of Graciano. I was always in a good mood when it came to punching them down, too. They were all remarkable in their deep purple color, which seemingly developed overnight. And they were all completely different from one another. Our first lot smelled and tasted of black cherries and beef jerky. The second was slightly lighter and intensely floral. When the final lot came in, the entire winery smelled like black pepper, which carried through into the final wine. Not only that, but the last lot finished malolactic fermentation prior to the others, despite having been brought in nearly a month later.
I’m excited to blend all these once they’ve all had plenty of time to mature in barrel. Like certain other varieties I know ahem (Petite Sirah) ahem, our Graciano has been wildly moody swinging from funky to flat to expressive and back again. I have great hopes for this surprising variety.
Most people aren’t accustomed to thinking of wine as a food product. In fact, it’s one of the world’s oldest processed foods. What we’re doing is taking a food—grapes, and treating them in such a way so they are preserved for later consumption. In our case, the treatment is fermentation, and the alcohol produced by this process is the preservative that makes this food safe for years into the future.
As a food processing facility, we want to ensure that we’re treating the grapes and resulting wine to the highest of standards. The great blessing that we have in wine grapes is that they reach ideal sugar levels so that the concentration of ethanol produced during fermentation inhibits the growth of any pathogenic—aka, illness-causing—microbes. While many could consider this a pass to ignore proper food handling guidelines, we don’t.
Wineries, which have long been exempt from certain federal food codes, are now being held more accountable under 2011’s Food Safety Modernization Act [FSMA]. As of this year, even the smallest of wineries are required to be in compliance.
This is a good thing.
This is a great opportunity.
I know that quite a few people find new and more legislation to be an unnecessary burden, but allow me to give a little history. We’ve only had food safety regulations for 110 years. It began with the Pure Food and Drug Act, which was put in place because people were dying as a result of adulterated foods, beverages, and drugs. There was no way of knowing what was in your food, because there was no labeling required. You could buy a loaf of bread that was made of sawdust, plaster and flour and not know it until you tried to eat it. Milk was regularly watered down and blended with plaster of paris and starch. Medicines marketed as for babies could be high proof alcohol and opiates. Thousands of children died every year as a result of these and other food adulterations. This Act, and the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration to enforce it, saved untold numbers of lives.
Since that time, we’ve seen periodic updates to our food codes, but they are actually pretty few and far between. Before FSMA, the last major piece of legislation that dealt with food safety was in 1938. That’s a 73 year gap. We were long overdue.
So what does this mean for wineries? Well, first of all—training. At Aridus, every employee who works at the winery is trained extensively in cleaning and sanitation protocols. We spend time learning to identify the signs of contamination, primarily by spoilage organisms, how to address these issues, and most importantly, how to prevent them in the first place. This naturally plays into the next step: establishing a system of preventive controls. We’re evaluating all of our processes to identify areas where we can change or improve so that we have comprehensive checks and actions to prevent contamination and spoilage. Finally, we need to demonstrate that our controls are working. To do this, we’re capturing quantitative data by testing our tanks and equipment regularly to validate that we’re operating in a truly sanitary manner.
Even though all this is formally codified in legislation, we’re embracing it. There’s no reason not to. We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.
It's February. The vines are dormant. Last year's wines are safely stored in barrel. What could we possibly be doing with our time now that all the work is done?
As much as we'd love to be drinking the fruits of our labors while reposing by a cozy fire, there's actually quite a lot of activity here at the winery. Winter is our opportunity to move the wines that are ready out of barrel or tank and into the bottle. And before we bottle, we need to filter. Before we filter, we need to blend. And before we blend, we need to do trials to decide how to treat each individual wine so that it smells and tastes its best.
The timeline goes a little something like this:
I, Lisa, pull samples of the wine. I'll smell and taste, and based on my initial impressions, I'll work up about eight different samples. I might be adjusting the acid balance, blending in a small percentage of another type of wine, or trying out a specialized enological ingredient. Once these samples are ready, we'll taste through them as a team, give notes, and based off these notes, I'll rule out some of the samples and identify areas to keep playing. I'll then work up another set of samples that are (hopefully) more targeted than the first set. Again, the team will convene, and from these we will choose a final blend. This process usually takes about 2 days.
After we have a final blend, I'll write the work orders for Dan, our cellar master. He will work with Tom, our cellar hand, to clean and sanitize all the equipment necessary to move the wine into a tank for blending, and together they will carry out the ingredient additions, if required. Blending usually takes a day.
After blending, we filter the wine. This step is not strictly necessary, but at Aridus we prefer to make sure that we've eliminated any possible chance for microbial contamination in bottle. We use a plate and frame filter, where the wine passes across a number of inert filter pads and in the process large particles (including microbes) are caught in the filter sheets and clean wine passes through. Filtration can take a full day as well, since we clean and sanitize each piece of the filter assembly before use-- a task that requires about an hour and a half of scrubbing. We clean the filter after we've finished with the wine as well.
Filtration days are always long days for Dan and Tom, because in addition to filtering, they are also prepping the equipment for bottling the next day. They set out all the hoses necessary to move the filtered wine from the tank to the bottling line, and clean all the components of the bottling line that touch the wine.
In addition to making sure the line is clean, our operations manager, Jason, ensures that everything is properly set up on the bottling machine so that the bottles move smoothly from one operation to the next, that the corks will be inserted correctly, the foils will be smooth, and the labels at the correct height.
The next day, after filtration, we bottle. Prior to sending the wine to the line, we complete our final sanitation steps, and away we go. Depending on the the volume of wine, we can be done in as little as an hour, or the process can take all day. But no matter what, when we start bottling, we finish the same day. There's no drop of wine left behind. (Well, maybe one or two.)
So there you have it. From start to finish, it takes us about a week's worth of work to get a wine into bottle. This winter, we're bottling 16 different wines. We're hoping some of the smaller lots we can squeeze into the same week, but as it stands, we're going to be bottling right on through to the end of March.
Keep your eyes peeled for all the new releases!
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