The name, appropriate not only for this Blog title, but also the last several months. Crush is a crazy time of year. Non-stop activity, and with our extended maceration preference, it's not over yet: I'm in the middle of pressing the reds off of the skins. This Blog topic was originally inspired by a question posed on Rick Bakas' Blog: how does a Doctorate in Electrical Engineering provided a good background for winemaking. It's a good question. There wasn't a winery in my home state and I never once considered (or had proposed to me) that winemaking was a career path option. My background is in Electrical Engineering; originally the fundamentals, followed by emphasis in computers, and later specializing in semiconductors. My Ph.D. is in Solid State Electrical Engineering: fabrication, measurement, and simulation of quantum transport devices(the positions of atoms and motion of electrons and photons). At the electron device level the lines between electrical engineering, physics, and chemistry blur. This is a field where attention to detail is important and this extends to my winemaking techniques.
I became curious, and soon passionate about wine: first from simply an enthusiast's perspective, but soon reading to trying to understand truly how does something as simple as a grape have the potential to produce all the complexities that can be found in a bottle of wine? I read, a lot, and eventually figured I needed to give winemaking a try. I started, as many home winemakers do, with 'kits'. I purchased a 100L stainless steel tank and the best Italian Sangiovese juice I could find. The wine turned out quite quaffable though un-inspiring (in-fact, I even still open a bottle every now and then). Making wine from kits removes many of the variables and options that winemaking from grapes involves: for example one begins with a purple, often pasteurized, juice – the process of extracting color and tannins from the skins is completely absent. Perhaps this, in some way, influences my current extended maceration process. The connection to the season and the vineyard non-existent: my juice arrived in April – and if I had made a mistake could easily re-order more juice the next month. I soon decided I needed to be working with grapes. I aspired to produce an exquisite age-worthy red wine, like those that inspired me in the glass. I purchased the additional equipment needed for processing grapes and a 300L tank (which at the time Tracy thought was a ridiculously large size to own) and with the help of a local winery obtained ¼ Ton of Syrah grapes in 2006. This sheds light on another part of the allure, so many of the folks in the wine industry are there because of a common passion – we enjoy wine, discussing techniques, and help one another out. Having tasted enough wines to know that just because wines were produced from grapes wasn't a sure fire way to produce fine wine and knowing that there were enough variables that the likelihood of producing a un-enjoyable beverage was possible, and even more likely, I decided I needed to learn more. I read, a lot more, and then completed a Certificate in Enology & Viticulture from UC Davis: the sciences applied to winemaking and winegrowing. After producing my 2006 Syrah there was no turning back.
Whether fully realized or not there is a tremendous amount of both art and science behind great wines. One example is the oxidation-reduction reactions that occur in wine and which are extremely important in wine aging (see for example my previous blog post: Oxygen). We all know this one: leave a bottle open overnight and it will oxidize. Oxidation-reduction are the loss-gain of an electron. In device physics one routinely calculates the quantum probabilities of electron transitions (loss-gain). In chemistry, and in winemaking, one often measures the redox potential (which is related to the macroscopic probability of oxidation-reduction reactions). Traditional winemaking choices influence the probability of these reactions. The right combination of oxidation-reduction adds complexity, too much of either adds flaws, or mutes the full potential expression of the wine. Played out right an exquisite wine can result, and thus I pay very careful attention to my wines using science and engineering to help choose timing of otherwise very traditional winemaking techniques. Wine incorporates a vast array of subjects. The biology of the 5,000+ cultivars of Vitis vinifera. The microbiology of yeast, bacteria, and spoilage organisms. The medicinal and nutritional aspects of wine with regards to human consumption. The Psychological sensory perceptions of wine. The geography of the soils, microclimates, and regions. The subjects stretch beyond the “hard” sciences. The Economics of selling wine. International relations: over a quarter of the wine sold in the US is imported. The sociological aspects associated with the traditions and religions (religion helped wine know-how survive the dark ages). And of course history from some 10,000 years ago when wild grapes were first collected to make wine. This being said, even though many aspects of winemaking are understood through science, even more are completely unknown: enter art. And in this case, the eyes, nose, palate, instincts, creativity and experience guide the winemaking decisions. I like this. Applying Ohms Law in electrical engineering, equating moles of acids and bases in chemistry, and calculating the pressure variation in a stainless steel tank with temperature fluctuations using the ideal gas law in physics all apply and reliably give the expected result. Attempting to build a world-class wine chemical-by-chemical doesn't reproduce the original wine. There is an incredible amount yet to be learned. For me, this is part of what makes wine fascinating. And of course the ultimate goal: sitting back and enjoying the allure of one of the world's oldest and most fascinating beverages. But, until then, off to apply some very basic fluid dynamics: it's time to press the 2009 Syrah off of the skins and get it into French Oak barrels. I have goals of making this my most exquisite Syrah yet!