I've realized I started a 'talk with the winemaker series.' The point is to explore a winemakers take on the current natural argument, where they fit in, or not, and how they approach the grape.
I'm not sure how it will evolve but I'm liking this a great deal and let's see where they go.
Paul Draper is one of America's iconic wine figures, and Ridge is an iconic American wine. In researching Martin Ray, I was reading Great Winemakers of California ( Capra Press 1977, published the year after I first tried a California zinfandel.).
The young Paul Draper was included with 27 others in the book. Out of those winemakers, including Ray, David Bruce, Mike Grgich, Warren Winiarski, Andre Tchelistcheff...etc...he was the only one who believed in natural fermentations in both alcoholic and malolactic. The book, by the way, if you can find it, holds a tremendous cache of early California wine technique from ideas about submerged caps to barrels to sugar concentrate to centrifuges. There's great quotes from August Sebastiani, and true UC Davis grit from Mary Ann Graf of Simi. (We pump the reds through a heat exchanger. About SO2 addition at the crusher---50-60 ppm 'which probably sounds low for a white wine." Or this one, "We do judicious fining, just as we do judicious centrifuging.) In other words, pretty great historical stuff.)
This was when everyone in California was unselfconsciously transparent about their use of technology.
Other than the occasional older bottle that my friend Peter (The Young Collector) shared with me, I'm not as familiar with the Ridge wines as my colleagues, but I'll forever treasure one night in Geyserville, having a long and illuminating tete a tete with Paul over dinner and realized we viewed wine in a very similar way.
I recently had been emailing him some questions, figuring I'd be able to use his perspective in my upcoming book, and when this landed, I knew it had to be shared. His last line reminds me of a line in The Battle, 'Often wine is made in the vineyard, then screwed up in the winery," His "remade" is more spot on.
Thanks, Paul, for taking the time to share your thoughts.
(After reading some strange comments in the ether about this posting, I want to add, that Paul's thoughts on the subject do not necessarily reflect my own. I respect the man and the wine and I wanted to hear his reflections. These posts aren't to wave any flag, but merely to open the conversation.)
Words on Natural and Fermentation from Paul Draper
Over my forty two years at Ridge, I’ve used natural to describe our primary yeast fermentations and secondary malolactic fermentations. I’ve referred to the natural process by which grapes transform themselves into wine. For years most California winemakers used the word “wild” to describe uninoculated fermentations, I think that may be at the heart of the matter.
Wild as in untamed, out of the control of man – in this case the winemaker.
In all these years we have not had a natural fermentation go awry.
I’ve not attended any winemaking courses, let alone received a degree in wine chemistry, but I believe you are basically taught to control the process by which the fruit is transformed into wine. Control is what the Western world is about and modern technology provides even better control over any process. Because wine has been part of the culture of Europe and the Mediterranean for so many centuries, most European vintners understand that a natural transformation pre-dates today’s controlled transformation. Even if they use modern technology to control the process they know what the natural process is all about and that it is a viable alternative to the industrial approach. Prohibition cut us off from that tradition and from any real knowledge of the history of wine through the ages. Winemaking was re-invented in California in the 1930’s as a process controlled by the winemaker through the use of commercial yeast and other additives which have grown in number over the years as have the number of mechanical processes available through modern technology. I would be surprised if most graduates of our enology schools know that the finest wines of the 19th and early 20th centuries from, for example, Bordeaux were made using the natural process and in any vintage with reasonably cooperative weather they were not wild or unpredictable in character or quality. The best vintages were in fact great by any standards even surpassing the 1st growth Bordeaux of today. This natural process that transforms grapes into wine extended back in time and predated the rise of western civilization.
The term “natural wine” seems to mean quite different things to different people. Personally I fear it is not a useful term, and it’s unlikely there will ever be agreement on how to define it. The other day a friend described how quickly the term natural lost all meaning once the meat industry got a hold of it. He’s waiting for the large wine producers to render it meaningless in reference to wine.
Where do I come down on the issue of “natural wine”?
What fascinates me most about wine and is at the heart of my love of wine is first, that it is or should I say has been until relatively recently solely the result of a natural transformation in which man’s role is not that of maker or creator, but rather parent, teacher or guide. In this role he or she, based on experience, keeps the wine on the straight and narrow much as one would a child, attempting to keep her off drugs and through college. Secondly and equally important to me is that certain sites planted to an ideally suited varietal or varietals may consistently express a distinct and individual character and quality in every vintage in which the weather is reasonably cooperative. That is, the concept of terroir, which to me is as surprising and marvelous as the natural transformation of grapes into wine.
The difference of opinion over natural wine often occurs over the use of SO2. Of course we have the problem that EU regulations allow an addition of 10ppm and US regulations allow 0ppm addition for “organic” wine. That problem is really beside the point as an addition of 10ppm in virtually every case is insufficient to keep the natural process on the proverbial straight and narrow in order that the wine will consistently express the distinct character and quality of its site. Of course that presupposes that the site is sufficiently good terroir to provide that character and quality in the first place. My experience of growing fine wine and of tasting wines made with 0ppm to 10ppm is that unless the minimum effective level of SO2 is used the wines will not consistently express terroir. Given that, that expression or the attempt at that expression is essential to what I love about wine, we carefully analyze the wine to determine that effective minimum level.
At Ridge the yeasts naturally occurring on the grapes and the naturally occurring malolactic bacteria carry out the transformation. We use no additives either those as common as enzymes or those as potentially dangerous to handle as velcorin. We do not use mechanical processing whether micro oxygenation or reverse osmosis. We typically but not always filter just before bottling but not to the level of membrane sterile filtration except for our one wine that is a blend from multiple vineyards. We do on occasion, if needed, fine a red wine with fresh egg whites or a white wine with a minimal amount of isinglass. We never add any concentrate whether 2000 to 1, Mega Purple or any other. We do on occasion add a small amount of the natural wine acid, tartaric, derived from the precipitate scrapped out of wine tanks. This has only been needed in a few zinfandels, never Geyserville and never the Bordeaux varietals or chardonnay. We have, on occasion, added small amounts of water to a fermentor of zinfandel when a heat spike has pushed up sugars in a parcel before we were able to harvest it given the number of other parcels that have ripened at the same moment. It is a problem that zinfandel can over ripen virtually overnight when temperatures rise precipitously. Water additions to rehydrate the grapes that have had water pulled out of them by the plant under heat stress must be done with the same light touch that is required for correct chaptalization in Europe. Careful water additions like careful chaptalization, does not destroy the character of place in the wine which can be destroyed by reverse osmosis and other mechanical processes.
We sample continuously, some would say fanatically, to insure that the fruit flavors in a parcel or part of a parcel are ripe but not over ripe. Over the last 50 years alcohol levels in our Monte Bello has averaged 13.2% and in zinfandels 14.6%. As you may know unless a zinfandel vineyard is over 60 years of age the fruit flavors that define the varietal will typically only develop if ripeness is in the 14% to 14.9% alcohol range. If a wine from young or middle-age vines is labeled as having an alcohol in the 12% or 13% range it has been processed to remove alcohol or had considerable water added.
What is most important to me is the issue of how the grapes are handled once they reach the winery. If you grow grapes organically as we do in our estate vineyards, Monte Bello, Lytton Springs and Geyserville – you can, if you choose, label the wine as organically grown. That however says nothing about what happens to the grapes in the winery. They may be blended with organically grown grapes from other vineyards eliminating any sense of place or they could have any of the hundreds of yeast and chemical products added that are available including concentrates and velcorin. Likewise the wines could have been processed in any of a number of ways from reverse osmosis to spinning cone. They can still say “organically grown.”
Within the past year, Matt Kramer published two articles ― he titled them Manifestos ― calling for winemakers to state on their labels or elsewhere what they add to or do to the wines they produce. He detailed what he meant.
We feel that you can’t list what you didn’t do on the label so possibly all you can do is explain what you do and don’t do in your literature and on your website and count on your customers to understand how important the approach in the winery is, not just the approach in the vineyard.In California for at least the last ten or fifteen years we have heard that the wines are now made in the vineyard. What is not mentioned is that in most cases they are then re-made in the winery.