I might be a decent journalist, but I am a very good cynic. That's why when I read the Wine Buisiness Monthly piece entitled Study Indicates Commercial Yeast Strains Take Over Fermentation, and then Tom Wark's , Wild Yeast Fermentation:There's No Such Thing, the reportage and interpretation smelled off.
Jessica N. Lange (now in dental school) was the study's author. She focused her master's thesis on three British Columbia wineries and four fermentations at each, three inoculated and one spontaneous. Her purpose was to study the multitudinous yeast strains that finished the job. Her conclusion? Whether inoculated or spontaneous, the laboratory saccharomyces cerevisiae won the race. I read her PowerPoint and then fleshed out my understanding of her approach through emails and also with her thesis Yeast Population Dynamics During Inoculated and Spontaenous Fermentations at Three Local British Columbia Wineries.
Tom's piece broadcast his reading of the WBM article to mean there's no such thing as a wild yeast ferment, writing that...“the Natural” winemaker may have to rethink what they consider necessary in order to call a wine “Natural.”
Meanwhile, the WBM piece focused on the questions the study raised for winemakers like Ken Wright of Oregon. Another Bob Ferguson of Kettle Valley Winery in B.C. said he was in "shock." I'm not sure where the shock comes from, especially when you consider the study's flawed control parameters, which neither article did.
#1-Each fermentation, including the spontaneous one was sulfited. Before the cold soak, every batch of wine had 40ppm of SO2 added.
#2- All of the spontaneous fermentatios were done in wineries where inoculations were going on and had been going on for years.
Now, adding 40ppm of SO2 is like administering a sucker punch to the yeast population in a vat of grape juice.
At 40ppm, the poor native yeast population is so stunned, the nubile grape juice eager to convert its sugar into alcohol is succeptible to invasion by the neighboring, aggressive yeasts. Usually you sulfite at this stage to prepare a vat for inoculation. With the vat's yeast population now impotent, it was an eager host for the resident lab yeast that took up residence in the winery. (as in my concern #2)
These blips in the study also leaped out at Hank Beckmeyer, a well-versed winemaker and a favorite of The Feiring Line. Because he makes low intervention (La Clarine Farm) wine, and has a day job-- at a more conventional winery-- he knows better than I do both sides of the fermentation coin.
"Spontaneous and inoculated in the same facility at the same time? Spontaneous fermentation is an all-or-nothing game. It either is, or it isn't. And it isn't if you are using commercial yeasts in the same winery."
"Add 40ppm at the crusher, and you pretty much HAVE to inoculate. 1st species to repopulate a barren environment are aggressive and often pathogens."
While this study doesn't add up to the conclusions WBM and Tom Wark came to, it does certainly prove one thing --all of those winemakers who say they're 'experimenting' with native yeast fermentations, unless they are experimenting in a new winery that has never seen any laboratory yeasts, are fooling themselves. Or as Hank put it, "This study just confirms that commercial strains do take over a winery and stay. This study proves nothing unexpected. How this is ammo for the anti-natural crowd is beyond me."
And so, to the concerned winemaker-to-be who wrote me this last week:
I am building a 11,000 square-foot gravity flow winery on my Pinot noir/ Chardonnay vineyard right now. Yet I suspect that yeast will be on all of my barrels that I bring into the new winery and the chances of accomplishing what we would hope to be a unique wild yeast fermentation might be fanciful thinking on my part.
Hank has this encouragement:
"Non-commercial strains found were unique to each winery (pg.48 of the thesis). The winery is part of the terroir. And that if you are into that concept, then you better be damn sure that you don't fuck it up by adding commercial yeast."