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s I gazed over a rolling vista of
manicured grape vines, I could hear
a very content group of eld workers
singing and laughing as they toiled immediately
below my perch. ey were stripping o low
shoots and non-fruit-bearing vines, in order
to conserve valuable soil and water resources.
A process entertainingly termed ‘suckering’.
ese sounds and sights formed my amiable
introduction to the Stag’s Leap District
of Napa Valley, California, one of the world’s most
dynamic and important wine producing zones.
I was fortunate to be a rare guest at a young,
and decidedly promising, vineyard in the Stag’s
Leap appellation—Malk Family Vineyards,
previously known as Grin Vineyards. Graciously
hosted by Brian Malk and Nancy Heitel, I had
complete access to two fantastic wine makers,
Robbie Meyer and Alan Peirson. Robbie is young,
passionate, dedicated, and quite gied beyond his
years. Alan has an accomplished past and total
familiarity with the details of his intimidating
profession. eir skills combine for that brand
of natural mastery that inspires total condence.
Spoiled For Choice
By Keith B. Homan
´-· · - -
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A
e two make a great team. From his early
days serving as the wine steward on a transformed
plantation in Georgia, to biological degrees,
pharmaceutical experience and multifaceted
wine training at the University of California at
Davis, Robbie is a well-rounded maestro. He is the
conductor to an exceptionally intricate interplay
of climates, soils, vines, pests, elevations,
infra-red planting maps, watering schemes,
turgidity detectors, grape selections, cold-
soakings, fermentations, acid-converting bacteria
incubations, rackings, decantings, blendings,
barrel selections, machinery and vineyard owners.
Robbie and Alan make stunning vintages by the
use of an elegant production formula. ey merge
admiration for the history and art of wine making
with the scientic skills and vigilance necessary
to direct the myriad biological and chemical
cascades that dene viniculture.
ere is a long list of steps in quality wine
production, and for each one up to a dozen
variations are available to the wine maker. is
wide canvas is what bestows wine making with
both good and bad mystique. As examples of the
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Should the barrels be ‘toasted’ via re to not
only protect the juice from some of the harsher
elements of the wood, but also to add caramel and
other avour inuences? How long should the
bacteria be given to work? What duration should
the juice be in each barrel? How does one best
blend dierent barrels and lots? How is the wine
going to stand up to years in a bottle?
e choices go on and on, with each decision
point setting in motion signicant consequences
along the winding chemical and biological
odyssey that is wine.
• It’s your duty to take a trip to a winery.
Ask questions. Go on the production tour if
they have one. Find out what the wine makers
there think is dierent about their wine. Buy
some bottles and try the wine on its own and
with a variety of foods.
• Keep notes on what you drink, and how
your favourite wines and dishes work together.
• If you have a preferred wine, grape varietal,
production zone or country, etc., do some
of your own research, as the knowledge you
gain will certainly enhance your drinking
enjoyment. I guarantee it.
• If you’re at a restaurant that employs a
sommelier—use him! If your guests can wait
to eat, ask the sommelier for a pre-food wine,
as well as suggestions for the meal pairing. Ask
for a few ideas, and, if needed, don’t be afraid
to limit your request parameters by price. Any
sommelier worth their vintage should be able
to handle price limits. Finally, don’t think you
have to be trained in ‘wine speak’ to approach
a sommelier, and unless they have a raging
inferiority complex, it should be apparent to
them that their basic job description is to help
anyone, and everyone, in the restaurant with
wine selection.
• Finally, when you hear someone saying that
they taste ‘grapefruit’, ‘currant’, etc. avours,
that might not just be in their mind. Chemical
analysis reveals that the winemaking process
creates some of the exact same compounds
that characterise a wide range of plant species.
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GAMBLINGONLINEMAG.CO.UK 79
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intricacies of winemaking, the next two sections
will explain how elevation changes of just a few
metres can aect grape growth, and the typical
steps along the way from dirt to bottle.
FROM THE GROUND UP
As I walked along the rows of Sage Vineyard, from
one side of a plot to another, the elevation changed
a few metres or so. In other words, the plot had
a shallow U-shape with a center section about
three metres lower than the outside sections. As
a relative novice to viticulture, I failed to notice
something fascinating, until Alan pointed it out
to me. e outer rows on both sides, being a bit
higher, were signicantly more ush with fruit
and growth. e middle section was struggling
to produce. As a result, when harvest time comes,
the characteristics of the grapes within the same
exact plot will be quite dierent. A few metres
make all the dierence.
e vines across the plot had the same
sunlight, soil, water, same everything. What then
caused these large dierences in productivity?
Alan explained that the centre section of the
plot trapped cold air in the mornings, and this
was enough to suppress the growth in that area.
Astoundingly ckle grapes!
In general, for Napa Valley Cabernet
Sauvignon grapes, alcohol is generated in
the grape juice by the action of yeast fermentation,
which is then followed by barrel aging, and a
secondary, bacteria-fueled fermentation that
converts harsh malic acid into a nice tasting
lactic acid. rough a process know as racking,
the spent bacteria and any other precipitates are
decanted out of the barrel numerous times over
12 to 24 months to ensure a microbe-free and
pure end product. e resulting wine is then
blended with other barrels, sultes are introduced
to retain freshness and to stop additional
fermentation, and bottle aged for a year
or so before sending to market.
Now, the above sounds fairly straightforward,
until one discovers the choices every winemaker
has to contend with at all steps of the process.
For the fermentation step: Is sulfur dioxide added
to kill o wild yeasts found naturally on the grapes?
Does one do a ‘cold soak’ with the grapes for a few
days (designed to coax out water-soluble avors
in advance of alcohol reactions)? How many days
should fermentation last? Are nutrients added?
Should there be a crushing step or should the
grapes be fermented ‘whole berry’ style? For
the barrels: What type of wood from what exact
forest will age the juice best? What avour proles
will come out of the wood? Fresh or used barrels?
Should the barrels be ‘toasted’ via re to not
only protect the juice from some of the harsher
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A while back I told a stunning and
knowledgeable waitress that the whole food-
pairing wine thing was way overdone, and
that I’d go ahead drinking my favorites with
whatever I wanted to eat—and love them all
the same. I now, publicly, admit fault on that.
It does indeed matter. I can’t wait to open my
1985, 1986 and 1994 Late-Rothschilds, but
I will enjoy their sublime curves and velvet
ropes without cuisine. Makes little sense
to treasure a wine’s potential for years, and
then kill it with food. For an objective, user-
friendly review of the matter see “Guidelines
for Successful Food and Wine Pairings” by
Randy Kemner (thewinecountry.com). e
piece highlights some things we all accept in
the food world, and need to apply to wines.
For example, why do you pair cranberry
sauce with turkey, and why mint sauce with
lamb? e tastes compliment one another.
e acid, fruit and fats feed o one another
and produce a taste experience far superior
than the components accomplish on their
own. e same rules that govern such food
combinations naturally apply in the wine
world. Indeed, many wines that you might not
like alone animate and amaze when paired
with the right eats. Some of Randy’s sage
words of advice include: salty food bringing
out the fruit in wine, keying o the sauce not
the underlying meat, to avoid pairing wine
with high alcohol and oaky avours with
food, and avoiding the potential disaster of
matching sweet desserts with a sweet wine.
WINE AND FOOD
PAIRINGS
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elements of the wood, but also to add caramel
and other avour inuences? How long should
the bacteria be given to work? What duration
should the juice be in each barrel? How does one
best blend dier from barrels and lots? How is the
wine going to stand up to years in a bottle?
e choices go on and on, with each decision
point setting in motion signicant consequences
along the winding chemical and biological
odyssey that is wine.