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High Tech, High Hopes

Author: Bonnie Durrance
August, 2011 Issue

Winemakers are using a variety of techniques, both old and new, to improve their vintages.

 

In the winemaking world, everyone wants to make a wine that’s unique and that measures up to the highest quality standards…and do it predictably, time after time. Here in our grape-growing paradise, the first part pretty much goes without saying. But the latter challenge has led to some interesting technologies—new, old and potential.

What’s old is new again

Picture a giant concrete egg balanced on four little feet, like a Teletubby minus the head. It may not be what you think of as the traditional wine barrel or fermentation tank, but according to winemaker Kale Anderson, concrete fermenting tanks are just a new interpretation of technology that’s been around for thousands of years.

“Concrete, wood, clay—all of these have been used as wine fermenters for a long, long time,” he says. “And concrete is finally just making a comeback.”

Artisan Barrels in Oakland has been importing concrete fermenting tanks from France since about 2005. But when Anderson heard that Sonoma Cast Stone, a Petaluma company, was starting to get into concrete tanks, he got excited. “I knew they did fabulous concrete work in other genres, such as countertops, and when I went to meet them, they were so receptive. I saw it as an opportunity to help craft a tool I could use.” The result is the Sonoma Cast Stone Concrete Egg.

As winemaker/owner of Kale Wines and winemaker for Yountville’s Cliff Lede Winery since 2010, Anderson uses the egg and is enthusiastic. “It’s great to have another tool to make something unique and interesting to bring to the blend,” he says.

Stainless steel is still the fermenter of choice, and the egg isn’t replacing it, he continues. Rather, it offers an alternative, something to add to the winemaker’s toolkit. “Cliff Lede makes a Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, and we use five different ways of producing it. We’ll keep all fermentations separate then blend them into the final product in different percentages, depending on the year. So we’ll use stainless steel tanks, new and used barrels, and concrete tanks. We use all these different methods, because we like to have a lot of options for our blending.”

The point, says Anderson, isn’t that they’re making wine 100 percent in concrete or wood, but that they can craft different styles of wine with different tools. “It’s good, now that concrete is coming back, just to have people producing concrete fermenters. Ten years ago, we didn’t have that. It’s a great time to be a winemaker.”

Analyzing taste

Eric Anslyn, Ph.D, professor of chemistry at the University of Texas, has devised, with a group of his students, a way to “train” a sensor device interfaced with a computer to taste and identify wine varietals. To understand the process, he first explains that our taste buds and the scent receptors in our nose are oriented not to specific chemicals, but rather to classes of chemicals. They then have some differential response within each chemical class. “Humans make patterns of responses that are registered in the brain and recalled in the future. So, we train ourselves, when we’re eating or drinking, to recognize certain flavors and odors.”

Anslyn and his students used this knowledge to teach a sensor device and a computer to recognize the patterns inherent in different varietals of wine. In other words, the little device operates like our basic taste and smell.

“We made our own suite of receptors biased toward tannins,” he explains. “We didn’t try to design a receptor for every single tannin that might be present in a wine. Instead, similar to the way our senses of taste and smell operate, we made a suite of receptors that perceives each tannin differently, and we register a pattern.”

The question was whether patterns would be reproducible from one varietal to another. With some exceptions, he found they were. “We had some reasonable discrimination that told us whether we had a Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon or a Pinot Noir by the ‘finger printing’ of the tannins present in the sample.” And this, the computer could discriminate.

Why is this unique? “I think people who taste wine for a living might be pretty good at it,” he says, “but I wouldn’t say there’s any device that mimics the exact way we taste and smell. So nobody has done that to this point.

“When you and I are tasting wine, we’re not doing DNA analysis,” he laughs. “The device was meant to mimic our sense of taste and smell.”

As an academic motivated by research, Anslyn chooses to leave the business implications of his invention to others. “My drive is to understand the basic science of taste and smell and be able to mimic it,” he says. “My goal wasn’t to analyze wine, it was to test a basic science principle. However, I found there are a lot more people interested in analyzing wine than I ever expected.”

He says he’s been contacted about the potential for the device as a means of quality control analysis and about how reliable he could make it—to detect one varietal versus another, to be able to tell whether what people were actually saying on their label is what’s really inside. As to the actual future of the device for the wine industry, that remains to be seen.

“I don’t know if this has any commercial value. Plenty of people who call me on the phone think there is, but nobody’s started a company yet.”

Excellence by the numbers

Sonoma-based Enologix offers wine quality analysis based on regional winemakers’ blind tastings, which are then correlated with national critics’ 100-point score published by Connoisseur’s Guide, Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator. Founded in 1993 by University of California chemical ecologists Dr. Leo McCloskey and Dr. Susanne Arrhenius, with advice from Stanford mathematician Dr. Marshall Sylvan, the company aims to enable the producer, through a unique set of algorithms and software analysis, to reach a guaranteed numerical quality standard of wine.

“We’re a wine industry service formed to help wine companies make the finest wines in the United States,” says McCloskey. “That’s what we do. We have a customer base that includes many prestigious companies that have decided they want to produce wines that are rewarded by the national critics.”

The U.S. market, he explains, consists of producers (sellers), consumers (buyers) and trusted third parties (information sources like Consumer Reports and, in the wine industry, Wine Spectator, Robert Parker and others). And while consumers of any product might trust producers to deliver on their claims initially, over time, consumers tend to lose that trust. “In the United States, when an industry starts, the producers wish to communicate directly with the consumers, just as Robert Mondavi went directly to the consumer in the 1970s and ’80s. This model is always toppled here, because the consumer believes eventually, he can’t trust the producers, because the producers’ claims can’t be all true.” So, critics work to protect the consumer from false claims and “low quality” wines, and Enologix works to protect the producer from creating them.

Some threats to quality are beyond his control. “Certain winegrowing practices in the United States can cause low quality,” he says. “First, the grower can increase the yield far above the levels of the great European benchmarks, which is about 3 tons per acre. In France, the grower isn’t allowed to do that. He’s limited to 3 tons per acre. In the United States, we have an unregulated environment, and there are a lot of false claims.”

“If you give winemakers 100 wines—not including their own—and let them taste domestic and European wines, the blind scores would be identical to those of the critics and to the French government,” says McCloskey. Research shows that U.S. regional winemakers’ and national critics’ scores, while on different scales, are identical. Moreover, McCloskey continues, “winemakers’ and critics’ sense of quality is identical to the French governments’ AOC system and the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux. Everyone agrees when it comes to good taste.

“Wine quality is real,” he says. “It’s called a singularity; you can make a single statement.”

Based on that foundation, McCloskey built an algorithm (which is a combination of logical statements and mathematics) to connect winemaking tasting scores to the chemistry of a particular producer’s wine. He’s pleased with his results. “Our company has been eminently successful, behind the scenes, for 20 years,” he says.

He tells his clients that, if they want to protect their quality, he can help them make sure the wines they sell at different price points are aligned with the benchmarks of accepted international standards.

For both the producer and the consumer, it seems Enologix, if it fulfills its promise, could remove the risk involved in quality wine producing and purchasing. It means producers can know in advance what’s needed to bring their wine to the desired numerical level. For the consumer, it means what you read on the label is what you get.

Does this mean he’ll make all wines taste the same? McCloskey says rather than that, if you make all the wines more predictably optimal, then, from their highest level of quality, you can taste difference between Rutherford, Stags Leap and a vineyard in St. Helena, for example. “That’s not possible to do,” he says, “if quality is going up and down erratically.”

Thinking outside the tank

“Winemakers need to have absolute visibility and control,” says Bob Richards, president of the Wine Technology International group, which is responsible for the VinWizard tank temperature control and automation technology. “They want to be confident they’re producing the very best wine they can.”

His company provides a system of hardware and software solutions that offer winemakers the ability to orchestrate the production of wine through a set of automated modules that govern various requirements, from plant monitoring and control through temperature control and power management. These critical elements are managed by the VinWizard interface. The end result for the winemaker is, as Richards says, total control over his process and, therefore, consistency of the product. This is done while ensuring maximum power savings through intelligent integration between what’s happening inside the tanks and the refrigeration plant.

The company came to the North Bay in the early 2000s but has taken the last few years to get traction, in part because it’s such an innovative concept. “It’s a new way of thinking of the winery operation and winemaking,” says Richards. “The challenge has been to change the way winemakers and engineers think about the entire operation.”

Wineries, he says, have tended to look at systems in isolation. “We set out to create a component that would touch all aspects of the winery and deliver its information to the winemaker, who could then act on that information as much or as little as they wanted.” With each vintage, the production facility has the potential to optimize the quality or damage the fruit through improper chilling or heating. The VinWizard team set out to make a system that would be fail-safe and usable anywhere in the world; there are currently more than 130 wineries around the world using VinWizard. In addition to the United States, installations range from the foothills of the Andes in Argentina to Chile, Spain, South Africa, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The system has to be able to withstand a variety of conditions and human expertise. “So when we put something in, it has to work flawlessly.”

At the heart of it all is tank temperature control. “VinWizard is unique in that it’s the only automated temperature control system that’s been developed by and for winemakers,” says Richards. To illustrate, he explains that one of the vulnerabilities of temperature control typically is in the use of electric valves on the fermentation tanks. “I haven’t met a winemaker yet who hasn’t had wine compromised by improper valves,” he says. Most wineries in America have electric valves, and most electric valves on a tank, for various reasons, will fail over time. So he and his company designed and now incorporate a valve that operates by air pushing through in a unique way. This, combined with tank and plant alarms, minimizes the chances of undesired temperature changes, which can damage the fermenting wine.

According to Richards, when consistency is everything, VinWizard offers what the winemaker wants. “It’s a new way of thinking about the operation and making wine.”

The grapes of flash

Thermoflash technology is a high-tech step in the winemaking process that lets the winemaker make fruitier, more colorful wine with total consistency through quick, high-temperature heating followed by instantaneous, vacuum-chamber cooling. Used in winemaking regions all over the world, Thermoflash is manufactured by Italian wine equipment manufacturing conglomerate Della Toffola and placed its first unit in California in 2010.

Established in the 1960s, Della Toffola (with home offices in Treviso, Italy), has, since 1996, expanded its wine manufacturing capabilities into France, Spain, Argentina and Chile. Now, with a branch in Windsor, the company plans a major expansion by building a 25,000-square-foot facility just north of town.

Rick Jones, who’s been a consulting winemaker with Della Toffola for the last year, primarily on Thermoflash, described the Thermoflash system as a way for winemakers to get maximum color and fruitiness on a consistent basis, while decreasing undesirable flavors. “The vacuum chamber is the critical part of it,” he says. “Before this, winemakers might try to heat grapes up prior to fermentation to get good extraction of the color. So this is kind of the same thing, but it’s done in a shorter period of time.”

“The equipment itself is pretty expensive,” says Jones. “The cheapest would be probably $350,000 and up. Which is a pretty good sum of money. It’s not what the small winery would be interested in purchasing for itself—not something people who are crushing 100 tons are going to be interested in.” Still, he says, it could possibly become available on a custom basis. “There’s some talk of exploring ways to provide the technology to small wineries.”

Given the challenges of transporting the large stainless tank processor, it may be a while before that gets going. Meanwhile, says Jones, the larger wineries will tend to use these new technologies as a matter of efficiency and volume as well as increasing wine quality.

And what of taste? Is there a threat all this high technology will influence North Bay winemaking to the point that wines will all become fruitier and more colorful—and therefore homogeneous?

“I’d argue that there’s already a strong trend toward homogeneity in wine that’s caused not by technology, but by taste and fashion,” says Jones. “Too many wines made today without Thermoflash taste the same, and this technology gives winemakers an option to make a radically different style of wine—which leads to more diversity, not less.”

So, cheers!

All these technologies, whether new or variations on the ancient, contribute to the excellence of the finished product in various ways, depending on the need, capabilities and taste preferences of the individual winemaker. What all the developers and proponents have in common is an awareness of the need to maintain the highest quality standard if they hope to be competitive internationally. As several have said, these are all merely tools—the best uses and choices are up to the winemakers.

 

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