Advancing the nexus of viticulture and technology.

Risk : Greatness

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Flying back from selling wine in Chicago, I have to reflect on the wine tasting I attended. Some Napa wines and some from Bordeaux. The luscious yummy wines were from California, but the interesting and balanced wines were from France, with the possible exception of an older Dominus, that could have been a Bordeaux. Chicago being a Bordeaux town, the night before I had shared way too much Bordeaux and some great steaks with the friends I was visiting. We felt great and woke up fresh. How many times have you heard this story? Part of the balance those wines have, in addition to balance in the glass, is that they work so well as part of a balanced meal, and a balanced lifestyle. The alcohol tends to be 2-3 percentage points lower than our wine. The next day at the tasting the Bordeaux snobs were complaining to me about the California wines, saying that we “just grow alcohol.” I took exception, but couldn’t defend my home as vigorously as I’d like, because the truth is that our wines are high in alcohol, and unbalanced in that respect. I think it is out number one wine fault—much more of an issue than brettanomyces or VA. We send out squeaky clean wine that still has one major fault—it’s hot and pungent with alcohol.

I sometimes think it’s a question of maturing as an industry, but our alcohol levels have gone up, not down, as we have become more successful. I don’t agree that in general the higher levels are on purpose, to raise scores, or to be more “New World” in style. I partly think that we have developed an industry-wide cellar palate that doesn’t notice the creeping alcohol levels, but I also think that many winemakers just have a hard time dealing with the high sugar levels required for ripeness. A big part of the issue is that a lot of the time we need long hang times to get ripe. As a viticulturist, I see that as the number one issue to be addressed. Different canopy practices to get different anthocyanin levels are pretty neat, and selecting the proper rootstock is important, but how to we deal with our most prominent and problematic wine fault? It is clearly a vineyard problem, as it has to do with ripeness.

One major theme keeps coming back to me. We take excessively good care of our vines. We fertilize too much, water too much, control pests too well, remove all of the competition, and generally create conditions which allow excessive photosynthesis. The soils and climate in Napa have been shown over and over again to be capable of making wines that stand with the best in the world. That fact cannot be argued. But for some reason, maybe the American nature in us, we push for healthier and better, by doing more and more. Maybe we need to have more faith in the terroir, and allow ourselves to do a little less.

A few weeds, a little mildew, some nutrient deficiency symptoms, some water stress as the grapes are ripening—these things can reduce sugar accumulation—we know this from our jug wine days. But we’re not growing sugar any more. We are growing wine, and just as with people, a healthy level of adversity builds character. Why do we need a healthy canopy at harvest? Why would we want that? Why would we not want the canopy to look a little shabby, the vines digging down into their reserves to just barely ripen the fruit, fruit that is concentrated, rich, ripe, and balanced…at 23.5 to 24.5 brix, the correct level of ripeness for all but the past few vintages.

There are lots of scientific theories for why a struggling vine makes better wine. We’ve focused on berry size, but barely scratched at the surface of the complex web of hormonal and biochemical signaling in the plant. The fact that understanding the importance of and how to manipulate the mechanical simplicity of “skin to pulp ratio” is a recent scientific achievement points to how primitive our understanding is. The grapevine is an amazingly complex chemical factory—but chemical-making carries a biological cost—there needs to be a good reason for the plant to go to the effort. Seconday metabolites help the plant deal with adversity—and so it stands to reason that some adversity means that more metabolites will be made. Roots stressed for water send signals throughout the plant telling the various parts to adapt. Genes switch on and off. The wine is getting made on a daily basis.

Managing struggling vines means that there is more risk. That is a simple fact. Trying to achieve greatness entails risk. If you stress the vines too much before harvest, and a north wind kicks in, there might be some shrivel. If you keep the water on as harvest approaches, afraid to take that risk, you may never know what the wine could have become. There is a razors edge between stress and distress. “Benign neglect” requires a closer eye and a steadier hand than does simply serving up the groceries and giving the vines everything they need. Pushing all of the buttons every time doesn’t require a lot of monitoring or record-keeping. If the groceries are being given more judiciously, the way to manage risk instead becomes more monitoring, thinking and worrying. As the saying goes, “the best fertilizer is the farmer’s footsteps.”

For some reason it has become a popular notion that vines need a green “functional” canopy to ripen the grapes. That’s true if the crop is large, and the block may not make sugar, but at a reasonable cropping level, in Napa, “making sugar” isn’t the issue. The genes that create flavors are in the berries. All the canopy is doing is making sugar. And, if it is stressed, sending hormonal signals to the fruit to get ripe. What kind of signals is a healthy green canopy sending? Signals to make green fruit?

With my vineyards, and my wines, I have been struggling with alcohol, and even while picking earlier than most, am unhappy with the levels in my wine. I want to make a rich, complex, balanced, 12.5% wine. Maybe I’ll get there. But to that end I am doing less to the vineyards. And I am feeling more challenged as a viticulturist, because I have to watch constantly to keep from going over the edge. There is more vintage variability in Bordeaux, because sometimes things don’t work out. And sometimes they achieve greatness. We have the tools and the climate to keep things from heading too far south. But if we won’t take any risk, how do we achieve greatness?

Steve Matthiasson


Pruning Zen

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Here is a great excerpt from Steve Matthiasson's seasonal notes:

"The reason I prune every vine myself is because each cut requires a decision, and while there are many people who can make that decision as well as I can, there are very few who care as much as I do. On the weak vines the cuts should be low, with one bud showing, and one down at the base. This will result in less fruit for that vine. On the strong vines, the cuts should be a little higher, with two very clear and prominent buds, for more fruit. The spacing between the spurs is important, both for this season and for future seasons. The bottom bud that is left should point away from the neighboring spur, so next year's spur will be better spaced. If the spurs are too crowded, one should be removed. I space the spurs further than most pruners do, to maximize quality, even though the yields will be lower. With very weak vines, the entire cordon should be shortened. These types of decisions need to be made instinctually, since there is no time to stop and think-there are way too many vines to prune. Our 1.7 acre vineyard block has 1543 vines on it, requiring around 30 cuts per vine, or 46,000 cuts. It's a zen job, thinking, and cutting, and moving down the rows, the work taking so long that it is only after two months of spending several hours to a half day per visit that the gratification of being finished finally becomes a reality. There is a lot of work yet to come this season, but we can get help for that. The most critical job is done."

Steve Matthiasson, Winter 2006


User Group

Monday, February 26, 2007

We had a wonderful session last tuesday with some of our PremiereVision users.

As Garrett posted two weeks ago, our goal was to have users share their experiences, and to listen to all feedback (good and not-so-good). We plan to hold these sessions on a quarterly basis, and will figure out how to get some of our southern hemisphere users participate (one of the ways we are going to do this is through online communities; more to come on this note).

Thanks to everyone for participating. We hope you were as pleased as we were with the outcome!


Web Collaboration

Friday, February 16, 2007

"Hey, you need to talk to..."

I love hearing that in a conversation. But when a person in McLaren Vale, South Australia, suggests you talk with someone in Adelaide (who in turn recommends you talk with a good friend in Emeryville, CA)... ...oh, and you want to include your VP of Business Development, who is in Bolivia?

I'm happy to say we did just that, quite effectively, thanks to several web services:

  1. CommunityWalk reminded me how poorly I fared in geography class;
  2. World Meeting Planner told me Adelaide is + 9.5 GMT;
  3. GoToMeeting allowed us to see each others' PCs;
  4. Skype allowed us to communicate.

It won't be long before we see a mashup for at least three of the four services we used.

[check out this map... I needed it for Mr. Protzmann's geograpy quizzes!]


Google Gulp (BETA)™

We pride ourselves in our ability to translate vitechculture topics into plain english. We always monitor the smart folks at Google, who have just announded a new product: Google Gulp (BETA)™ "a line of "smart drinks" designed to maximize your surfing efficiency by making you more intelligent, and less thirsty."

Put simply, the new product helps you think faster – and feel better. How? It speeds up your synapse activity by inhibiting the enzyme monoamine oxidase, and reconfiguring your brain.

Cool, right? The only challenge is that, in typical Google viral marketing fashion, you need to turn in a bottlecap to get one. Please let us know when you get one.

(ok, for those of you that read this far, this is likely to be a Google Joke)


Real On-Demand?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The success of companies like should encourage you to understand the many advantages of "on demand" applications (read: On Demand = NO FUSS). Unfortunately, this has caused many vendors to announce that they, too, offer applications on demand.

Here are three signs that your vendor is NOT committed to the on-demand model:

  1. Vendor wants you to install software on your hardware using your infrastructure;
  2. The provider supports multiple versions of code or customized definitions for each customer;
  3. Vendors fees are based on a perpetual license, and not on a per user (or per acre) fee.
The first item should set off some red flags, as the vendor will need you to pay for hardware and software upgrades. Most vendors fall short with the second item, which typically means the vendor is supporting a greater cost structure, which you will absorb. The last criteria will affect your flexibility; the application should be easy to set-up, use, and drop (if it doesn't work for you).

As always, we're glad to explain these topics in greater detail.


Harvest Reality TV

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

More exciting than CBS' Survivor? Yes, the world's first harvest reality show is coming to a web browser near you!

During February and March, the clever folks at Vilafonté will document every day of their 2007 Harvest. It has all the makings of a hit:

  1. location: South Africa
  2. tribes: winegrowers vs. winemakers
  3. challenges: brix levels (and no immunity)
  4. the jury: the consumers

Let the games begin!


Value chain relationships

We got a very nice comment from Al Buckland regarding our January Newsletter:
The only thing that comes to mind when reading this (besides the obvious) is that the first bullet point may point more to or allude to a longer term relationship than just the next growing season. A grower needs to know how he can fit into the entire program.
He also recommended that growers "try and figure out how well the winery is doing with their variety/style/characteristics that their land will provide and how it fits into the wineries long term plans."

Your comment is also welcome.


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