c Ė " The more I learn about winemaking and the choices the
winemaker makes, I find it more and more bewildering Ė the permutations
ST ≠ "They're literally astronomical. I donít think any
mainframe would even come close. Just forget it. Youíve got so many thousands of different
chemical compounds; they've hardly named them, much less have any
idea how they interrelate with each other - what the influenceÖ
Well, for example, a "simple" observation. Thereís no
question that the exact same wine will often taste unrecognizably different from one day
to the next. Exactly the same wine, so weíre not talking about microbial
processes or anything; itís just that the interface between human
tasting and the wine will be quite different, thus, the wine will
"taste" quite different. Taste is a verb, as in the old saying,
"there are no great wines, only great bottles of wine".
One day Iíll taste the Orion ≠ itís true of anyone going around
and tasting with me, itís not that this is just some problem of personal
body chemistry ≠ and itíll be tasting harsh and nasty and closed and
(snoring noises) ≠ the next day, gorgeous, voluptuous, rich, complex, endless, absolutely
wonderful stuff. Why is that? I have no idea whatever. Atmospheric pressure?
Phases of the moon? Who knows? The point is to admit the fact; the
explanation comes later.
But who wants to admit so inconvenient a fact? Does a sommelier want to
have to recalibrate his or her entire wine list from one day to the next?
Does a wine geek want to cancel a trophy tasting just because the wines
will actually be worthless to taste on that particular day? No, no.
Itís much better to go Republican about the whole thing. Hierarchy is
hierarchy. These wines are wonderful, because these wines, no matter what they
taste like, are the best, because we're drinking these wines, and we only
drink the best, therefore, these wines are wonderful. If you try to talk
about the problem, even otherwise rational people tend to say: ĎOh well,
I guess, maybe itís bottle variation.í No. Weíre not talking about
that at all. Thereís something about the interface between people tasting and whatís being
tasted - particularly in the case of dry red wines - that can lead to
fantastic changes from one day to the next. Again, for whatever reason, I've never
noticed this at all in wines with residual sugar, such as Ports or
Sauternes, and it's much less of an issue with whites. Even in my own
wines, it's a major factor in tasting the Orion, and not much of one at all
with the Pleiades."
c Ė "The technical decisions that you make Ė punched caps,
submerged caps, pumpovers, cooperage, racking, fining and so forth Ė is
it becoming more experiential, or is it still instinctive?"
ST ≠ "What's the difference? Instinct becomes a refinement of
experience, or it's not worth much. Instinct has to learn. By which it becomes
individual, specific and immediate, not general or generic. I think itís
exactly like cooking; how long do you cook a piece of salmon? Well, Iíll let you
know when I see the piece of salmon! A good cook is going to say that,
because cooks don't cook "salmon," they cook the particular pieces
of salmon that are out there right now on the prep table. You don't say, "you
cook salmon 2 point 3 minutes;" it just doesnít work that way, and itís
exactly the same with wine.
Cooperage is a perfect example. I have a general plan, obviously, for
something like the Orion. Iíve been making that wine from the same
vineyard now for 11 years; and I made it for years before from a site that was
close enough, so I have a lot of experience with that particular question,
and I know pretty much what I want from Orion now. Even so, I never actually
make the final decision about what barrels it's going into until the wine
has gone through fermentation and has settled out, has cooled down
completely, and is getting close to the point that Iím actually going to
want to take it out of the fermenter. At that point, I can taste it well enough that I
can make the final decision. It may be quite a different decision than what
I thought I was going to do to begin with. I may have intended to put
something, say, in half new oak, and Iíll say: "Oh, no, that
doesn't work at all, terrible". Or I'll say, "Now wait a second. You know,
this really needs some Vosges, thatís what this baby needs, is some
Vosges." So, Iíll put a few barrels down in Vosges. Itís not an
easy way to do it, because you wind up with a hell of a lot of expensive
new barrels that youíre not using, since youíve gotta have spares if
you want to make choices; you have to have something to choose from,
God, I remember one year we wound up with thirty, thirty five brand new
$650 ritzy three year aged new French barrels that I wasnít using.
So, thatís what I do; I improvise. Ned, my assistant, tends to be
much more organized, has little notebooks, writes things down and all that. I donít at all; Iím born to improvise.
I remember once last year, the whole crew was gathered around,
waiting... I was up on top of the fermenter. The crusher-stemmer was in
place, and Ned said: ĎDonít want to rush you, Sean, but, are we the
hell going to be de-stemming or not?í I said: ĎIím thinking, Iím thinking.í"
c Ė "Do you do any chemical analysis?"
ST ≠ "Well, I export so much - about 40% of my production - that
I have to do a VI-1 form just to be able to ship to Europe, and another series of
tests for Japan. Otherwise, very little. Malolactic chromatography is
great; I certainly use it to test for completion of M-L. And I do some of the
usual things; I check pHs, and check sugars and so on as weíre going
along, but I donít, I mean, do test panels, all the other stuff that
enologists like to do. I donít hate the idea, itís just kind of nerdy and
clumsy, sort of the SUV of winemaking, and doesn't matter much to what I want to
accomplish. No, I donít do much of that.
I repeat, yet again, itís much like a chef. YouÖ"
c Ė "You taste along the way."
ST ≠ "Duh! What kind of chemical tests do most chefs run? ĎLetís
run a panel on this tuna.í Huh? You look at the tuna, you smell the tuna, you
think of what you're going to do with the tuna. Well, thatís the way I feel
about winemaking. Exactly.
So, all of this technical sizzle, I donít have any problem with
that, itís just a different field. Enology isnít winemaking. Itís Enology. And
thatís fine. Itís a perfectly separate, perfectly valid scientific
discipline. What amazes me is that people think they have been trained as winemakers
once theyíve got a degree in Enology. They havenít even started. That
doesnít mean they may not be good ≠ there are wonderful winemakers, great
winemakers, who have degrees in Enology and came up through the Davis
system, but itís not because of Enology that they are great winemakers. Itís
because they actually had a talent for it quite aside from that."
c Ė "What do you enjoy drinking when youíre not drinking your
ST ≠ "Oh, almost anything I think is good. Itís another one
of those things Iíd like to talk about at some point; you know, the fact that I
make intense red wines doesnít mean I donít like to drink delicate pink
ones. I always like to drink things that are quite different in type from what
I produce, just to rattle my cage; I love surprises. So I wind up tasting
a lot of amazing things. I taste my own wines a lot, of course, to follow them. And more predictably, I have to admit I have a fondness for
Amarones, probably to the surprise of no one. I try to get as much of
Quintarelliís stuff as I can, for example.
Actually, I really haven't been keeping up; Iíve been so overworked
the last several years, keeping my cellar up is one of those things Iíve
got to get back to.
As far as what I drink, it could be anything. Basically, I wait for
some friend to recommend something, and thatís what I drink.
c Ė "You are hoping to become better organized office-wise and
ST ≠ "Are you kidding? It could hardly get much worse, so, yes,
I'd like it to get better. But that's the short end of the stick, the losing side
of the triage. The job description is winemaker. So I never, ever, compromise
on that. Then, if I can do other things, I do them.
That pile of lumber over there was supposed to have been converted into
an office last year, and actually, for once, it wasn't my fault that it
didn't happen. So I hope it'll happen some time this year.
Yes, I certainly do want to get that better organized, at least so
I have some idea of where I am and have some idea of what I can sell to
c Ė "Is there anything about you, or what you are doing that you
would like a wider audience to know about?"
ST ≠ "Well, that was, after all, my main reason for putting up a
website to begin with, just exactly that I wanted people to know more about the
literature of wine and about the pleasures of it. So, thatís one of
the things that I was doing that I felt needed a wider audience. I mean, it
seemed like a shame for me to be getting so much out of all of this
material myself, and to realize that hardly anyone else out there even knows
that most of these books exist, much less realizes that there's anything in
them genuinely worth reading.
That really was the whole purpose of my website, to get a place where
I could put some things out there that I felt absolutely needed a wider audience. Thatís about it."