Note: This is a guest post from Aaron Menenberg, a wine enthusiast who has worked two vintages at Naked Mountain Winery in Markham, Virginia.
We were hosting a wine critic. So early in the morning, the winemaker and I met up to decide which wines to pour — and open the bottles that needed air. When we poured one of our top-selling whites, the nose seemed fine. On the palate, however, I noted a hint of sherry.
“You taste the sherry?” the winemaker asked me. “That’s unfortunate,” he said. “This bottle is oxidized.”
“Glad we opened it now,” I thought. I had smelled and tasted sherry on wines previously and thought little of it. Until that moment, though, I didn’t realize it was a flaw.
In another instance, the winemaker and I were in the crushpad tasting samples that had spent about a week in tank. On one wine, we detected sulfur. I was told that while this was unfortunate, it was both fixable and not uncommon. The winemaker then pulled out a shiny, clean penny and told me to drop it into my glass. After about 60 seconds, the sulfur had vanished. News to me.
“This variety has a tendency to get contaminated with hydrogen sulfide in our state,” the winemaker explained. “It can happen for a number of reasons — too many sulfites, wrong nutrients, bacterial contamination, bad or wrong yeast.”
I knew it wasn’t contamination — the winemaker is meticulously clean. And he has a good track record of yeast selection and nutrient provision. I’m not sure how it was ultimately fixed — he ran the wine through a few tests on a day I wasn’t there before deciding how to fix it. But by process of elimination –and knowing the winemaker’s skill — I imagine it had to do with some purchased grapes that had probably received too much sulfur while on the vine. Now I keep a few sanitized pennies in my kitchen in case a wine smells like rotten eggs.
These are just two examples of how learning to make wine has impacted how I drink wine. I’ve appreciated wine since before I was allowed to buy it, and I’ve been filling an ever-expanding cellar since I was 25 (I’m now 31). It’s full mostly of wine from my home state of Washington, along with some offerings from Burgundy, Chablis, Rhone, Jumillia, Barossa, and Israel. There are usually a few bottles of Virginia wine hanging out, too.
I decided to learn how wine was made last summer. I had been to many wineries before — strolling vineyards and visiting winemakers — but that wasn’t enough. I needed to learn by doing. So I spent a few weekends traveling to wineries within an hour of my apartment in Arlington, Virginia, before deciding which to approach for a part-time internship. I couldn’t work more than one or two days a week, so I approached a small winery and offered to work for free.
Thankfully, the winery said yes. I’ve now worked two vintages at Naked Mountain Winery processing grapes, monitoring fermentation, doing punch downs, filling tanks and barrels, and racking. I’ve also poured in the tasting room and for two critics.
The experience has been amazing. It takes me out to the Blue Ridge Mountains, I get to work with my hands and make something, and I’ve formed great friendships with the winemaker and the winery staff. But it has also affected how I drink and buy wine, all for the better.
Apart from the two lessons described above, the experience has expanded my appreciation of a winemaker’s style. On one end, there are the winemakers who pay homage to Mother Nature by intervening as little as possible. On the other end are winemakers who use all sorts of additives –clay, gelatin, charcoal, eggs, casein (a milk protein), and even isinglass (fish bladder extract) — to construct their wines.
Unsurprisingly, larger producers tend to intervene more. Mother Nature will leave her mark on a wine no matter how much it’s doctored, but there is much a winemaker can do to alter what Mother Nature gives him.
Some observations to the wine enthusiast based on my experience. Here are three:
If a wine’s flavors are too exact — you take a sip and swear you have a mouthful of strawberries — it probably isn’t coincidental. The winemaker probably made adjustments to minimize some flavors and spotlight others.
Second, winemakers who take a less obtrusive route to making wine — the anti-interventionists– run the very real risk of making some terrible wine. Sometimes Mother Nature gives you a perfect growing season, beautiful and healthy fruit, and you do your best to do right by her and let the wine make itself — and you screw up and inadequately monitor the cleanliness of the fruit and the whole lot becomes tainted with Brettanomyces in the tank.
Finally, you can and should at least try to appreciate each wine for what it is. Even if you prefer “natural wines,” it’s still quite a challenge to make a really good doctored wine.
I may never be a professional winemaker. But I intend to keep working at Naked Mountain Winery for as long as I can, because every day I spend there makes me a better wine drinker and smarter consumer.