Tag Archives: Wine

Winemaker 2 Winemaker: A Conversation With Tony Bish, Chief Winemaker for Sacred Hill

This month’s Winemaker 2 Winemaker interview stays in New Zealand but travels north to Hawk’s Bay to speak with Tony Bish, the Chief Winemaker for Sacred Hill Winery.  With 30 years in the wine industry Tony has 31 vintages under his belt and this year alone he and his team have produced 15 gold medal wines. Tony studied a degree course in wine making at Charles Stuart University in Australia while gaining practical experience working on vineyards in New Zealand and Australia. He joined Sacred Hill in 1985, managing the estate vineyard for the Mason family and was there at Sacred Hill’s inception a year later. He then departed to further his vineyard and winery experience offshore, returning to his roots at Sacred Hill in 1994.

Tony is very much a “vineyard” winemaker, putting into practice the old adage that the best wines are made in the vineyard. To that end he has worked closely with the viticulture team to develop new vineyards, on better sites, in the best grape growing areas in New Zealand.

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NC:  You’ve been in the industry over 30 years now.   What initially drew you to winemaking?

TB: Initially it was the need for a job after running out of money living on a glorious beach in Gisborne.  The long hours were great for saving money, which then funded ski sojourns to the South Island, so I kept doing vintages, and fell in love with wine along the way.  After a few very enjoyable years with this lifestyle, I took the plunge and enrolled in a Bachelor of Oenology Degree in Australia.

NC: When you were starting down the path of winemaking was there a single person who you felt was an important inspiration for your style or did you pull from multiple sources?

TB: Definitely pulled from a wide range of sources.  I try to glean or learn something from every wine I taste. Like many winemakers of my generation, we were taught to be technical winemakers. As I gained more experience, I learnt it’s just as important to know when NOT to intervene as it is knowing when and how to intervene. I know employ a wide range of winemaking strategies that embrace new world science and understanding, with old world sensitivity and “gut feel”.

NC: I don’t know how it goes in NZ but in the US, SB is a very difficult variety to keep from producing sulfides even under the best of circumstances.  Do you see that in NZ as well?

TB: Despite high juice nitrogen status, we find we need to supplement juice nutrition fairly proactively, or else sulphides rapidly form in ferment. We now get our retaliation in first, and add complex nutrients as soon as the ferment is underway, and a repeat ferment feed at about 17 Brix. We assess every Sauvignon ferment twice daily, and if any sulphides appear, we add more food. We are fermenting at relatively low temperatures (10-12C), so this no doubt causes some yeast stress, but this is the best way to preserve desirable volatile aromatics. The key is to have clean ferments as they finish, as any remedial treatment on Sauvignons strips aromatics and the palate.  As an aside, just adding DAP is not the answer. This can just stimulate bigger yeast reproduction, so you have more cells needing feeding, and more sulphides, in a chase your tail cycle of doom.  We recommend complex nutrients that may include a percentage of DAP, but importantly will contain yeast cell wall derivatives and thiamine.

NC: I’ve read about your Sauvage Sauvignon Blanc.  How do you manage a native fermentation in Sauvignon Blanc?  Is there anything that you have to look out for that is different than any ferments using cultured yeasts?

TB: Sauvage is handled very differently in that it is hand picked and whole bunch pressed. We don’t clarify as much, taking more fluffy lees into ferment. We chill our barrel room to manage temperature peak to under 20C in barrel, and this is important. These barrel ferments seem to need less nutrition, but the same proactive approach is taken, with frequent monitoring.

NC:  So many people in the US think of New Zealand as only Marlborough but Hawke’s Bay is one of the warmest areas in New Zealand with a diverse range of varieties growing there.  What are the key aspects of this region that make it unique?

TB: Hawke’s Bay produces most of NZ’s finest wines. We have outstanding Chardonnay, very elegant yet powerful. Our blends made with the Bordeaux varieties have been extraordinary, and many times have sat comfortably along side First Growth Bordeaux’s from great vintages in internationally held blind tastings. These wines are seriously good, and represent great value in the context of global fine wine prices.  Syrah is the most recent star, and has become the darling of the UK wine critics. Distinctive, profound, yet fresh and floral, the best of these are good enough to take to bed!

NC: Is there a vintage in your career that you would like to experience again?

TB: Oh yeah, 2013 was a dream run! But fortunately 2014 was very nearly as good, and arguably even better for Chardonnay. The best years here are defined by long dry warm summers and settled autumn weather for harvest. The hottest years are not necessarily the best; it’s the consistently warm but not baking days that produce our best wines.

NC: What was one of the most memorable winemaking mistakes you ever made that you still think about to this day?

TB: Prematurely opening up a white juice drainer as a young vintage intern and watching 25 tonne cascade on the floor. It was scary (nearly got sluiced into an inclined de-juicer in the process), and the clean up was epic in magnitude.

NC: If you could share only one or two things with younger winemakers, what would be the most valuable piece of knowledge or experience that you pass on?

TB: Well after over 30 years winemaking I feel I am starting to get the hang of it. So be patient, trust your instincts, remember numbers are only a guideline not a philosophy, and sometimes less is more.

NC: Can you describe your philosophy on red wine extraction in haiku?

Glistening black grapes

Like love need oxygen

Or bitter will be.

NC: I checked out your blog at and was very excited to see you are a fellow blogging winemaker.  What got you started?

TB: After just launching my own “indie” wine label, I felt a need to express my voice by blog, to build context and a sense of truth about my wines, but also to bring my consumers along for the ride. It’s fun after all!

NC: In addition to Sacred Hill, do you have any other projects that are very exciting right now?

TB: Between Sacred Hill and my own family label, four kids two dogs and eight chickens, life is busy! But my lovely wife and I have just purchased an acre of coastal land with the most incredible views in the world. So the next project is to design and build a home that does justice to the views and the location. East coast beach magic!

 

 

 

Small Bites: My Quick News Roundup!

There is so much to talk about from the past few weeks while my family and I have been relocating across the country!  I decided to break them down into small bites…

Bite 1: Arsenic Anyone?

I really don’t want to give this story any more time than it takes for me to acknowledge it however Alder Yarrow from Vinography.com did an amazing post telling you why exactly you shouldn’t be worried about this and instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, please read his post here.

Bite 2: WE’RE HERE!!!!!

We arrived into the beautiful and chilly state of New York last weekend and are now settling into our new house.  Currently one entire room is devoted to unpacked, empty boxes but once those get hauled away tomorrow we should be in fairly good shape as far as moving in is concerned.
 

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I started my new job last week and while it is a dramatic change from Robert Mondavi, it should present a good challenge.  Back in January, we closed on 12 acres on the shores of Seneca lake and I went out that day to put “Posted” signs up.  Upon our return last weekend all but 1 of the 6 signs were torn down.  I’m hoping it is just a combination of wind and extreme cold but I can’t help but be worried that the former owner of a nice deer stand on our land may have had something to do with it.  Our goal is to clear much of the land this summer once the soil dries out some from all the snow this winter.  That way we can start to see where our future house and vineyards will go! We are very excited about this new phase of our lives.

Bite 3: Vintage 2015 Update

New York: It’s cold.  It has been VERY, VERY cold this winter.  I’m a little concerned that we may not have many grapes to make wine with from the western side of the state.  Even though we got another 3 inches of snow this morning, signs of spring are everywhere.  Those 3 inches were mostly melted away by mid afternoon.  Robins are showing up and Canadian Geese can be heard flying overhead, heading North.  Maybe we’ll be close to budbreak around the middle of May.

Napa:  Budbreak is everywhere and frost season is in full swing according to a friend of mine.  There has still been very little rain so the area is poised for a 3rd consecutive drought season.  Again, I wouldn’t want the be the grower that has to choose between protecting what crop they may have this year and saving water so that they can ripen that crop.

Those are the bites for the week!  Happy growing season everyone!

 

My Top Five Winemaking Nightmares

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I recently read this post from wine searcher entitled “Every Winemaker’s Nightmare comes true.”  The “Nightmare” mentioned was that someone slipped into the winery at night and opened the taps on 4 tanks which emptied them down the drain.  Honestly, this is pretty far down on my “nightmare” list.  So that got me thinking, what IS on a winemaker’s nightmare list?

Someone getting hurt

This is my top one.  As a winemaker you rely on your vineyard and cellar team everyday.  While we try to keep everyone as safe as possible there are significant risks in our industry.  My biggest fear is CO2.  We generate a ton of it during fermentations.  It is invisible, heavy, and you don’t see it coming until it hits you.  Anyone who has had the breath knocked out of them from CO2 has a healthy respect for it.  Every time I see a picture somewhere of some person standing over an open top fermentor on a board punching down I cringe.  I cringe just thinking about it.  It’s so stupid and dangerous! Likewise for vineyard and winery equipment.  Tractors and forklifts, occasionally mixed with dimly lit vineyards and parking lots during harvest when everyone is working all the time do not make for ideal conditions.  High Vis colors and vests are a must!  Seriously, this is top of mind for me at all times.  You have to keep your crew safe!

Microbes and Fruit Flies

Brett, Acetobacter, and film yeasts.  Malolactic bacteria in a crisp white.  That weird ropy stuff which is totally disgusting.  The Fruit flies which carry all the nasty things I listed above around the winery.  Now I am not a germ-phobe.  These things exist and that is ok.  My fear lies in not knowing where they are.  If you have contamination (and unless you have a completely new winery that has never seen a grape, you do), knowing where it is located is the first line of defense.  My fear is that there are places of contamination that I don’t know about so each new find is a small victory.  If you know where it is, you can take action to control it.

People Who Don’t Know How to Open Sparkling Wine Bottles Safely

This loosely ties into the safety section above but when you add more than 6 atmospheres of pressure held together by glass and a potential projectile plus a cavalier attitude, things can go south quickly.  Maybe it is because in my days of sparkling winemaking, I had so many bottles blow out their corks rapidly once you loosened the cage.  Maybe it is because when you are bottling sparkling wine from a Charmat tank you occasional find a weak bottle and it explodes sending everyone into a “hit the deck” type reaction.  Magnums were particularly loud and tended to take out the bottles next to them as well leading to explosions in rapid succession.  Safety glasses are a must in that situation. Anyway, back to random people opening sparkling wine bottles.  Most of the time people assume you need to remove the cage from the bottle to open it.  Not so.  As soon as you loosen the cage, you just took the safety off and it should be treated with respect and care.  Always properly chill the wine before opening.  Gently unscrew the wire and loosen the cage with your other hand and preferably a napkin holding the top of the cage.  At that point, you begin to slowly twist the bottom of the bottle while holding the cork AND the cage together at the top.  The cork should slowly push out from the pressure behind it with a quiet “Piffffff” not a loud POP!  Please do not wave around an uncaged bottle with a cork and, for goodness sakes, do not point it at other people or breakable objects!

Cellar Mistakes

Your dream starts like this.  You’ve just completed a masterpiece blend.  You and your colleagues taste it and all agree that it is the best wine that you all have ever been involved in.  The excitement is palpable.  Maybe it’s received one of those super high pre-bottling range scores from a well known critic (95-98 anyone?).  Maybe it’s going to shoot sales into the stratosphere? Maybe it will sell out in 1 week all to your wine club?

Mabye….? Oh wait, your cellar comes to say they actually just blended a key component of your amazing, earth shattering blend, into another variety from a completely different blend, maybe even from a completely different appellation rendering both components next to useless.

Maybe you’ve gotten the blend together successfully but someone in your cellar has been storing the transfer hoses next to a cooling tower that has Bromine in it for sanitation and your entire blend gets contaminated by TBA (similar smell to TCA “cork” taint) on it’s way to the bottling line.

And you wake up and breathe a sigh of relief that it was only a nightmare.

Natural Disasters

Earthquake anyone? This is a double worry with people getting hurt and your winery falling apart all at the same time.  Losing wine? Lowest priority at that point.

Polar Vortex? If you are in New York, as I am now, the winter lows are dropping dangerously close to the bud kill point for your varieties.  This can lead to reduced crops at best and dead vines at worst some of which may not show up until the following summer due to damaged vascular systems which are no longer able to pull enough water to sustain healthy growth.

Hurricanes during harvest? Nothing is guaranteed to turn healthy grapes to mush faster than driving wind and 12 inches of rain over a 48 hour period. Trust me.

Not fun…

Vandalism

Oh yeah that. Occasionally ( and I do mean occasionally) once or twice a year the thought of vandalism crosses my mind but not until after all of the above things have been mentally chewed over multiple times.  Honestly, it’s just wine.  It can be replaced. That’s why you have insurance.  Of all of them, this is probably the easiest to deal with because it is the least likely to happen particularly if you take precautions such as proper security measures.  This is really not very high on my list at all and if I was writing this without the inspiration from the post linked above, I probably wouldn’t have even thought to include it.  Just goes to show how a great headline can grab your attention.