Tag Archives: Wine

The Five Whys of the Civil War and What We Can Learn From it in the Wine Industry

Hang on for the ride here folks…

For a full disclaimer, I am Southern. I’m proud to be Southern but the South has a dark stain on its past that no one should be celebrating or proud of. This is a post I have been thinking about for quite a while but it has become far more relevant in the past week with the tragic events in Charleston and the vast political rhetoric that followed it. Originally, the thought started to form in my mind when the Occupy movement started gaining steam all over the country during the Great Recession while we were living in Napa. Then we were only a short car ride away from two cities, Oakland and San Francisco, which had major camps of occupiers so I essentially had a front row seat for that.

Anyway…

For those of you not familiar with the Five Whys technique, it is an excellent way to get to the root cause of a problem. It is a SixSigma technique outlined on their website here.

According to the site the Five Whys, is most useful “when problems involve human factors or interactions.” There are few problems greater than the outbreak of war so be patient with me here as I explore the Five Whys of the Civil War. What does this have to do with the wine industry? To quote Elle Woods from the movie Legally Blonde, “I promise, I have a point.”

Why #1 – Why Did the Civil War Start?

On April 12, 1861 the first shots were fired which kicked off the Civil War. These shots were fired in Charleston, SC directed at Fort Sumter which was located in the Charleston Harbor. After secession, South Carolina and the newly formed Confederate States had asked the Union armies to abandon the forts in the Harbor and tensions were running high.

Why #2 – Why Did the States Secede?

If you read through the entire Declaration of Secession for South Carolina, the cause of the declaration is the idea that somehow the other states had broken the trust and agreements on which the United States were founded and they were upset that the central government now had the authority to mandate laws that would be beyond what they had originally agreed to. This is the state’s rights argument. Unfortunately for the South, the platform they chose to build the state’s rights argument on was Slavery.

Why #3 – Why did the Southern States Choose to Build a State’s Rights Case with Slavery?

Economics my dear Watson! Doesn’t it usually come down to money? Cornered and faced with the complete destruction of their economy, the Southern States did what most people would probably do in the face of imposed financial ruin. They fought back. USHistory.org puts it this way…

“The sudden end to the slave economy would have had a profound and killing economic impact in the South where reliance on slave labor was the foundation of their economy. The cotton economy would collapse. The tobacco crop would dry in the fields. Rice would cease being profitable.”

The institution was wrong. However it was the way it had always been done and the South didn’t see any other options.

Why #4 – Why Was Slavery so Important to the South’s Economy?

The majority of farming was accomplished with slaves. Once slavery was taken out of the picture there was no way to maintain the vast farms and plantations. Working the land personally was considered “beneath” the gentile way of life that the southern states had established for themselves. There was no one willing to work the land so they had slaves to do it for them. There also was no economic force for the south outside of the production of cash crops; Cotton, Tobacco, Indigo, and Rice mainly. It was nearly a monoculture with a single main industry and smaller sub industries supporting it. This led to a set up that was doomed to fail.

HA! It didn’t even take five whys to get the root causes of the Civil War.

This was the problem. It was an entire economy, built on one industry, relying on one type of worker to support the rest of the population of the area.

Here’s my point…

So let’s now fast forward 154 years to present day and take a good look at how the food industry in this country is set up, focusing mainly on the wine industry since that is the industry I’m most familiar with. Let me be very clear. I am not comparing the hideous institution of slavery to the immigrant labor force we have today. Just the dependence on this particular workforce with little viable alternative. I’m sure there are legal and illegal immigrants represented. I don’t want to pick on any particular area but for the purposes of this comparison, let’s take Napa County. Agriculture is the main industry of Napa County and of that Agriculture I think it is safe to say that it is mostly vineyards and wineries. The next industry is hospitality however the hospitality wouldn’t exist if the vineyards and wineries were not there. The vineyards and wineries are currently owned by a mix of different entities; private individuals who either have been in the valley for generations and inherited their land, wealthy new comers wanting a piece of the idyllic lifestyle, or corporations who specialize in the wine and beverage industry. All of this is possible because we are able to find semi-skilled immigrant labor who are willing to work hard, dirty, difficult jobs to make ends meet. Many are transient, living in farm labor camps during the season and following different crops around the state. Most are just barely making ends meet and living transitory lives to continue working as much as possible. Strawberries in the spring, Lettuce in the summer, grapes in the fall, etc…

Napa is an entire economy, built on one industry, relying on one type of worker to support the rest of the population of the area. Do you get why I’ve been thinking about this for a while?

During the Occupy movement when unemployment was at its highest, the vineyards and wineries struggled to find enough workers to accomplish the tasks needed to keep the vineyards in top shape. The labor contractors managing the crews were rumored to be leaving jobs if they heard that someone across the valley was paying slightly higher for the same work. Meanwhile, I was watching newscasts everyday of people camping in downtown Oakland and San Francisco, complaining about how they were out of work and couldn’t find work because the 1% was keeping them down. I couldn’t help but wonder why we didn’t send buses down to the cities to pick up these folks and solve two problems at once. One winery on the central coast actually went so far as to try to hire an “All-American” harvest crew.  John Salisbury posted ads to try to find additional help for the harvest. He had 80 inquiries for jobs. Forty came in to fill out applications. From that group 22 were selected for interviews and only 18 actually showed up. They hired all 18 and that dwindled quickly down to 7 who made it through the whole season plus they were 3 times as expensive as migrant labor and extra slow compared to the immigrant crews. He was back to hiring migrant crews after that.

Then we have the immigration debate to add to this mix. The proverbial governmental mandate that could radically change how we bring in immigrant labor to this country to work doing jobs that the domestic population has nearly zero interest or skill in doing. Depending on how it is handled it could have huge implications to the cost of our food supply chain throughout the country. Right now people are interested in purchasing cheap food and with cheap food comes the cheapest labor that the economy can deliver and at this time that is based on migrant labor.

Here comes my frustration with our current political atmosphere in which politicians are too busy rehashing and debating the rhetoric of a war that happened 150 years ago rather than focusing on a similar economic set up of our food industry today. I would love to tell them the same thing that I would tell a Southern redneck talking about the “War of Northern Aggression.” Get over it! We have bigger fish to fry in the here and now before history repeats itself. Hopefully it can be a more positive outcome this time.

The Secrets of Decanting Unlocked

Very often I get questions about decanting wine.  Which wines would benefit from decanting or why would one choose to decant.  This week on Fix.com was a brilliant article written by Zachary Sussman outlining in nice brevity exactly the how, when, and why of decanting.

The link to the complete article is here.

Along with easy to read graphics, the content is clear and to the point delivering everything about decanting that the general consumer would be interested in knowing and understanding.  Needless to say the article covered all the major points that I would have covered with incredibly snazzy graphics which are a bit beyond me at this point (Hey, I’m a winemaker. Not a graphics artist!)

To add a few thoughts however…

1) Decanting is extremely important for older bottles particularly if they have sediment.  The graphic on the article does a great job of explaining how to pour off the sediment.

2) Decanting is critical for young wines that would have otherwise had a long life ahead of them.  We’ll put aside the issue that you are opening a bottle “too early” because it’s up to you when to enjoy your wines.  However decanting, as the article states, “is often necessary to allow the otherwise harsh tannins– the chemical compound found in red wines that gives them their specific grippy, mouth-puckering quality – to round out and become less severe.”

3) An empty bottle of wine can serve as a makeshift decanter in a pinch.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found myself without a decanter at a tasting and used an empty bottle of the same wine instead.  Not as fancy but gets the job done.

Why does all this work you may ask?  A 2012 journal article published in the Journal of Separation Science (Really? There is a whole journal devoted to this?) was able to detect 20 different organic acids and polyphenols in wine that showed different forms after decanting than they had before.  The concentrations of these 20 compounds also decreased after decanting as well.  They also noted that the duration of decanting, temperature, and light intensity would add to the effect of decanting overall.

Long story short? Read the article (Hopefully I haven’t stolen too much of his thunder) and experiment with decanting at home on your next bottle!

Happy Decanting!

Image at top courtesy of Fix.com

 

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!