Opinions about wine are as varied as the number of people involved in making or selling it. At one end of the spectrum are those who try to stay out of the way of the natural process: they tend the vine, harvest the grapes, and do little more than put them in a vessel and rely on native yeasts to start the fermentation. This camp aims to let the terroir - the natural environment in which a wine is produced, including factors like soil, climate and grape – be expressed through the wine. At the other end are those who have an end product in mind and are willing to manipulate the grape in the cellar: adding yeast, acid, oak chips, and sulphur to get and maintain the flavor they want.
The Viticulture and Enology department at UC Davis is known worldwide for its research in the vineyard and cellar. Some commentators hold the department in high esteem for its discoveries and techniques, while others vilify it for promoting science over the art of winemaking. I recently talked with some of the current generation of V&E graduate students and was impressed by their level of engagement in the world of wine. Sophie Drucker, 28, recently completed her M.S. in Horticulture and Agronomy; Shaunt Oungoulian, 25, Martha Stoumen, 27, and Diego Roig, 32, are each working on an M.S. in Viticulture and Enology.
Drucker: I strongly believe in sustainable farming, even though that term has become grossly over used and marketed. I believe what they say about wine being made in the vineyard. Accordingly, my winemaking philosophy is a terroir-driven approach: let the fruit speak for itself. I’m so excited to see a movement starting in California away from heavy oak, high alcohol and enological products, back to natural balance and expression.
Stoumen: I think wine often reflects the personalities of those who make it as much as it reflects the place of origin. The middle of the winemaking spectrum lies halfway between science and art, yet a wine can be made far to one end of that spectrum depending on the winemaker’s disposition. The more you take art and intuition out of winemaking, the more faceless the winemaker and the place of origin become.
Drucker: We had a Chenin Blanc tasting with some friends last week featuring eight amazing Chenins; I really liked the Mosse Anjou Blanc [ed: a French wine made from Chenin Blanc].
Oungoulian: Broc Cellars 2009 Cabernet Franc and Roagna 2009 Dolcetto.
Stoumen: Broc Cellars 2009 Carignan
Roig: I really enjoyed the 2009 Henry Marionnet Perriere Vendange from Touraine. This is a wine made from Gamay Noir that underwent carbonic maceration [ed: a technique widely used in the French region of Beaujolais in which part of the fermentation takes place inside the grape berry and without added yeasts].
Drucker: I have a lot of admiration for anyone willing to make a wine that isn’t just made to make money. We need more wines that break away from this homogenization of style that has been so prevalent in California. The guys at Arnot-Roberts, Duncan Meyers and Nathan Roberts, as well as Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars are very admirable.
Stoumen: Jordan Fiorentini. I worked with her at Chalk Hill Winery before I went back to school and the inspiration I gained from her catalyzed my decision to become a winemaker. Beyond the wines she makes, I admire her for her ambition and strength as a woman winemaker. Reinhard Loewenstein is a winemaker I worked with later in the Mosel [ed: Germany]. I witnessed how successful one can be by following his intuition, fine-tuning his own style, and never compromising to fit what a market may dictate.
Roig: I admire winemakers who are attempting to make distinctive wines that express the character of the vintage and the varietal. I also admire winemakers who are challenging the New World winemaking techniques and who are experimenting with more traditional vinification methods such as carbonic maceration and white wines fermented on their skins [ed: an ancient technique usually reserved for red wines that is making a resurgence].
Drucker: In the short term I really want to make some cool-climate Syrah. I’m also really interested in carbonic maceration.
Oungoulian: I would really like to be able to make wines from grapes that have resistance to common pests like powdery mildew. By doing so, perhaps a wine could be made with no additions whatsoever, sulfur particularly, at any point in its life. However, this may not be possible. I am interested in making small lots of wines with experimental techniques like carbonic maceration, long extended macerations, and oxidation.
What part of CA would you like to work in?
Drucker: Sonoma Coast.
Oungoulian: “True” Sonoma Coast, Santa Cruz, Mendocino, Humboldt.
Stoumen: If I work in California I have interest in the Sonoma Coast, both due to the quality of fruit there and my love of cooler climate styles. If I don’t work in California I have considered Margaret River, West Australia – which is a region I really connect with – or somewhere in Italy.
Roig: I would like to work in a region where cooler climates prevail. Santa Cruz and the “true” Sonoma Coast are regions that particularly interest me, but I am also intrigued by all of the other coastal regions of California.
Drucker: I think we should rethink what we have planted where. We have really incredible diversity in our soils, and a lot of potential. We don’t have history like the French, which creates a lot of debate. It’s too early in our winemaking history to get comfortable.
Roig: The notion of terroir arose because people were growing the right grapes for each region. There are many who say that the Napa Valley is not suited to grow Bordeaux varietals [ed: like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot], but it would be economic suicide to do anything else. Thus, the California wine industry will continue to have a difficult time convincing people that terroir exists.
In the past, UC Davis has had a reputation as an interventionist school…do you see that changing? If not, do you see that reputation as being at odds with your own philosophy?
Oungoulian: I think that this impression definitely still exists, and to some extent for good reason. But, I can wholeheartedly say that the group of students that I am attending Davis with are some of the most innovative, thoughtful and curious people that I have ever met. For instance, we are making our own garage wines this year, many of them using more natural and experimental techniques that are frowned upon by the UCD dogma, like non-sulfur, picking early, and carbonic macerations. We are trying to emulate the styles and techniques found in more traditional settings like France, Italy, and Spain. Myself and my cohort see our Davis education as a tool for experimentation. Like writing, one needs to know the rules of grammar to break them. And that’s exactly what we want to do.
Roig: When making wine, one should know the consequences of their actions. UC Davis provides students with the necessary tools to make informed decisions. It is up to the individual, however, to decide what style of wine they want to make. The professors at UC Davis have never told me how I should make wine.