The vintner uses everything.
When Jack said I’d arrived in the middle of the crush, I expected to find Don standing over a vat of crushed grapes, up to his elbows in grape juice. I knew that the days of women stomping on grapes barefoot was a practice relegated to legend, but I didn’t expect the scene I comprehended when my eyes first adjusted to the change from sunshine to the dark room where Don stood analyzing an iPad. Behind him was a huge machine that had a sort of basket on top with a screw like device that I suppose churns the grapes right off the vine, then separates the leaves and stems into a bin while the skins and juices go through a tube, pumped into a big vat. There were about 12 of these vats in this huge room with sensors sticking out that apparently rendered data on the iPad in Don’s hands.
“How did it balance out?” Jack asked his father. Don looked up from the iPad and smiled, extended his hand to me and replied, “We almost had a nice batch of grape juice.” He turned to me, “The acidity, sweetness and flavor of the wine is determined by when we pick the grapes. We picked these a few days early because of the cold front. Damn fog is usually our best friend, but an arctic current could wipe out a vintage, turn it to vinegar.”
I was curious, but knew enough to be dangerous. “Isn’t the cool air in the valley the reason why we can grow fine wines?”
“Cool, yes,” Don corrected, “not cold. Some of the best wines are produced in cooler climates, but there’s a dance.” He picked up a grape. “In cooler climates the grapes have a harder time ripening. These grapes yield lower sugar levels, which might be fine if you like a crisp, dry wine, but when cool weather comes with water, it yields a diluted wine. Essentially grape juice.”
Jack explained further. “It’s not just about this week’s cold front. We had a very wet spring, following by a dry hot summer. With the cool nights here, those conditions are perfect for creating a 95-point wine. We had to harvest while it was still warm to maintain those odds.”
“So, you picked this batch early to avoid the forecasted cold front?” I asked, trying to act like I understood anything he said.
“That’s right. We left the must – the skins, seeds and solids—in a bit longer to add complexity to the wine since it wasn’t able to mature on the vine. The grape is comprised of three parts – stems, skins and pulp. The tannins are in the woody stems. The stems comprise up to 6% of the grape and they add complexity to the wine. If we leave them in too long, they will make the wine bitter.”
I’d have thought that everything but the juice is removed right away. “I think I heard that the skins actually make the difference between red and white wine, but I didn’t realize the stems and other solids were useful in the composition.”
The vintner uses everything.
Don was tracking with me, even though I didn’t have words for what I was thinking. I don’t know why I found it surprising that the process was as complex and holistic as it is. Every part of the grape played a role in the winemaking process, even the parts they throw away. Don seemed to almost read my thoughts.
“Yep, red wine gets its color from the pigmentation of the skin, so when we make a red, we leave the skins in longer. That’s where the alcohol is too. Wine is made in a small way just like we are. The good, the bad…it’s all in there together. We throw away what no longer serves the winemaking process, just like you and I get rid of employees who don’t make the team stronger.” He looked up. “I heard your conversation with Jack about wine and leadership.” He noted the look of surprise on my face, but continued undaunted.
“In this case, the sugar from the pulp was going to be diluted if the vine got too much moisture. That’s where the juice comes from and it constitutes most of the grape’s weight,” Don explained.
“It also gets filled and depleted as the grape vine responds to its environment,” Jack cut in, knowing what we were talking about in the vineyard. The metaphor was not lost.
“The impact of climate is vital,” I offered. I had a feeling Jack was tracking with my thinking.
“The vine can suck the soil dry,” Jack countered, knowing full well he was talking about the impact of Bryson Keller on my team. I knew I was on stable ground with this account, but I never anticipated that my client would be so completely grounded in organizational politics. Is he protecting me or protecting his investment? I decided to move the conversation back on track.
“So, after the crush, the fermentation process begins?” I asked.
Don took his cue. “We press the wine first to get the must removed. Must will begin fermenting within six hours when it’s exposed to the wild yeasts in the air. We get that stuff out of there and use a commercially cultured yeast to protect our intended result.” He walked over to the fermentation tank and tapped the airtight seal.
Jack jumped in. “Then fermentation continues until all the sugar is converted into alcohol for dry wines. We shorten the fermentation cycle for sweet wines, keeping those natural sugars intact.”
“So, after fermentation,” I probed, “the wine is ready to drink?”
“Not quite.” Don picked up a bottle that was sitting on a shelf near the fermentation tanks and brought it over to me. “If we didn’t clarify the wine after fermentation, you’d find all sorts of dead yeast cells, tannins and proteins in the bottom of the bottle. Consumers don’t like that.”
“We rack the wine,” Jack pointed to a different set stainless steel tanks, “to clarify the wine further through fining or filtration, to capture the larger particles before bottling.”
The process seems straightforward but also surprisingly complex. After the crushing, the pressing and the removal of skins, there’s fermentation, clarification and racking. “So, it’s ready for bottling after the racking?”
“After it’s racked one more time, we either send it to bottling or aging.” Don answered.
I laughed at the sound of that word, because I never keep wine long enough to age it. The oldest wine in my apartment has only been there a few weeks. “I’ve always wondered how long I should age wine. I believe I consume most of mine before it stands a chance.”
ack laughed, and I was relieved I didn’t sound totally stupid. “Most wines are made for immediate consumption, or within two years. He pointed to a tank. “Our Petite Sirah is ready to drink in three to five years, but” and he pointed to another room, “the Cabernet Sauvignon in our aging room is something you’ll want to hang onto for 10-20 years.”
This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. I’ve been searching for information in the winemaking process that might be newsworthy. Educating consumers on the value of their aged wine is something that wine enthusiasts will eat up, and not just in San Francisco. “I read an article about wine as an investment. I think this might be an angle we should develop.”
Don smiled. “That’s why you’re here.”
Based on the premise that the vintner uses everything, what hardships in your life or career ended up making you stronger? In this chapter we learn that the skins actually make the difference between red and white wine.
What would you equate the influence of skins to in your leadership?
Their conversation about climate indicates that we should let go any team members who create toxicity on a team?
Have you ever fired someone? Have you ever been fired? What’s your perspective on this?