When I was gratefully asked to write again for “Winemaker’s Corner” I asked, “what topic should be the focus?” The answer was simply an echo of the general theme to this column, which is stories from a winemaker’s unique perspective. I have recently had some moments that definitely qualify as uniquely from a winemaker’s perspective.
The old saying goes, “the story is the land, the storyteller is the wine.” Location, cultivation, and precipitation write the chapters. Truly, each vintage begins with the first pruning cut. The weather plays out like a musical track that’s recorded in the grapes’ structure as well. As a winemaker I am listening for the first whispers to gently help bring a voice to the Earth and the Sun. Sometimes the best course is to stay out of the way. Provide a nurturing environment and let the vintage shine. Sometimes there is opportunity to assist through technique, method, and understanding of the chemistry.
It is a dialogue and a dance.
Much of my time in the winery and barrel room is solitary. However, I’m never alone there. The wines are there. They are living, breathing, growing, and maturing. Constant care is required to guide them, protect them, and deliver them securely into bottles. The relationship between the winemaker and the wine is sometimes like teacher and student. Except the roles have a way of switching back and forth.
In the barrel room is a place I feel transported through time. There are methods that I use to cultivate and mature the wine in French oak barrels that are borrowed from centuries of history in Europe. Then, at other times, I use a candle flame to ignite preservative sulfur dioxide gas which is a practice traced back to ancient Egypt. When quietly working among the barrels like that I feel a direct connection to those monks and craftspeople.
Recently, the moment resurfaced that has always been uniquely striking to me as a winemaker. Each year a wine must get a new label indicating the vintage year and any differences in detail such as alcohol percentage that can fluctuate each season. Once the wines are bottled there is a long process of labeling all of the wine. As with many things here it is all done by hand gradually as the wine of a particular year is sold. Then inevitably it happens. The last bottle of a particular vintage gets its label. That version of label is “retired” and in that moment becomes a powerful symbol to me. That label will never grace a bottle again. Because that wine will never exist ever again.
The winter pruning, spring thinning, summer training, and fall harvest are memories. The weather of that vintage has played its tune. Dialogue and dance have coaxed the story from the grapes. In the candlelit barrel room ancient shadows guided us. At last the retired label gets put away forever. That wine will never exist again. The NEW vintage has its story to tell.
Louis Jeroslow is co-owner and winemaker at Elkin Creek Vineyard.