Ξ October 6th, 2008 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine History, Winemakers |
Following upon the posting of Pt 1 of my interview with Jack Keller the out-pouring of interest and, it must be said, of affection for the man has been nothing short of astonishing. For his legion of readers and admirers, myself included, he occupies a very rare place: an accomplished winemaker, to be sure, an exhaustive reference for the beginner and experienced alike, but also that of an American folk hero. His ongoing contribution to the preservation and advancement of ‘local wine knowledge’, a uniquely American knowledge, of how generations past and present made and continue to make wines out of anything at hand, wines made in barns, cellars, kitchens and bathtubs, with both rudimentary and polished equipment, instructed by recipes he’s received and dutifully recorded from humble folks, their parents and grandparents, indeed, recipes compiled from our earliest days as a republic, such a contribution deserves our greatest respect and thanks.
Little did we know, neither could Jack himself, that his patient blog additions would gather, over time, into a resource to be treasured.
Back to wines. Your first ‘Texas’ wine, you write, was made of mission fig and raisin. I am amazed at the bewildering number of fruits that may be made into wine. Do you find the wine market’s preoccupation with Vitis vinifera to be unfair or misguided when it comes to all the other kinds of wines out there?
JK No, but I understand it. It’s a combination of marketing, culture and bias.
The wine industry is built around the grape, and Vitis vinifera is the best all-around grape for wine. But neither V. vinifera nor the grape itself is the best wine solution everywhere. They grow best in the temperate zones and that is where probably 98% of all commercial wines are made. But outside the temperate bands grapes are scarce to non-existent and don’t do well if they grow at all. There are hundreds of non-grape wines made on small scales in the non-temperate regions for local consumption from local fruits and berries and saps. Generally, these don’t have nearly the shelf life as the average grape wine, so shipping them to the States, for example, where they would mainly be sold as novelty wines, doesn’t work well commercially – they would probably go bad on the shelf before they were purchased. That’s a very practical marketing limitation to some very nice exotic wines.
But then there is the cultural side, which has two aspects. One mainly pertains to non-grape wines. Many, many people will simply not assimilate that which doesn’t fit their cultural framework. They might try a pineapple wine in Mexico, a cashew wine in Belize, a mangosteen wine in Thailand, a cloudberry wine in Newfoundland, or a lingonberry wine in Sweden, but they wouldn’t think of serving these wines at a dinner party or even at their own table.
The second cultural aspect has to do with laws and regulations. France has carried this to the extreme in mandating that only these three grapes can be grown here, those four can be grown there, and these other four can be grown over yonder. There are traditional reasons for this and they are not all that persuasive, but it is the way it is. When you regulate what you can grow, you tend to exclude everything else.
Last weekend I was head judge at a competition at the Czech Heritage Festival in Victoria, Texas. Six of us selected a dandelion wine as Best of Show. I seriously doubt this would happen in France – or in Napa, for that matter. I could spend an hour on this topic so I’ll just leave it at that.
Next comes the bias against all grape wine not V. vinifera, and for this there is widespread blame, if blame is the appropriate word. You have the Robert Parkers and Hugh Johnsons and all the other trend-setters in wine who think hybrid is a most vulgar word. Of course, of the many thousand varieties of V. vinifera, to be perfectly honest, all are single-specie hybrids, but they are not vulgar hybrids – they are V. vinifera. Then there are the countless other wine-writers, sommeliers, bloggers, and a huge V. vinifera-oriented marketing industry. That’s a huge tide of bias to swim against.
There are some absolutely marvelous French-American and other non-vinifera hybrids. I doubt you will see them rated in Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate, and that is unfortunate. The truth is that V. vinifera is a fairly fragile species in America and susceptible to a host of diseases, vectors and pests not native to Europe. Conversely, American native vines are highly tolerant, if not outright resistant, to many of these same vulnerabilities. Breeding tolerance or resistance into a vine makes good sense, and yet the wine snobs resist the very thought.
The most overworked and inappropriate term applied to American vines is “foxy.” “Foxy” applies to only one of the 24-30 species (depending on who’s counting) of native American species of Vitis, and that is V. labrusca. It can also be applied to the proto-species V. X novae-angliae, which is a natural hybrid of V. labrusca and V. riparia. Admittedly, there are many cultivars with V. labrusca genes in them, but there are many, many times more without. It pains me to no end to hear some ignorant twit taste an excellent Norton and say, “I simply cannot stomach that foxy taste.” He has no idea what he is talking about – Norton is V. aestivalis, not labrusca – and if he were served the wine blind he might not taste anything “different” about it at all. One of the best red table wines I have ever enjoyed (I bought a case) was Post Familie Vineyards Ives Noir. It is a V. labrusca hybrid but has very little foxiness in it…and it is excellent.
Obviously, this particular subject hits a nerve with me, so I’ll just let it go with one parting comment. If people allowed their senses to taste the wines without engaging their biased brains, many non-vinifera wines would be best sellers.
During Prohibition and after, my Grandmother used to make dandelion, watermelon, gooseberry and blackberry wines. Many more Americans can relate to home winemaking in ways more intimate than to the industrial product flooding our supermarkets, just as the home gardener knows the basics of growing healthy vegetables. How can the average urban vinifera wine drinker be made more aware of the gustatory spectrum of flavors offered by fruit wines?
JK That’s an excellent question, Ken. There are basically two methods I recommend.
The first is to take a Saturday day trip and visit any wineries in your area that make country wines – the generic term used for non-grape wines. If your state has a wine industry, it will have a presence on the web and you can locate it through Google; just type in the name of the state and the word “wineries.” Go to the websites of the wineries and see what wines they make. In some areas of the country, especially the northern tier, you can’t avoid running into country wines at nearly every winery. You won’t find them in California’s wineries, but if you’re taking a trip outside the Golden State, do a Google search and try something different.
The second way is to determine if there is a winemaking club in your area and go to a couple of their functions. This is not that difficult. One way is to go to WineMaker magazine’s website and scroll down the right column until you see the search field for FIND CLUBS. Enter your ZIP code and it will tell you if there are any near you and give you contact or website information. You can also go to my site and search the clubs listed in the first section. These all have websites. After locating one, contact the club and ask about tastings, competitions or other venues they might have where you might be allowed to participate. The San Antonio Regional Wine Guild, as an example club, welcomes guests and usually has 15-25 wines at any monthly meeting. Unless we are doing a theme tasting, such as “the wines of Italy,” 65-75% of the wines will be homemade non-grape or non-vinifera grape wines. Our only requirement, even of guests, is that they bring a wine to share (commercial or homemade) and their own wine glass.
What is your take on Organic and Biodynamic winemaking?
JK The word “organic” is much overworked these days. Under Title 7 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Part 205, organic foods, both agricultural and livestock sourced, are defined with enough loopholes that I doubt the public really knows what the word means.
I think the idea of organic foods is good, but the regulations add quite a costly record keeping and certification burden on the producer that does not contribute to the actual value of the foods involved. I understand the need for both, but the burden discourages use of the products by those with low or fixed incomes.
As for organic wines, again the idea is good. I’m just not sure I have ever made an organic wine. I have never really checked the national list of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production to see.
As for biodynamic winemaking, I have read of some pretty far-out practices I can’t subscribe to. On the other hand, other practices seemed innocent enough but I have no knowledge of the bases upon which they are prescribed. It’s a bit too metaphysical for me. I’d like to see some scientific evidence supporting it before I bite.
Global warming is shaking up the wine world. One may read academic reports to this effect but it is really the winegrowers themselves who provide the most compelling evidence for most of the public, I would argue. Bordeaux as we know it may be seriously compromised. One report estimates Australia will cease to produce wine by 2050. What is the outlook for Texas?
JK Ken, all through the 1960s and ‘70s the scientists were telling us we here heading for a new ice age. It was a thousand years away, but there was no doubt it was coming. All the data pointed to it. I attended a seminar in Colorado Springs in 1974 on the subject and all these meteorologists and climatologists were saying the same thing, except this one guy from a four-year old outfit called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He alone said we had been experiencing a normal solar cycle in which the sun put out less energy and so it was slightly colder, but in a few years it would end and old Sol would start putting out more energy and we would go through a period of warming.
I didn’t know whom to believe, but this one guy impressed me because he had these view-graphs with charts that showed the cycles, and he flat predicted that in 20-25 years they would conclude that the earth was going to burn up. He pointed his finger up and said, “Remember then, it’s the sun. It has cycles. It will cool off again.”
My point is that 34 years ago this guy from the NOAA predicted what we are seeing now. I’ve read a lot on the subject and am not sold that man is causing global warming. I think it’s the sun. Everything else can be explained as normal statistical variances within any climate model you care to use. What I am not at all sure about is the increase in atmospheric CO2. It’s a nagging little problem I can’t resolve with other really easy data to digest. But then we’ve only really been studying it for a short time. It might be quite explainable when our understanding matures.
I do know that if you look at the record high temperatures in each of the 50 United States, 3 are in 1888-98, 31 are in 1911-37 (with all but 7 in the 1930s – can you spell “dust bowl?”), 10 in 1954-83, and 6 in 1994-95. Only 16 of 50 highs occurred in the last 54 years. There hasn’t been one record high in the entire country in 13 years, and yet this is the very period people are pointing to as catastrophic and record-breaking. And yet not one record has been broken. Call me stupid, Ken, but I don’t see a trend in there that justifies a Nobel Prize for anything, let alone spending hundreds of billions of dollars on “carbon emission credits” (expected to reach $1.5 trillion within a decade).
With that kind of money at stake, research funding will overwhelmingly favor predicting more of the same. I have been reading the scientific literature on the subject for about ten years and will simply say it is not the quality of the research in other scientific fields I follow. I’m not going so far as to say it is “junk science,” but clearly some of it is suspect and a lot of respectable scientists use that term.
The truth is that I simply don’t know whether the climate changes we are seeing now are long term or are like the coming ice age hysteria I witnessed years ago. Prudence would dictate we try to wean ourselves from fossil fuels as quickly as we can, but I am still suspicious of all the money being made off of this “crisis.” There is something very insincere about crying “the sky is falling” and then demanding we pay a “sky is falling tax.”
But to answer your question, I’m not ready to start predicting the end of the wine business as we know it just yet. V. vinifera might burn up in Texas in a hundred years, but I suspect Texans will still be making excellent homemade wine from those nasty old mustang grapes for generations to come.
A lot of ink is spilled over the use of wine additives. When I’ve clicked through home winemaking web sites I see dozens of additives, supplements, and enhancements. Mega Purple, liquid oak… the list is bewildering. What is your take on these offerings? How common is a homemade wine without these additions?
JK There are, as you say, a bewildering assortment of additives. Some manufacturers have sent me things to “try.” I usually attempt a judicious appraisal, but there are some that I simply never developed a use for. There are an awful lot of specialty tannins and designer pectic enzymes that are expensive and I doubt have much attraction for the home winemaker.
But there are still several additives most winemakers would prefer not to do without. Obviously, potassium metabisulfite is the aseptic solution for almost any molds or bacteria that would like to attack your wines, and it postpones the inevitable end-of-wine-life due to oxidation. A basic pectic enzyme aids juice extraction and neutralizes pectin haze. Yeast nutrients are essential for most non-vinifera wines, and some yeast simply need nitrogen energizers. Some grape tannin powder is often needed to give some fruit and many non-traditional wines (dandelion, lilac, rose petal, wheat, corn, etc.) that “bite” that separates wine from other beverages. And many non-grape wines need organic acid supplementation or they taste “flat.” Among the scores of other additives available, two or three fining agents usually find their way into the winemaker’s pantry. These are the basic additives, and each winemaker tailors this list to his or her favored winemaking methods.
Having said that, I have dozens of additives most winemakers don’t have. But I usually buy these with a single use in mind just to see if they do what their developer claims. They reach their shelf life and I toss them, most having been used only once or maybe twice. If I am going to write about them, I have to use them first.
And then there are yeasts. I am down to 37 varieties of yeast on hand. I have had as many as 56. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the many strains and conducting trials. This usually occurs when I am given a lot of an ingredient – figs, blackberries, blueberries, pears, or whatever – and I make a large batch and then break it into several smaller batches and pitch each with a different yeast. It’s the only way I know of to say with authority that this specific strain preserves the fruitiness of Navajo Blackberries better than any other while building a complex bouquet, and that one gives Hachiya Persimmons a rich, creamy mouthfeel.
Most home winemakers gravitate to a core group of from three to six yeast strains. Yeast are tools. They help you maximize the potential of the base ingredients. The more expansive your toolkit, provided you know when and how to use them, the better for you and your wine. There are a dozen to fifteen yeast strains I use 60 to 70% of the time. The remainder of the time I’m experimenting. Sometimes I learn something.
Tell us something about the San Antonio Regional Wine Guild, if you will. How many members? What kinds of wine does the Guild make?
JK The San Antonio Regional Wine Guild (SARWG) was founded at the Old Standby Saloon in Castroville. We’re planning on returning there in May 2009 for our 33rd anniversary.
Our membership fluctuates between 50-80 members. A few years ago, we had members in seven states. It runs in cycles (probably has something to do with the sun), but this is a “down” year so far, with 54 members. We had 24 more members than this last year, but we’ll get a jump later in October when we have our Fall Competition. We always do.
Some clubs buy a ton of grapes and make a club wine. SARWG hasn’t ever done that to my knowledge. The members pretty much do their own thing. We have one member who only makes Concord grape wine, another who only makes berry and fruit wines, several who only make kit wines, and some – like myself – who will ferment just about anything that isn’t toxic.
By far the wine most members are most passionate about is made from the lowly V. mustangensis – the mustang grape. This is by far the most unpalatable grape I’ve ever bitten into. The acid is off the charts and can blister your skin and the tannin is nearly as strong. But the thing is, this truly awful tasting grape can be coaxed into some of the best wine you can imagine. Admittedly, it has a distinctive, non-foxy flavor some will not like, but so does Gewürztraminer. I’ve won more Grand Champions, Best of Shows, Best of Class, and Gold Medals with mustang wine than any other, and many of our other members can make the same claim.
I think our love affair with mustang grapes is based on the belief that if you can make award-winning wines with mustang, you can certainly make award-winning wines with mere V. vinifera. But where’s the challenge in that? No matter where you’re from, once you’ve bought into that mentality you’re a Texan and there’s no going back.
Like most winemaking clubs, we see fewer young people making wine. It seems like the youth of today – I’m talking about 30-something on down – are generally not interested in making wine. Maybe wine takes too much time to make and they want it now. I don’t know, but it’s really sad that they aren’t interested in learning the arts and crafts of their fathers.
And your wine-making specialties?
JK I guess that would be making wine from the unusual. It didn’t start off that way, but it happened. Oak leaf wine, chickweed wine, sand burr wine, hibiscus flower wine, mesquite bean wine, jalapeno wine, praline wine, cactus flower wine – why not? They have all won awards. I guess it’s like the mustang grape – embrace the challenge. If you can turn Bermuda grass clippings into an award-winning wine, blueberry and blackberry are a snap.
But I also make conventional wines – certainly more of them than the unusuals. Most of my awards come from fruit, berry and grape wines. I grow some grapes, but mostly just to experience growing them. I think it would be rather pretentious of me to write about the viticultural side of winemaking without experiencing powdery mildew, grape berry moth infestations and anthracnose myself, even if only on 30 vines. And of course, I live in the famous Pierce’s Disease belt of the South, so I have planted and replanted and replanted, and now have a fairly stable PD-tolerant plot, with a few vines that just might be PD-resistant. Time and the grapes will tell.
I often leave the last question for the person being interviewed.
This is an opportunity for any particularly bald omission of my line of questioning to be corrected. Feel free to ask any question and answer it.
JK The question would be, “Where do you think you need improvement as a winemaker, as a writer in general and as a blogger in particular?”
To that I would answer that as a winemaker – and I think this is true of many if not most winemakers – I need to better tune my taste buds to tell me what any given must needs to ferment into a balanced wine. I still rely on hydrometers, acid titration, pH meters, and other measures to aid me in analyzing the must. There is, of course, nothing wrong with doing it this way, but I would like to rely completely on my taste buds. I do this quite often to see if I can, but if the resulting wine is not balanced I have to fall back on the lab tests. I’m in the ballpark more often than not, but I’d like to improve that to staying within the in-field.
As a writer, I have two distinct styles. My preference is to write informally, like I talk, but at work and in journals I adopt a more academic style. What I need to improve on is to not mix the two styles in the same article, essay or monograph. And I do. I am especially liable to do this when I take a break in writing and read something in the opposing style before returning to the keyboard. It’s something I need to be aware of, and often I’m not until I proofread what I wrote.
I strive for accuracy in all things I write or say, but once in a while I blow it.. Such episodes have a way of causing embarrassment, and I’d REALLY like to avoid that. But I will say this about the public. They seem to be quite forgiving. Some just come right out and write, “You stepped on it. Morus rubra, not Morus alba, is the American mulberry.” You can’t get mad at honesty. Others are cute, and might say something like, “Those V. berlandieri grapes on your web site did a really good imitation of V. cordifolia just as you snapped their picture. If you didn’t eat ‘em or turn ‘em into wine, you should sign ‘em up with a talent agent.” I love my readers. But I want them to be able to take what I write to the bank.
I’m working on it.
Thank you, Mr Keller.