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Champions of California Wine

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California winemakers have ridden the wine wave of the past 30 years to achieve a degree of visibility and renown within the industry and beyond. As the number of commercial bricks and mortar California wineries has grown from about 850 in 1998 to over 3000 in 2012, winemakers have taken the center stage, much like football quarterbacks. Whether they were born into a winemaking family, or became a winemaker through sheer will, or even by chance, winemakers have earned their title through hard work and a devotion to the grape. The job requires a strong sense of self-confidence along with an ability to make quick decisions and take risks.

There are countless paths to becoming a winemaker. Some go to college from winemaking families, as they want to continue their heritage. Others have a love of wine and decide to be winemakers, sometimes after having started careers in other fields. Many have a creative bent and are looking for an appropriate outlet. Whatever the motivation, a successful winemaker must have scientific aptitude coupled with strong intuitive and sensory abilities.

 Mondavi 320px-UC Davis Mondavi CenterWine industry's legacy at UC Davis includes the Mondavi Arts Cent

Winemaker Education and Training

California winemakers have usually completed a four-year degree program, such as the ones at the University of California at Davis; California State University, Fresno; and California Polytechnic State University. The UC Davis and Fresno programs, for instance, graduate 20-25 students annually with a Bachelor of Science degree in viticulture and enology. A handful of students, who usually have an undergraduate science degree, receive a Masters degree in viticulture and enology each year. The curriculums are rigorous with courses in viticulture, pests and diseases, plant physiology, enology, microbiology, fining and others. The new Cal-Polytechnic program is also similar, but includes wine business courses in the curriculum.

College provides the technical information about the process of winemaking, but experience is the great teacher. After graduation, future winemakers may start out in the winery lab or as an assistant winemaker. If they are fortunate, they will have a mentor, allowing the art of winemaking to be passed down from generation to generation, from expert to novice.

Harvest – the Crucible of Winemaking

Winemakers love the challenge of harvest. It is the time of year when their knowledge and actions impact an entire vintage of wine. They usually work seven days a week for two to three months, as they need to be in constant communication with their growers and cellar staff. Harvest is a time of uncertainty and dealing with the unknown, whether it is equipment malfunction or heat spikes in the weather that turns the process into a frantic race to get the grapes off the vines. Adrenalin, as well as mental passion and skill, help winemakers cope with the daily dance of harvest.

The decision of when to pick is a winemaker's responsibility. Judging at what point the grapes will produce the most flavorful and balanced wine is critical. Winemakers walk the vine-yards; they sample the fruit and rely on both their sensory instincts and lab analyses to determine ripeness. They also need to be practical regarding the logistical constraints of harvest, as to how many tons of grapes can be picked in a day, how many tanks are available and how much their cellar crew can handle.

During the last 20 years, the emphasis in California winemaking has shifted to the vineyards. A winemaker's depth of knowledge regarding the vineyards that produce the fruit for his or her wines is perhaps the most important aspect of the job. Whether working for a large winery that contracts with multiple growers or on a small vineyard estate, the winemaker needs to have enough experience and awareness to make decisions about the ripeness, flavors, acidity and condition of the grapes. Each vintage is different, and winemakers need to use their training and intuitive skills to work with every season. A winemaker's relationship with growers or vineyard managers is usually one of close cooperation and communication. Many are long-term relationships built on trust and a shared vision of how to achieve certain parameters for making the finest wine possible from a given vineyard site.

Tasting and Blending – the Artistic Aspect of Winemaking

Tasting is an important facet of winemaking, from the beginning when the juice is in the fermenter to the final blend before bottling. Winemakers learn the technical aspects of tasting at school. However, it is through experience where they gain the ability to affect the taste of their wines through a myriad of daily winemaking decisions. These choices range from determining types of yeast to managing fermentation temperatures and times. Some winemakers taste alone. Oftentimes, there is a winemaking team that tastes together, and it is important to develop a common vocabulary so that everyone agrees on the basic tastes – astringent, bitter and sweet – as well as more complex descriptors.

Blending is another tool in the artistic palette of a winemaker. Each vineyard lot is usually kept separate, and yeast, fermentation and oak treatments can vary, depending on the winemaker's intention. Often a winemaker will have 20-30 lots of a wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, that come from different vineyards with various vine maturity, aged in different types of oak, or differ in color from light to opaque with varying degrees of alcohol. It is up to the winemaker to decide how to blend this array of wines to create the final product that will be bottled.

The Business Side of Winemaking

Winemakers are also responsible for budgets, purchasing winemaking equipment, managing inventory, and many other managerial responsibilities depending on the size of the winery. More and more, winemakers spend time traveling to different cities, meeting with media and trade to help promote and market their wines. These Renaissance men and women are leaders and innovators in the California wine industry. Their endeavors have been central in helping California wines enjoy a reputation for high quality and, often, for greatness.

Special thanks to the following experts for providing interviews for this article: MaryAnn Graf, consultant, Vinquiry; Fred Peterson, owner and winegrower, Peterson Winery; and Karl Wente, vice president viticulture and winemaking, Wente Vineyards.


(Wine Institute sources contributed to this article.)


Editor's note: Links to the websites of nearly all of California's wineries, as well as links to thousands of nearby lodging and dining options, can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.


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