What is a winemaker? The term itself exuberates, perhaps, more entitlement than its calibre of implication, in the context of industry. In literal dissection it almost imbues a divine providence to whom wears its mantel. Put Pynchonian jargon aside, and a genuine, sincere and uni-dimensional question rises like a sunflower over Prypiat, from the fallout of my preceding verbal diarrhoea: does anyone actually make the wine?
Without falling down the rabbit hole of semantics and pseudo-philosophies involving the punctuality of chickens and their un-born offspring, the question still deserves merit. Of course, I don’t intend to actually provide a lucid answer to this question, but expose ironies that I find funny.
First, the poultry question. Wine is fermented grape juice, and grape juice comes from grapes. As you can see, tertiary education has been worth it! So that’s our origin, there’s no need to take it any further back from here. The yeast is then responsible for the metamorphosis, it creates the alcohol, and thus we have fermented grape juice. In a Handy Andy’s antiseptic fictional world, grape juice would lie as grape juice forever. And in the real world, the finished product is naturally vinegar, which can be ascribed to another micro organism. With this plot in place, the winemaker could be seen as the author – the co-ordinator. No one cares about Harry Potter’s life after the books (generalisation); it is the winemaker’s job to provide the best part of the grape’s story and with the best expression of it, to hold it in place at its most serene moment.
As I am training to be a winemaker, I must point out this is not an assertion that the abilities of winemaker’s are overstated. However, if it were such an assertion, and I was to say a good winemaker doesn’t make his or her wine, is this incorrect?:
There’s a trend arising across South Africa, and other wine regions of the world, against intervention: Sulphur is minimised; microbes – yeast and bacteria – are not added by any human hand; many additives are frowned upon; essentially, if it might find itself in a national health study or another Do and Don’t’s facebook article, it won’t be in the wine. These methods we know as organic practices, taken one step further and we have biodynamic farming, a system based on various pseudosciences of agricultural history – efficacy may vary.
All this implies a withdrawal of the human aspect (even so small as deciding the strain of yeast). In a biodynamic farm, one can see the viticulturist stamping his feet and throwing a tantrum at his expensive scientific education that now has a giant ‘VOID’ stamp across it; a more institutionalised winemaker must stand back from his biodynamic must , and may feel a sting of impotence. Nature is pretty cruel, but man always had his mind to make tools to fight the tide and now he’s not allowed to use those tools.
The cynical winemaker sits back and laughs a very unconvincing laugh, biodynamic is a choice, they say, but the irony cuts deeper: many of these wines receive high scores, especially as popularity is leaning towards them; it has become the mode to produce wines with minimal interference, as if to imply the wine made itself and the indigenous yeast and bacteria further express a terroir, because today ‘the story’ of the wine is what matters. On this last, I agree, but what it says in respect of the winemaker is slightly demeaning.
The general calibre of a winemaker is gauged by his consistency to release good wine, a metric I think we can all get behind. But, will this soon mean the best winemaker, in fact, is the one who can do the least possible to his wine and still release high grade produce? Skill should imply efficiency, and a good winemaker is one who doesn’t make mistakes, but in the absence of bad luck and presence of good grapes, a well run cellar should be producing good wine consistently. On paper, it seems a diaphanous feat is attained, it can’t be denied. Of course, this only opens up new levels of challenge: when intervention is decreased, the remaining oenological and viticultural decisions suddenly carry tremendous weight and consequences, and those who take the risk, reap the rewards.