Q&A with the Winemaker
Q1: You made your first amateur wine with grapes from your aunt’s backyard. After that, was there a single moment you realized you wanted to be a winemaker professionally?
A: I don’t know if it was a single moment that made me think I wanted to do it professionally. But the first wine I made was three gallons of concord. I was only 19 years old at the time, and I can remember an older cousin of mine and my father sitting in the kitchen drinking that wine, and commenting to each other how good they thought it was.
I think looking back and hearing that praise at such a young age just inspired me to do it again and to try to do it better every year. Now, 43 years later, we’re still trying new products that are available to help us try to make our wine better. And after hearing my father and that older cousin enjoying something that I’d made, I guess it just more or less inspired me to do it again. And the more you do it, the more you want to do it again. You want to try to master everything about the wine. You want to keep trying to make the best bottle of wine you can.
Q2: Tell us about a “rookie” mistake you made as you developed your skills.
A: I can’t say that I ever made any rookie mistakes. I had quite a bit of experience working with another winemaker in my early days as an amateur and learned quite a bit from him, and I can’t say that I ever made any rookie mistakes. Moving from an amateur point to commercial— making that step was pretty shocking to us with the change to making big batches. It’s so different going from making a 5-gallon batch of something to making a 500-gallon batch. It was kind of a reality check for us.
I can’t say I ever made any rookie mistakes though. One time I miscalculated on a tank of Traminette. It was a small, 80-gallon tank. This was when I knew we were going to go commercial, but I was still amateur status. I started fermenting with 5-gallon carboy, but then I purchased a couple of 50-gallon stainless steel tanks. That’s ten times bigger, and I had miscalculated and put in 10 times more sulfite than I needed. And at that point there was nothing you could do with it. So that wound up destroyed.
Q3: What’s your biggest accomplishment related to winemaking?
A: We’re the only winery in the state to possess five Governor’s Cups. We’ve done that in nine short years. We won our first Governor’s Cups in 2011, so it’s actually only been seven years. We were the only winery ever to win two governor’s cups in the same year. They used to give away two governor’s cups each year. One was for the best wine made from grapes, and one was for the best wine made from fruit other than grapes. We’re the only winery in the history of the farm show competition to win both of those cups in the same year.
Then we won the Keystone Cup from the Pennsylvania Winery Association in 2013. Probably one of the proudest moments was in 2011 the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County awarded us the Small Business of the Year Award. That’s coming from all of your peers. That’s when the other Centre County small businesses recognized that Seven Mountains Wine Cellars was a player. We were doing things right, with good product and good customer service.
Q4: Has there been any part of this winemaking journey that surprised you?
A: Probably what was a big surprise was how fast we grew. We knew we had good product, but how fast it caught on was unexpected. We went from 4,000 gallons of production in 2008 to today being ranked 25th out of the 220 wineries in the state that are producing collectively over a million gallons of wine each year—we’re the 25th largest producer in the state. And we’ve only been retailing for nine years. So that’s quite an accomplishment. We never anticipated that our growth was going to be so much, and as rapid as it was. To be 25th out of 220, that’s saying something about your product. If you didn’t have good product, you wouldn’t be there.
Q5: Any big goals you’re pushing to achieve?
A: We’re still in the process of purchasing some new equipment that’s going to make things easier. I just turned 62 years old, and now it’s all about getting the job done as quickly as possible but doing it in a way that’s going to make it easier on my body. There’s equipment out there that can help us do that. Instead of doing red fermentations and doing punchdowns, which can be very physical, a lot of hard work, there’s tanks where you can do pumpovers. You pump the juice from the bottom to the top and over the cap—it just makes life a lot easier. We have two of those tanks right now in-house and we’d like to purchase maybe three or four more.
Q6: Do you prefer red or white? Sweet or dry?
A: It’s mostly dry red. But it depends on the time of year. Summertime’s all about whites. On a good summer day, there’s nothing better than a nice white wine with dinner. I don’t want to be in the mindset where you should only have white wine with chicken and fish. If someone likes to have red wine with chicken or fish, as long as you’re drinking wine. That’s the main goal, that you have people drinking wine.
I like dry wines. I’m not a big fan of sweet wines, although I do love, I mean absolutely love, tawny ports. Port wines, ruby ports, tawny ports, cream sherries, and dessert—and they’re all sweet. But the bulk of the time when you see me drinking wine, I’ll be drinking dry, mostly dry reds. I like to think that dry reds are what give you the health benefits. Reds contain a compound called resveratrol, which is supposed to be the fountain of youth. Now you need to consume large amounts before you’re going to see the effect of it, and I like to think that—I drink more wine than the average person because I work with it every day—and maybe if I’m drinking all those reds, then maybe I’m a little healthier because of it.
Q7: At what point can you say, “this wine is ready?” Do you have taste testers?
A: We make wine based on an analysis that we do. So any wine, whether it begins with grape juice or fruit juice, we’re doing a sample of that juice, and we’re checking to see what the natural sugar is, we’re checking to see what the Ph is, and what the titratable acidity is. We’re going to make two adjustments on the juice: we’re going to add enough sugar to get the desired alcohol level. The plan is when we introduce yeast that we’re going to ferment every gram of sugar in that tank to alcohol. If we have the right amount of sugar, we’re going to end up with the desired alcohol level. That’s one adjustment. The other adjustment we’re going to make is on the acidity. We’re going to either remove acid or add acid based on whether the wine is going to be dry or sweet. Dry wine we want low acid and sweet wine we want high acid. And with wine, the fermentation process, the wine goes from being juice to being wine in about two weeks. And then the next six months is spent just stabilizing that wine and cleaning it up.
When is it ready? When I put it in my glass and it sparkles if it’s a white wine, and catches every beam of light coming through it, when it’s that clean that it actually sparkles in your glass. It needs to be stable. It needs to be both heat stable and cold stable. If it’s stable and cleaned up, then it’s ready to go into the bottle.
And there’s no real tasting. My son Nathan and I do the winemaking, and we taste to see if it exhibits the varietal characteristics that its variety is supposed to show. But there’s not a whole lot of taste testing going on. We’re relying more on nose than we are on taste. There are nine common faults that can occur during fermentation. And mostly you smell them rather than tasting them. Oxidation—you smell oxidation. You can smell H2S. It smells like rotten eggs. We’re smelling the whole way through fermentation to make sure none of these bad things are developing, and if we do smell anything we take corrective action.
There’s not a whole lot of tasting until right before we bottle the wine. And it’s usually my son and I doing the tasting, and we’re making sure if it’s a sweet wine that we’ve added sugar to it, and that we have the sugar and acidity in perfect balance. We look at the finish, the aftertaste that lingers in your palate after you take a sip and swallow it. It can linger for two or three minutes. Sometimes even longer. The finish we refer to as the very last recognizable thing that you taste before it goes away. If that finish all of a sudden turns tart, then you have too much acidity, not enough sugar. If that finish just tastes like cane sugar, then you have too much sugar and not enough acidity. If you have the two in perfect balance where neither one is dominating, the last thing you taste is the fruit, and that’s the same thing you tasted the minute you put it in your mouth.
So we’re doing, after we start balancing out any acidity, all the sweet wines the initial sugar we put in is all fermented to alcohol, so then it’s fermented to total dryness, then there’s all the stabilizing and filtering, then right before it’s bottled, it’s back-sweetened. We’re making sure we have the right amount of sugar, and the right amount of acid.
Q8: What’s your favorite wine you’ve made and why?
A: I think right now today my favorite wine that we’re making is our 2014 Cabernet Franc, which we have not released to the public yet. Our red wines, it takes two years to get them from grape to bottle, with an additional year of bottle aging before we retail them. We’re still retailing the 2013, and the ‘14 that’s next on the agenda is probably the best red wine we’ve ever made. It’s got a lot of structure, a lot of body, great color, great flavor.
I belong to a wine club in California, and you buy a red every other month. Tasting other people’s wine gives you an idea of where our wine is with a taste comparison with theirs, and I’d put this wine that we made up against any California wine I’ve ever drunk. A cabernet franc is different from a cabernet sauvignon. A cabernet sauvignon is more fruit-forward. Cabernet francs are even more earthy, herbaceous even. The French have a saying about the cabernet franc: “gout de terre”—taste the dirt.
Q9: Winemaking is a long process. What do you find to be the most difficult aspect?
A: Being patient. If you don’t have patience, you don’t want to be a winemaker. It takes time just to do things. And we don’t put any wine we make into a bottle until at least six to eight months after we start it. Red wines lay in the barrel for a full year. The time a red goes into a bottle is two years after we get the grapes.
In a lot of ways, commercial winemaking is easier than amateur winemaking because with the volume we produce we’re able to purchase the right equipment. An amateur doesn’t have the resources to purchase thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment to make 5 or 10 gallons of wine. When you’re making 20,000 gallons, you’d better have the best equipment out there. So that aspect of it, I think, the equipment available to us makes the commercial side a little bit easier than the amateur side.
Q10: How typical is the two-year timeframe? Are there winemakers who try to speed up that process?
A: I don’t want to speak for other winemakers. They might do whatever they do for whatever reasons. I don’t want to say why—I think I know why, but I could be completely wrong. And, I’m sure, if you are sold out of all your reds, and you have customers who still want to buy reds, I’m sure there are people who rush it. There is all kinds of harm in bottling a wine too soon. There’s not much harm at all in bottling a wine too late.
Q11: What’s the best part of the winemaking process?
A: My job today is being a winemaker and I’m on my own. I don’t answer to a boss. I worked for 35 years in manufacturing. I like the difference of not having to answer to a boss and to be able to go to work when I want to. I come home when I want to and do what I want to. I make my own decisions. That part of it is a lot nicer than working in a factory setting for all those years.
The winemaking part? What I like about it is when a truck loaded with 10 tons of grapes shows up in the middle of the day instead of eight o’clock at night [laughs]. When we get those grapes off the truck, we have to process them right away—it doesn’t matter what time of day it is. I guess it would be easier to tell what I dislike: grapes not showing up when they’re supposed to.
Q12: Is that really time critical? Can a delay of a few hours after the grapes arrive make a big difference quality-wise?
A: Yes—that’s why it’s just more convenient for us when the grapes show up at a reasonable time. If they show up at two o’clock in the afternoon, we’re working on crushing and destemming during the daylight hours. Whereas if they show up at eight or nine o’clock at night when we were thinking, “In another two hours I’m going to bed,” that’s not going to happen because the next three or four hours, we’re going to be crushing grapes. It is important. When they come off a refrigerated truck and they’re very cold, we don’t want to let them warm up. We want to get them crushed and into the tank while they’re still cold. It’s important to get started as soon as we get the grapes off the truck.
Q13: Tell us a little bit about your day-to-day. What’s it like?
A: My son and I never set an alarm unless it’s bottling day when we start at eight in the morning. My day starts much later than probably most people. I get up, and I don’t usually get to the winery until eleven. My assistant winemaker—my son, Nathan—he’s not showing up until eleven, so I have all of my morning as my free time.
I’ll make a pot of coffee, and I might wander over to the winery, and usually do walk-throughs, look at where we’re at with each tank, what needs to be done next to it and when does it need to be done. We keep really good notes. We have an excel spreadsheet for every wine that we produce. We’ve kept them for years. Now we can look back the last three years or so and see what yeast we used with a particular variety, and so on.
Depending on what we’re doing on a given day… every day you’re doing something different. It depends on what we’re doing that day. Like today, we bottled. Tomorrow we have juice coming in from California. So we’ll be pumping off juice into the tank, doing our analysis on it, making any sugar and acid adjustments to it, letting it warm up to get it up close to room temperature before we inoculate it [add yeast].
Every day, it’s something different. Right now, we’re into harvest season, so we might be balancing juice and starting fermentations. Two months from now, it might be different. When all the fermentations are complete, we’re going to start that cleaning up process. The wine has been sitting, and all the yeast has settled in the bottom of the tank. We’re going to do rackings. We’re going to transfer wine from one tank to a clean tank, pumping over the top, and being very careful not to pick up the yeast from the bottom.
We’ll start doing our filtering in the spring. As the year goes on we’re always doing something different. I guess that’s what I like. The job never gets old because there’s nothing that gets repetitive day after day like when you work in a factory. There’s always something different in the process from the time you start the process to the time you’re finished. Every day you can be doing something different.
Q14: Does the long production cycle create a long “float time” for cash flow?
A: You’ve got a lot of money tied up. We’re buying cabernet sauvignon grapes this year, $3,000 per ton. It’s going to be two years before it goes into the bottle, and then there’s a year of bottle aging after that, so it’s going to be three years before we’re bringing any money back in from that particular wine. So you’ve got a lot of money sitting on the floor in inventory.
You have to build that inventory for the whole first year. You’re building inventory without selling anything. And then, as soon as you start selling stuff—it takes a year to make wine. So now you finally have it all made and you’re going to start retailing, so just as the money starts coming in, it’s time to spend money on making Year 2. Anything you’re making from grapes has to be purchased when grapes are ripe. You’re talking about a small, probably six-week window, from mid-September to the end of October, that you have to purchase your entire year’s supply. So that can be very challenging on the cash flow.
Q15: Describe an ideal harvest/growing season. What would it look like?
A: That’s something I can’t speak to because we don’t grow any of our grapes. We realize Central Pennsylvania is not known as a grape-growing region. If you think about where the best grapes grow in the country, you’re going to say California, Washington, New York. You never hear Central PA mentioned as one of the areas known to grow great fruit. So we concentrate on purchasing all of our fruit from areas known for fruit production and good fruit. Probably 70 percent of our fruit comes out of Lake Erie, and some from the Finger Lakes, some from California, some from Washington.