Exploring new worlds: winemaking

It’s easy to have a small fortune in the winemaking business, I’m told. All you have to do is to start with a large fortune.

But for years I have wondered about this seemingly mysterious process in the world of winemaking that begins with cultivation, and ends in gratification. So I asked my good friend Ron Kohut, who had moved to Santa Rosa a few years ago and is now the winemaker of his own Renegade Winery, about some of the things on my mind. My first question was about wine pricing.

What is the difference between an expensive bottle of wine and one that is more moderately priced?

“Paying a lot of money for a bottle of wine is usually a waste of money,” he said. “Personally I am reluctant to spend more than $30 for a bottle of wine, and then only if it’s a Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir that I know.

The futility of selecting wines by price can easily be demonstrated with what is known as a “blind tasting.” In a gathering of friends — and be sure to include those self-appointed wine “experts,” who are the people who nod gravely, with faces pensive, when sipping wine — set up the tasting.

Have four bottles of California Chardonnays and one French Chablis in the $7, $11, $15, $25, and $35 price ranges. Then cover the bottles, and have everyone try to rank the wines by price. For extra fun, ask if they can identify the French wine, as well as the “Reserve” wine, especially since the term “Reserve” has no controlled or legal meaning in the United States.

Most people can identify the $7 bottle of wine. But after that, all bets are off. Most of your friends will confidently conclude that the “best” tasting wine is both French and the most expensive. But when the bags are removed, the best-tasting wine is usually the $15 wine from California. And the dedicated wine snob will not perform any better in this tasting than anyone else.

Skeptical? Give it a try.

And while you’re at it, ask your friends about the “aromas” of wine. Buy a copy of the Wine Spectator, or similar wine magazine, and also several of the wines mentioned in the “reviews” section that list several aroma components for the wines. Then, at the same party, ask your friends to list the aromas they experience when they swirl and then sip their wines.

The listing, of course, should be done on a piece of paper, and not aloud. Afterwards, collect the papers. Normally, no two descriptions or aromas will be alike, and none will match those identified in the review.

But that is not surprising. Ron says that he has often sent his wines out to several reviewers and received back their aroma listings. And he has yet to receive back the same, or even similar, listings by these professionals for the same wine.

So is all of this aroma business a lot of hoopla? Actually not. Anne Noble, of the University of California at Davis, has created an “aroma wheel” for wines that can be purchased online. And Anne can, in fact, accurately identify many aroma components in a wine.

But for the casual wine consumer, much of the pricing and discussions of aroma are mostly just marketing. A good bottle of wine in a friendly or romantic setting is a hard experience to beat. And when it comes down to it, selecting a wine should be no more complicated than finding a wine you like at a price you are comfortable paying.

So, how are the wines priced? Most likely, the wines in the $11 and $15 price ranges are produced by large commercial wineries that must consistently deliver an easily drinkable wine. That is why, for example, the Kendal-Jackson Chardonnay is the most widely sold wine-by-the-glass in the United States.

In the higher price ranges, there are certainly some exceptional wines. But you have to know what you are buying. And that means doing some research. Furthermore, it also means that consumers are not hitting the search functions on their iPhones when standing in front of an array of wines at the supermarket to help them select their wines. So, unless you know something about wine, paying more than $15 to $20 for a bottle of wine is likely to be a disappointment. In fact, in many instances, you will only be paying for successful marketing.

Finally, I asked him about the glamour of winemaking. “It’s not exactly glamorous!” Ron laughed. “It’s a long arduous journey that just begins with the harvesting of the very best grapes. Then there’s the crush, fermentation, filtering, and, finally, bottling. There are a lot of mistakes that can be made during each stage of the process.”

Yes, it is a labor of passion, my good friend said, but it also can be unexpectedly fun. He recalled a time when he had a mobile bottling unit set up at his winery, but no workers to operate the eight-person system.

“I called my friends,” Ron said, “and they all came.” Why not? Who would turn down an opportunity to participate in the birth of a great wine. “It took a long time,” he continued, “but we bottled a great Zinfandel, and had some good cheese and music while we worked. And we turned it into a big party.”

The bottom line is that winemaking itself is not as glamorous as wine drinking. The folks in the vineyards and wineries work hard and take many risks in order to deliver that bottle of wine that serves as the centerpiece for most celebrations. Wine marketing is even harder. But we all can enjoy those people’s labors by grabbing our special someones and a nice bottle of wine, and heading out for a picnic. And we can let the wine’s aromas take us where they will.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)