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For a big producer, when you have 20 tons of fruit in a tank, you're sitting on $40k-$50k worth of fruit before it's even fermented, and your strategy for getting that stuff dry and clean as a polished product is not going to be very abstract, by any means! [In that case] you want to use a clean yeast that doesn't produce a lot of VA and doesn't ferment fast or get stuck on you. So, I think that's where the smaller guys can be creative, while the bigger guys are [limited to being just] a production facility where they might use a little bit of that creativity, but for the most part it's managing risk — like in a large company. That's what it boils down to. But I don't look at most of these modern winemakers as doing anything wrong or bad. I just think that there's a lot of money on the table, there's no room for error, and they're just trying manage their winemaking styles in a very low-risk environment.
Making Choices, Taking Chances
NM: Clearly, you follow your intuition in the making of your wine. But let's look at the more technical and pragmatic aspects: are there concrete practices and procedures that you feel very strongly about — in the vineyard, but perhaps more so in the cellar?
KM: It seems like the number one piece is cleanliness. Justin keeps that winery so clean, and that helps keeping the fermentations going and such.
JM: I think that being involved with the grapes from the very beginning to the end product of the wine, and sharing that with the people who visit and buy it. My problem is that I try to do everything. I want to be part of every single process that takes place, and sometimes that's too much. But I think that's one of the most important things that Karen and I live by: if we're going to do this, we're going to do it from top to bottom on our own. We make the decisions all the way down the line. And I think that's one of the most valuable things that we both share together. In the vineyard, we pick the fruit when it tastes perfect to us, when it tastes right on our palate; we don't look at the chemistry of the fruit or the juice. We rarely even look at the chemistry until the wine is done with primary fermentation. One thing that we do believe in is taste, to believe in our taste and our palate out in the field or when we're making decisions in the cellar — Do we do another punch down or a little bit of aeration?… Where's the tannin going?… Do we want to slow that process down?… Is it getting too tannic? — taste, taste, taste! Whereas with the chemistry of wine, I think you can scare yourself easily.
KM: But you have to know the rules in order to break them. We follow our wines and look at the numbers at certain points. Also, you need to know how far you can go outside of that, and where you feel comfortable.
JM: I think it's all extracting what's in the fruit and what comes out of the vineyard based on the winemaker's style. There's a lot of fruit in the [wine] world and a lot of the little nuances and beauties in it get missed; they're not fully extracted. That's exactly what we learned making wine side-by-side with friends in the past. You can find huge differences between wines even when the same fruit is used but different techniques are implemented.
"In the vineyard, we pick the fruit when it tastes perfect to us, when it tastes right on our palate; we don't look at the chemistry of the fruit or the juice. We rarely even look at the chemistry until the wine is done with primary fermentation."
NM: That's pretty astonishing! To what do you attribute such a vast difference in wine style using the same exact juice?
KM: It's winemaking — totally, completely, and utterly winemaking.
JM: Yeah. We do all native fermentation, so we don't add any commercial yeast. The only yeast we do add is to our Chardonnay, where we have one-third native and two-thirds are comprised of a few different special commercial yeast strains.
NM: Well, now, that's interesting! Because the use of primarily native yeast, as you're well aware, is not at all typical. It's a choice and, some might argue, an unorthodox one at that. Tell me about the thinking behind that choice.
JM: We feel that a native fermentation adds much more complexity to the wine. That's how we feel; there may or may not be truth to that. I don't know if a guy could use commercial yeast and come up with something even better. I don't know. Using native yeast, we feel like we're being true to our terroir, true to our site. We want to make a wine that is unique to our soil, our vines, whom we are, the climate that we're in, etcetera. To do that, one of the things we do is let fermentations go naturally. Does that mean that there's no commercial yeast involved with it? I think there is, because you're in wine country where wine is fermenting everywhere and yeast is floating in the air.