Winemaker tells some vineyard secrets
WATKINS GLEN--A friendly, expectant crowd greeted winemaker Chris Stamp, president of Lakewood Vineyards, when he stepped to the podium at the Motor Racing Research Library in Watkins Glen. Invited to speak at the noontime "Books Sandwiched In" program Feb. 8, sponsored by the Friends of the Watkins Glen Library, his program promised "Everything you always wanted to know about winemaking... Almost."
He began with a capsule history of winemaking in the Americas, where vinifera grapes were brought over by settlers and only grew long enough to produce hybrids with native vines. Grapes closely related to the ones we now know as Concord, Delaware, Niagara, Catawba and their cousins, went back to the old world to be enjoyed as table grapes, and accidentally spread a nematode disease known as phylloxera, which nearly destroyed the less-hardy vinifera grapes of Europe. Vineyardists learned they could grow hardier grapes by grafting vinifera scions to American rootstocks, which eventually allowed vinifera grapes to thrive on both sides of the Atlantic.
By 1857, there was a strong Finger Lakes wine industry centered on Keuka Lake, spreading to Seneca Lake when the popularity of Finger Lakes wines demanded more production and more grapes. Stamp spoke of the moderating effect of the deep Finger Lakes at the fringes of autumn and spring as early flocks of migrating geese flew north overhead.
There was much to say about yeast, the single-celled fungi that leaven our bread and turn grape juice into wine. Wine yeasts, including some Stamp referred to as "designer yeasts" are alcohol resistant, stronger than wild yeasts and have known attributes. "You take grapes that come in at 22 percent sugar and no alcohol, add the yeast and when the ferment goes to completion, you have a dry wine," he said, pausing to add, "I don't know how many times I've heard, "I want a dry, sweet wine." The audience laughed appreciatively.
Sweeter wines happen, he explained, when the fermentation is stopped before all the sugar has turned into alcohol, leaving a sweeter, lower-alcohol wine.
Red wines go through two fermentations, the second, malo-lactic ferment softening the flavors by lowering a wine's acidity and adding complexity. The tannins in red wine--tannic acid being something tea-drinkers can experience by over-brewing black tea--give red wines body, grip, age-ability and anti-oxidants, and often become less evident as a red ages, often in oak barrels.
Stamp had quite a lot to say about red wine and poked gentle fun at its pairing with chocolate. "You don't want chocolate with a good red wine, you want steak!" he said, describing in mouthwatering detail how the flavors of good food and good wine interact in the mouth. "You want to match the sweetness level, savory qualities and texture of a food to wine."
About those barrels--there was a learning curve before American oak came into its own as a barrel resource. He described how a member of the Mondavi family, visiting a barrel-maker in France, experienced an "aha!" moment after his eye fell on oak planks in France, aging in the weather before being made into barrels. In a flash of inspiration, he tasted the earth underneath the curing oak and discovered it was highly tannic, from acids leaching out of the wood as it seasoned.
The "secrets" he disclosed in his talk, well-known to those who have worked in vineyards and wineries, had to do with manipulations of wine after fermentation--from chilling white wines during winter's coldest days to precipitate out tartaric acid crystals, to adding bentonite, egg-whites or gelatin to fine out harsher acids. The additives are then removed by filtration. "We can do things to wine that you can't imagine," he said.
The wine boxes Stamp brought with him turned out to contain not wines for tasting but "props"--variously sized wine bottles, a barrel stave still fragrant from the red wine it once contained, a sample of tartaric acid deposits. He told an entertaining tale of working in the cellar of another winery, during his own apprenticeship, for a boss who took a nosy interest in his employees' lunches. Stamp prepared for one lunchtime's scrutiny by packaging a slab of tartaric acid, which he described as his grandmother's peanut brittle to his hovering boss, who without invitation, broke off a piece to sample, to his regret--and his employees' entertainment.
Discussion of sparkling wine--made in the same way as French champagne but called sparkling wine in the Finger Lakes; sherry, ports and ice-wines offered a glimpse into the range of ways grapes may be handled to make various beverages.
But the takeaway for many might have been the importance of wineries to the larger aspects of life in the area. With 128 wineries in the Finger Lakes and more than five million visitors annually visiting the area, "There's enormous trickledown," he says, pointing out the benefits not only to restaurants and lodging facilities but also to our best area resource--local residents whose children have a reason to return to the area and remain here, like two of the next generation of Stamps who are making wine with their father.