The Art of the Winemaker
By Doug Fabbioli
How artistic does a winemaker need to be in order to be successful? Making quality wines involves a lot of science, both in the vineyards to grow flavorful and healthy grapes and in the cellar to successfully navigate fermentations, stabilities, and bacterial threats. But wine covers such a wide spectrum of styles, price points, consumer preferences, and purposes. Yes, if it is made of fermented grape juice, it is technically a wine. And when you break down a wine by chemical composition you have water, alcohol, and natural acids that make up more than 99 percent, and “other” at less than one percent. Most wines fit these breakdowns, meaning the true difference between a box wine selling for $4.99 a liter and a wine that is hundreds of dollars per bottle falls within that less than one percent! That is where the artist works, within the less than one percent.
I have often referred to myself as a productionist. I am always looking to keep my team working on something productive, to make quality products and deliver them at a fair price point. I don’t necessarily acknowledge the artistry that it takes to create the products like I should. Starting on the farm, the grower makes a commitment to dance with Mother Nature in order to deliver the best crop possible. Sometimes that means training the vines to do what they need to do. Sometimes it means reading the weather so as to protect your crop from a pending frost. The artistry of a farmer comes in sensing the challenges and adjusting the plan accordingly.
When we bring those grapes to the winery for processing there are steps and procedures to turn those flavorful berries of sweet nectar into the wine that we want them to become. I spend time planning out the yeasts, sweetness and acid parameters, barrel choices, fermentation vessels, and many other factors. A lot of science is involved in these processes and valuable grapes can be lost if mistakes are made. There are always adjustments to the plan along the way, but the biggest adjustment is when all the grapes come in at one time. The weather can give us challenges of heat or rain that force us to deal with more fruit at one time than we planned for. Some years, all of the grapes come to the winery in a two week period although, by design, we plan for seven to eight weeks. Improvisation, creativity and a hard-working team can keep the plan on course and allow for safe adjustments each day to protect the wine. That flexibility within the vision could be defined as art. We want the wines to be consistent, but how one gets to that point will vary year to year.
When I finally sit down to put the wines together to create the final blends, most of the true artistry is already done. By creating sound, flavorful and expressive wines from each batch of grapes that came in, I have all the pieces I need to make those blends. We start with how much of what varietals are needed and we blend using trial and error to assemble the final product. We also envision what the customers will enjoy about each of these wines as they come together. It sounds really difficult but as with most things, experience is a good teacher
Each winemaker has their own style and comfort zone. Some know the science well and are more technical. Others dance on the artistic side in a way that might make the technician cringe. A good one is humble about receiving input from others, yet confident in their own style. They will recognize their own soft points and accept guidance to improve, no matter how well established they are.
Embrace with us the artistry of this yearly dance with Mother Nature and what she gives us from our vineyards. Art makes the productionist successful. Art helps the business person understand the customer and eventually be successful as an entity. The artists will starve no more!
About the Author: Farmer, winemaker, entrepreneur, educator, and leader, Doug Fabbioli has been accelerating the growth and quality of Virginia’s wine industry since 1997. With his wife Colleen, Doug is the owner/operator of Fabbioli Cellars in Leesburg, VA. He is the founder and director of The New Ag School, which focuses on teaching the next generation of farmers and agriculture-related leaders. No wonder they call Doug Fabbioli the Godfather of DC’s Wine Country.