The Art of Making Wine

Yesterday, Jeff Ames, my winemaker, and David Grega, our assistant winemaker, and I went through our 2018 Cabernets in barrel. We discussed the vintage, the wines, how they came together and what blends might make them better. The conversation was one that lasted some time. I loved it. 2018 is a superlative Napa Valley vintage, and the wines were coming together above expectations, which were high to begin with.

Jeff and David I’m convinced enjoy this part of winemaking, as much as I do. David and Elizabeth Robertis, our GM, now that we are 6 feet to hundreds of miles apart, are working on a plan to bring this creative process to you through the magic of video streaming. Jeff and I might stick our head in the door. Who knows. More about our virtual tastings at the end of this diary entry. We have some surprises. We all deserve some pleasant surprises these days.

But today, with the 2018 barrel samples in front of me at home to evaluate again, I ask myself “What is the art of making wine”? Is it all art, or is there a certain amount of science to it? Or, reflecting on my early winemaking classes at Davis, all science? After 40 years of staring into this question, taking it on each year, I can honestly say it is both. However, what truly joins both at the hip, brings great art to the science is genuine CURIOSITY.

Winemakers like Jeff Ames, who has made our wines for almost two decades, remain curious, interested, engaged, and still learning their “art”. We both wake up to days that involve wine, fully committed to an on-going learning process. We will both leave this planet still learning how to make wine. In wine, the roads you can take, the countries you can visit, the wonderful wine professionals you can meet, are endless. Hopefully we can all travel again soon, but while we are sheltering, a bottle of wine can take you to some incredible places through the magic of a corkscrew. Open one of our wines, get inside our minds, and walk though one of our vineyards with us through wine. It’s a wonderful way to travel these days. I know a good travel agent if you’re inclined.

When Jeff and I taste, and now that Dave has joined the team, we have over 80 years of tasting and winemaking experience in the room. One of the most historic wines we made together tells, I think, a good story about this “art” of winemaking. From the excellent 2013 vintage we had five barrels of Cabernet that we pushed off to the side. They were crazy good, every one of them in our collective minds were 100 point wines, I thought one or two of the barrels might have been 102 points, but when I get excited my math can be off.

As most of you know, we champion the single vineyard and look at our goal each year to make a wine that in every way – in our minds – reflects the best wine we can make from those rows of vines in that vineyard in that year. Each year, all the wines we make are distinctively different because we did our job. If they all tasted somewhat alike, we did not. Simple as that.

To do this, we are tasting all the barrels constantly, pulling out those barrels that don’t make a quality cut or simply in our minds, make the sum greater than the parts. It is very laborsome, but vital. One of the great advantages is that we make only very small bottlings, usually 50 to a few hundred cases of each of our wines. It also allows us the privilege of putting gold stars on some of the barrels, because they just blow our minds.

In 2013, we had five gold star barrels that didn’t make any of the wines we were putting together significantly better. But together they were superheroes, and had super powers. They were there to save the planet. So we kept them apart and continued to have an open discussion of what they would be, should be.

That year, we made a few barrels of Petit Verdot from Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard that I adored, and tried my best to talk the winemakers into finding a home in our five barrel wine. We tried 2%, 5%, 10%, back down to 1%. I really like the 1%, but agreed with Jeff and Dave, it was great, but the 5% alone, slightly better. Still CURIOUS – I asked Jeff to put together a blend with ½% of the Petit Verdot. Jeff didn’t hesitate. The wine was spectacular, different than any of the other blends, superlative. You could really taste the difference. We did, and we loved the touch of graphite, another level of complexity the PV gave the 95.5% of Cabernet Sauvignon.

We called the wine Black Magic. It was our first, but certainly not our last. Every Black Magic since has been a magical experience, something that you can’t fully explain, sometimes defies logic, like adding a ½% of seasoning that changes everything. Now you get a rough idea why we love this game, this art, this science. In the best of times there is Magic in the air.

Now if you are curious, why we called it Black Magic, it was because of music. (Some of you know I was in the music business in the early 70s.) Late at night while we were making the 2013 Black Magic, a song was running through my head, and I just couldn’t shake it. At this time we had recently suffered damage due to an earthquake, yet we had two incredible vintages with some of our best wines in barrel. The “Black” was the Mother’s Nature’s reminder she was in charge. This darkness was the earthquake. Her other reminder, the “Magic” was the two increíble vintages we had in the barrel, which had survived the earthquake, and would make some of our greatest wines.

So, what was this music, this song that I couldn’t shake and inspired me to name the wine after it?

Santana’s Black Magic Woman? No. Not. Great performance and song, which was written not by Santana, but by one of the greatest guitarists of British Rock: Peter Green. Name the group who first released Black Magic Women, Peter Green on lead guitar, named after the drummer? Yes. Yes. Fleetwood Mac in 1968, way before Santana picked the song and drove it up the charts. Yes, that was an early Fleetwood Mac, Stevie and Lindsey came later and in 1977 their album Rumours dominated the charts. It was the year I moved permanently to Napa Valley to become a vintner.

But the song that was running through my head when I named our wine was a song written in 1942 by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer. That Old Black Magic. Record by Judy Garland and Sara Vaughn, but somehow became immortal performed by Louis Prima and Keely Smith.. YOUTube it and you will be in my mind when I named our five barrels Black Magic. Fabulous and fun. Still hard to get out of your head when you hear it.

The Art of Winemaking has many secrets, keeps us curious, slightly crazy, and up late nights listening to the music that has shaped our lives. My question to you now is, “Would you like to be a winemaker, or crawl into the head of one for a day?” If the answer is yes, Dave Grega, our assistant winemaker has volunteered to make this happen. Together we have selected a mixed case of four wines (or you can choose your own case or more) of winemaker’s wines, wines that tell great stories like this one, and once you have them, we will set up a Virtual Tasting experience with you (and your friends) and take you through a winemaker’s journey through those wines.

Piqued your interest? If so call or email General Manager Elizabeth Robertis at 707.483.4048 or elizabeth@torwines.com. I’m assuming because Dave has a day time job, this will be a limited experience, but he volunteered and I like it. Dave has personality and experience, and knows in what vineyards the bodies are buried. Go for it. Stay curious. Spend an hour with us, and let’s connect over wine.