Bud to bottle
An unstable marriage of science and art
It’s a little like alchemy, the arcane art of transforming base metals into gold.
You start with a humble grape and you finish with a magnificent wine. Somewhere along the way something magical happens, something surprising, unexplainable and rare.
Manufacturing that magic in the Sonoma Valley is what keeps thousands of people employed every year, and succeeding is what makes millions of people happy.
Nurturing the process, from budbreak to bottling is an unstable marriage of science and art constantly interrupted by weather. Some years, no matter what you do, the results are bad. Some years, no matter what you do, the results are amazing. And since you can’t predict from one year to the next what the precise outcome will be, every season is a roll of the Bacchus dice. That’s the mystery of making wine.
There are, however, more than half a dozen stations on the road to fine wine that provide some direction to those who can read. Each represents a crucial step in the process, each offers telltale signs and the opportunity for critical decisions. Read the signs, make the right decisions and maybe the wine will be blessed. Ignore the signs, choose unwisely, and maybe it will still be blessed. Or maybe it will be awful.
Some time ago, photographer Robbi Pengelly attempted to record those stages through the season of the vine, photographing the steps along the way from pruning, through budbreak, suckering, bloom, véraison, harvest, crushing, fermenting, cellaring and, finally, bottling. This is what she came up with—the images of alchemy, the scientific art, or the artful science, of making wine.
It starts in midwinter as unwanted canes are painstakingly pruned by hand from each and every vine. Even in the rain there’s always something to be done, like tying dormant canes to the wires stretched in columns across the field.
Good pruning requires knowledge and speed. Trained workers, one per row, can be seen from late winter through spring, pruning their way from vine to vine. Above: Budbreak occurs in early spring, a delicate time for new growth and still the risk of frost. Right: Bloom brings nascent grapes, the flowers from which the baby fruit is born.
Almost ripe, the grapes at top are getting fat and sweet, needing just a bit more sun, a bit more time and, hopefully, no more rain. Far left: The leaves are thinned, and sometimes weak clusters are dropped, all to let in more sun and concentrate the flavors. Then the harvest begins, some of the hardest work anyone will ever do, requiring skill that only comes with experience.
The crush itself is controlled, precise, almost antiseptic. A huge, steel, rotini-shaped blade guides the grapes through the first step of transformation. The resulting juice is stored in steel fermentation tanks, later to spend time in oak aging barrels. Finally, it is blended and bottled, corked and labeled, and sent off to shelves around the world.
From the Winter 2008 Issue of SONOMA