Italics Winery - Location is everything. Soil is king. What’s a winemaker to do?

Location is everything. Soil is king. What’s a winemaker to do?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Don’t get us wrong; Place matters a great deal when it comes to winegrowing. The climate, elevation, exposure and drainage of a plot of land make all the difference. As does the soil itself. If you’re a vine, there’s simply no getting away from the dirt you’re rooted in.

But sooner or later, on the path of turning fruit into wine, man must intervene. Here at Italics, that man is Steve Reynolds. He calls all the shots. Like how much to water, when to pull leaves and when to drop fruit. Most important, he’s the guy who calls the pick.

When the fruit comes into the winery, the cellar crew goes about the painstaking process of sorting it. They are there not merely to separate the grapes from the MOG (material other than grapes: leaves and twigs and bugs and such), they are there to meet Steve’s demand for ripe berries and only ripe berries –nothing green, nothing shriveled, nothing damaged.

The next step, fermentation, would seem to be a simple matter of getting the yeasts “on and off the dance floor,” as one writer put it. But no, here Steve’s restless nature has the winery involved in all kinds of experiments, from custom fermentation vessels to exotic yeast strains. A few years ago Steve’s trials reached a zenith with the introduction of ozone treatment to keep the wines stable without the use of sulfites. Not only do the wines seem fresher, they have elevated levels of antioxidants as well. (We’ll share more on this topic as the story develops.)

After fermentation, the R&D continues with different fining and filtering techniques and a range of cooperage and toast levels. Then comes the endless blending trials, mixing vineyard blocks with different varietals, clones and rootstocks to achieve the right balance of approachability and ageability.

If all this sounds like a technical tour de force, it’s not. It’s simply Steve harnessing all the forces of Nature – in the vineyard and in the cellar – to get the most out of the fruit. It’s analogous to the shipbuilder who uses a supercomputer to design sleek hulls to slice the water and high tech sails to capture the wind. The tools may change but the challenge remains the same.

Italics Winery - Digging caves is ungodly expensive. What do you get out of them besides a huge mound of dirt?

Digging caves is ungodly expensive.
What do you get out of them besides a huge mound of dirt?

Caves are cool. And not just their temperature. They are marvels of engineering that offer all kinds of benefits. Caves naturally provide both high humidity and cool temperatures. Both are key to storing and aging wine efficiently.

High humidity minimizes evaporation. That may sound like a trifle but when you consider that a 60-gallon barrel stored in an above-ground warehouse loses four gallons to evaporation each year, the problem gets very real very fast. A barrel stored underground, on the other hand, loses just a quarter of that. All the money that was literally vanishing into thin air is suddenly returned to you.

Temperature is another benefit. To age well, wine needs a constant temperature between 55° and 60°. An above-ground warehouse requires thousands of dollars to maintain these conditions. But wine caves naturally fall right into this zone. Over the long haul, that’s more savings.

And the huge mound of dirt from all that digging? We used the cave spoils to build a road. So, all things considered, we think we got our money’s worth out of it.

Italics Winery - Any critic can tell you if he likes a wine. But only a scientist can tell you if you’ll like it.

Any critic can tell you if he likes a wine.
But only a scientist can tell you if you’ll like it.

There is a science to how we experience wine. A science that breaks down wine into its key chemical components to determine the optimal levels of extraction while the grape skins are in contact with the musts. This is what determines a wine’s color, flavor and texture. This is the science of phenolics and it is unambiguously predictive of a wine’s quality.

One of the values measured by this science is Total Phenolics – a measure of how “extracted” a wine is. An excellent Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon might have a reading of 3,000 IRPs (iron-reactive phenolics). Our Cabernet, by way of comparison, scored 4,433.

Does this mean you’ll enjoy it more? Quite possibly, yes. Higher IRPs suggest better body and mouthfeel for many wines. And added complexity and life expectancy for many others.

The science is breathtaking in its implications. It could challenge the very role of critics in evaluating fine wines. But just to be safe, we haven't scratched them off our holiday card list.

Italics Winery - Our labels are printed on stock so thick they can’t be applied by machine. This was before we hired a CFO.

Our labels are printed on stock so thick they can’t be applied by machine.
This was before we hired a CFO.

It started with the best of intentions.

Once we had the name “Italics” we wanted the label to simply frame the word. It is a pretty interesting name, after all. So we figured, let’s just get out of its way.

But then the designer showed us what it would look like with name embossed. We really liked that. Then he added gold foil. We liked that even more. And then he showed us what it would look like with an embossed border and a wax seal and...

In hindsight, we should have seen where this was headed. But, in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say. So we said “Yes” to all of it. Even the 118# stock it’s printed on, a ridiculous weight for a wine label but one we needed to achieve the depth of embossing we were after. A stock so thick (20-points) that the labels have to be applied by hand, one by one, well after the wine has been bottled.

Did things get out of hand? Maybe a little. But we have no regrets. The packaging perfectly expresses the product: rich, refined and classic. But to the folks in Accounting, it says we’re nuts.

Italics Winery - Going solar offsets the equivalent of 5 million miles of driving. About what our Sales Director tries to expense each month.

Going solar offsets the equivalent of 5 million miles of driving.
About what our Sales Director tries to expense each month.

Wineries suck up a lot of electricity. So when we installed our solar array, we saw it as a cost-cutting move. Turns out the benefits to the planet are even greater.

By generating almost 100 kilowatts of electricity – roughly what we use in a year – the array keeps 100 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Over the system’s 50-year working life, it will produce 6 million kilowatts of energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5,000 tons – the equivalent of 5 million miles of driving.

Wineries also use a boatload of water. Take what we use to irrigate our vines during the growing season and add to that what we use in the cellar to clean our equipment and maintain a sanitary work environment and you’re looking at 100 swimming pool’s worth of water. That’s a huge amount.

Happily, we are among the first wineries to pipe in reclaimed water from Napa Valley's new recycled water project. There, wastewater is treated through a series of processes – settling, oxidation, clarification, coagulation, filtration and disinfection – then pumped back out to customers. Obviously, anything we would use to irrigate our vines has to meet strict standards, not just for clarity but also salinity and toxicity. This does.

The benefits of using recycled water are twofold: we help preserve the amount of potable water for human consumption and we limit the discharge of treated wastewater into the Bay. Now if only we could clean up our Sales Director’s expense account.

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