This past weekend we visited the San Antonio Winery in Los Angeles. The winery is 101 years old and produces 87 different types of wines. Initially the grapes came from vineyards in the surrounding areas—Pasadena and Burbank.
These days they come from vineyards in Napa, Monterey, and increasingly from Paso Robles, a beautiful little city in San Luis Obispo County. Believe it or not, little Paso Robles is the wine capital of the United States.
This picturesque city has had vineyards since the 1790s. When Haydn was at the height of his fame in the Old World, Franciscan Friars were introducing vineyards and winemaking in the New World.
But it was only in the nineties that things began to take off. Visitors to Paso Robles realized land was cheap, and many of the vineyards and wineries in the area date back to the mid-nineties.
The San Antonio Winery, which is owned by the Riboli family, will soon be moving its winemaking facility to Paso Robles as well. For now, though, juice gently pressed from grapes in wine presses are delivered through the five gates of the enormous warehouse. Tankers bring grape juice or must from the California vineyards up north as well as from vineyards that the family owns in Italy.
The Stella Rosa brand of wines is made from Italian grapes.
Our tour guide, whose name I unfortunately did not get, provided an excellent and very informative tour. I’ve been to a few other wine tours, but this is the first one that’s enabled me to both visualize the process as well as understand the product—the wine itself.
Table Grapes or Wine Grapes: Let’s start at the beginning. Table grapes, the large green and purple varieties you can buy at your supermarket, are quite different from the wine grapes that wineries turn into wine.
For one thing, table grapes are far too sweet to be made into wine. If they were used in the winemaking process, the resulting wine would taste like alcoholic pancake syrup. I love sweet wines, but that would be too sweet even for me.
There are other differences as well. Table grapes have a thinner skin and more pulp than wine grapes, which tend to be smaller and may frequently be quite tart. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, for instance, are tart. Wine grapes, unlike table grapes, aren’t seedless. They don’t need to be since they’re not meant to be consumed.
Harvest: The harvest season begins in the first week of September and continues until the week before Thanksgiving in November.
Trucks transport the grapes from the vines to the wine press or crusher. These are bread basket type devices—electronic these days—into which the grapes go in order to be gently pressed. White grapes go into the press and red ones into the crusher.
The press works more gently than the crusher, so grapes that can be bruised easily go into the press rather than the crusher. Bruised grapes result in sour juice and, therefore, awful wine.
This is one of the reasons that the grapes you stomp at wine festivals around California never get made into wine. In the history of winemaking, our tour guide informed us, no one has ever crushed grapes with their feet. To do so could inadvertently crush the seeds, which would make the wine bitter.
Winemakers have always used wine presses. The device goes back to Greek and Roman times and by the Middle Ages, vintners were using a type of press called the basket press.
The seeds and the skin of grapes contain tannins. These make the wine bitter, so you have to be careful how much you release into the grape juice. There’s just so much of the tannin an oak barrel can absorb. The skin, however, is used to get the deep crimson hue we associate with red wines.
In the olden days you could make or buy a wine press. These days, they are electronic.
The press used by the San Antonio Winery has two solid walls and two flexible walls. The latter gently move in to press juice from the grapes. The skin and seeds are filtered from the white grape juice but left with the red grape juice.
To the Winery: Hoses then transfer the juice to large tankers which transport them to the warehouse. This is where the process of fermentation and ageing will take place.
The San Antonio Winery has 150 fermenters in seven rooms in its Los Angeles facility and 375 fermenters in Paso Robles and Italy.
The fermenters we saw—huge cylindrical affairs made of some kind of metal—had foam jackets around them and a heat source. Each was equipped with a thermostat. It’s the heat that’s responsible for the process of fermentation. The winemaker sets the temperature—a different one depending upon the type of wine.
You wouldn’t think that fermentation would cause the grape juice to lose its natural tartness and become sweet. And for the most part, it doesn’t. But when it comes to Riesling, the tart juice does become sweet upon fermentation and is ready to be bottled the moment it comes out.
The temperature used ranges from 47 degrees to 85 degrees. A lower temperature will result in a sweeter wine with lower alcohol content. A higher temperature will cause a higher alcohol content and a dryer wine. Riesling is fermented at 50 degrees so that the resulting wine is aromatic and tasty.
Yeast: But before the grape juice can go into the fermenters, it must be mixed with yeast. Not the stuff you buy from the baking aisle at the supermarket, which is too harsh and strong and would overpower the aromas of the wine.
Wineries buy cultured yeast that’s mild enough to ferment the juice but not affect its taste. Fifty thousand pounds of it are bought from labs.
For every 1000 gallons of juice, you need one cup of sugar and one packet of yeast. The mixture is poured into a proofing drum where it’s whizzed. When it starts fizzing, it can be transferred to the fermenter for the process of converting the juice into wine.
Yeast converts the sugar into alcohol and the juice changes into a beer-like, foamy, frothy liquid.
Red wines take about 3 weeks in the fermenter. The sediments from the red wine then go back to the vineyard soil to enrich it.
White juices spend about 4-6 weeks in the fermenter. But one—Viognier—takes about 8 weeks.
Ageing: Most wines straight out of the fermenter taste awful. They are aged in white oak barrels—a process that removes the tannins and the bitterness they cause. About 3,500 barrels age 70 different wines.
The oak barrels need to be charred first. The ash is very effective in removing tannins. Winemakers check for a certain chemical threshold every month to make sure the barrels are capable of ageing the wines.
An oak barrel that’s below the threshold will be replaced with a new one. Sterilization ensures that the oak barrels can be reused as long as they meet the chemical threshold required for successful ageing.
Ageing takes about 10 months for a wine like Pinot Noir to five years for some other wines.
As the wine ages, a black ring forms around the edge of the barrel. In the second year, the wood dissolves the black ring into gas that evaporates from the barrels.
Fruit Notes and Monthly Testing: White oak comes from forests with generations of fruit and herbs. When these die and are incorporated into the soil, the oak roots absorb their flavors. So the different fruit notes you taste in your wine come from the oak barrels.
Oenologists, who often have a degree in Microbiology, can also use chemicals to affect and alter the taste of the wine.
Every month, a sample is taken from each barrel to ensure that the wine doesn’t have any harmful bacteria. While some bacteria visibly alter the look and taste of the wine, others can be detected only through chemical tests.
If a wine is infected, the winemaker must make a determination about whether it can be saved or not. If it can, it is transferred to a different barrel. The old barrel is destroyed. Now tests take place every week to ensure that the wine is safe.
The Woodsy Taste: Although the oak barrels successfully remove the bitterness from the wines, they leave behind their own distinctive woodsy taste. So much so that the wine when it first comes out of the barrels may taste like furniture.
So the wine goes back to the fermenter. The thermostat is set at 75 degrees and blades that look like helicopter propellers are lowered into the fermenter to stir the wine. The strong oak aromas evaporate, a process in which 25 percent of the wine is lost.
Now the wine is finally ready to be bottled and to be sent out to distributors who then truck it to retailers.
European versus American Wines: European wines tend to have lower levels of alcohol than their American counterparts. They also don’t use sulfites to ensure the wine doesn’t go bad, preferring to rely on naturally occurring sulfates in the grapes instead.
Taste: So what are we looking for in a good wine? First of all, a mellow, smooth taste. Nothing acrid or vinegary or harsh that jumps out at you. We tasted a Merlot—a red wine—which definitely fit the bill. I could tell it had been aged in an oak barrel because there was that slight—very slight—aftertaste of wood.
The wine also felt as though it was sucking the moisture from my palate. I can see why this was characterized as a dry wine. I sniffed at my glass before tasting the wine and it was definitely aromatic with a rich, fruity aroma. But I couldn’t taste any of the fruit flavors and couldn’t help thinking that a little sweetness would make the wine brighter and bring out its flavors.
The Stella Rosa Mango was fizzy, efferverscent, and sweet white wine with an artificial mango taste similar to the kind you’ll taste in mango-flavored yogurts. After the Merlot, it tasted a little too sweet and with only 5 percent alcohol per volume seemed more like the kind of thing you’d offer a young person venturing into alcoholic beverages but not quite ready for the real thing.
But it was tasty and very reminiscent of peach schnapps.
The Riesling—also white—was somewhere between the Merlot and the Stella Rosa. Quite a bit sweeter than the Merlot, but not as sweet as the Stella Rosa. It had an alcohol level similar to the Merlot, but unlike any kind of sweet red wine you might have tasted, it seemed to lack body.
White wines seem light, in texture a bit like white sodas like Sprite or Seven Up, a bit thin. Red wines seem a little more robust.
In order to have the best of both worlds—robust as well as sweet—I doctored my Merlot with—stop reading here if you have a weak heart!—Sweetener. And, as I suspected, it tasted much better.