Wine-Making, the Old-Fashioned Way


Photo by Lara Kastner

To read other posts in Grant Achatz's series about wine pairings, click here.

SQUAB Thai peppercorn, strawberry, oxalis


As I mentioned in an earlier post, the small size of La Jota required me to be involved in every aspect of the wine-making process. Upon taking the job I expected the winery to be technologically advanced, with the most modern machines for pressing, pumping, and bottling the wine. After two years in the Napa Valley I had been on a quite a few winery tours, and I assumed La Jota would be similar in their proficiencies. The reality was, it was as far from my expectation as the best way.

On my second day I walked into the office to find Bill sitting at his desk doing some accounting, He welcomed me as I pulled up a chair to hear what was on the agenda for the day. He paused. A smirk came over his face as he said, "You are going to crush the pinot grapes in the fermenters outside." Wow, I am pressing grapes into wine on my second day...this job is pretty cool.

I clapped my hands together and said, "Okay, show me what I have to do!" Bill's smirk widened to a grin as he reached into a drawer of his desk. He tossed me a pair of purple swim trunks while saying, "You'll need these." I figured somewhere in the process grape juice would be flying everywhere and he was trying to spare my jeans from stains. After all, I'd seen the two-story tall closed tank stainless steel fermenters when he gave me the tour the previous day, and it must be messy getting all the juice out of those things...

At this point I am figuring it out but wouldn't let myself believe that he was going to make me take my clothes off and wade around in the warm grape bog.

As it turns out, grapes typically get crushed before going into the fermenters, unless the winemaker is utilizing a technique called carbonic maceration, in which the whole fruit is encouraged to begin fermenting inside its own skin. Bill used this technique for his pinot noir grapes from the Sonoma Coast. This type of fermentation normally develops flavors of bubble gum, banana, and cherry, while also reducing malic acid and increasing the chances of a higher alcohol content.

He led me outside and down the hill to the back of the winery. We approached three white plastic tubs that were chest-high and six feet square. He glanced at the shorts and told me to put them on as he lifted the lids off the tubs.

At this point I am figuring it out but wouldn't let myself believe that he was going to make me take my clothes off and wade around in the warm grape bog. "There are a few bees on the surface, and the cap will likely hit you about waist aren't allergic to stings, are ya?" The original smirk that evolved into a grin transformed into a toothy smile. I glanced into one of the fermenters and shook my head at the swarm of bees gathered on the top. Every second a few more would drive bomb-kamikaze-style into the vat of sugar. The romantic notion of crushing grapes under foot in the middle of wine country vanished instantly.

"Why are we doing this?" I asked. "I mean, don't they make machines for this?"

"They do--but we want to be very very gentle. Your feet are nice and soft."


Photo by Lara Kastner

I managed to wade my way carefully through the grape baths without a sting, only to step on a bee while hosing off after finishing. But it was tasks like these that helped me get to know the wines intimately. Because I tasted the grapes at every stage, from in the vineyard waiting for them to ripen to monitoring them through the fermentation and barrel aging, I was able to taste and smell them evolve, picking up the nuances of different fruits, levels of oak, brettanomyces (yeasts that spoil wine), sulfur, and other profiles that developed as they matured. This certainly helped me refine my palate and gave me a strong appreciation for the process of wine-making and the understanding of how taste works.

In the summer months, when the wine was lower-maintenance as it sat in the barrels, it was my job to maintain the property and work in the vineyard. One day I was weeding a flowerbed with one of the vineyard workers and began to pull what I thought was a weed. He stopped me and told me to eat it--or at least that is what I thought he was saying, as my Spanish is pretty rough. "Sour weed," he said. Sure enough we were both right: it was in fact a weed, but it was wonderfully edible.

Basically a wild sorrel, oxalis has become a staple on the summer menus at Alinea when we want to add a lemony-sour note to a dish. In this case we look to the sorrel to balance the richness of squab. The seedpods of the plant have the texture of a fine green bean and burst with acidity. The pods are impaled on a long pin and encased in a thin film of crunchy sugar. The guests are instructed to eat this bite midway through the course to revitalize the palate.

When it came to pairing, Joe felt it was a fairly straightforward exercise. The subtle gaminess of the squab, the elements of Thai long pepper, sorrel, strawberry, and the seasoning of the sauce fall easily into the wheelhouse of medium-bodied syrahs with ripe fruit, good acidity, not too much oak, and complementary levels of spice and earthiness.

During the lifetime of the dish, we explored a few different wines that proved great parings. The team had fun turning people on to an excellent syrah from a winery named Bilancia in the Hawkes Bay region on the eastern coast of New Zealand's North Island. We also enjoyed showing off some of our favorite Côte-Rôties, as well as a delicious syrah from one of the coolest syrah vineyard sites in California, the La Bruma from Vanessa Wong at Peay Vineyards.

Grant Achatz's eight-part series will conclude on Wednesday, when he offers his recommendation for what to serve with chocolate.

To read other posts in this series, click here.