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November 2013
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January 2014

Malolactic, Misunderstood

There is a recurring item on the Wine Spectator Web site called "Ask Dr. Vinny".  In it, the Spectator writers take on commonly asked questions about winemaking and wine consumption.  Last month there was a question from a reader in the United Arab Emirates: "Is there any change that can be made in viticulture practices to produce low-alcohol wines apart from using reverse osmosis?"

I was pleased to see that the response included the obvious: "Want lower-alcohol wines? Pick sooner rather than later."  You might think, "well, duh" but implicit in the question is a commonly-held reliance on the technological solution in the world of modern winemaking.

I've fielded several questions recently about a related topic: whether our wines go through malolactic fermentation.  To understand what this means, please bear with a bit of science (or skip ahead, if this is old hat or if the thought of chemistry equations makes your skin crawl).  Grape juice undergoes two different types of fermentation in its transformation into wine.  In the first, and most dramatic, fermentation (typically called "primary fermentation") yeasts convert sugar into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and heat. This fermentation is the core one that turns grape juice into wine:

Sucrose (C6H12O6) ==> 2 Ethanol (C2H5OH) + 2 Carbon Dioxide (CO2) + energy

But there is another chemical reaction (technically a decarboxylation, not fermentation) caused by a family of bacteria that converts sharp-tasting malic acid into the gentler lactic acid and carbon dioxide:

Malic Acid (C4H6O5) ==> Lactic Acid (C3H6O3) + Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

620px-Malolactic_fermentationMalic acid, commonly found in apple skins and the primary flavor in rhubarb, is an aggressive acid, with a pH of 2.2, while lactic acid, commonly found in milk products, is much gentler, with a pH of 2.4.  That difference may not seem like much, but because pH is a logarithmic scale, a liquid with a 2.2 pH has 60% more acidity than one with 2.4 pH. An image of the process (courtesy of Wikipedia) is to the right.

OK, enough with the chemistry.  In practical terms, while all wines go through primary fermentation, only some go through malolactic fermentation.  It's pretty easy to understand why you would want a wine to do so: it produces a creamier texture and smoother mouthfeel, as long as there are enough other acids in the wine to maintain balance.  Red wines nearly always are let go through malolactic; they contain much higher levels of tannic acids from the skins of the grapes since they are fermented with the skins, while most white wines are pressed first and fermented separately. These tannic acids tend to be highlighted in an unpleasant way by malic acid, while the lactic acid produces a softer, richer, more appealing mouthfeel. 

Why wouldn't you want a richer mouthfeel on whites, too?  Well, it comes with some costs, when grapes are super-ripe and therefore lower in natural acidity.  Historically, nearly all whites did go through malolactic fermentation, because the technology to stop the process (typically some combination of sulfur dioxide addition, refrigeration, and sterile filtration) hadn't been developed yet.  But as these techniques came into relatively widespread use, some winemakers chose to block the malolactic fermentation on whites with sweeter or more floral profiles, where brighter acidity was a desirable foil to the wine's character.

And so things stayed, until recent years when the trend toward riper and riper wines left the stopping of malolactic fermentation as a standard practice for many winemakers. Leave the grapes on the vines for another couple of weeks, pack extra rich and tropical flavors into them, then stop the malolactic fermentation to give a balancing dash of acidity to an extravagantly rich wine.  Sure, you end up with a lot of alcohol, but if you're trying to make the biggest, most impressive wine, and don't want it flabby, it's a relatively easy choice.

What's the problem with this?  Well, it's in the eye of the beholder. For many people, nothing.  But I find that the extra ripeness and alcohol typically mask expression of the soils, and abundance of power with often disconcertingly elevated acidity makes for wines that are fatiguing rather than refreshing.  It's like the trend toward IPA's with extra hops, extra malt, and extra alcohol.  Sure, they're impressive, but I rarely finish even my first glass, let alone order a second.  More isn't necessarily better.  In this, I realize I'm out of step with current trends.  So be it.  I'm still waiting for the artisan lager revolution to start.

Is stopping the malolactic fermentation always bad?  Of course not.  There are times when it's the right choice on a particular lot or in a particular vintage.  We've done it from time to time, though not in the last five years or so.  But picking earlier, when you have enough natural acidity that you can let malolactic go through and still have wines with balance, seems to me to be much more desirable.  The wines are more expressive, less alcoholic, and show an appealing, creamy texture that seems to show off our limestone soils.

To choose another analogy, I'm finding myself, more and more, seeing white wines with high alcohol, intense tropical flavors and lots of malic acid as the equivalent of a celebrity who has had too much surgical enhancement.  The net result often isn't beauty, and can border on the grotesque.  You can have Pamela Anderson.  I'll take Gwyneth Paltrow.


What Facebook's News Feed Changes Mean for the Wine Community

There was a bit of a flap in social media circles a couple of weeks ago when Ad Age broke the story that Facebook would be reducing the organic reach of pages and requiring those pages that wanted to reach a significant percentage of their fans to advertise to do so.  A Facebook sales presentation sent to its partners last month makes it clear: "We expect organic distribution of an individual page's posts to gradually decline over time as we continually work to make sure people have a meaningful experience on the site."

The implications of this change do not appear to have percolated into much of the wine community, but it sounds like the impacts will be substantial for the many small- and mid-size wineries who have been relying on Facebook as an inexpensive marketing channel, and perhaps even more so for winery organizations that rely largely on sharing their members' content.  What's more, it does not appear that Facebook is planning these changes for some time in the distant future.  Instead, it appears from the reach of our Facebook posts that these changes are well underway.

It is no secret to anyone who administers a Facebook page that any post reaches only a fraction of the page's fans.  But many wineries, who have invested significantly in acquiring fans, may not realize the extent to which their content is already being filtered out.  The specialists who I talk to suggest that organic page reach is averaging in the 12%-14% range now, which means that an average post to a page with 5000 fans will be seen in the news feeds of just 600-700 of those fans.  That Facebook should be looking to further reduce this reach will mean that the businesses and organizations that have been using only the free tools Facebook makes available should expect to the platform to become less and less rewarding.

There are really only two options for a business or organization who wants to continue to interact with large numbers of their fans on Facebook:

  • Get ready to pay for reach.  A Facebook spokesman is quoted in the Ad Age article as saying "the best way to get your stuff seen if you're a business is to pay for it".  This is different than the classic model of Facebook advertising, where you advertised to get new people to like your page or to sell your product to non-fans.  Now, you'll have to get used to paying just to reach the fans you've acquired.
  • Make especially compelling content.  In recent weeks I've noticed a correlation between engagement rate and post reach even greater than before.  Looking at our Facebook page since the beginning of November, most of our posts averaged in the 9%-10% engagement rate, at which level we reached an average of 935 fans, or a little over 17% of our roughly 5300 page likes.  Each additional percent of engagement allowed that post to reach approximately 3% more of our fans, with a peak of 1687 fans (31% of our total) on a post with 16% engagement.  Similarly, on the posts which were less engaging, we reached fewer fans; the one post that received only a 5% engagement rate was seen by just 412 of our fans (7%).

The chart below shows the same data graphically.  The data comes by averaging the reach of all image posts on the Tablas Creek Facebook page since the beginning of November.  I excluded any posts that overlapped with another post that same day, as more frequent postings show lower reach totals for any given level of engagement.

Facebook Post Reach by Engagement

Facebook's message is clear: make your content compelling if you want it seen organically.  Otherwise, expect to pay.

It was probably inevitable that Facebook should make this change, which raises revenue while also helping them prioritize friend-generated content over business-generated content.  But it does mean that the wineries -- and the wine organizations -- that have been relying on Facebook as a low- (or no-) cost means of customer acquisition will need to reevaluate their strategy and budget. 

These changes, while likely unwelcome to most wineries, shouldn't be impossible to adapt to.  Wineries will just have to choose what portion of their marketing budget to spend on promoting their posts to their fans, just as they would evaluate any other advertising opportunity that crossed their desks.  They also likely already have a leg up on generating interesting original content.  But it seems to me like it will be harder for wine organizations, particularly small ones, to react to.  Many of these organizations are sharing other pages' content, and links to non-original content have two strikes against them: they are harder to generate high post engagement scores for, and they have been named as a target for deemphasis by Facebook in the past.

Will businesses and organizations switch their attention to other platforms like Twitter and Google Plus?  It seems unlikely.  Facebook's power lies in its massive audience.  This audience isn't going anywhere, and businesses who pick up their toys and move to a different sandbox will likely find themselves lonely there.


Why we're celebrating our frosty mornings

This morning I arrived at the vineyard to find a landscape encased in frost:

View of lambing barn

This was the fourth time in five nights we've gotten down into the teens.  The one night we didn't freeze we received about six-tenths of an inch of rain.  Between the cold and the rainfall, the vineyard has been transformed in a week from fall to winter.  Vines are bare or mostly so, the fall colors are gone, and we're starting to see the first little sprouts of green winter growth. 

It should be obvious why we're thrilled about the water (though we're still far behind a normal winter, let alone the wet one we need to help ameliorate the two dry winters we've seen recently) but it may be less obvious why we're happy to see the cold snap.  I'll explain, but first want to share some more photos to give our many fans who've only seen the vineyard in spring, summer or fall how different it looks.  First, a view through our Grenache block, with the vine leaves on the ground outlined by frost:

View through Grenache 2

Next, a second-crop Grenache cluster still clinging to the vines, covered with ice crystals:

Cluster with frost

And a close-up of the base of one of these Grenache vines, dead leaves and dry grasses outlined by the frost:

Grape  leaves and trunk with frost

Finally, one more shot, of the many oak leaves newly on the ground in the last week.  We do have evergreen oaks (our live oaks) but there are plenty of deciduous oaks as well like black oaks and California valley oaks:

Oak leaves with frost

It may not be intuitive why frosty winters are a good thing for vineyards, particularly given our agonizing battle with frosts in the spring.  But grapevines are deciduous plants, and benefit from being forced into full dormancy.  In a non-frosty environment (or a mild winter) a vine may continue to expend energy growing new canopy or at least sustaining the canopy it grew during the summer, gradually sapping the vine's available resources for the next spring.  A hard freeze kills off any leaves and stops this gradual leakage of sap, giving the vine more reserves for the growth in the spring.

Typically, we see our first hard freeze here sometime in November, with December and January our two coldest months.  By February and March the longer days and higher sun angle start to warm things up again, and we typically see bud break (the point at which the vines start sprouting new growth) in late March or early April.  Before bud break, we're happy to have as many frosty nights as we can get, and it's particularly beneficial to have cold nights in March, to delay the bud break that then makes us vulnerable to a frost.  We're generally out of the danger zone by mid-May.

So, for the next four months or so, we'll be celebrating our cold nights.  If you've got an in with the weather gods, please keep it up.  Just ask them to throw in a little more rain while they're at it.