The dark side of Winemaking


The dark side of Winemaking

This piece has been written on April 9th, two days after the worst “frost-attack” of the past 51 years. The Tuscan countryside was hit by a violent drop in nights’ temperature, caused by an arctic airflow. Temperatures went several degrees below zero ( -6 Celsius) causing permanent damage of the 50 to 70% of our vines.

This is just the beginning of the vintage 2021 with the pandemic still on our backs, and we must already account for a loss of at least 50% of the production. This seems like the start of a pretty challenging year, and we have a feeling that we definitely won’t be bored.

So, no wonder that I’ve been spending the last few nights with this thought in my head: how come people often don’t realize how risky it is to be a wine producer or a farmer in general? We always imagine risky jobs being in the army, carpenters on skyscrapers, or who works in the middle of the ocean on a fishing boat…. these surely are dangerous jobs where one mistake could be fatal, but we should give more value to the farming job.

A farmer normally doesn’t risk his life, but how much stress does he collect every day? Every day we go to sleep with our crops sleeping outside, more specifically, under the open sky where we deal with daily unpredictable meteorologic events: ice storms, windstorms, droughts, frost, water bombs…. every day we have a good reason to be really worried about What Will Happen.
But don’t you think for a second that we are calmer when the climate is mild: even in pleasant weather us farmers must consider fungus diseases such as peronospora, oidio or botrite, or a nice plant virus or fungi cocktail like Mal dell’Esca** and no, we are not just naming names, all causes that can baffle our efforts. Or then again, why not lose our sleep over a beautiful pest outbreak caused by insects, ready to eat buds, leaves, or fruit.
All of these events seem rare, but at the same time they are so many that at least one of them is eventually bound to happen (it’s called luck) and in turn they generate an earth quake of stress, a sort of Russian roulette game with nature. Or better yet, we could just be walking on our fields and witness happy packs of deer and fat wild boars feasting undisturbed on our beloved grapes. How nice.
Finally the time for the grape harvest arrives, from this moment on we can rely on a roof over our produce, as the grapes are finally brought into the cellar. But don’t be fooled, because it might seem like a good time to take a breath (after having lost weight, hair and uncountable nights of sleep) but no, it is not. And that’s because fermentation is risky, of course, if you did a great job in the vineyard then the fermentation process tends to be easier, but a wonderful grape can still suffer troublesome fermentations especially if you are one of those producers that faithfully avoid industrial yeast and additives (like we are).

Anyhow, we don’t get the luxury to crack under the pressure of a slow fermentation because we are still only halfway through the journey.
But let’s suppose for a second that everything is going well, wines start looking great, (we don’t, we’re jumpy and our left eye twitches) but by now we so are addicted to our everyday dose of adorable stress – while everything in the vineyard inexplicably keeps going in an endless natural cycle – that we must now channel all of our worry on the wine aging. Praying to avoid brett* or bad oak influence, or whatever other rare diseases -like mousiness- casually showing up like a Chinese virus during the weekend (because all bad news are beared on the weekend, farmers are trained at university to keep bad news for themselves and then release them on the weekend).

So now, the only little thing that we can do to relax is using a very little amount of SO2 (sulphites), which is not even done for the wine since the allowed dosage for natural wines is too little to even make an impact, so this is more of a calming placebo effect for us! If you hadn’t understood that yet, responsible use of sulphites isn’t for the wine but for the winemakers’ peace of mind.

In the end, with red eyes and more white hair than ever we are finally ready to bottle, everything seems perfect, the stars are aligned and we are stupidly thinking ‘It is done, we survived!!!!’ But a few months later we get a call from a customer who found a corked bottle, and a strange pricking appears again inside us. Yes, now is the time to be worried if our cork supplier from whom we’ve bought the best corks didn’t sell us a faulty batch!

Once we’re done worrying about the cork problem, we remember that we are Brunello producers and that Sangiovese suffers from quercetin (severe wine cloudiness) which is a magical and unpredictable precipitation ready to ruin all our bottles already been delivered to most restaurants around the world and now they might be forced to return back home.
I mean, isn’t this a risky job in your opinion?

But then, we remind ourselves that we are winemakers, we have the dream job: nature, restaurants, beautiful people, fun work with the grape….
So maybe we might not get killed by a shotgun, or from falling into a canyon, but our health is certainly endangered by an everyday dosage of pure stress and anxiety for all of the insane things that could happen to plants, fruit, fermentation, or into the bottles delivered around the world… So, welcome to the cruel world of wine producers.
We believe that only the massive love we have for our job and vines can allow us to survive and keep making wine. And all this health loss should be paid for fairly…
So, when we get a comment about how expensive wine has gotten over the years, we will take a deeeep breath, and peacefully explain that we call that “work-related compensation caused by viticultural stresses”. Some sort of reimbursement for all of the years we’ve spent worrying over our wines.

* Brett. Brettanomyces is a non-spore forming genus of yeast, colloquially referred to as ‘Brett’. When Brettanomyces grows in wine it produces several compounds that can alter the palate and bouquet.
** Mal dell’Esca. Virus that affects the woody organs of the vine, compromising the lymphatic and structural system.