Those Little Yeasties


s the days get hotter, the harvest gets closer and the more a winemaker starts thinking about making wine. The first step to making quality wine is to start with good fruit – fruit that is ripe, undamaged, proper terroir and has the right balance of acids, sugars, and is mature. The grower is busy making sure the fruit is protected from the sun, bugs, rot, mold, mildew, critters and hydration and the winemaker is planning his strategies.

The basic process of making wine is to “ferment” the fruit into wine. The primary actors during this process are billions of yeast cells hungrily eating up the sugars and converting them to alcohol (not to get gross, but alcohol is their waste product), carbon dioxide, and heat all while procreating like crazy.

There is a lot of “activity/magic” that goes into “fermentation” and for each batch, the winemaker has to pull out their tricks and techniques in the attempt to make the “perfect” bottle of wine. Wine ferments for about 10 days and during the process heat is generated that need to be managed, carbon dioxide is produced and need to be managed, yeast needs to be managed, and temperature needs to be managed. Failure to manage any of these aspects will degrade the quality of the wine.

It is the yeast who need to be kept happy the most. Unhappy yeast will produce all kinds of “funky” flavors and aromas – so you have to keep them happy. Keeping yeast happy is similar to the “Goldilocks and the 3 Bears” fable. Not too hot, nor too cold. Not super low pH, nor super high. Not too much oxygen but enough. Not too much alcohol and enough sugar. Not too many nutrients, but just enough (maybe a little lean actually). Not too much sulfur dioxide, but not too little. Not too fast and not too sluggish. And we won’t even get into matching the right yeast strain with the varietal, picking the right fermentation characteristics and restrictions and the secondary and tertiary side effects each strain has on the finished wine.

The kicker is – they don’t speak your language and so you have to learn to speak Yeastie – get it wrong (improperly conjugate your verbs or lack proper grammatical rules) and they will complain, throw a fit and produce something you don’t want to drink.

So how do you learn to speak Yeastie? You have to learn their behavior and what they like and don’t like and adjust as needed. Knowledge, patience, practice, and trial/error is all you have along with a gut feeling and a stout resolution – other than that its simple!

Making wine is a great lesson in life. It doesn’t matter how much you know, who you know, what types of toys you have, what you say, or money in the bank – the only thing that really matters is what you do in life – doesn’t matter if it is for the stranger on the street, you family or a colony of billions of yeast – always do your very best (and don’t piss off the yeast).