John Skinner
November 16, 2013 | It's all about the wine | John Skinner

Oak isn't a dirty word

It's funny how the word "oak," as it pertains to wine, sparks such debate and strong opinions amongst wine enthusiasts. I enjoy the discussion and try to look at the consumer's influences and experiences to understand their positions. "Is it oaked"? It is the most common question we get in the tasting room when pouring our Chardonnay. I like to respond saying "respectfully." Unfortunately the majority of those who ask the question do so in dread of an answer in the affirmative. The overwhelming, smothering use of oak, primarily in the California Chardonnays of the '90's and early 2000's did more to turn people away from Chardonnay than the movie Sideways did to ruin the Merlot market. Our journey is to win these people back. Oak when used in balance contributes elements of complexity and character that are spectacularly complimentary to all my wines. Our oaking strategy has been very deliberate since we began. Because we started Painted Rock from scratch, planting our vineyards and never co-mingling anything with anyone, we had the opportunity to conduct an estate trial of oak that has been remarkabely successful. In our first vintage I was advised to buy 100% new French oak from the thoroughbred of the industry, Seguin Mureau. The reason for this was firstly, in a vineyards first vintage the fruit is typically very expressive and able to handle the new oak and secondly I was not introducing anyone else's hygiene (or lack thereof) into our winery with the purchase of used oak. Now in subsequent vintages if I wanted to use second fill oak, it was ours. I am very happy we made that decision. In our second vintage we again used 100% new oak, this time because we dropped an inordinate amount of fruit and ended up with wines that again were able to handle the oak and would benefit from it. The difference was in vintage #2 we introduced a second cooper Saury and were now able to compare the two coopers and their effect on, not only each variety, but each of the two clones we planted of each variety. Now we were able to discern which of the two coopers we preferred with each clone so we introduced a third cooper Belair in the subsequent vintage. This progression continued to where now we have generally dialed in which cooper is best with which clone and the experimentation, while still continuing with small trials, is now focused and having a wonderfully beneficial effect on the finished wines. Now as the plants are aging and the fruit is gaining complexity we have continued to reduce our use of new oak from 100% to slightly over 50% now depending on the variety. Cab Sauv does very well with a higher percentage of new Seguin Mureau while our delicate and lovely Cab Franc likes less and prefers Belair.

Sometimes I feel incredibly fortunate for having come to this business without a background in it. Case in point, in my second vintage I had a visit from another winery owner who saw all my new oak arrive and my staff loading my used oak on a flatdeck for shipment to another local winery. He said "John you're nuts buying new oak again, I put oak chips in mine and you never know the difference". I thought to myself, I've been told what the best guys in the world do and I'm not gunna get cute. Not six months later a top Sommelier from London came into the winery and tasted though everything we had in barrel with me. At one point he stopped, looked at me and said, "thank God you don't do what so-and-so does with those effing oak chips, he thinks we don't notice". Ignorance is bliss....



Mike Nierychlo's Gravatar
Mike Nierychlo
@ Nov 29, 2013 at 7:41 AM
Great post John! So much truth in doing things right. Wine making isn't about focusing on the big picture, it's putting all of your attention into every little detail no matter how seemingly small. The combination of all of these intricacies is what forms success, and then (a quote from Bottle Shock) "you have to do it all over again next year, and it ain't going to be any easier."

Commenting has been turned off.