Editor's note: Mac and Lil McDonald, the husband-and-wife team behind Vision Cellars winery, have been producing pinot noir since 1995. Next Wave asked Mr. McDonald about his business and the extent to which science and technological advances contribute to their process for making fine wine.
N ext Wave: How did you learn about winemaking?
Mac McDonald: When I was 12 years old, I had the opportunity to taste a bottle of Burgundy, which I thought was very good. As I grew older I tasted other wines and started seriously considering winemaking as a career. After graduating from high school in a small Texas town, my coach told me that if I wanted to make wine, I needed to go to California. I moved to northern California and began my tutelage by watching many of the older Italian winemakers. These gentlemen didn't control the alcohol content nor did they want to. They just enjoyed making a good-tasting beverage for themselves and their friends. I learned a lot of the basics from them and started making wine in my basement.
As my knowledge of winemaking increased, I visited some of the larger wineries in the area and met Chuck Wagner at Caymus Vineyards. He took me in and mentored me and elevated my skills to that of a professional. At that point, my focus switched to making wine for the general public.
NW: What is your typical day like?
MM: A typical day varies depending on the season. Pruning season (early December to early February) is generally a slow time for me because I don't actually own the vineyards and don't do the pruning myself. I get up around 5:30 or 6 a.m. and spend the next couple of hours with my wife and partner, Lil, discussing the business needs for that day. After breakfast around 8 a.m., I venture out to the vineyards for the next 2 or 3 hours to watch the pruning.
In the afternoon, I generally "check my barrels" by smelling and tasting small samples of the wine. Any barrel with an unusual odor or flavor will be separated from the others, cleaned, and then placed back on the rack. Many times this procedure eliminates the problem. I arrive back home around 4 p.m., check business e-mail, and have the rest of the evening free. However, since I also wear the hat of marketing manager for Vision Cellars, I must spend a considerable amount of time visiting restaurants, wine shops, and resorts promoting our products. I allow them to taste and experience for themselves the "fruit of my labor." About 90% of the people I talk to will carry our products. Some of the top restaurants in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere offer wine from Vision Cellars.
When harvest season rolls around (September and October), my life gets pretty hectic. I spend a lot of time in the field tasting the grapes and estimating what I think the finished product will taste like. I also use a special meter that tests the sugars, acids, and chemical makeup of the grapes. Even though this technology has made things easier, I still look to the old-fashioned way of tasting to confirm the numbers. For instance, if I check the sugar content and the meter says a certain amount of sugar is present, I'd let my taste buds decide if that is indeed the case.
Once the sugars, acids, and other chemical numbers match up, I contact the vineyard manager who oversees the harvesting process. He or she will make arrangements to have the grapes picked, crushed, and put into tanks. During fermentation we add yeast and do what is called a "punch down," in which you push the skins under the juice. We do this four times a day for 7 days. It is hard work because I generally spend 12 or 14 hours a day for a month, but it all pays off in the end. Yes, I still have to find time to market my wine, deal with distributors, etc., but believe it or not, there are days when you can relax a little. After fermentation, I put the wine into French oak barrels for 8.5 to 10 months. The timing depends upon how much extraction (flavor of the wood) I get.
NW: Does Vision Cellars use a technique that is unique in the winemaking industry?
MM: We do a lot of the same things that most other vintners (winemakers) do, but I believe the "cold-soak" method brings out extra color and flavor in my wine. After harvesting the grapes, we let them sit in their own juice for 3 or 4 days before adding the yeast for fermentation. Although cold-soaking is a controversial method in the winemaking world, it is something that works well for Vision Cellars because we are a small company and can experiment with a variety of procedures. Because wine is a food, all wine producers take special care to keep things clean. Good sanitary conditions will prevent bacterial growth and therefore bad tasting wine.
NW: Does Vision Cellars use advanced technology?
MM: No, we don't. There's nothing wrong with it, but I prefer the old-fashioned way of doing things. For example, newer equipment has gauges and thermostats to control the temperature of the wine during fermentation, but I like checking the temperature by putting my hands inside the barrel (with clean hands of course!). There's nothing more important to me than having my hands in my wine, literally!
NW: Tell me about the grapes you use. Are they genetically modified?
MM: When customers go to a wine shop to make a purchase, I want them to know that my product is 100% natural and unaltered. I want my label to accurately reflect the contents of the bottle. I am proud to sell only the best.
I use pinot noir grapes straight from the field. It is a difficult grape to make wine out of because you have to get good fruit which means you must have a good location to grow them. In California, there are only a few areas where pinot noir grapes grow the best, so I get my grapes from these places and see how the wine from these grapes stacks up. I make wine from Marin, Sonoma, and Monterey counties. These locations are the best places for grape cultivation in the state.
NW: What advice would you give those who want to become winemakers?
MM: Be patient and know there are other opportunities out there such as sales or distributing. You don't have to necessarily go into winemaking. Learn as much about wine as a food and the business of winemaking as you can.
I am president and co-founder of the Association for African American Vintners. We sponsor wine-tasting events all over the country, especially in African American communities with the purpose of educating others about wine. Our goal is to provide internships for students of color to work with us during the summer and furnish financial assistance for students to attend winemaking schools. Another good resource is the African American Wine Tasting Society.
Outside of marrying my wife, my decision to become a winemaker was the best one I ever made.
Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.