Implementing Quality Adjustments within a Small Commercial Winery

By: Denise M. Gardner

One question that is often posed to me by winery owners is how to improve quality without investing tens of thousands of dollars in one swooping payment. Obviously, such large investments are substantial for smaller wineries, especially for those producing under 10,000 cases per year.

Proper business planning and initial investment can help mediate many large purchases pertaining to quality (i.e., temperature control tanks or a glycol system). It is advised and helpful to review start-up operations with a trained and experienced winery consultant for these reasons.

However, there are always small improvements that are not foreseen during the start of a company, and providing a budget for quality adjustments can become a regular part of yearly financial planning. Below is a list of several areas where wineries can make small financial investments (<$3,000 per year) even if the adjustment does not directly affect the wine.

 

Train Cellar and Tasting Room Staff to Better Identify Wine Defects

The personnel within the winery are the last line of defense in terms of potentially identifying any problems affiliated with a wine before bottling. As it has been well documented that individual sensory perceptions vary, the more people available to critique a wine, the better evaluation of wine quality the winemaker will receive. This exercise also helps improve communication between the winemaker and consumers, in addition to helping the winemaker identify areas where he/she may need help. For example, I am well aware of the fact that I cannot easily smell some of the volatile sulfur-containing compounds. Therefore, having someone available that is more sensitive to these aromas and flavors would be beneficial for me to ensure the wines I make are not reduced or stinky.

There are many ways wineries can improve defect identification skills, and several of these were listed in a previous blog post pertaining to wine defect training.

Wine defect aroma training at the Penn State Wine Quality Improvement workshop. Such exercises can be implemented in the winery.

Wine defect aroma training at the Penn State Wine Quality Improvement workshop. Such exercises can be implemented in the winery.

Implement Weekly or Bi-Weekly Tastings of Wines from Other Wine Regions

This is probably the most expensive suggestion on the list, as purchasing wines of benchmark quality can be pricey. However, regular wine tasting does two things:

  • Improves our understanding of wine styles and wine quality (i.e., what makes a wine good vs. bad).
  • Ensures that employees are not enduring cellar or house palate.

While this may not seem like a quality enhancement process, several wineries in Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic have found this exercise to substantially improve the quality of their wines over time. It is helpful if the person with the most tasting experience leads the tasting to teach others. Or, better yet, hire an experienced and local sommelier to conduct tastings for your staff. Over time, these regular tastings will improve everyone’s understandings of what makes a wine good. Those quality standards vary from wine variety to wine variety and region to region.

Eventually, the cellar staff may start to identify styles they would like to try to make in the winery. Focusing on a particular variety during these tasting exercises can enhance everyone’s understanding about various styles pertaining to that variety. This exercise makes it easier for the cellar staff to plan production decisions when crafting wines.

Cellar palate can be incredibly detrimental to a winery’s quality. For this reason, wineries should discourage the regular consumption of winery-produced wines. It is also advantageous to regularly drink wines that are not produced in the local region. This is not to be unsupportive of the local economy, but to continue to shock your sense of smell and taste so that it does not adapt to the local taste or flavor.

Chardonnay Benchmark Tasting. Chardonnays tasted are from New Zealand, Chablis, Burgundy, and California.

Chardonnay Benchmark Tasting. Chardonnays tasted included from New Zealand, Chablis, Burgundy, and California.

Learn How to use Sulfur Dioxide

One of the more regular mistakes amateur winemakers make is with regards to sulfur dioxide (SO2). The use of Campden tablets is quite prevalent in the amateur winemaking world, but commercial wineries should use and understand how sulfur dioxide preserves the wine.

The use of sulfur dioxide is a chemistry-heavy topic, but there are several workshops, books, and classes out there to encourage winemakers to better understand its use in wine. With this understanding, many detrimental processing steps can be avoided, preserving the quality of the wine from harvest through retail. Such education may also help minimize the use of potassium sorbate, which is often affiliated with lower quality wines regardless of the wine’s style, variety, or process. Some text books or workshops that include sulfur dioxide discussions are:

Create Winery Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) on everything from what to do with incoming good vs. bad quality fruit, through laboratory analysis procedures help make a winery more efficient. Taking the time to have technical staff create SOPs and standardize SOP formatting can help the winery regain time for other winery operations. While the initial act of creating SOPs may take a significant amount of time for any winery of any size, having SOPs available to employees provides a resource outlet for when there are processing or laboratory questions that need answered.

SOPs also help ensure all incoming employees receive proper training and identical training regardless of which employee is available to implement the training at that time. Additionally, SOPs minimize “on-the-fly” decision making during crunch times like harvest; the decision is already made in the SOP. Such actions minimize panic or incorrect decision-making, and can help ensure more consistent processing steps during the winemaking process.

As winery operations change regularly, reviewing and updating SOPs should be accomplished during annual down seasons, such as the winter months.

Implement Proper Cleaning and Sanitation Techniques

This thought goes along with creating SOPs, as sanitation techniques can be included in an SOP book. While there are no large food safety threats to wine, it is no excuse to skimp on cleaning and sanitation out of laziness.

Fugelsang and Edwards (2007) remind us that cleaning equipment does not ensure that the equipment is properly sanitized, or that microbiological levels have been reduced. Additionally, improperly cleaned equipment cannot be properly sanitized (Fugelsang and Edwards, 2007). Wineries should instill proper SOPs to enact better cleaning protocols for these reasons.

Dirty environments including dusty or leaking ceilings, left over rice halls in the press, juice and wine streaming down wine tanks, and puddles of stagnant water all contribute to wine quality – indirectly and directly. Dirty environments provide safe harbors to yeast and bacteria, and enhance the risk of potential wine contamination through many stages of production. Many producers leave rice halls in the press after a press run and, occasionally, through the down season and into next harvest. These rice halls become storage sites for microbiological contamination and, in general, contribute subtle off-flavors to many wines. Juice and wine on the exterior surfaces of winery equipment provide micro-environments capable of producing biofilms that often attract insects, especially fruit flies. Fruit flies in the winery can lead to contamination of clean wines. Finally, stagnant water can additionally support algae growth, which can potentially lead to TCA (cork taint) formation. Retaining a corked aroma in the winery is not recommended.

 

While cleaning and sanitation may not be the most fun, it is often the most important step.

While cleaning and sanitation may not be the most fun, it is often the most important step.

While these are a few suggestions for small commercial wineries, there are many other small quality adjustments that can be made in the winery. What small quality adjustments have you made that could potentially benefit the quality of wine being produced?

 

Resources

Fugelsang, K.C. and C.G. Edwards. (2007) Wine Microbiology: Practical Applications and Procedures. ISBN: 0-387-33341-X

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