For the last four years, the Missouri Wine Technical Group’s Norton Workshops have taken place behind closed doors with no media present and no in-depth media coverage. For the first time, the newly elected President of the Technical Group, Jacob Holman, winemaker at Les Bourgeois Vineyards, has agreed to talk to Regional Wine Taster in detail about the workshops and about what happened at the latest one held last Tuesday.
The Norton workshops take place at least once a year and invite winemakers from across Missouri and the Midwest to share their issues and knowledge to help improve the quality of their wines. Winemakers bring unfinished and problem Norton wines for a blind tasting followed by constructive criticism. The initiative was started in 2008 by the newly founded Technical Group based on the idea of one of its members, New Zealander, Andrew Meggitt, winemaker for St James Winery, who brought the concept from his home country. At last Tuesday’s workshop, thirty winemakers representing ten wineries attended to blind taste and discuss ten different Norton wines.
Jacob Holman, President, Missouri Wine Technical Group and winemaker, Les Bourgeois Vineyards. The vineyard’s restaurant is in the background
Regional Wine Taster: Can you explain exactly what goes on at your Norton Workshops?
Jacob Holman: What we do is three workshops a year, each focusing on a varietal and because of Norton’s importance to the Midwest, we always include it every year. We’ve also done Chambourcin, Vignoles, Lambruscas, Concord and Catawba. The way our workshops function is you submit wine – we prefer it to be an unfinished wine, not in the bottle – and we will flight those wines and sit down and taste them blind and then we break up into groups of six to eight. Everyone will evaluate the wines on their own and then you go around the table and your nominated scribe will take the group’s collective evaluation and then the moderator will call on that group to say what they think of wine 1A, or whatever it is. Once all groups have spoken the winemaker is “outed” and that winemaker will have to stand up and talk about what he did, good or bad.
RWT: In most industries, it’s hard to picture competitors critiquing each other’s products in order to help improve them. What is it about the Midwest wine industry that allows for such cooperation?
JH: I think most people in the industry recognize that the quality of Midwest wines hinges on our knowledge and this is a good way for small wineries to sit in the same room with bigger guys who have gone through this sort of stuff. I learn something every time even though I work for one of the bigger wineries. The basic idea is that while there might be reasons that one Norton is better than another, there’s no reason to have flawed wine. I think that within the Midwest we recognize that and are willing to help each other out and also recognize that we are a growing industry and this sort of thing helps us to compete with California wines, Oregon wines and all those other ones in the grocery store. Overall we need to have a perspective that is good for Missouri as a whole.
“Once all groups have spoken the winemaker is ‘outed’ and that winemaker will have to stand up and talk about what he did, good or bad.”
RWT: How unique is this workshop? Do forums like this exist in other parts of the United States?
JH: When we started this four years ago I couldn’t find any similar workshops but there are a lot of attempts and failures from State Associations. There are quality assurance programs that haven’t typically been very successful and those state programs are exclusive with a board of winemakers, sommeliers and retailers who will put a stamp of approval on the wine. So if you’re a winemaker and you don’t know enough and you fail to get that stamp, that’s a black mark against you. We’re not about that, we’re about education and helping winemakers make better wines. I haven’t found a lot of this kind of cooperation in other US regions. We’ve had a lot of, “Gee I wish we had this in our state!” And that is something we would foster if it got big enough, for example an Illinois or a Kansas technical group, because we work with a lot of the same varietals. That’s kind of a dream of mine, but for now it’s Midwest wines.
RWT: At the workshop you tasted unfinished and problem Nortons. What Norton problems usually come up?
JH: They can include, for example, your tank not being topped, meaning not full – so your SO2 levels will be low – that causes your wine to oxidize. To solve this I would go to an extreme and tell people that if you have 350 gallons and you only have a 300 gallon tank, fill up the 300 gallon tank, even if it means throwing the 50 gallons away. That issue applies to all wines. As far as Norton goes in particular, today we had a speaker talk about oak management, that’s something not specific to Norton but it does have a problem with it. Norton’s tannin structure is light, there’s not a lot of natural tannin that comes in the fruit, so it’s important to manage your tannins and manage your oak which provide tannins to be able to stabilize your color and make a bolder wine style that is agreeable.
RWT: Winemakers often say that Norton is a hard wine to make. At these workshops do you ever advise people that they should make something easier like Chambourcin?
JH: No I would never recommend that people not make Norton, just because of its clout within the state. I would always advise that it is very tricky to deal with and you may not want to make Norton as your first wine ever, but at the same time it is manageable. I have learned a few tricks here and there and that’s what I would tell people, as opposed to discouraging them from trying to make it.
RWT: Can you tell us some of your tricks? I know you told us about one of them before, your reverse bleeding method? (see: Missouri’s Les Bourgeois Vineyards Profile)
JH: Oh I do a lot of different things that are not typically standard! To deal with the pH problem, I know that Norton has a high acidity so I will actually acidify Norton. After fermentation I will drop the pH down to a microbial management level. The higher the pH the more chance you have of a spoilage organism surviving so you’re really the safest with your preservatives if it’s around a lower level. Even though I have to add acid to make that happen – and the wine will be relatively undrinkable for a few months! – I will maintain that pH and therefore maintain my sulfur level to where I don’t have to worry nearly so much about spoilage. When I finish the wine I will change it back to a higher pH and drop that acidity out because once it is sterile filtered and in the bottle, in theory, you don’t have to worry about spoilage organisms anymore.
“RWT: Can you tell us some of your tricks? I know you told us about one of them before, your reverse bleeding method?”
RWT: In this workshop do you ever disagree about whether a wine has a problem or not and the nature of that problem?
JH: Typically, if a wine is a problem wine there won’t be a disagreement about that but a lot of the time there’ll be disagreement on what that problem is. So if I think its high T.A. (total acidity) or V.A. (volatile acidity) somebody else might think it’s a sulfide problem for example. And sometimes the wine’s off and we don’t necessarily know why.
RWT: Are you finding after four years of workshops that the Norton wines you’re tasting now are having fewer, less serious faults?
JH: The people who attend the workshops and take them seriously have made huge improvements in what they do and how they do things and their wines have definitely got better. However, it is a work in progress and will take years. I’ve only had one person get really irritated with the workshop and say that they weren’t coming back! I take a certain amount of pride in that too because winemaking is something you put all your time and heart into and as long as you stay in your winery your wine can seem fine! But once you get out there and start comparing apples to apples sometimes you realize you have a problem. That’s hard for people to stomach but for the most part everybody’s really taken on the suggestions, gone home and the next year worked on things and it’s really made a difference.
RWT: With the unfinished wines you tasted today was there anything that that surprised you particularly? Or that was notably different to previous workshops?
Norton vines at Les Bourgeois vineyard
JH: Mmmm no. I think there were fewer flaws in general than there have been in past workshops. We had one guy who bought this one barrel in that wasn’t the same as his other twenty barrels and he don’t know exactly what was going on. He gave us a rundown and we were able to maybe figure out what the problem was.
RWT: What did you bring to the workshop?
JH: The wine I submitted today, there’s no flaw to it, it was an unfinished 2011. It is very green and I wanted to see what people thought of it as far as what I could do to finish it a little better. So I bought it in and it was well received and the criticisms were along the lines of the wine being green, very young and having a lot of potential but needing a lot of time, maybe a little more oak and maybe a little more structure. Those are all things that I can do between now and when the wine is released.
RWT: How long could you age that Norton for and have it sitting in barrels so you can manipulate it?
JH: I think everybody agrees that you have anywhere from two to ten years to age a bottle of Norton – it’s not like a Cabernet that has the tannins to hold up – so we typically will do anywhere from 12 to 24 months in barrel and then release it and I think that is relatively standard within the industry.
RWT: Is there a difference between the technical skills and equipment you need to make a Norton, as opposed to another wine variety?
JH: As far as equipment, no, as far as skills, yes, I would say that. I’m not trying to promote Norton here but I have worked with vinifera and it is much easier to deal with. You don’t have the problems that you have with the Norton and I think that goes all the way from growing that grape to the finish.
RWT: What did the tasting today indicate about the progress of your endeavors to improve the Norton and what still needs to be worked on?
JH: Well, as far as the progress goes for the Missouri Wine Technical Group I was very happy with the way things went today. I was also happy with the wine quality in general but I really believe that if we had more wineries represented (note: there were 10 represented and Jacob would like that boosted to about 30) then I think everyone could benefit a little more, so that’s the goal of the group, to get more membership and get more attendance.
Norton vines in my backyard
RWT: During four years of your Technical Group, what new varietals are you seeing more of?
JH: Well, we do experimental cultivar tasting through the University of Missouri in Columbia and some people are biting on that and there are some grapevines that are being planted that haven’t always been planted but I don’t think it’s a mad rush to do so…
RWT: Which ones?
JH: The best example I can think of off the top of my head would be Valvin muscat, a muscat cross that’s able to be grown in the Midwest. I’ve noticed a lot of people growing that and we actually had some interest in that today as the next Workshop but I don’t think we will because there’s probably not enough people making wine out of it yet . As far as consumers go, from what I hear in the tasting room and from what I see people buying, Vignoles is something that I think Missouri has a handle on and now people ask for it by varietal, more so than anything else apart from Norton.
RWT: The fact that people are actually asking for their local grapes by name, that must be quite pleasing?
JH: Yes it is. This is something that has only happened recently, within my short career over the last 12 to 13 years. When I started, no-one ever asked for Norton or Vignoles by name, it was all, you know, “Let me have your sweet white,” or, “Let me have your dry red,” but I believe that’s changing to some extent.
RWT: Thanks very much for your time President Holman!
JH: Ha! Ha! No problem, I hope you got what you need.