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I Was A Teenage Winemaker

Mr. Johnson was the reason I wrote “Chemistry” when asked to fill in the blank entitled “Major: ____” in the fall of 1962 when enrolling at Fresno State College.

Mr. Johnson was my highly entertaining high school chemistry teacher and his mostly unintentional classroom antics were legendary in our senior class at McLane High in Fresno. Mr. Johnson, a biology teacher transferred to chemistry when the chemistry teacher retired, brought a whole new meaning to the word “experiment.” He was a good-natured cross between Mr. Wizard and Mr. Magoo.

Since he had never tried most of the experiments called for in the chemistry textbook, they frequently didn’t turn out as planned. Once, when demonstrating the spontaneous combustion of turpentine in chlorine gas in first period chemistry class, Mr. Johnson became frustrated when the turpentine-soaked filter paper inserted into a bottle of chlorine with tongs wouldn’t do anything the first few tries. He finally abandoned the tongs and angrily thrust the paper into the chlorine bottle bare-handed. It exploded into black soot that covered his entire chest, face and upper arms.

Another time, when trying to demonstrate the combination of iron with carbon to make steel, he got a glob of molten iron so white hot that it melted through the sand and metal cradle it was in and burned its way down through his desktop, the shelves, the flooring and came to rest, still red hot, sizzling in the concrete under his lab desk. Mr. Johnson invited class members to come up and look down the hole in his desk to observe what kind of damage an overheated molten glob could do.

There were many, many more such experiments. Mr. Johnson took all his mishaps in stride and tried to explain them and what went wrong. Chemistry was not only interesting, but exciting.

But there were no Mr. Johnsons at Fresno State.

I soon found myself trapped in courses I didn’t like and declining grades.

In September of 1964 I was nineteen years old. I had just started my junior year at Fresno State, the intellectual center of agriculture for California’s central valley.

A new course appeared in the Fresno State’s 1964 catalog called “Wine Appreciation.” Needless to say, it was popular.

Professor Fred Nuri was a recent graduate of UC Davis’s well-known wine program established originally by Maynard Amerine, eminence gris of post-prohibition industrial winemaking. Professor Nuri had come to Fresno State to establish an enology program at UC Davis’s country-cousin college.

Dr. Amerine wrote “the book” on the subject: “Table Wines: The Technology of Their Production” as well as many others including the seminal assessment of wine growing regions in California which has grown into the modern-day vineyard plague spreading over California’s temperate Northern Coastal counties. To this day, the UC Davis enology program started by Amerine is the leading authority on industrial wine making in the United States.

It was illegal for most of Dr. Nuri’s students to actually drink wine, but that didn’t stop us from studying it, learning about the various grape varietals, wines and wine-making techniques. (Of course, illegality didn’t stop anyone from drinking off-campus in the mid-60s.)

On the (bad) advice of my college counselor I had already completed most of my undergraduate Chemistry courses in my first two years and wanted out of the Chemistry program. It wasn’t very hard to convince Professor Nuri that bringing in a Chemistry major transfer would buttress the technical credentials of his newly formed Enology department. Dr. Nuri and I worked out a special combination Chemistry/Enology degree program with the Chemistry department for which I was the prototype.

My grades quickly improved as I worked my way through the various enology courses focusing primarily on laboratory related subjects (wine chemistry). The special wine/chemistry combination took an extra semester to complete so I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in February of 1967. By this time the Vietnam War draft was staring me in the face.

I had become a reasonably accomplished self-taught theater pipe organist (another story in itself) and thought I might avoid the infantry by entering the service as a musician. But as an ear-player, I didn’t read music well enough. The Air Force recruiter, however, noting my college degree, steered me into applying for Officer Training School. I was quickly accepted, but the next available opening wasn’t until November of 1967. The draft board put me on “OT Hold.”

For my Senior Project at Fresno State I developed and prototyped a method of measuring reducing sugars in wine (dextrose and fructose) using infra-red light absorption — as far as we knew it was the first quantitative use of infra-red light. I gave up on the project many times because of seemingly unsolvable problems: no sample cells were available which were not soluble in water (wine); the high infra-red background absorption of water itself; and no effective way to narrow the infra-red beam to only the wavelength(s) of interest, etc. After two years of starts and stops, I came up with a crude way of adapting a Beckman Instruments infra-red spectrophotometer to measure dextrose and fructose with accuracies almost as good as the infrequently used conventional stoichiometric (or hot-titration) method. Surprisingly, the Chemistry department was impressed, even though I had been viewed as a deserter.

After discussion with Professor Nuri and friends and family, I decided not to go through the costly process of applying for a patent. There didn’t appear to be more than two or three wine labs in the country that did enough measurements of reducing sugar to justify spending much money on new analytical equipment. So I sold my research papers to the Beckman Instruments Company in Los Angeles for $1,500. I later found out that by using a different infrared wavelength and improving on the accuracy, Beckman had begun selling a modified version of my design to measure lactose in milk and was marketing machines to the labs in many creameries in the United States. If I had thought of the milk angle, I might have been getting royalties to this day.

As part of my Senior Project, I spent some short work-study hours in the labs at Gallo in Modesto and United Vintners (Italian Swiss Colony) storage facility outside Stockton as well as at the upscale Ficklin Port family winery outside Madera. Based on this experience and with the help of Professor Nuri, I got a job as a Lab Technician at Roma Winery in Fresno for the time between graduation and Air Force Officer Training School.

Roma was an old Fresno winery, but the bulk of its output wasn’t actually bottled under the name “Roma.” It was a contract winery and bottling operation which produced cheap wines made from the cheap high-sugar grapes of California’s hot central valley.

In the nine months I worked in the Roma wine lab I found out that things weren’t always what they seemed.

As a lab technician most of my time was spent climbing and walking the catwalks above the large stainless steel and concrete tanks and wooden barrels in Roma’s many storage buildings with a sampling stick and a sample bottle caddie. I’d nimbly move from tank to tank dipping the stainless steel stick with a small tube-shaped collector and pouring the sample into a test tube in the caddie, marking down the sample info.

Roma’s bottling operation was a byzantine operation both in terms of plumbing and accounting. Vineyards could ask for bottlings from their own grapes, or request blends. There were also accidental, unrequested blends — when mistakes were made with valve settings.

Roma made three kinds of wines: unfortified still wines, fortified still wines, and sparkling wines. (The word “champagne” can only be used for wine made from grapes from a certain region in France.)

Of the unfortified still wines, Roma made a simple white chablis, a generic red burgundy, and a blended rose.

Cheap fortified wines like muscatel, port and sherry (in which brandy is added to stop the fermentation, leaving unfermented sugar and a sweet taste, along with a higher percentage of alcohol) were popular on the low end of the market.

Cheap sparkling wines were made from the red and white still wines as well.

For example, sherry as it’s traditionally made in Spain is an extremely labor-intensive process both in the double fermentation and in the fancy “solera” aging. So “California Sherry” isn’t really sherry at all. It’s a cheap imitation sherry made by baking regular white wine with flavorings and charred wood chips. It isn’t aged at all, and therefore it’s much cheaper than the real Spanish sherry. But it’s drinkable nevertheless.

The large facility’s plumbing and valves allowed the Master Wine Blender to mix our basic wine groups in a variety of ways and call it anything it needed to be called. Sometimes vineyards that asked for their grapes to be fermented, aged and bottled as a batch weren’t — for a variety of reasons. Leakage, spillage, bad fermentation, mistakes, poor taste or color, poor filtration, expediency, volume shortages, etc. The same bottling set up could be used to produce 15 or 20 runs with different labels on them. The same wine could be sold for various prices under various labels (for marketing considerations), or there might be some slight variations. As a lab tech, I was in no position to know what went into the bottling machine’s intake or what came out of the fill tube. Sometimes, the wine was aged after it was bottled for an unknown period, by unknown middle-men with storage capabilities, which might also have accounted for some of the retail price variations. Needless to say, the opportunities for misrepresentation were great.

By this time I’d turned 21 and Roma’s wine tasted fine to my unrefined palate. My interest was in the chemistry, not the taste. I’ve always believed in the principle that if you can’t tell the difference, don’t pay for it. Whether it’s beer, wine, stereo equipment, cars, etc., there’s no need to pay for snob appeal if it doesn’t mean anything to you or you can’t tell or don’t care about the difference between the expensive and the cheap. In many cases the expensive is the cheap, the only difference being the label and the corresponding hype.

Nowadays, the wine industry has pushed itself far into the rarefied air of snob appeal and jacked up their prices with “appellations” and “premium varietals.” It’s not a good marketing strategy and some wine insiders are starting to wonder how long the industry can keep expanding their labor-exploitative, environmentally degrading vineyard plantations when the snob market volume isn’t expanding very fast. As always, it’s mostly a matter of marketing.

In France and Italy ordinary people traditionally consume generic inexpensive red or white wine with meals, not the overhyped expensive stuff that the California wine industry promotes. In spite of all the hype about “bouquets” and “fruity noses,” “hints of cinnamon” and all the “hand-crafting” that goes into “fine” wine and so forth, very few people can really tell one wine from the next in blind tastings — unless it’s really bad, such as some freshly fermented wines, or those which are on their way to vinegar, or if some foreign yeast found its way into the fermentation…

Back in the late 90s a waitress at a Mendocino Coast restaurant went through the motions of formally pouring my father a sample sip from an $38 bottle of wine he reluctantly ordered with dinner. My father, the youngest son of Italian immigrants, born on the Mendocino Coast in 1908, was uncomfortable about being treated so royally in such a modest setting. Laughingly, he stared at the sample sip and asked, “Has anyone ever rejected a bottle of wine after sampling it?” The waitress thought for a moment and replied, “I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and I think maybe twice.”

One Comment

  1. Jeff Costello September 21, 2016

    I imagine, Mark, that you have some things to teach the local snob wine producers, who operate mostly on adjectives. Prepare yourself for the wholesale invasion of the pot connoisseurs. Marijuana stores here in Denver, besides resembling the entrances to jailhouses, also operate on adjectives and variously named plant strains. Maybe the people who name cars these days are moonlighting.

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