Rod Byers: The Art of Wine: A Conversation With Winemaker Mark Foster
Nevada City Winery winemaker Mark Foster, the dean of Nevada County winemakers, is on the cusp of celebrating 40 years of winemaking.
He began his career at Smothers Brothers Winery in 1981. Over the next decade he honed his winemaking techniques at Chalone and perfected his style at Madrona. He arrived at Nevada City Winery in 1992 and has been making award-winning wines there ever since, including winning Best of California awards for Syrah and Cabernet Franc.
I sat down with Mark over a glass of wine to talk about winemaking and the changes he has seen over the last four decades.
“When I started,” Foster said, “Cabernet, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay were the top varietals. Forty years later, Cab, Zin, Pinot, and Chardonnay are still the top varietals but the wines are very different.”
He pointed out that when he started typical alcohol levels were 12.5 percent. Wines were made in what we now refer to as a restrained old-world, Euro-style.
“In the 1970s,” Foster said, “we were trying to copy the French.” Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, winemakers developed the “California-style” of winemaking. Blessed with abundant sunshine and reliable weather, winemakers found they could make balanced and fruity wines in a riper and more full-bodied, yet softer style.
The wines didn’t require a decade before they were ready to drink. Long-time wine drinkers might think of Clos du Bois Merlot from the ‘90s as a good example.
“Consumers loved the wines,” Foster said. “It was consumers leading winemakers in that direction. They liked the riper, full-bodied flavors.”
In a quest for stronger flavors winemakers followed a string of events that combined to really push that envelope.
Chief among them, Foster pointed to Australian viticulturist Richard Smart. His ground-breaking book “Grapes Into Sunlight Smart” revolutionized grape canopy management, allowing more sunlight into the clusters, generating sugars faster. “The day we changed the canopy was the day wine changed,” Foster declared.
What they found was that while the grapes were getting to desired sugar levels faster, the grapes weren’t ripe, the acids were still too high. To get balanced flavors the growers needed to let the grapes hang on the vines longer, creating even higher sugars in the process.
“Thirteen percent used to be standard. Now 14.5 percent is average and 15.5 percent, even 16.5 percent is not uncommon,” Foster said.
Along with rising alcohol levels there was a corresponding explosion of oak options. Foster continued, “When I was at Chalone we only had American oak. The question was whether it had been previously used for bourbon or whether it was new.”
In the 1990s French barrel cooperage houses, bringing wood from France, opened in California. Suddenly French oak was possible. The revolution didn’t stop there. Oak alternatives including inner staves, spirals, cubes, and powder became readily available.
It was no longer just wealthy wineries that could afford the flavor of oak. Jug wine producers could make their wines taste stronger by adding less expensive oak alternatives.
Paralleling the expansion of oak options was a dizzying increase in the availability of enzymes used to promote characteristics winemakers wanted, and fining agents used to take out characteristics they didn’t. “The Scott Labs catalogue,” Foster said, “has 30 pages of enzymes and additives.”
Yeasts were riding the same rocket ship. When Foster started, there were basically two yeasts, montrachet for reds and epernay for whites. Suddenly there were hundreds, each designed to complement specific situations like adding floral or tropical highlights or being able to function in elevated alcohol environments, a key component to making stronger wines.
While the basics of winemaking have not changed in 8,000 years, winemakers now have an unprecedented ability to mold and sculpt both style and flavor. Got a problem, take it out with reverse osmosis. Missing something? Use an enzyme or an additive.
“You’re no longer stuck with the wine you make,” Foster explained. “There is the original, acoustic version, and then there is the enhanced, studio version.”
University of California at Davis trained, Foster cut his winemaking chops at Chalone, a winery steeped in old-world tradition. He learned to balance wine and showcase flavors the old-fashioned way, by blending.
“Winemaking is about solving problems,” Foster said. “Wine is a living thing and biologically there are a lot of things that can go wrong.” While he is willing to use some of the tools available to him he is very quick to point out that every action comes with a consequence.
“You can knock out tannins by fining, but you always lose something, usually fruit, in the process,” he explained. “The stronger the product you use, the bigger the unintended consequences somewhere else.”
With 400 barrels in the Nevada City Winery cellar, Foster sees his job as that of a sheep dog, running around, constantly herding the edges. He is routinely sticking his nose in each barrel, pulling samples, checking for problems and especially, keeping them topped.
Along the way he is always thinking about how one barrel might harmonize with another, supplying a missing piece. Rather than using an additive to enhance a specific aroma or add color to a wine, he believes he achieves better results by blending.
He recognizes it’s a labor-intensive way of winemaking, but just because you could add something doesn’t mean you should. After 40 years, Foster believes that layered complexity, elegance, and finesse are still the hallmarks of great wine.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.
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