Waterlogged or machine concentrated? Ken Wright takes a stand

Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars has a video interview on the tech blog Gizmodo. Why would this graybeard of the Oregon wine industry and godfather to the biggest little wine town in Oregon (Carlton) be talking to a tech blog? He discusses using a vacuum concentrator to reduce unwanted dilution in juice after late-season rains, which can make the grapes waterlogged prior to harvesting. (Depending on desired ripeness, picking before the rains may or may not be another option for avoiding bloated grapes.) The device, imported from Italy, essentially reduces the wine to below atmospheric pressure, allowing for low temperature boiling thereby removing the excess water from the tank and leaving a more concentrated juice behind. Gizmodo mentions that there are at least a half-a-dozen other vacuum concentrators in Oregon.

Wright elaborates on why the machine is a good thing: “We spend a year of our life farming. It seems really silly to accept something sub-standard when you can make a difference, when you can do something to heal the issue.”

I give Ken Wright a tip of the ol’ winemaker’s baseball cap for detailing a part of his winemaking practices: What happens in the cellar is not discussed often enough in detail (indeed, even his own web site espouses minimal handling in the cellar).

What do you think, in general–would you rather have a machine-concentrated wine from a waterlogged vintage or the wine that mother nature intended?

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14 Responses to “Waterlogged or machine concentrated? Ken Wright takes a stand”

  1. Mother Nature doesn’t “intend” to do anything. If rain is a factor, then it’s a person who has a choice: pick before the rain, or not.

    It’s hard for me to believe that boiling grapes even at low temperatures without oxygen is equivalent to a virgin birth, i.e. removing water with no side effects, as if the rain never happened and lovely sunshine beamed down. Surely other chemical reactions occur in response to this process.

    However, I don’t know for sure.

    I also have never tasted this kind of wine side by side with one that is made from a more traditional “healing”, e.g. by waiting a few days after the rain to pick and sorting out grapes affected by rot or overripeness, if these are issues. Of course, the more standard approach to correct sugar levels would be to chaptalize, which might be better or worse than hoovering up the water, depending upon how that’s done…

  2. All things being equal, I’d prefer to buy wine that doesn’t need an adjustment like this. But really all this is doing is removing water in a non-invasive manner, though one might worry about other compounds boiling off I suppose. Still, this is vastly superior to alternatives that roughly handle the finished wine (reverse osmosis), manipulate it by additions (chaptalization, which apparently is OK because it is traditional), or leaving it be.

    Everyone says they prefer the untouched wine. But people like concentration of flavor. If Wright uses this tool to save fruit that otherwise would be hard to sell commercially, good for him. He’s running a business, not trying to please idealogues.

    Now, if he uses this to make high alcohol Power Pinot, that’s a different story. But again that will show in the finished wine. It’s a stylistic choice.

  3. Wright is sincere & I think well within his rights as a winemaker to experiment. His wines have integrity.

    OK, now that that’s out of the way:

    1. Does he put a hecksher on the wine since it’s now effectively koshered?

    2. Too busy to do more than mock up the “TURN IT UP TO 11 AND GET 99 POINTS” image, but here’s a sketch which will later be the basis for an art project. And then a musical. http://flic.kr/p/8MWkxT

  4. As I read this, Ken Wright is doing something that 1)preserves his crop; 2) produces a more successful product; and 3) isn’t harmful to either his employees or consumers. I don’t see a downside to this.

  5. I think he’s found a way to have both. I don’t think that Mother Nature intentionally waterlogged the grapes. I don’t think that Mother Nature is sentient. Who is Mother Nature anyway?

  6. Good question: answer is, I trust Ken Wright. And all the other really serious winemakers. So if they choose to use vaccuum processing, I say, more power to them!
    -Wineguider, http://wineguider.wordpress.com

  7. Machine concentrated versus what Mother Nature intended? The question itself is absurd as wine is a totally manipulated product to begin with. I must disagree with the one commentator who refers to chaptalization as OK because it is “traditional.” If you look at the sweep of wine history over the ages, then none of the things that are done in the vineyard and cellar nowadays are all at “traditional.” So whether or not to use the concentrator has nothing to do with tradition or Mother Nature to me. Really, the question is does it make a difference in the wine, and if so, what?

  8. In too many areas, wine long ago stopped being an art and became an industry. From a profit standpoint, I wouldn’t want to lose an entire crop because it rained on the wrong day. The proof would be in the product. But from an artistic standpoint, the challenge would be to make the best wine with the grapes God gave you… which may lead to an inferior (and thus, unmarketable) product.

    That’s why I buy wine instead of making it!

  9. First, I do believe that Mr. Wright owns only 30% of the vineyards that he sources from.

    Second, in the last 10 years there has been only one vintage that could be called “wet” and that was 2007. Now, ironically it was “wet” for those folks that picked early, if you rolled the dice and waited that year, the weather warmed up for 10 days and the grapes dried out. Late picked 2007 Pinot Noirs are a beautiful example of what Oregon can produce.

    2010 came close to being called a “wet” (actually, it would have been a total catastrophe) year, but we had 10 straight days of sunny weather ending last Friday. Most folks harvested Wed/Thr/Fri. The fruit that came in was amazing. These are going to be intense wines but with balanced acidity. They will not be as BIG as 03,08,09 but they will LAST decades longer.

    Now, Mr. Wright can use whatever technology he wants to, it is just amusing that the guy who is the staunchest proponent of vineyard designate Pinot Noir and the AVA system here in Oregon is using this type of machine. Combine that with his use of packaged yeast (i.e. not yeast specific to each vineyard site) and you come away with a less ‘authentic’ example of these same sites that he wishes to profess a love for.

    Nobody wants anyone to loose their crop, but if you are bringing in waterlogged fruit, ummmmm, you’re picking too late….or maybe that is the idea?

  10. Now, certainly, he’s running a business, and if he can make a profit, more power to him. But I do not drink his wines. For one thing, power is not the same as flavor, and this man is missing the point. For another, that’s a significant manipulation, and the winemakers I respect generally avoid this. As Jeff wrote, it is not a choice between waterlogged fruit and manipulation. It is a choice between skill and judgment and the lack thereof.

  11. The proof, or not, is in the bottle. What is the best wine you can make from vineyard X, in vintage Y, given that a vacuum concentrator is an option but you can choose to use it, or not? Claiming you can make good or even acceptable wine in every vintage, without the use of some predefined list of technical tools, if only you exercise “skill and judgment,” is harsh and in my opinion unrealistic.

    Since it’s impossible to design and execute the hypothetical “best possible wine” experiment in the real world, the question is whether producer Z, who happens to use vacuum concentrators when he deems it appropriate, is producing fine wines, year in and year out, with reasonable consistency. The answer to this question involves, among other things, stylistic judgment. Winechick writes: “I do not drink his wines. * * * [P]ower is not the same as flavor,” which plainly expresses a stylistic judgment. With which other tasters may reasonably disagree. (I like Ken Wright wines quite well, although I prefer pinots with aroma and finesse over those with mere power, and generally dislike higher-alcohol wines.)

    Winemakers make so many choices and perform (or choose not to perform) so many interventions, many, many dozens from pruning to bottling; does it make sense to quibble, on a basis other than what the wine tastes like, over whether a particular intervention involves a machine or not?

  12. Henri,

    I agree with you that “winemakers make many choices” as do vineyard managers (whom make many more choices than winemakers), I like less “tech” in my wines and I really abhore ‘consistency’ in my wines. But that’s just me.

    Certainly, Mr. Wright can make his wine in whatever style he wishes to (which usually is the ultra-ripe style.) I just have an issue with these same winemakers who go to great lengths to convince the general public of vineyard specific ‘terroir’, AVA differences, and the elegance of Oregon Pinot Noir who are using these machines to transform the vintage into something that it isn’t.

    I would expect ‘consistency’ from the 10,000+ case production wines. I don’t expect it from my 2.000 case boutique producer. Whatever happened to the beauty of vintage differences?

    Certainly, there is nothing wrong with producers using whatever ‘tech’ they want to; be it Reverse Osmosis, Vacuum Concentrators, CrossFlow Filtration, MegaPurple, Velcorin, etc….but the more you poke, prod, stretch, compress, add, strip out, the wine (especially Pinot Noir) you are going to be left with a lesser product in my opinion. Again, I would expect this from a large production winery, not a boutique producer….certainly not one where I’m being asked to pay $65 a bottle for.

  13. They chaptalize in Burgundy cause they can’t always get the grapes ripe enough. They add water in California because the grapes get too ripe. They probably add acid too! They all do it. There is plenty of manipulation by some very talented wine makers everywhere. I’m impressed with Ken Wrights honesty!

  14. The more important question from the wine drinker’s standpoint is, “Was the crop actually at the desired ripeness at harvest?” Rain, when it arrives at harvest time in Oregon (and Burgundy) often settles in for a while. If the maturity is there, they would have picked before the rain. If it isn’t, concentrating the juice does not magically produce the flavors that additional hang time would have.
    I’ve never heard a winery say, “These wines are awful. The weather was horrible and we’re embarrassed.” It’s always, “we picked before the rain or we waited out the problem.” At least Wright is admitting that something needed to be done to save the harvest although charging full price for wine made from grapes that were not at the desired ripeness still seems like a rip-off to me.


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