Winter’s Wines

It is wintertime for North American vineyards. Vines are quiescent, tasting rooms less crowded. Vintners, like writers, are presumed to be tucked indoors somewhere with a glass of wine in hand, eyes searching skyward, contemplating their notes and testing their palates. Barrel A: nice cherry, a bit of rose, acidity. Viognier: lean with definite jasmine and soft apricot, orange. Montepulciano: earthy — even smoky! — and better than 2011.
    The reverie is tempting. It complements the season of dreams, as January’s seed catalogs arrive with tantalizing vegetable and flower centerfolds and amorous references to fragrances, tastes and visual extravagances we can scarcely recall from last year. The season of deprivation becomes the season of imagination, and wine is a ready companion for both.
    But for the vintner, the romance of such moments is balanced with the immediacy of the experiment that is yet ongoing. Wine is still in the making all winter. A ways to go until bottling, last year’s unfinished wine is in tanks and barrels. After the holiday respite, believe it or not, it’s a race in the winery — and in the vineyard — to get every task done before another cycle begins.
    Mostly triage is how author Richard Russo describes novel writing. This now, that later. So it is with making wine.
    There are the indoor tasks in the winery, and these read much like the protocols that guide any laboratory and production facility. There’s ensuring the progress of secondary (malolactic) fermentation to soften the sharper taste of lactate; cold stabilization to force tartrate crystals; filtration to remove the tartrates and other precipitated solids; and adjustments to the elements of a liquid that immediately affect taste, such as pH and sweetness.
    If we like it the way it is, we thank our crew of growers for their discipline and God for the past season’s weather, as we prefer to produce single varietal wines where the appellation of Maryland rouses that old Chesapeake pride: Maryland Barbera, Maryland Montepulciano, Maryland Cabernet Franc. These old-world grapes do just fine in Maryland, and their historical preeminence links Maryland wine quickly to a larger world of wine exploration and expectation for many a wine drinker.
    For some wines, we blend to create the taste and the wine experience we want, and for that task there are weeks of trial and error in the blending rounds. We might mix French wines from different barrels such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot for a classic Bordeaux-style blend. We might blend Sangiovese with other Italian grapes to make a Chianti-style wine. We might introduce two varietals to each other to counteract the faint taste of an ester or whiff of sulfur that lessens a wine’s character.
    Experience helps, but in the vintner’s kitchen each harvest is different and there’s just no substitute for trying this, trying that.
    There are other considerations. Decisions regarding bottles, corks or caps and labels, the scheduling of label approvals with the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade Bureau and the bottling itself — all are best done in winter.
    Out of doors, January is time for winter pruning. If pruning is delayed too long, we might romp through warmer days but just as likely shudder through the frigid ones. Waiting too long before pruning narrows your choices and options just as in any task in the annual cycle of winemaking — and for that matter in any agricultural cycle. You’re not through one season’s work before the next one jumps you, and you know it when you wake up one morning in early April like the Apocalypse is now.
    There’s a final set of tasks that are worth mentioning, those that relate a winery to its normal habitat: the farm. Winter on a farm has its own rhythm independent of the winery. An allotment of time is given to equipment and supplies. Operations such as road and field maintenance, truck and tractor repair, trellis post and wire replacement, shear and lug and tank and barrel cleaning — all and more are needed to ready for next year’s vintage of grapes.
    Lest this seems like no fun at all, and successful wine-making less likely than a shot at the next great American novel, it’s fair to say that winter still is the season of dreams.
    I dream of a mild April with tight trellises holding cordons exploding with fattened spring buds. I dream of rains that leave winter-repaired roads smooth and easily navigable for tractors whose engines purr like a Prius. I dream of new vines that break their wax seal and shoot upward to join a riot of vines around them that, in turn, navigate veraison — the onset of ripening — and harvest as smoothly as Maryland’s tried-and-true crops of sorghum, corn, soybeans and tobacco.
    Yes, in winter vintners do take time to dream while wine is yet in the tanks and the barrels. Because in winter, wine is yet a hope in the mind of the maker.

Maggie O’Brien, a chemist and former president of St. Mary’s College in Maryland, now works with her husband Jim Grube and son Tucker in growing grapes and making wine at Slack Winery in St. Mary’s County.