The Wine Cyclist

The Master of Merlot

by on Feb.19, 2010, under Wine

Yesterday, I and several of my fellow Portland-area wine bloggers had the opportunity to sit down for lunch with Tom Mackey, the Director of Winemaking at St Fancis Winery & Vineyards in Sonoma. We met up at Urban Farmer in downtown Portland, and the blogging crew consisted of me, Tamara at Sip With Me!, Bernard & Eva at PortlandOregonWine.com, and Mary of Vindulge (who took the photo of Tom and me that you see here).

Throughout lunch, we sampled many delicious and nicely priced wines from St. Francis — more on that in a second — and chatted with Tom about winemaking and the wines of St. Francis. Now, there’s no doubt that Tom is incredibly knowledgeable about wines and making them; you don’t stay in the business as long as he has without becoming quite the expert. Tom’s been making wines at St. Francis for about as long as I’ve been alive (and wines at other locations before that). It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that at times.

One of the more interesting things that I learned was that sugar to alcohol conversion rates are a bit higher than I thought. It used to be that you get a conversion rate of about 55%. That means that if your grape must (also known as unfermented wine) starts out at 26% sugar (or 26 Brix), it would ferment to be about 14.3% alcohol. I thought the conversion rate was still 55%. Apparently, with the cultured yeasts in use these days, the conversion rate is closer to 62-65%. So that same 26% sugar must would ferment into a 16.5% wine. This is all assuming that you’re fermenting the wine to complete dryness, but that’s another conversation. Perhaps this is part of the reason we’re seeing so many high alcohol wines these days.

Another discussion that fascinated me was his review of the process he uses to determine when the grapes are ready to harvest. It used to be that you just measured the sugar content, and when that was high enough, the grapes were ready to go. Now, there are several factors that are examined in determining the harvest schedule (taste, of course, but not just of the grape, taste of the skin, taste of the seed, etc. and also various levels of other chemicals in the grape). All these taste factors need to be lined-up with various practical factors as well (e.g., the weather, ability of the winery to process grapes at a certain rate). It’s ever more complicated as time goes on and the art advances.

So, we dined our way through a delicious lunch at Urban Farmer (their food is quite excellent, though a bit out of my price range under normal circumstances). And as I said, we sampled a handful (seven or so, if memory serves) of the wines of St. Francis: a chardonnay, a red blend, two merlots, a cabs and two zins, ranging from $14.99 (the chard) to $45 (one of the zins).

Interestingly enough, I think my favorite was the ’07 chardonnay (I say interesting because I generally prefer reds to whites and because I tend not to be a chardonnay fan, at least not the butter bombs that we’ve all come to expect). Balance, as always, is the key, and this chardonnay was just right. It was creamy without being buttery, with excellent fruit on the nose and palate balanced nicely with some vanilla on the finish. And all this for $15 a bottle! Not too shabby if you ask me.

The two merlots we sampled were also fantastic, as one would expect from the Master of Merlot. Comparing the ’04 to the ’06 was a lot of fun. I enjoy a good vertical tasting. The balance was once again spot on in both cases. 2004 was a very ripe year, and so some cab franc, cab sauv, and petit verdot were all blended into this merlot to give a little extra structure, but the 2006 had plenty of it’s own structure and instead got blended with some malbec for richness and fruit characteristics.

As some side conversation, Tom and I chatted about bikes for a minute, though we like bikes of a different stripe. While I’m cruising about on my Trek, Tom’s ripping up a storm on his Harley. One of these days, I’ll get myself a motorcycle endorsement. Life is just more fun on two wheels, no mater whether your cranking it yourself or letting internal combustion do the work for you.

So, lunch was grand. I got to meet an amazing winemaker, meet some other awesome, local wine bloggers, and taste some delicious wines. My thanks to the hip, savvy, insightful, and nice PR people that got in touch with me about this luncheon (that sound? ignore that; it’s just me sucking up. Hey, I want to be invited back for more luncheons, don’t I? That’s why I got into wine blogging in the first place). Who could ask for more from a Thursday afternoon?

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2 comments for this entry:
  1. Sip with Me

    Great review of the lunch, I better get to work! It was great meeting you, it’s always wonderful to hear another voice—I enjoy your perspective. Lunch was great, but could you possibly have taken a worse photo of me? I don’t think so! Hope to dine with you again sometime!

  2. Bernard

    Great article, I love the Chardonnay as well, especially at the price! It was great to meet you, hope to see you again soon over a nice wine bloggers lunch.

    Bernard & Eva

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