California Winemakers Are Making Big Changes To Your Thanksgiving Libations

Posted: Nov 28, 2019

For many people this Thanksgiving weekend, there will be a bottle of wine on their dinner tables. Maybe they’ll even have two or three. Inside each glass of wine, there is years of hard work by experts who have devoted their lives to creating an exceptional wine.

Some of those experts living in California’s Santa Maria Valley — a wine lover’s paradise — have just wrapped up a busy few months as the harvest season, also called the “crush” season, just came to an end.

Until a few weeks ago, truckloads of grapes, one after another, would arrive at wineries, to be turned into liquid gold. Santa Maria’s crush lasts a bit longer than other wine-making areas of California.

“We just got a load of our handpicked Chardonnay grapes. They’re sweet but there’s still a lot of acid,” Jill Russell, a winemaker at Cambria Estate Winery, told ABC Audio for its Thanksgiving special, "America’s Bounty."

Russell said that people often ask her how the grapes can still be acidic. “[I say] it’s the Santa Maria Valley. Our soils, our coastal influence,” she said.

With the crush over, wineries up and down California are now making their wines. Cambria is one of the bigger wineries in Santa Maria. It’s part of the Jackson family of wineries dotting the globe from Napa to Sonoma Counties in California, in Oregon and even in France, Australia and Italy.

“These are old vines. They’re trellising like the old school way. Very wide rows, really great canopies,” Russell said.

Those lush canopies can protect the grapes from getting too much sun and their orientation allows the wind coming off of the Pacific Ocean to cool them down, according to Russell, who said this gives the grapes more time on the vine without spiking their sugar content.

Increasingly, winemakers are putting more money and resources into ensuring that the grapes they harvest and the practices they employ are sustainable not just for the land, but for the people working on the land, and ultimately, the consumer too.

It’s not just plant [the] vines and throw [the grapes] into a bottle,” said Russell. “It’s what’s going to make the best wine and be best for the future.”

Wineries in the region that can prove they’re creating sustainable products can be awarded with SIP certification, which stands for “sustainability in practice,” which connotes that they’ve upheld certain standards related to the health of their workers and their land.

Both Cambria and nearby Foxen Winery are among the many wineries in Santa Barbara County that have put a premium on sustainable winemaking and become SIP-certified.
Billy Wathen, founder of Foxen, says there’s a new demand for sustainable wine.

“People are a little more in tune now,” said Wathen. “And it’s not just from the farming end but it’s what people are drinking too. They want to be sure that the wine they’re drinking is environmentally reliable.”

To make his syrah, chardonnay, and cabernet franc, Wathen said he’s put great effort into changing practices in the field and in production.

For a long time now, winemakers have added a variety of additives to their wine — often without labeling it — to enhance color, taste or shelf life. At sustainable wineries, these practices have been or are currently being phased out.

“We’ve used fish bladder. We’ve used sulfites. Eggs in the process,” said Wathen.

Foxen became well known after the release of the 2004 comedy “Sideways,” starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. The story of two friends who take a pre-wedding trip to Santa Barbara County to chug some wine at Foxen still draws crowds to the winery today.

SIP certification also requires certain standards for worker's welfare. For example, wineries have to show that they are not using harmful chemicals on the grapes, which could harm workers touching them all day long.

By Alex Stone
November 28, 2019
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