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A Peek Inside ConeTech

by David on March 28, 2007

I was just as excited about this visit as I was when I got the chance to visit Gallo– doesn’t take much for some of us, does it? ;-) A friend got me into ConeTech and I felt like I’d made a coup. And, once I was there, I felt even luckier because the place is shrouded in secrecy – no pictures allowed – they won’t risk doing anything that might leak who their clients are – and no recording. Darn! I don’t really care who their clients are – well, not too much. ;-) But I was hoping to get a podcast interview out of it! It felt like the closest thing in wine to going to the FBI, but it’s all to protect those who want the services offered by ConeTech, but don’t want anyone to know about it.

So, what is ConeTech? They’ve been de-alcoholizing wine since 1991, that’s right, 1991!!! When you go into the production area, it looks very much like the inside of a modern winery, with beautiful stainless-steel tanks and a lab, but they also have some equipment most of us wouldn’t recognize: the “spinning cone column”.

If you want the specs on how it works, take a look here, but the gist of it is that “Joe Winemaker” sends out a portion of the total blend to be de-alcoholized. The spinning cone first separates out the “essence” of the wine, which was described as all of the wine constituents other than alcohol and most of the water, and sets it aside. Next, the alcohol is removed from what’s left. The alcohol is sold off to Port producers, or whoever wants it, and has the appropriate license, and the low-alcohol “wine” is added back to the essence. This extremely low-alcohol wine will be blended back into the main blend at the winery.

The really cool part of the visit was we got to do what they call a “sweet spot” tasting with a control wine and then the same wine at various lower levels of alcohol. Fascinating! My knee-jerk reaction to stuff like this is that you always take your angels with your devils – I was skeptical. We tried a Zinfandel at 17% alcohol that actually carried the alcohol pretty well – just a little hot. Then at 16%, then at 15%– and wow! The fruit burst forward in a big way! Apparently, at 15%, the wine had hit its “sweet spot”. It was as if the alcohol had been masking or muffling the fruity fragrance. Very interesting. 14.5%, also very nice. At 14% it went flat. So, those are the choices a winemaker is faced with.

I asked about reverse osmosis, another way to de-alcoholize wine, but it’s not a service ConeTech chooses to provide. They firmly feel that they get superior results because they’re able to avoid subjecting the wine to high temperatures.

I have to say, I was truly impressed. Not won over, not that it matters, but impressed. The brochure says that the process has “zero effect on the wine’s integrity” but part of me still wonders what happens over the long haul and the romantic in me just plain balks at this kind of manipulation, just the way the thought of adding Mega-purple to wine made Alder “sick to his stomach.”

John Williams at Frog’s Leap very eloquently gets to the heart of the thing that bugs those of us who think of wine as a soulful product of the earth:

“Here is the major point: A healthy soil produces a healthy vine; a healthy vine produces healthy fruit; healthy fruit produces healthy wines: deep in color, deep in flavor and deep in their natural character.

Pick nearly any problem in winemaking today and you will find with a minimum of research a deep connection to farming practice… If you believe, as I do, that the essence of winemaking, the Holy Grail as it were, is to make wines that deeply reflect the soil and climate from which they emanate, it seems self-evident that you would want every molecule, every enzyme, every ester, every flavonoid, every protein, every essence, to be derived from the soil in which the grapevine is grown. And if you achieve that, the product of that vine will imbue the essential character of its place. Real quality wine.

Without soil-based flavors, we, as winemakers, are stuck with trying to manufacture those flavors on our own, Thus, ridiculously excessive overripe grapes, spinning cones, esterifying yeasts, reverse osmosis, super malo-lactic cultures, micro-oxygenization, mega-purple, flying winemakers and 200% new oak.”

I like the idea of getting it right in the first place, but from a practical standpoint, if the wine tastes better, then what difference does it make how you got there as long as it’s not harmful? When the practice of adding honey or sugar to the must to make better wine began in ancient times, was that considered a nauseating manipulation? What about sulfur? Is adding yeast or using barrels a manipulation?

Well, here’s something practical for you: According to Laurie Daniel of the San Jose Mercury News (sorry, they require that the article be purchased now), out of the approximately 2400 wineries in the state of California, 1650 of them at last count, that’s a whopping 68%, have sent their wine out to be de-alcoholized!

I don’t have any conclusions to draw for you, I can see both sides, but on an emotional level, I’m extremely wary. Which way will we head in the future? Science gives us more and more ways to manipulate but at the same time, the fact that biodynamic farming is going mainstream signals that we’re re-connecting with the earth. Hmmmm…

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