Wine, Volcanoes, and the Dioxides

6 Oct

Making wine teaches important lessons about the wee beastie soup we live in, call it the dim sum. It also holds lessons about Carbon and Sulfur. Carbon and Sulfur were instrumental in the evolution of life on this planet, and likely by no coincidence oxides of Carbon and Sulfur are the second and third most prolific exhalations of volcanoes, after water.


Most folks understand the fundamental role of Carbon in the chemistry of life, and many that one of the more plausible scenarios for the terrestrial evolution of life involves reducing Sulfur in the anaerobic environment of oceanic hydrothermal vents . Those so inclined may draw a volcanic metaphor for life.

NOAA hydrothermal vent

For billions of years life existed only in the oceans as a microbial soup I like to call the dim sum. One can also think of it as wine. Lest we underestimate the industry of our wee predecessors, they are currently found in our deepest holes drilled into the crust and in the highest reaches of the atmosphere. Our human ancestors discovered that the fungi we now call yeasts quickly turned mashed grains into beer and bread, and collections of fruit into wine.

The dioxide of Carbon became the basis of a balanced economy of photosynthesis and respiration we consider ourselves the culmination of. The dioxide of Sulfur, however, is the evil twin, the anti-life.

While many beasties, including yeasts retain the anaerobic Sulfur reducing metabolic pathway for tough times, the usual resultant, Hydrogen sulfide is extremely toxic to aerobic creatures and is an unpleasant component in wine. Research on selecting yeast strains to eliminate Hydrogen sulfide has demonstrated a previously unknown reducing pathway that produces free Sulfur.

The antimicrobial use of Sulfur in winemaking is at least as old as the Romans and Sulfur was our primary antibiotic as recently as World War I.

When I hear the Carbon wags expostulating about  volcanic Carbon dioxide causing mass extinctions, I yearn to bring them down to earth with a whiff of my stock sulfite solution.

Skull Crossbones

Why Miocene?

27 May

The Miocene is the name of a geological epoch derived from Greek words that generally mean “less recent”. Most geology is “less recent” than our human time frames but “less recent” is a good thing when it comes to big wines. Around Calistoga and the Napa Valley there was a lot of volcanism in the late Miocene and much of the volcanic rock visible in the hills above our tasting room is of Miocene age.

Epoch, if you go by spelling, is one of those words coined by someone with no sense for the mouth feel of words. Fortunately better palettes have prevailed and it is commonly pronounced “epic”. Epic pretty much summarizes the wines we will be making, so when you say “Miocene Wine” consider the mouth feel. Think “less recent”, and call it the Miocene Epic.