A Clockwork Grape

Making wine is incredibly scientific and complicated, yet its marketing still emphasizes the pastoral. The country estate, the family dog, the dirty hands and worn Barbour jacket; it’s farming as reimagined by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The truth is that today’s winemakers might just as easily wear lab coats as Carhartts. The head-on collision between nature and science at the heart of winemaking is exemplified by Silicon Valley-funded wineries like Clos de la Tech and Vineyard 29, but it also happens CRASH! BANG! every day at Madison’s Acorn Hill Winery.

Get mobile: All the machines at Acorn Hill’s winery can be wheeled into any configuration a winemaker can dream of.

Acorn Hill is huge. The farm totals 300 acres, 40 of which are scored with vines. Scattered amongst the grapes are 25’-tall towers with propellers mounted on top—wind machines that automatically turn on when the weather threatens frost, engines rumbling like Harley-Davidsons, and blades blurring with head-chopping speed, to warm the air around the vines.

Frantz Ventre, looking, with his small rectangular glasses, more like a Bauhaus architect than a winemaker, grew up in Bordeaux, France, where he began working in the vineyards at 16. His life’s passion brought him to Virginia in 1996, and now at Acorn Hill he’s cranking the wind machine to top speed just for fun.

Don’t stop wining: Frantz Ventre began working in the vineyards of Bordeaux, France, when he was 16 years old, and came to Virginia in 1996 to continue in the biz.

Acorn Hill’s winery is 26,000 square feet of silver and gray; the snaking air ducts and rows of chrome fermenting tanks seeming to stretch on for miles. From the moment the grapes are brought in from the vineyard, they are bounced along vibrating sorting tables and up conveyer belts. Motorized winches carry steel bins along overhead tracks, emptying their contents into the tanks, where the juice is punched down, not by a traditional wooden staff, but by a spring balanced electric device that looks like it could shoot laser beams. All of the machines are mobile, able to be wheeled into any configuration a winemaker can dream of. The system is so well oiled it’s possible for the entire process to be run by two people.

Below, on the second of three floors, a laptop displays all 40 of the custom-made, $15,000 fermentation tanks: their temperature, what grape varietal they contain, and what stage of the winemaking process each one is in. Should he choose to, Ventre could monitor and control the condition of each tank from home. It’s all adaptable and controllable and the winery resembles an assembly line at an automobile factory.

But Ventre likes to inject some chaos into the system. Since coming to Virginia, he has been experimenting with wild yeast fermentation. “It’s fun,” he says, “but it’s risky winemaking.” Grapes in the vineyard are covered with naturally occurring, “wild” yeasts; a grab bag of ambient strains that float in the air. Most winemakers circumvent these indigenous yeasts by adding a single, cultured yeast, carefully chosen for its particular properties the way a DJ chooses a beat.

Wild yeast fermentation takes much longer and the results are unpredictable. But when done right the wines can be fascinating, “like a firework of complexity and flavors,” Ventre says. “Sometimes you lose a barrel…[but] that’s the beauty of it. You never know what’s going to happen in the end.”

Ventre tells a story about tasting wine from two different French producers, one high-tech and large, producing 300,000 cases a year (Acorn Hill’s max is about 25,000), and the other a tiny, organic winery. The first, he says, was technically great, but the second “had a soul.” What he’s doing at Acorn Hill is “trying to find a balance between those two worlds.”

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