For these Sonoma County winemakers, experimenting is part of the process
Winemakers, by nature, are inquisitive scientists. For many, their world is a laboratory, from the bubbling fermentations in their cellars to the mazes of experimental vines in their vineyards. They’re on an endless quest to bottle wine that aspires to Greek mythology’s nectar of the gods.
For three Sonoma County winemakers — Pete Soergel of Lynmar Estate, Heidi Bridenhagen of MacRostie Winery and David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars — tinkering and experimenting are part of their process. While they don’t have Albert Einstein’s mane of frantic white hair, they share his outlook. They are intent on questioning everything about a grape’s journey from the vineyard to the bottle.
The questioner: Pete Soergel
Pete Soergel of Sebastopol’s Lynmar Estate said he’s continually experimenting to prepare for harvest.
“We’re constantly questioning and evaluating the larger picture and the ultimate ‘why’ behind what we do,” he said. “Why are we doing what we do and how do we do it best?”
Soergel, now 40, became the winemaker at Lynmar in 2017. Since then he has done dozens of experiments on soil health, yeast, barrels, grapevine canopy management and more.
“We often repeat the same experiments over a few years to see if we get consistent results,” the winemaker said.
Lynmar’s proprietors, vintners Lynn and Anisya Fritz, encourage Soergel to continue his side experiments. That’s his good fortune, he said.
One of Soergel’s most intriguing experiments was testing the effects of shade cloth covering pinot noir vines on Adam’s Vineyard in Forestville. The goal was to see if sunburn could be reduced so the pinot noir grapes would show more cool-climate characteristics. Soergel used three colors of cloth — green, white and black.
“We tried to determine if one color provided more favorable results,” he said. “Each year we would blind taste the wines, and the results varied in terms of preference. We performed this (the experiment and subsequent blind tasting) in vintages 2018 through 2021, but those harvests we didn’t have a large heat spike before harvesting the vineyard. The results may have been different if there were higher extreme temperatures.”
Soergel said he concluded there could be a benefit in using shade cloths in some locations, but the experiments didn’t reveal one clear favorite color or resulting wine.
The winemaker said he’s not discouraged, thanks to insight gleaned from his earliest mentor, Michael Browne. Browne is the co-founder and former owner of Kosta Browne and now vintner of Browne Family Wines, which crafts Chev and Cirq wine labels.
“He (Browne) said it takes two consecutive lifetimes to ever get good at winemaking,” Soergel said. “With every vintage being different, I try to take that to heart and learn as much as I can.”
The explorer: Heidi Bridenhagen
Growing up on a couple acres fronting a lake in Wisconsin, Heidi Bridenhagen of Healdsburg’s MacRostie Winery was constantly exploring nature, mixing up berries and leaves, seaweed and lake water to make potions.
“Play has definitely contributed to my personality of challenging conventional thinking and pulling things apart to put them back together better,” she said.
Bridenhagen, now 39, was named head winemaker at MacRostie in 2013. Experiments have been part of her regimen from the beginning.
“Each harvest, I always do five to 10 focused experiments,” she said. “They can span from things we’re doing in the vineyard with pruning trials to different fermentation techniques, using different equipment.”
In addition to those experiments, the winemaker said, if she hesitates when making a big decision in winemaking, she asks herself if she can work her quandary into an experiment.
“I have always enjoyed tinkering and challenging the status quo,” Bridenhagen said. “I have always been curious and a problem solver. I love ‘aha’ moments, revelations, connecting the dots.”
Currently she’s experimenting with variables in the process of pressing juice from chardonnay grapes. The press cycle is a series of pressure and time intervals that have a big impact on juice quality and the volume of the yield.
“What’s really cool about experiments with wine is that you can make the wines differently and keep them separate to taste throughout the year before you bottle,” Bridenhagen said. “Setting up blind tastings to challenge your assumptions is really fun.”
The constant experimenter: Dave Ramey
Dave Ramey of Healdsburg’s Ramey Wine Cellars said his experiments are not on the side but rather on the scale of full production lots with one variable.
“They don’t result in bad wine, rather two wines with subtle differences,” he said. “We can choose one of the wines moving forward.”
Ramey, now 72, said his most significant experiment over the years has been with bottle closures — different corks, screw caps, and little glass and plastic T-tops.
“While testing chardonnays at five years of age, one of those trials stood out: Diam technical corks versus what I now call raw cork plugs (traditional corks),” he said. “The chardonnay bottled under Diam (a French company that makes technological cork closures) was significantly fresher than the raw-cork-plug bottle. We switched to all Diam with our 2013 vintage and continue today.”
His great fortune, Ramey said, was crossing paths with Zelma Long, an esteemed winemaker in the industry. They worked together for nearly five years in the early 1980s at Healdsburg’s Simi Winery.
“Thanks to her, indirectly I’ve been the beneficiary of Robert Mondavi and the company ethos of his team,” said Ramey, who has done countless experiments over the years. “She brought the Mondavi imperative of continuous improvement — to always be experimenting.”
You can reach wine writer Peg Melnik at 707-521-5310 or email@example.com. On Twitter @pegmelnik.