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The Use of Native Yeast at Ridge Vineyards

Sometimes called a "pre-industrial" winemaking process Ridge eschews cultured yeast for an Old World method.

Ridge Vineyards Winery was among a handful of California wines that helped knock the snot out of the snooty French judges and French wine when Ridge, and other California wines, received high honors in the 1976 Judgment of Paris and again in the 30th anniversary of the competition. Ridge continues to impress with its quality of wines and it does so with a winemaking process believed by some winemakers to be risky.

Native fermentation—the process of taking native, or wild, yeasts from the vineyard instead of using cultured yeasts—is really an old practice but isn’t used by many winemakers now because of the business risk involved in the fermentation process and the desire to produce drinkable wines now, rather than produce a wine that will age well.

“We derive character from the soil, climate and genetics of the vine,” Eric Baugher said to Wines and Vines. “Native yeast and malolactic bacteria add another level of complexity.”

Baugher is the co-winemaker at Ridge.

Cultured yeasts start the fermentation process at a quicker pace than do wild yeasts, which can take up to a week to start fermenting because of their smaller populations, according to Enology International. The slower process allows the wine to develop rich, complex flavors.

Napa Valley winemaker Alan Tenscher told Enology International that he sees a

“trend toward a more natural way of making wine which starts in the vineyard with organic grapegrowing and extends to minimal handling of the wine. The use of wild yeast, from one perspective puts one in that same camp. But on the other hand, there is a group of winemakers out there who are looking for any technique that will help them improve wine quality. The use of wild yeast is a tool to create complexity.”

But there are those who argue using native yeasts are unproven in quality and stability.

“I do not endorse this practice for several reasons. First, most wineries can ill afford to lose 10 to 20 percent of their production. In contrast to other techniques, a bad natural yeast fermentation leads to a wine that is not merely low in quality, but unmarketable. Recommending this technique is equivalent to endorsing Russian roulette, the economic consequences of your luck running out are deadly and unacceptable,” said Linda Bisson, Yeast Geneticist and Enology Professor at the University of California at Davis, to Enology International.

It’s a risk Ridge takes regularly though.

“We walk a fine line between protecting the wine and risking spoilage,” said Ridge lab director Karen Leeds to Wine and Vines.

Between the lab—which Ridge CEO and co-winemaker Paul Draper says was an idea developed by his Stanford research scientist-partners because they wanted to learn as much about the natural process as possible—and the winemakers’ tastebuds, Ridge manages to get it right over and over again.

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