In this week’s “Winemaker Interview,” Arielle talks about how one glass of Brunello can change your life….
Winemaker: Arielle Fabiano of Bladerdash Cellars (Visit)
Location: 502 East Street (rear of the building) Pittsfield, MA 01201
Tasting Hours: Saturdays 1-5pm, please call to set up private/group tastings (info)
Tasting Options: Tastings are $8/person and refundable with purchase of $50/person.
Why did you become a winemaker?
I became fascinated with winemaking while studying biochemistry in college. After a trip to Italy and a few life-changing glasses of Brunello, I discover that not only was I in love with the idea of winemaking, but also the science of it. It is the perfect symphony of so many things I am passionate about: biochemistry, agriculture, hard work and dirt under my fingernails, and above all, how a truly spectacular glass of wine can take your breath away.
After that trip, I tailored my biochemistry degree to winemaking as much as possible and threw myself into the wine world at full force. A harvest in Napa Valley as a lab tech served as a necessary reality check that squashed out many of the romanticized ideals I had about winemaking and gave me some perspective on just how much hard work goes into a great bottle of wine. When I graduated from Northeastern in May of 2015, I reconnected with Christian, owner/winemaker of Balderdash Cellars, and offered to give him a hand at the winery for the summer. As it turned out, he needed a new assistant winemaker and I needed a full-time job. The rest is history and we make a dynamic team. I couldn’t ask for a better boss or mentor.
How were you introduced to winemaking in Massachusetts?
One of my very first memories of a Massachusetts wine actually goes back to childhood! There is an apple orchard not far from my childhood house that also produces wine, and my parents would occasionally get a bottle and let me have a little taste. I remember enjoying the white zinfandel, which of course, makes me hang my head in shame as a winemaker today. Once I was of legal drinking age, my first trip to a Massachusetts winery was actually to Balderdash Cellars!
What are the biggest challenges for a winemaker in Massachusetts?
For most Massachusetts wineries, arguably the biggest challenge is growing high quality grapes in a climate and geography that is not suited to it. Certainly, great strides have been made in the cold-hardy varietals thanks to research coming out of Cornell and the University of Minnesota, but it remains a challenge, and I think some of the softer nuances of the more traditional varietals are lost in the cold-hardies.
Another challenge is being taken seriously as a winery and a winemaker. People tend to scoff when they are confronted with New England-produced wine, but nine times out of ten, people leave Balderdash pleasantly surprised, and with several bottles in hand. A few have even commented that our wines are as good as wines they’ve had from California.
What makes Massachusetts wine so great? What makes MA wine so different?
One of the coolest things about making wine in New England is that it forces you to innovate. There are inherent challenges relating to the terroir, but these challenges also expand into accessibility as well, whether that means access to equipment and products, the accessibility of the market here, etc. All of these challenges give you no choice but to come up with creative solutions and it’s that creativity and innovation that allows us to stand out and differentiate ourselves.
Tell us about your harvest process
Our harvest process is a bit more unconventional than most. We source our fruit from vineyards in the Paso Robles area in California, and actually ship our fruit out to Massachusetts frozen, after it has been destemmed and crushed at our custom crush facility in Paso. We fly out once or twice over the course of the harvest to taste our fruit and make sure it is picked at the ripeness we want. We also receive Brix and pH reports from the vineyards. Once our fruit has made it to Massachusetts, we will start fermenting whatever we have room for at the winery and the rest goes to our freezer facility. We thaw the fruit out, which usually takes about 5 days, and put it right into our stainless steel fermentation tanks. From there, our winemaking process proceeds in a traditional way.
How does your wine making approach differ from other winemakers? What is your general winemaking philosophy?
I haven’t quite found my voice or my style as a winemaker yet, but I am definitely more science-minded than I think a lot of winemakers are. One of my favorite parts of my job is when I am able to delve into a scientific journal article to troubleshoot a problem we are having or figure out how we can improve our wine based on relevant research. I am fascinated by the influence of yeast strains and how they can impact the organoleptic qualities of a wine and I enjoy picking yeast strains to try to achieve a certain quality in a particular wine.
Like many winemakers out there, I am a BIG believer in the concept of terroir and ultimately, I want to let the quality of the fruit speak for itself and allow that to shape the wine. One of my favorite sayings is that you can make bad wine out of good grapes but you can’t make good wine out of bad grapes. If you are doing what you should be doing in the vineyard, the winemaking should simply serve to showcase the fruit. Sometimes Mother Nature throws you a doozy of a vintage, however, (i.e. Napa 2011) and then the winemaking needs to intervene and get a little more creative to get as much as possible out of lower quality fruit.
How do you know you’ve got a good vintage?
I don’t have all that much experience in the vineyard, ironically enough given my winemaking philosophies, but usually I can tell from the look and smell and taste of the fruit. The depth of color of the skins, the aromatics coming off the juice when it’s first in tank, the taste of the skins and seeds all serve as indicators of what the conditions of the vintage were.
Are there any new winemaking techniques or tools you’d like to experiment with?
Oh boy, the list could go on and on! I’d love to explore native fermentations coupled with PCR (polymerase chain reaction), which basically allows you to find out what specific native yeast strains you have. If I had an unlimited winery budget and unlimited time, I’d also love to do some work with gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to correlate yeast strain with specific flavor and aroma compounds. I’m a huge wine chemistry nerd.
Which wine growing region has had the most influence on you?
It’s a toss-up between Tuscany and Napa Valley. My experiences in both places have shaped my palate and my winemaking philosophies hugely. One of the most rewarding aspects of being out in Napa, other than the experience of the work, was the opportunity to taste really good, really expensive wine that I wouldn’t have been able to taste otherwise. It allowed my palate to develop and to get a handle on the nuances of tasting.
What is one aspect of your job that might surprise people?
People would definitely be surprised by how physically demanding my job is and how little of my time is actually spent drinking wine! Winemaking sounds like such a romantic, wonderful job but the reality is that the majority of the time I am wet, dirty, smelly, covered is grape/wine goo and I am cleaning equipment. I spend probably 60-70% of my time scrubbing equipment. And you don’t even want to know the places I’ve found grapes when showering after a day of pressing.
What do you like best about your job?
Definitely one of the best parts of it is the Hanson family! I am so lucky to have the privilege of working with and learning from them. Beyond that it is getting to do what I LOVE: drinking wine and applying biochemistry to make excellent wine.
What is your favorite wine that you’ve made and what makes it your favorite?
Probably our 2015 Til Death Do Us Part Viognier. The Viognier was the first time either Christian or I had worked with that varietal but I had a very clear sense from the get go about the wine I wanted to make, and the finished wine really achieved that. It is bright and beautifully shows off the aromatics of the varietal, while also balancing acidity and mouthfeel.
Who are your favorite winemakers and why? OR What is your favorite wine and why?
I would have to say my favorite wine is Brunello di Montalcino. I have had exposure to so many wonderful wines and varietals but Brunello is one I always come back to and it is my benchmark. It is the first wine I had that put me on the path to where I am now and has been wildly influential in my career. One of the first times I was really able to taste the significance of terroir was at a tasting at Altesino in 2013. We tasted two Brunellos from the same vineyard, one made with grapes from the top of the vineyard, one with grapes from the bottom of the slope. They were two entirely different wines and they were grown maybe 500ft apart. As I said earlier, life-changing.
Is beer ever better than wine?
The only time I really drink beer is if I’m out at a sporting event or bar, or at a restaurant with an underwhelming wine list. I’d definitely rather drink a good craft beer than very bad wine. A lot of my winemaking friends joke that it takes a lot of beer to make wine!
I want to give a big Thank You to Arielle Fabiano from Bladerdash Cellars for giving us a peak into the life of a Massachusets Winemaker. Make sure to stop by Balderdash Cellars in Pittsfield, MA for some delicious wines made from a very passionate Winemaker! #GirlsMakeWineToo