Wild Yeast Fermentation: Indian Creek Winery Gambles on a High Risk Method for Making Wine
From the outside, Indian Creek Winery is a tiny Kuna Versailles, with sprawling swaths of short grass and neat rows of flowers shaded by leafy tree canopies. But inside the winemaking room, things take on a more unbuttoned charm. Paper lanterns scatter soft pink and purple light over rows of French oak barrels. In the corner an Elvis clock shakes its hips to the soft thump of The XX and Amy Winehouse on the stereo. But this mix of old and new school isn't just aesthetic; it reflects an internal generational shift at Indian Creek.
In 1982, Bill and Mui Stowe and their young family were stationed at the Mountain Home Air Force Base when they decided to purchase 50 acres of property in Kuna and start a winery. The Stowes planted 21 acres of grapes: pinot noir, chardonnay, gewurztraminer, chenin blanc and Riesling. All on soil with high levels of clay, caliche and wind-blown loess. But after more than two decades building a name for themselves, with their signature pinot noir, the Stowes decided to take a step back. In 2005, they handed the reins to their youngest daughter, Tammy Stowe-McClure, and her husband, Mike McClure.
"It's all a group effort, but '05 is when we started carrying it on," said Stowe-McClure. "My parents are still involved, my mom, she's the master gardener – there's not a single weed out there. My dad, he runs the vineyard."
Stowe-McClure, 30, is now a graphic designer who creates Indian Creek's wine labels, one of which took gold in the 2012 Denver International Wine Label Competition. McClure, also 30, is Indian Creek's winemaker, who has won numerous gold and silver awards and recently started dabbling in "geekier types" of wines.
In June, Indian Creek released its 2011 Wild Yeast Pinot, fermented from naturally occurring yeast strains floating in the air and clinging to the grapes. "Wine's been made here since '87, almost 30 years, there's probably a few yeast cells floating around," said McClure, who opted to experiment with wild yeast fermentation after 2011's bumper pinot noir crop, which netted 1,200 cases of wine instead of the winery's standard 500 to 800.
Yeast, which converts sugar into alcohol during the fermentation process, is essential to winemaking. But most wineries prefer to add cultivated strains of commercial yeast instead of gambling on wild yeast, which can take longer to ferment and be much less reliable.
"One of the big things with [wild yeast] is it's a high-risk fermentation," explained McClure. "With commercial yeasts, you add a specific strain of yeast and it's usually been isolated or bred to be pretty powerful; it'll kind of get into the grape juice and just overtake the whole fermentation so no bacteria is really working in there. With the wild yeast, you don't really have that. So you run the risk of spoilage big time."
Though wild yeast fermentation is gaining traction among microbrewers and small-scale winemakers – everyone from Ron Jeffries at Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Michigan to wine world OGs like Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards in Santa Cruz – its history stretches back to the beginnings of booze-making.
"As new and funky as this wild yeast thing is, it's actually a traditional thing. That's how the first wines were made back in France ages ago . . . And then that's also how they made vinegar," said McClure with a wry smile. "As things became more and more commercial . . . winemakers had to be a little bit more safe about things because they had to pay the bills." This shift towards stability is something wild yeast fermentation advocate Sandor Katz explores in his popular book, Wild Fermentation.
"The European traditions of beer and wine evolved into traditions of refinement, emphasizing pure strains of yeast, uncontaminated by wild organism, highly clarified products free of cloudy yeast residue, and bottling for long term aging," Katz wrote.
But the renewed interest in wild yeast fermentation appears to have its roots in the slow food movement. In a 2012 New York Times article on Brettanomyces, author Daniel Fromson postures that wild yeast's rising popularity "seems to stem in part from brewers' enthusiasm for reviving the tastes of the past, in much the same way that cheese makers study centuries-old aging methods, or farmers grow heirloom vegetables."
For McClure, the primary benefit of wild yeast fermentation is its ability to add a multifaceted character to wines.
"You have hundreds of different strains in there working, some producing more cherry, berry favors, others producing more earthy, foresty-type aromas. So you're getting something that's, in the end, a lot more complex," said McClure. "One thing I found, too, was that [wild yeasts] kind of rounded out the mouth feel a lot more, compared to the commercial yeast-fermented pinots. It was something that was a little bit smoother, almost creamier, you could say, and a lot more complex."
But wild yeast isn't the only unconventional offering you'll see on the shelves from Indian Creek this season. The winery also released a light ruby red wine they're calling a "black riesling."
"Pinot meunier, that's what the French call it. The Germans have the same grape, but call it schwartz riesling, which is black riesling," explained McClure. "But, typically, most people probably have had that grape and don't know about it: it's one of the main grapes in champagne."
The wine is served chilled, like a rose, and Indian Creek is marketing it as a "great pizza wine."
"There's a theory in winemaking that if you can pronounce it, it'll sell," said McClure. "Obviously, we call it black riesling, because pinot meunier is really hard to pronounce, especially if you see it written out."
But while some wine consumers may be verbally conservative, Mc-Clure hopes they're ready to embrace more experimental winemaking techniques as a new generation of winemakers begins to take over.
"That's one of the things I'm really frustrated with in the wine industry right now, the beer industry is booming. And I think a lot of that is because they're so experimental with things – brewer's yeast from the guy's beard, or barrel-aging in whiskey barrels or wine barrels, all sorts of different fermentation techniques," said McClure. "In the wine world, people really haven't been too creative. Mostly, because there is that ingrained traditionalist attitude in the whole industry. But there's a lot of younger winemakers coming on now that I think are a little bit more adventurous."
McClure grinned, digging his hands into his cargo shorts: "Nobody our age wants to be intimidated by the whole austerity of wine."
Tara Morgan is a freelance writer and editor based in Boise, Idaho. She's currently the roving Food Editor for the Boise Weekly and recently wrote the Boise and Sun Valley guide for Zagat.