Where the Wild Things Are
At EFESTĒ, Peter Devison uses native fermentation to carefully chaperone the party going on inside the barrels.
STORY BY ANNE SAMPSON
PHOTOS BY RICHARD DUVAL
Winemaking is a tightly controlled scientific process. Every aspect — the rate of fermentation, temperature, chemical content, nutrients — is monitored from the first day grapes are crushed to the day you pour a glass of delicious Cabernet.
But on a more fundamental level, the job is kind of like chaperoning a high school prom. There’s a party going on inside that barrel — chemical reactions and transformations, yeasts and sugars and bacteria — all interacting and playing together in ways difficult to predict. It’s where the wild things are. Like a roomful of teenagers, the wild things need some supervision before the party goes terribly wrong. But given just enough creative space, with just the right guidance plus a little maturity, wonderful things can result.
At EFESTĒ in Woodinville, winemaker Peter Devison directs his energy to nurturing those wild things. He uses a reductive method called native fermentation, common in the Old World but rare in the Pacific Northwest, that lets juice transform into wine with minimal interference from the winemaker. The method relies on yeasts that exist naturally on the fruit and limits the wine’s exposure to oxygen by leaving the juice undisturbed as much as possible.
A native of Canada, Peter studied winemaking at Lincoln University in New Zealand, then worked the 2002–2005 vintages there and in Australia before landing in the Lake Chelan area of Washington. Next came a stint working with Precept Wine at facilities in Walla Walla, Prosser, and Horse Heaven Hills. In those early learning years, both in Australia and back in North America, Peter got lots of hands-on experience with winemaking styles that target certain effects produced by specific yeasts.
But with each new experience at different winemaking facilities, he found more opportunities to experiment with native fermentation, and his tastes leaned more and more in that direction. Many winemakers consciously choose certain yeasts seeking specific characteristics. “I’ve done that, and I have that reference point,” he explains. “But I’ve kind of come full circle. I decided that when I added yeast, it was ‘meh.’ Native wines reflect the characteristics of the grape more; they have more richness and complexity and depth. They taste more like wine, the way wine should taste.”
A call in 2012 from EFESTĒ winemaker Brennan Leighton piqued his interest. Leighton, who now owns his own B. Leighton Wines, had established a native fermentation regime at EFESTĒ. “Brennan was a great mentor,” Peter says. “I was able to walk into a program that was already set up and just run with it.”
While Peter strives to leave his wine as untouched as possible, the process demands as much attention — maybe even more — as methods that rely on commercial yeasts. Winemaking starts when grapes are crushed, producing a mix of juice, skins, and seeds called must. “In a traditional winemaking method, you would be taking the red must pressing it to the tank, settling it, then removing it off those hard lees — that dead yeast and other material that settles at the bottom of the barrel — by racking it periodically throughout fermentation, whether it’s every three months or every six months,” he explains. “But we like to leave the red must on the lees for at least 10 to 12 months.” That extra exposure, Peter says, gives the lees more time to break down the yeast cells. Mannoproteins and polysaccharides released in the process help build mid-palate richness and body in the wines.
It sounds simple: crush fruit, stir, and walk away. But like a good high school chaperone, Peter won’t just leave his wines to chance. Naturally occurring yeasts aren’t classified in a commercial laboratory. They exist naturally in the soil and atmosphere, so they come with undefined strengths and appetites. Winemakers using naturally occurring yeasts run a greater risk of losing whole wine lots to stuck fermentation or contamination from bacteria like lactobacillus or brettanomyces.
But Peter has dialed in a system that works for him. “Everyone has their own little recipe or protocol for how they manage native fermentation,” he says. Some create a ‘mother’ culture, heating the must with a simple tool like an aquarium heater until it reaches 75 degrees, when the yeast becomes active, then adding the mother to other barrels. “We just heat the whole fermentation room up to 75 and let the yeast that’s in that fermenter start to populate and grow and become active,” he says.
But, he continues, “native fermenters are very finicky, so you really have to monitor the temperature and nutrients. In a typical fermentation, we’ll crush the fruit and blanket it with carbon dioxide to prevent oxidation. We’ll do that twice a day for four days. Once we see some activity, we’ll punch down the skins to keep them wet. By the seventh day, I start to see some sugar depletion, meaning that alcohol is starting to form. That means I’ve got a population that’s hungry and that wants to ferment, and that’s when I add some nutrients to keep it happy. We continue to punch it down, and we monitor that the temperature doesn’t get too high or that the yeast doesn’t get too low, which means it isn’t fermenting properly. It’s all based on experience, on your heart and your gut. We don’t like to do a lot of cookie-cutter fermentation.”
Peter says the early stage of fermentation, when the yeast is introduced to the juice, can define the style of the wine. Commercial yeasts are usually depleted quickly, but with native fermentation this phase can last six to eight days. During that week, the yeasts and desirable bacteria thrive, releasing glycerol. “That adds weight and texture and almost a sweetness, a richness to the wine,” he says. “And through that you get a better mouth-feel, better balance, and, I think, aromatically you get more complexity. I like the vinosity of these native wines, where we’re getting nuances like chalk or flowers or herbs — all sorts of flavors that aren’t really associated with fruit. That’s really important, as well. I don’t think wine should just be primary fruit and oak. That’s boring to me.”
EFESTĒ’s vineyards on Red Mountain — Taylor Mag Vineyard and Angela’s Vineyard — as well as Oldfield Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, are all showing good potential. “Angela’s clone 2 Cabernet Sauvignon is out of this world,” Peter says. “I’ve done a small bottling of Petit Verdot from Taylor Mag, and I’m working with their Cabernet for the first time this year. The early stuff is really promising.”
The Oldfield Vineyard, he says, is planted to Rhone varieties — Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah. Peter produces a “true rosé – grown as a rosé, whole-cluster pressed, and fermented as a rosé — of Mourvedre and Grenache,” as well.
So are the native yeasts, as they work in their own unique ways, part of the catalog of nuances that terroir lends to wine? Peter says that is unlikely. “I haven’t really looked at what the specific finishing yeast is from each vineyard. I just take a hands-off approach, and I’ve noticed that we’re seeing very distinct characteristics coming from each vineyard, more so than if I’m adding yeast. I think the soil, the aspect within the fruit, is reflecting that area, and the native yeast is allowing that to shine.”
In the language of terroir, native yeasts – the wild things – say it better. “Native fermentation protects the fruit, it protects the wine, it adds complexity to the wine,” Peter says. “It’s sort of our umbilical cord to the Old World.”
Anne Sampson writes about wine, and the people who create it, from her home in Richland. She also writes about food, travel, and culture around the Northwest.