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Wines Put to Test at Central Valley Lab

Vintners large and small learn how to draw stink out of a spicy syrah or clarify cloudy cabernet.

August 03, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

Gus Young feels "like a mad scientist sometimes" when she is blending cabernets, syrahs, barberas, zinfandels and sauvignon blancs at her Central Valley home in Galt.

"A home winemaker can fudge and slide a little bit because it's for yourself and family and friends," said Young, president of the Lodi Amateur Vintners Assn. But she doesn't fudge. "I like good wine."

So Young drives over to the Lodi Winery Laboratory for help.

Since opening a year ago in a storefront next to a chiropractor's office, the wine lab has attracted local winemakers large and small.

Some bring grapes in brown grocery bags. Some bring vintages in washed-out water bottles. Some bring in lab-issued 750-milliliter containers.

All are intent on refining their wines and seek out the lab's high-tech testing machinery and seasoned advice. The lab also does a brisk business selling vintner supplies, hawking everything from beakers to 30 kinds of yeast.

Aaron Mosley, one of the lab's owners, said he was following market demand when he officially began business in July 2002. The lab cost $200,000 to open and now serves about 100 clients, who make 60 to 30,000 cases of wine a year.

"As some of the other labs expanded, nobody landed in Lodi," he said. "Consequently, that's where we landed."

Four other commercial companies and a couple of small workshops analyze wine in California, mostly in the Napa and Sonoma areas. Large wineries usually have their own testing facilities.

"It's a tremendous convenience because there are some 40 wineries in the Lodi Appellation [Winery Assn.], many of which are so tiny they have little lab equipment or none at all," said Mark Chandler, executive director of the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission.

He said the Lodi lab's popularity is an indication of the growth of the Central Valley wine industry and the area's interest in improving the quality of its wines.

"For decades in Lodi, growers sold grapes to wineries but never created a branded product," Chandler said. "We've got grape producers that now make wine, brand it and process it under one roof."

The lab offers 22 analytical services, with a standard panel of eight costing $95. About five to 10 people a day walk in, said lab manager Sandi Walker-Tansley.

She estimated that she spends about 60% of her time manipulating pipettes, burettes and flasks. But the lab is moving toward more automation, thanks especially to its new $60,000 Astoria Analyzer. The boxy gray machine, webbed with tubes and connected to a display screen, calculates volatile acidity and sulfur dioxides.

But Walker-Tansley, the former lab supervisor at Robert Mondavi's winery in Woodbridge, said she likes being pilot of her own ship. She said with a chuckle, "I'm the manager, lab analyst and bottle washer."

Walker-Tansley advises clients who need to know how to draw the stink out of a spicy syrah or clarify a cloudy cabernet. Sometimes, she inspects homemade vinegar. Later, she hopes to expand the lab to evaluate vintners' wastewater.

The only other full-time employee is Colette Allen, who answers phones, keeps the books and crushes grapes.

Customers say that the operation, though small, is indispensable. Chad Joseph, co-owner of Joseph Narcizo Wines, a boutique operation near Stockton, said he visits the lab weekly, usually on his drive home.

"I used to have real problems with [tests] because I had to send the sample through the mail, and you don't know if things get heated up," he said. Heat can activate bacteria and cause inaccurate results.

"The thing with the Lodi wine lab," he said, "is that I can walk in there and talk to Sandi, who is doing the analysis and is a person you can talk to face-to-face and you know she'll run the tests in 10 to 15 minutes."

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