Letters from Lodi
An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.
The professional wine problem busters at Lodi Wine Labs
When there’s something strange in a wine produced by a small winery or home winemaker, who you gonna call?
Lodi Wine Labs is not only one of the largest and best-equipped commercial industry laboratories in the entire U.S. – offering analytical services for the production of not just wines but also for beer, mead, spirits as well as water and metals – it is also a one-stop shopping center for virtually anything anyone may want or need for the fermentation and production of alcoholic beverages. You name it, they got it: corks, bungs, hydro presses, bladder presses and old fashioned wood basket presses, steel drums and oak barrels, filters, yeasts, nutrients, 6-gallon glass carboys or plastic tubs for the first-time home winemaker or 290-liter stainless steel fermentation tanks for the aspiring, future or would-be wine industry professional.
In our visit to Lodi Wine Labs this past spring, we met with its Chief Operating Officer Matt DiVisconte. Mr. DiVisconte, who has been with the company since 2011 (LWL was founded in 2002), is a walking, talking model of wine lab integrity, having graduated with a Masters of Oenology at University of Adelaide in Australia as well as a Masters in Medical Sciences-Virology at Harvard University, following stints as a wine retailer and winery enologist in New England and a double-BS in Biochemistry and Biology taken at Binghamton New York.
We asked DiVisconte to take us through some of the equipment and services offered by Lodi Wine Labs, with the stipulation that he explain it all as if we were 7 years old (or an average person without all those science degrees), to which he was more than happy to comply.
“We are a friendly bunch,” said DiVisconte, “and we love to teach people about wine and winemaking from the chemical point of view. We make a point of answering any and all wine questions, especially to help anyone with home winemaking and brewing projects.
“60% of our business, in fact, is with home winemakers, although we provide services to many of Lodi’s local wineries, which will spend anywhere from a $1,000 to $50,000 a year for our analyses and advisory. Lodi is home to LAVA (Lodi Amateur Vintners Association), one of the country’s most active home winemaking associations, and there is also a large, well established group of home winemakers (Sacramento Home Winemakers) in the Sacramento area.
“There are two sides of our business,” explains DiVisconte, “lab analyses and retail sales. We also offer seminars and classes on winemaking and brewing.
“Since many of the small to medium sized local wineries are not as fully equipped with their own labs as wineries you may find in, say, Napa Valley, they depend upon the 'bread and butter' analyses that we have to offer, such as measuring sulfur dioxide and alcohol content, or testing for heat or cold stability. Our equipment is state of the art, and we are accedited by the internatonal ISO 17025 standard.”
For an exhibit 1, DiVisconte pointed out a machine hooked up to a computer screen and keyboard, saying: "This is a Wine Scan, which can measure a lot of things, such as ethanol (alcohol), free SO2 (sulfur dioxide levels), volatile acidity (acetic acid or vinegary components), total acidity (when people talk about a wine being focused or flabby, total acidity has a lot to do with these sensations), pH (the measurement of a wine’s acidity which has implications on microbial stability), residual sugar, and malic acid (which determines a wine’s malolactic fermentation, which has an effect on a wine’s acidity or whether or not it tastes like a Granny Smith apple, which is not a positive taste in a red wine).”
Adds DiVisconte, “This technology is surprisingly inexpensive. For as little as $10 a sample, you can get a complete analysis of your wine or juice with a same-day or 1-day turnaround.”
Next to the Wine Scan, DiVisconte points out a machine hooked up to a boxed wine made by Franzia: “The Franzia just happens to serve as the control used for our Alcolizer, which measures ABV (alcohol by volume). This machine is important because it is approved by the TTB (the federal government’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) for the accurate measurement of alcohol levels that go on labels, which wineries need to submit for approval.
“We use old school, TTB-approved wet chemistry methods to test TA (titratable acidity), pH, SO2, and VA (volatile acidity) levels. But for even more accurate analyses, we are also equipped with a newer Automated Spectrophotometer.
“Finally, we do old fashioned microscope work, particularly to measure things like bacteria and yeast, such as Brettanomyces which can end up giving wines a stinky, sweaty animal smell. Wineries will typically submit a bottle of wine, which we’ll put through a sterile filter to capture any ‘beasties’ that end up on the filter. This involves incubation for about a week, after which we can see what grows. This helps wineries discover if there are any bacterial contaminations or unwanted yeasts in their wineries, in their hoses or even their bottling lines. It let’s them know, for instance, if or what they need to do to take more sanitary precautions in their wineries.
“That’s what we do. Most often wineries come to us when they can see stuff is going wrong, or wines they know aren’t tasting right, and we help address those issues. Ultimately, problems like bacteria or yeast spoilages are rare enough that the average consumer never encounters that in a wine – because wineries and even home winemakers can now avail themselves to services like ours.”