Spilling the Juice
Art, technology and craft come together at Silver Coast Winery in Ocean Isle Beach.
It takes up to 15 months to gently age a fine Chardonnay in American oak barrels. How fortunate I am to arrive at Ocean Isle Beach’s Silver Coast Winery just in time for the uncorking of this year’s new batch in May. I am blessed not only to witness the corkscrew in the winemaker’s hands, but also to share in the first tasting. The bottle chosen from the cellar has not even been labeled yet. What an honor!
Before that first sweet snap of vanilla touched the tips of our tongues, however, Silver Coast’s owner, Mary Ann Azzato, along with vintner Dana Keeler, explain to me the many steps that took place over the past year-and-a-half and brought this glorious libation to life. This is the reason for my visit. I want to know — if there is a buttery baked apple disguised in a Chardonnay grape or a splash of spiced Asian pear peering through the flesh of a Merlot globe, how does a winemaker coax it into a wine glass? In other words, just how does a winemaker make wine?
The first thing I discern is that “boutique” winemaking, as Keeler calls it, is not a chemistry experiment. It’s more like gourmet cooking. A good winemaker knows what a test-tube looks like, of course. But he or she also must be capable of falling in love with the idea of enticing the licorice from a Cabernet grape.
“I take my clue from the grape – what we can do with it, and decisions all along on what the grape has told me to do. It is a blending of art, technology and craft,” Keeler says.
Silver Coast Winery is an award-winning business, which features around a dozen reds, whites and pinks, starring, among others, honeysuckle-hued Seyval Blanc, salmon-colored White Merlot and dark cherry-colored Touriga. The beginning of winemaking for all of them is the last week of August to the first week of September – the autumn harvest.
Although the winery has acres of thriving Muscadine vines on site, Azzato sells them to eat and doesn’t use them in her wines. She prefers grapes that provide for drier and variably fruitier outcomes. She imports them primarily from the Yadkin Valley in North Carolina and Dahlonega, Georgia. Dahlonega grows those luscious Chardonnay clusters and dark red Tourigas.
Keeler has spent most of his adult life in the wine industry. His expertise is the product of an array of hands-on work in the fields and the cellars of Bully Hill Vineyard in upstate New York and other vineyards. His mentor at Bully Hill, Hermann Wiemer, recognized his talents early on and groomed him to take over the role of general manager and winemaker there.
His reputation preceding his presence, Azzato lured him to her bucolic wine fields here in OIB. He has a strong education in organic chemistry and biology, coupled with a sensitive palate and an artist’s imagination.
As a top chef can “taste in his or her mind” how a particular spice will affect a food dish, so too can Keeler conjure in his head the flavor impact of a certain type of yeast, process or the mixture of different kinds of grapes will have on his wine. This has all conspired over the years to form him into an admired blender and vintner of grape varieties.
Keeler boiled down the process for winemaking as: harvesting, processing the fruit (de-stemming, crushing, pressing and fermenting), aging and clarifying, blending and bottling.
In the fall, Azzato says, Keeler and the vineyard managers in Yadkin and Dahlonega confer on the perfect harvest date. They decide when to pick the grapes based on the sugar content (brix), flavor, aroma and acid balance of the fruit (together referred to as “biological maturity.”) After harvesting, the packed grapes receive prompt transport to the winery in refrigerated trucks.
When the delivery arrives in OIB, Keeler tastes the fruit and evaluates the balance of flavor and acid in relationship with each other. He then considers what stellar characteristics the grapes exhibit and which he wants to enhance. He begins the winemaking process by using a special machine to de-stem the grapes and discard the stems. The machine is gentle on the fruit and barely ruptures the skin. This allows the juice to start flowing, while eliminating the bitter stems and preventing the also bitter seeds from being mashed and combining with the liquid.
Protecting the skin from tearing also prevents the release of astringent tannins into the juice. “We want to avoid the harsh, austere tannins that are unpleasant to drink,” he explains.
After the de-stemming, the white wines receive a crushing, then pressing, to separate the juice from the tannic skins and seeds. For red wine production, the skins and seeds stay with the juice all the way through the fermentation process, to extract the color from the skins. This results in the juice developing its red color.
Keeler considers any new technologies he might use to apply to his art form, but they need to help him stay true to the heritage of the wines he makes at Silver Coast. An example: In the past he had been importing yeast cultures from Germany. He had to grow the cultures prior to adding them for the fermentation process. Technology now provides freeze-dried yeast cultures, which only require re-hydration before Keeler adds them to the fermentation tanks. The finished product is consistent with what customers want from a Silver Coast Chardonnay, but the work is made easier and more consistent, he says.
At this point, the vintner chooses one of the many yeasts available, which will extract from the grapes those flavors and aromas he is interested in highlighting in a final product. These can result in floral, citrusy and tropical fruit effects, to name a few. But the winemaker needs to witness these characteristics within the grape to begin with, so that the yeast culture might then enhance them, Keeler explains.
Next is fermentation. He adds the yeast, and the conversion of sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide begins. Keeler decides if he should ferment a mixture for a long or short period, and if it should be a cool or hot fermentation (or somewhere in between). He tastes the juice all along its path and fine-tunes it with yeast cultures until the sugar, acid, flavor, aroma and texture evolve to where he hopes it will be as a final product.
He ferments the red wines at a warm temperature for usually between 10 and 15 days. The white juices ferment at cooler temperatures and take up to eight weeks to complete. Complexity in the liquid forms during this period. Colder fermentation results in a simple fruity taste (a simple complexity), like a cold apple cider pressed from an apple. Warmer fermentation is like cooking the fruit and alters the fruity taste, making it more complex – like when you bake an apple.
Next comes a long winter’s rest to age the wine. With the heavy solids pressed and removed from the juices, gravity and the action of nature begin to clear up the liquid, which is called clarification. The wine goes to sleep, and Keeler says, “We don’t poke the bear while it is sleeping.”
When desired, Keeler and his team send the liquid through a series of filters, and the winemaker decides if he wants to blend different wines together for yet another kind of unique taste sensation. This, he says, gives him the greatest joy as a vintner – creating harmony and balance in the final blend of flavors he has created.
And then it comes time to bottle the aged wine and decide when to offer it for people to enjoy. The wine will continue to evolve and develop in the bottle, and Keeler will choose the proper time for its release. It is a living entity that will change as it matures, he explains, adding that for those who are patient and astute, the waiting will result in great enjoyment.
And that brings us back to my exciting meeting with Azzato and Keeler, when Keeler pops the cork on that first bottle of 2021 Silver Coast Winery American Oak Chardonnay. Azzato gently swirls her glass and tips it toward her nose, then sips. She doesn’t have to say anything. The smile gives it away.
I watch the wide, slow legs of my wine make their way down the sides of my glass, sniff the freshness and take a tad on the front of my tongue. A spark of vanilla fades into a dry, citrusy delight on the sides of my mouth. “Oh, this is good,” I say. It’s very characteristic of the previous year’s vintage, which my wife and I enjoyed with dinner a few days before.
Then it’s Keeler’s turn. “I’m my harshest critic,” he says. Azzato and I remain quiet as we await his verdict. A year and a half in the making, and… “I’m happy with it,” he says with a smile.
Silver Coast Winery American Oak Chardonnay – it was time to stick the labels onto the bottles!
Want to taste?
Visit the winery for weekly tastings and a wide selection of wines, olive oils and vinaigrettes for sale.
Silver Coast Winery
6680 Barbeque Road, Ocean Isle Beach
There are also Silver Coast Winery tasting and tap rooms at 9869-1 Ocean Highway West in Carolina Shores near the Food Lion; call (910) 575-1113, and in Southport at 105 A South Howe Street; call (910) 477-9002.