Wine By Design: Winemaker Andrew Luoma
Andrew Luoma, a winemaker at E. & J. Gallo Winery, has experience making and drinking wine all over the world, especially in New Zealand and California, which happens to be both Luoma’s home and one of the world’s largest wine-producing regions. We recently asked him about designing wine-consuming experiences, where he finds inspiration, and how he defines success. Pour a glass of your favorite variety and settle in for a fascinating read.
So, you have a degree in chemical engineering. How did you go from that to winemaking?
My journey into winemaking actually started with homebrewing [beer] — something I’m still passionate about today. I got into homebrewing around 2008, when I was working on my BS in [chemical engineering] at UC Davis. Shortly after graduating, I was having trouble finding a job and my dad recommended a winemaking class [taught by] a family friend. It seemed like an opportunity to combine my engineering skills with my passion for fermentation. After taking classes through Chemeketa Community College [in Oregon], I applied for the Viticulture & Enology master’s program at UC Davis and from there, I got an internship with Gallo.
What do your day-to-day tasks look like as a winemaker at Gallo?
This is a tricky question to answer. One of the reasons I love being a winemaker is that no day is the same. Harvest is our most predictable time of year because we have specific things that need to be done each day. During non-harvest time, I’m usually working on blends or other projects around the winery. Though not day-to-day, we also spend a lot of time on educational opportunities to ensure we’re well versed in enological practices — this could include tastings, vineyard trips, [and] off-site trainings. They even sent me to New Zealand for a harvest a couple of years ago.
What types of beverages do you enjoy making the most?
I always try to carve out a little time for some “handmade” wine. For the past two years, I’ve done a cabernet hand-harvest, ferment, and bottle project with our interns. We make wine in five-gallon buckets. It’s a great opportunity for the interns to get hands-on winemaking experience and last year, we expanded [the project] to include other winemakers and some operations personnel.
I’ve also been experimenting with making pét-nats (pétillant naturels) and orange wines the past few years. They are fun and easy to make — and tasty. We made a delicious sherry with concord grape wine. All the concordy-ness goes away as it oxidizes. Other things I’ve played with over the years include hopped wines, beer/wine hybrids, and, of course, homebrew. Brewing beer remains one of my favorite pastimes — I just love the creativity of it all and the final product usually isn’t too bad, either!
What gives you creative ideas? What inspires you?
My inspiration can come from anywhere. Sometimes, I’ll come up with an idea just chatting with coworkers. Other times, it's from traveling with family or tasting something new. I don’t get a lot of time to be creative as a winemaker at a large winery, but I think that actually makes me more active in searching out creative opportunities. [To me], the most important element in creativity is having time to do nothing. I find I’m least creative when I’m busy. I can be very efficient and highly productive, but rarely do I think of something new to try. When I’m facing a difficult problem that requires a creative solution, I frequently come up with my best ideas outside of work, in times of quiet and calm.
When you set off to create a new beverage, where do you start?
I always try to start off with a little research — maybe not a full step-by-step manual, but I like to know the science/basics behind what I’m doing before starting. I really believe this preparation drives my success. This usually provides a good starting point and from there, I’ll rely on my related experience to fine-tune and adjust — flavors or processes — to get where I want. When making wine or beer, you have to have a good taste memory because you don’t get a lot of chances to fix mistakes. If you add too much or not enough of an ingredient, your product could be ruined, so I feel like it's very important to take a measured and thoughtful approach to creative endeavors.
That makes sense. We don't know anything about winemaking, so can you walk us through the rest of the process, too?
The steps of winemaking are different from the steps in [other] creative endeavors. To me, being successful in winemaking is having a clear and logical path… it is a step-by-step process. So, we bring in a truck of grapes, we crush [them], we add yeast, and we ferment [the mixture]. Then we press and clarify the wine, and make any final touches before we filter — or don’t filter. [Finally], we bottle it and age it. We taste along the way and make adjustments as needed, based on taste, based on experience, and continue the process all the way through. That’s one of the things that drew me to winemaking to begin with — it’s a very regimented process, it’s easy to grasp. Anyone can look at the winemaking process and understand it pretty simply.
How do you know when a wine is ready?
(Laughs) That’s a good question. You just have to taste it and rely on your experience to know how it will age in a bottle. A lot of winemakers age red wine in oak for a year, sometimes two, before they bottle it and sometimes, they might wait another year or two before they release that bottle to the public, but a lot of that is driven by what inventory is out there, what is the demand for wine and all of that.
We have some chemistry that helps us out, too. There are certain nutrients and things that we want to see get used up, so that you don’t have microbial spoilage or that kind of thing. But yeah, definitely some wines, you taste it and the tannins are rough; it has a harsh mouthfeel. A little bit of age can definitely help with that. I’m sure you’ve heard about people aging wines for years and trying to drink them at their peaks — and that’s once they buy them. A really high-end Napa cabernet could be good for 10-15 years after it has been bottled. It might peak after 5 or 7, but it could still hold on and could still be good for the next 10 years after that.
Do you imagine specific wine drinkers as you create your wines?
Yes. The final product is always a blend of what I think tastes good and what I think other people would like the taste of. [And it’s] not just me as a winemaker that approves a blend; we have a group tasting called the “blend approval” and everyone gets to vote on the several options that I bring to them. We discuss them and determine which one best meets the consumer needs. As long as a wine brings joy to the person drinking it, [we’ve done our job].
How do you know what people tend to like?
We actually have an entire department dedicated to it and Gallo does a really good job [of] keeping us informed on market trends when it comes to consumer preferences. But it is also on us — as winemakers, we are naturally interested. I look through the news and look for trends on a regular basis. It’s pretty embarrassing these days if you’re a winemaker and don’t know what pét-nat is, right? It’s short for the French pétillant naturel, meaning “natural sparkling.” It has been pretty popular for the past four to five years. And orange wines, too, are having their moment, although that trend might be dying down a bit. [It] has been around, mostly in NYC and other big cities, for a while now, [but] it probably won’t go away entirely. In fact, I see it spreading to more hipster enclaves around the world…
What are your favorite parts of the winemaking process? What are the most challenging parts?
It’s too simple to say the final product is my favorite part of creation though that is a big part of it. I think making subtle improvements and really refining a process — learning! — is really my favorite part of the creation process. The philosophy can be summed up with the Japanese term Kaizen, [which translates to] “change for the better” or “continuous improvement.” The most challenging part is probably just finding time to do and make all of the things I want.
How does wine drinking affect wine making in your experience?
This is a really great question. Wine consumption affects winemaking in virtually every way. I use the term “consumption” instead of drinking because interaction with wine can be so much more than simply drinking a liquid — depending on the circumstances, it can be an entire experience. Wine consumption is frequently tied to a location or cuisine: Imagine having tapas and Rioja in Spain, traveling an urban wine trail in the East Bay, or touring wineries and taking Champagne appreciation classes in France — just a few things I’d love to do someday. Depending on where you are, who you are with, and what you are eating, wine-consumption experiences can be so diverse — yet all of these have an impact on a winemaker. Tasting new wines in different locales can spark ideas and creativity, while tasting tried-and-true go-tos will only help refine your craft.
Ultimately, I believe [that] to make the best wine, you have to taste the best. But to provide the best wine-consuming experience, you really have to put yourself in the shoes of the consumer and try to think about who [they are] and how their beverage will be consumed. We try to do this by bringing our wines home and drinking them with meals, taking them on trips and sharing them with friends or family. In that way, we can get feedback on real-world situations and try to continuously improve our wines.
What does a successful creation look like for you?
A successful creation, to me, is something that brings joy to the person drinking it — and hopefully makes them think a little about how and why it was crafted.
— Slavka Eberhart-Garah, Drawn Alum