Contrary to what one might think, as a grower, you want your soil to be fairly terrible. A steep hill of rock and slate makes for a better vineyard than a flat tract of nutrient-rich soil. You want your grapes to struggle as they make their way to maturity. A grape is much like a child: If you give it everything it wants all the time, it will turn out boring and unproductive. A vine that sees a little adversity tends to work harder and, in turn, creates a more interesting and complex wine.
When the grapes are ripe, they are picked, crushed and fermented. The grapes must be picked at just the right time. Too early will leave the wine tasting green and with less alcohol than desired. Too late, and the wine might have too much alcohol or sweetness. The winemaker plays a big role in this part of the life of the wine. He or she has to choose what yeasts will ferment the wine, what kind of fermentation the wine will go through, what vessels to ferment in, and so on.
Once the wine is finished fermenting, it is pumped away from the skins and left to build character in oak barrels. The oak will impart beneficial tannins and give the wine time to settle. While the wine is in oak, the winemaker will taste it periodically to decide when it should be bottled and whether it should be blended with other wines. The time spent in oak barrels for a wine is much like college for a person — the last time they have to spend with their mentors before being cast out into the world to be judged and experienced.
Once bottled, a wine might make its way to a dining table, an obscure kitchen shelf or even a cellar. The wine will continue to age and mature as slight amounts of oxygen enter through the cork. Like people, some wines will get better with age, and some will, unfortunately, turn to vinegar. Some will be forgotten, and some will become legendary.
Austin Twohig is a certified sommelier and partner in The Santa Cruz Experience, which conducts winery tours in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.