Like most scientists, a winemaker spends a lot of time obsessing over small details in the hopes that in the end they’ll add up to something great. That parallel, more than any particular technical skill, is what makes a background in scientific research useful for a vigneron. “Great winemaking is in the details,” says Jeff Mangahas, winemaker at Hartford Family Winery in Forestville, California. “And that’s one aspect of having a scientific background that really shows through in the wines. … Great wine is a summation of controlling the entire process and making sure we are expressing the wine as fully representative of that vineyard.”
“A scientist automatically has an attention to detail. Yes, you are looking at what you’re measuring, but you are also paying attention to everything going on in the background and are able to capitalize on an observation.” –Linda Bisson
Today, Mangahas, who before entering the wine world worked in cancer research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, and at Princeton University, directs all aspects of the winemaking process at Hartford Family Winery, from deciding when to harvest grapes to selecting barrels and overseeing fermentation. Although he is, in most respects, a traditional winemaker, he says his scientific background allows him to maintain control over some of the more technical aspects of the winemaking process–more control than winemakers less versed in the science of fermentation. Furthermore, he says, his years studying yeast at the molecular level–supplemented by formal training and further research in the enology program at the University of California (UC), Davis–has sharpened his winemaking intuition. He believes that mixed education–basic science mixed with the art and the applied science of winemaking–helps him create the wines he is eager to create: wines that retain the character of the place where they were crafted.
A taste for wine
Mangahas studied plant biology and botany during his undergraduate years at the University of Washington, Seattle, as well as molecular biology. He was drawn to molecular biology because of the way the details connect with the big picture. He knew right away that studying molecular biology “was what I wanted to do,” he recalls.
After graduating in 1993, Mangahas went to work as a lab technician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, managing the laboratory of Virginia Zakian and conducting research using common baker’s yeast–the same yeast he uses today to ferment wine. In the Zakian group, he focused on the PIFI gene, a telomerase inhibitor. Mangahas “was a very important part of my lab,” Zakian says, and he was the first author on a paper published in the journal Molecular Biology of the Cell.
Mangahas had long been interested in food and wine, and while working at “the Hutch,” he began to visit Washington wineries. When Zakian moved her lab to Princeton, Mangahas followed eagerly, “excited about the culinary access” his proximity to New York City would give him. When his wife decided to pursue her MBA at New York University, they moved even closer to the action, to Manhattan, where he worked as a research scientist at a pharmaceutical start-up.
As “the romantic side of wine took hold of me,” as he puts it, he began traveling during his holidays, to France and northern Italy, learning about and tasting as many fine wines as he could. He began reading about wine, researching winemaking, and visiting Long Island, New York, wineries to speak with winemakers.
A 10-course feast at the famous restaurant Alain Ducasse in Paris, paired with an “ethereal” wine–Mangahas’s description–sealed the deal. “I fell in love with the hedonistic lifestyle” of fine food and wine during that dinner, he exclaims. The restaurant’s ambiance and the “pure, perfect flavors” of the Comte de Vogüé Musigny, a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, “pushed me over the edge and I fully embraced becoming a winemaker.” Soon after that, he enrolled in the 2-year viticulture and enology master’s program at UC Davis. His wife found a job as a business consultant in the area. They lived off her salary.
Mangahas “is a better winemaker than those who have no ability to control the process,” says Linda Bisson, a professor in the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis, who served as his thesis adviser as he pursued his enology master’s degree. His science background, Bisson says, leads him to ask the right questions while also seeing winemaking’s big picture. “A scientist automatically has an attention to detail,” she continues. “Yes, you are looking at what you’re measuring, but you are also paying attention to everything going on in the background and are able to capitalize on an observation.”
Studying yeast with Zakian left Mangahas with a lingering interest in fermentation. So he decided to do his thesis research on the phenomenon of “stuck” fermentation, during which yeast stops converting sugar to ethanol and carbon dioxide, leaving an unwanted sweetness in the wine. Mangahas examined gene-expression profiles, seeking markers for healthy and stuck fermentation. His research didn’t turn up any dramatic new insights, but it did confirm that much that was already known from laboratory research was directly applicable to grapes and winemaking.
While still enrolled at UC Davis, Mangahas began working as an enologist at the small Dutton-Goldfield Winery in Sebastopol, California. Mangahas worked closely with one of the proprietors, measuring the acid and alcohol contents of the wines, topping barrels, and moving wine from one barrel to another. When he graduated with his master’s degree in 2003, he was promoted to assistant winemaker at Dutton-Goldfield. During these years, he became acquainted with Don Hartford, the proprietor at Hartford Family Winery. “I saw his great passion for vineyards, wine, and wine making, and his broad knowledge of wine,” writes Hartford via e-mail. “Because I had tasted wines with Jeff before I hired him, I also knew that he had an incredible palate for judging and understanding wine character and quality.” Three years later, at the age of 35, Mangahas became winemaker at Hartford Family Winery.
A surprising professional home
Founded in 1993 by a husband-and-wife team, Hartford Family Winery is located in Sonoma County, 25 km from the Pacific coast. Hartford’s Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and old-vine Zinfandels have been honored by magazines such as Bon Appetit and Food and Wine. One of their 2002 Pinot Noirs was served at the White House. The Wine Advocate rated one of their Chardonnays 96 points, placing it among the highest rated Chardonnays of 2007.
With its emphasis on artisanal and traditional approaches to winemaking, Hartford Family Winery is perhaps a surprising professional home for a scientist-turned-winemaker. Yet these traditional practices, which Hartford describes as “more risky than many other wineries care to employ,” make Mangahas’s scientific approach all the more valuable–especially in combination with “his keen palate, thoughtful personality, the Winery’s very strong vineyard sources, and … ability to recognize vineyard character in wines,” as Hartford puts it. “Given our approach to wine making, Jeff’s science background is a valuable asset–one that helps the winery owner sleep at night.”
At Hartford, Mangahas is responsible for every step in the winemaking process. He tastes grapes on the vines and decides when a harvest should occur. He directs the sorting, keeping an eye out for uneven ripening that could dull a wine’s flavor. He or a team member examines every cluster of grapes before it is processed. “Decisions are made that can affect a particular wine in a profound way, either for better or for worse,” he says.
When the grapes come in from the vineyard, many things can affect a wine’s flavor. “Mother Nature throws you a curve ball,” Bisson says. “If there’s late rain, bird damage, or if it got really hot, the fruits are going to come in damaged, with bacteria and wild microbes. They are going to be there when you crush the fruit, right in the beginning of the fermentation.” Dealing with such issues, says Bisson, is when his scientific training is most valuable, giving him “the deductive and inductive reasoning to figure out how to manipulate what you’re doing to either enhance or eliminate a problem that’s appearing in the wine.”
Sense of place
Scientists tend toward skepticism of things that cannot readily be defined or measured. Not so winemakers like Mangahas. It was, after all, the “ethereal” quality of that Comte de Vogüé Musigny that lured him away from science. And today he works hard to imbue his wines with a sense of place. “An important thing in the higher echelons of winemaking is being able to create wine that is expressive of the place in which the grapes are grown,” Mangahas says. This requires a good understanding of terroir–how local factors such as solar exposure, soil composition, and the particular strain of the cloned grapes influence the wine’s taste. “I try to express that place [in the wine] as opposed to redirecting it to the way I think the wine should taste.”
Although Mangahas relies on his palate and intuition for day-to-day judgments, it’s back to the laboratory when he needs corroboration. “There’s a lot of things that I am testing every year to make the wine better,” he says. For certain lots, he says, his scientific observations have led him to ferment at a lower temperature than he used to. “The fermentation takes a little longer, but the yeast aren’t as stressed out,” he says.
Winemaking is similar to science, Mangahas says, in that both require hard work, asking the right questions, learning as much as possible about the subject, and having an intense drive. Winemaking can be “grueling,” says Mangahas, and “vigilance is required throughout the entire process.” Consequently, Hartford notes, “the first quality that any winemaker must possess is a passion for vineyards, winemaking, and wine.”
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