The smell of buttered popcorn is permeating the winery which can only mean one thing: Malolactic Fermentation. MLF which occurs shortly after primary fermentation is the process where malic acid is converted to a softer lactic acid. The conversion which creates a rounder and fuller mouthfeel in wine is extremely popular in California especially where Chardonnay is concerned. However, commercial MLF has only been a scientific part of winemaking for the last 50 years. Before the 1950's, this second fermentation was not induced it just 'happened' sporadically, if it happened at all. In France it was the mysterious 'thing that took place in the cellar'. Sometimes, to make matters worse, it happened after bottling.
The story of the first induced Malolactic Fermentation involves the beautiful new Hanzel winery in Sonoma County and its Pinot Noir. The resident winemaker Brad Webb had a serious problem initially with Pinot Noir because it refused to undergo malolactic fermentation. Perplexed, he visited John L. Ingraham, assistant professor of enology at UC Davis to seek out help.
"The malolactic fermentation in California had a long, solid reputation for capriciousness and independence. Most winemakers of the era became aware that the fermentation was under way only when tanks of wine began to rumble softly, usually in mid-winter. Winemakers didn’t start it, and they couldn’t stop it; it just happened. But why only then? The malolactic fermentation seemed to have a mind of it own. It occurred where and when it chose."
Ingraham had intently been searching for a bacterium that would induce MLF and made history when he isolated a strain of bacterium which he called ML34. ML34 which he dubbed 'Martini' originated as a sample taken from a tank at Louis M. Martini's winery in Saint Helena. The bacterium which had probably been living there for years proved to be the key to the first successful induced malolactic fermentation.