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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
WINEMAKER WITH CLASS: When vintner Sal Godinez isn't making pinots and chardonnays, he's teaching Cabrillo students the finer points of his craft.

The Wizard of Flaws

A new wine class at Cabrillo lets master wine troubleshooter Sal Godinez share his hard-earned wisdom

By Christina Waters

VINE HILL WINERY's Sal Godinez makes terrific pinot noirs. But he also knows the secret alchemy of winemaking, and that skill has won him a cult following. Years ago in Napa, Godinez was a young cellar worker looking for extra work to support his family. Scoring a weekend job with one of the top shops for wine reconstruction, Godinez learned to extract volatile acids—the spoilage that can turn pricey wine to cheap vinegar. He soon became an expert wine doctor, the go-to guy to save a winemaker's investment, much like Hollywood script doctors come in to tweak a film into commercial shape. As a result, he can detect what and how much in the way of additives, chemicals, oak, water and yeasts other winemakers have used in their wines. "The winemaker's face is right there in the glass," he says, his pale eyes gleaming. This behind-the-scenes skill with reverse osmosis technology led Godinez into some of Napa's finest cellars, where he perfected the tricks of the trade that he now passes on to his students in the culinary arts program at Cabrillo College.

"Sue Slater had come up to the winery," Godinez recalled last week as we sipped one of his crisp chardonnays at the Vine Hill Winery's home base. Slater, who heads up the ambitious food and hospitality program at Cabrillo, wanted to expand her culinary program. Godinez, who cheerfully insists he is not an instructor, agreed to take a stab at a course devoted to wine flaws and faults. In September 2008, Godinez's first students learned to detect common problems in winemaking, what causes them and, most importantly, how they can be fixed.

"I would make up a batch of wine that displayed the feature we were discussing that week," he grins. Tannins, too many and too green, were one common problem. Surplus residual sugars, oxidation, corked wines—Godinez would bring in the damaged wines, help students identify the flaw, then take the batch back to his lab and repair it. Again, he'd bring the sample to class for students to taste. "The final exam," he grins, "the students had to identify flaws in blind tastings. It was so refreshing for me—they did very well."

Word spread about the award-winning winemaker, whose pinot noirs help define the terroir signature of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and he was asked back last fall to teach a beginning winemaking class for Slater's program. "We originally were going to actually make a batch of wine from start to finish, but we had too many students," he says.

Even so, 15 of Godinez's passionate students formed a co-op. "I got them in touch with a Gilroy grower who had too many syrah grapes, and they bought a ton and they're now making their own wine," he says with pride. "They're on their own now, but I told them to give me a call if they have any trouble. I don't want them to make any bad wine."

We toast that sentiment.

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