Weekend Wine: Breadmaking as Busman's Holiday

Tyler Thomas, maker of both bread and wine

"There's something magical about the transformative properties of fermentation," says Tyler Thomas, who employs the process both as the winemaker at Dierberg Vineyard in Lompoc, Calif., and as a dedicated amateur breadmaker. "I think the winemaking has helped inform the breadmaking, and the breadmaking has helped confirm a lot of things in the winemaking, particularly the need for patience," he says.

Thomas started working at a harvest bread company soon after he graduated from Colorado State University in 1999 with a degree in botany. He added a masters in the subject, then got a masters in viticulture and enology from the University of California at Davis, all the while baking bread. His brother Drew introduced him to Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, and Sarah Green, one of Thomas's interns at Donelan Wines, where he then worked, bought him a Tartine cookbook in 2011. That inspired Thomas to make his own sourdough starter, which he has continued to maintain and keeps in a small container. He discards 80% or 90% of the starter every morning and adds equal parts flour and water to feed it.

Thomas says he always uses the same basic recipe and adjusts the percentages of starter, water, regular flour and whole wheat flour he uses depending on the precise texture he's aiming for. Last year, he got a grain mill for his birthday and has been using it to grind hard winter wheat for his bread. Dough made with fresh-ground wheat ferments more quickly than dough made with regular wheat, which produces a loaf with an airier texture. Thomas says he needed a few bakes to figure out the right percentages of water and wheat.

He starts his leaven the night before the bake, then mixes it with bread, flour and salt the next morning. He brings the dough with him to work, "turning the bread a few times in the first several hours and keeping it cool in the winery's caves," he says, then shapes the loaf, lets it finish rising and bakes in his dutch oven.

"I'm not recipe-driven," Thomas says. "I'll make those adjustments because I want balance. I'll do the same thing in the wines. I can't turn that part of my brain off. I've been very informed by my background in wine. Part of the core of deliciousness is that there's some sense of balance."

He says he draws on his knowledge of chemistry in his winemaking as in his breadmaking, which in both cases allows him to interfere less with the product. "Americans are so binary," Thomas says. "You're either a technical winemaker or you eschew that completely. I reject both of those ideas. I feel like the person who has the best opportunity year and year out to make the best wine every year is the person who can live in both realms."

At Davis, one of the first people Thomas met was Ryan Hodgins, and the two soon bonded over a number of common interests including food, baking and cooking, Hodgins says. Then as now, Hodgins was particularly focussed on pizza, and his family and Thomas's gathered the day after Thanksgiving to break in Hodgins' new pizza oven. Hodgins, now the winemaker at FEL Winery in Yountville, Calif., where Sarah Green now works, says he doesn't "geek out on the fermentation element of the bread as intensely as Tyler," but he too sees parallels between making food and wine.

"There has rarely ever been a day where I've made a dish and thought it's perfect, and I feel very much that way about wine," Hodgins says. "Especially with wine's timeline of production, you get this one shot. I approach cooking and winemaking with the same mindset of self-critique. The other philosophical connection to me is about deliciousness. Wine should have its personality, but if it's not delicious, I'm not doing my job."