Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wine Wars Part 1: "Butters vs. Bailey"
7:06 AM on Oct. 12, 2008
Wineries have long had an association with animals. It's hard to find one that does not have an adoptive mascot or favorite cat or dog that usually lives a charmed life of lounging around and receiving attention, treats and affection from everyone.
Here at the winery, it is no different. For some time, "Butters" has been the winery cat. Butters is an very large striped cat with a meow that sound a bit more like Bull Moose that has been hit by a truck than anything else. Butters would enjoy lounging around in the tasting room, soaking up all the affection and attention, would then meander back into the winery often sleeping on a barrel or on the seat of the forklift. That was about as close as Butters ever got to work... Until now.
This year, our dog "Bailey" a 5 yr old goofball of a golden retriever accompanies me each day to the winery. Bailey has quickly earned his spot as the winery dog, hanging out with the winemaking crew, getting much of the attention that had prior been lavished upon the cat.. This has not gone unnoticed by Butters...
Butters has been very aloof and remained away whenever Bailey is near. They seem to have generally agreed to divide up the winery , with Butters staking claim to the tasting room, office and case goods area, while Bailey has taken over the Barrel room, Tank room and Crushpad as his domain. A grudging truce has existed for about 3 weeks.
This came to and end about a week ago after Baliey had staged an invasion of Butters territory, by going into the tasting room and hanging out as the center of attention as people came by to taste wine. Butters, obviously could not let this pass, and returned the favor by entering the Tank room and taunting Bailey by sitting and staring at Bailey from afar, knowing Bailey could not get to him. Bailey, for his part, was clearly irritated, growling and barking , upset to be restrained from chasing the cat. Butters, was clearly enjoying this situation.
This stakes were escalated last Friday. Upon arriving at the crushpad in the morning , Doug & Bruce made a gruesome discovery.. Butters had apparently caught one of the many rabbits that run thru the hills here. laid out neatly on the crushpad was the remains of the rabbit.. missing it's head.. and with the two ears neatly set on each side of the body.....
We have come to the conclusion that Butters has now stepped up to ritualistic sacrifice in an attempt to rid himself of Bailey.. We all believe that Voodoo is a clear violation of the Winery Geneva convention rules.... If I were Bailey, I would not be turning my back on that cat anytime soon...

"Mr. Weather's Wild Ride"

"Mr. Weather's Wild Ride"
6:38 AM on Oct. 12, 2008
As October has settled in, we have had it all this year... Drought, Heat, Smoke, Fire... I am waiting for Locusts next..... The weather which at the end of September had cooled down, was not a problem, but what did catch everyone a bit was an early storm coming thru last weekend.
Now, most of us enjoy a cool rainy day about this time of year. A perfect day to relax in front of the fire. Not so if you are a winemaker. With fruit on the vine, an early rainstorm can be a disaster. Rain creates all sorts of problems...from mold, to the vines sucking up all the moisture and pumping it back into the grapes, which you have been cutting back water from so as to concentrate the flavors in the fruit. The other problem is getting equipment into the vineyards to harvest the fruit.
When this happens, the winemakers that have been letting their fruit hang a bit longer can get caught and usually have a complete meltdown. Frantic calls to the vineyard managers telling them to do night picks at 3:00am in the morning go out, as they race against the incoming weather fronts. The winemakers will then tell ( not ask) the wineries that fruit is coming in, which means sometimes there is literally too much fruit coming in at once. And don't think about telling the crew not to come in.. they will ignore you and bring it in no matter what. This is a great example of the principal of "Transference" which is the process of which I take MY problem and make it into YOUR problem...
When this happens, all you can do is keep crushing until all the fruit is done. It is no fun to be crushing in the rain and cold at 1:30am when your day began at 6:00am trying to finish off the last fruit that was brought in.
Here in the Livermore Valley. we were lucky this time as we managed to crush 20 tons of Syrah, and 10 tons of Merlot on Friday, and missed he weekend rains. It did not go the same for others in areas such as the Santa Cruz mountains or parts of Sonoma.
Funny how these little moments are not in those dreamy commercials showcasing the romance of winemaking! LOL!! Well, as I had mentioned, these blogs are to give you an inside look into what goes on at harvest.

"What do I know"....

"what do I know"
7:12 AM on Sep. 17, 2008
The last time I wrote, I was stoked because I thought crush was ready to rock... but... "what do I know".... as soon as we are ready for everything to get going, the temps cool off and we now are better served letting the fruit hang. This is pushing back crush, and we now are hung up between a group of fruit that has come in and is fermenting and now, a gap ( growing each day) between fermenting fruit and a entirely different batch of fruit coming in.
What does this mean you ask? well, if you are not doing this, it means little. But if you are producing wine, it creates a logistics and time management headaches. The good news is that letting the fruit hang longer is a good thing. It allows flavors to concentrate.
So right, now, the bulk of the time is spent making sure the fruit that is fermenting is going along well. I've been talking with other winemakers here in Livermore as well as in Napa and Sonoma, and they are going thru the same thing.. Basically we are all a bit bored right now! LOL!!
The break caused by the cooler weather has had a positive impact in that the days are warm but not hot, and the start of fall weather has begun! This is a very wonderful time of the year in Northern California. The best weather, by far. driving to the winery, seeing the vineyards turning color , I always realize why I do this and how lucky I am to be in this wonderful part of the world.
This past weekend was a blast as we had a "winemaker for a day" event at the winery. I try to open this up once a week to people that would like to try their hand at this and get a chance to see a bit of what goes on in making wine. The people that came by were a blast and had a great time! It's cool to see the look on people's faces when they get to try doing punchdowns. If you are interested in giving this a try, give me a shout out and we will schedule it.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

"In from the Vineyards"

Crush is officially in full swing as we crushed about 10 tons of fruit both Chardonnay & Pinot. We didn't have to crush as much Pinot as we thought due to a last minute sale of most of the Pinot grapes to another winery. Yeah for us! It was 102 degrees yesterday and the Pinot came in late.

A common myth is that wineries only make wine with the fruit from their own vineyards. In fact, that is almost universally not the case. Wineries are both aquiring fruit and selling fruit to other wineries or more directly, to other winemakers. Winemakers are always looking to source fruit that adds to what they are doing, supplements varietals that are not grown on the estate, and you can make and sell more wine than what you grow alone. The is a constant year round background commodity trade going on among producers and winemakers. Last minute purchases are very common.

It was great to get the first full on day of crush out of the way. It's like anything you do.. Since we haven't crushed in a year, you are a bit rusty on some of the nuances of all the little details and tricks of hose hook up, etc.. but once you hit your groove it's all good.

Being sure to keep everyone on track & happy, meant keeping the ice chest full of cold drinks and beer. I especially want to keep the vineyard crew happy. As hot as it is for us on the crushpad, it's even hotter for those guys in the fields, on the tractors and filling the t-bins.

Today, we'll be crushing Syrah. a bit more work doing reds than whites which we'll talk about next time...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"Chewing up Sugar"....

"Chewing up the sugar"
7:07 AM Aug. 30, 2008 - 0 comments - [ post comment ]

I am in a bit of limbo at the moment.. Estate Zin is in, but the brix readings in many vineyards are almost ready to go. Here in the Livermore valley, every winery has been praying that crush holds off till after Labor Day weekend. This is because each year Livermore hosts it's biggest wine event over the labor day weekend. The Livermore Harvest Festival has crowds of people travelling among the wineries. Great event for wine lovers.... Bad timing for wineries. Outside of the biggest wineries, which have event coordinators and are large enough facilities to keep the crowds away from the crushpad, it is a ton of work and commitment in time to participate in the event at the same time you need all hands on deck for harvest. It is though, "what it is" and you manage to get thru it..
The good news is that the Chardonnay & Pinot which are among the first each year to be harvested, will make it thru the weekend. One, last weekend to relax before it is gets crazy. The monthly newsletter is done so that I don't need to worry about that later on.
The fermentation process for the Zin has begun. After an initial coak soak, the fermentation is now under way. This is the process of the yeast cells, consuming the sugars in the grape must and then converting them to alcohol. During this process, the brix levels, which in the vineyard you are monitoring as they increase, you are now watching go in the opposite direction, as the yeast consumes the sugars. This along with temperatures are closely monitored to keep the little yeast cells happy as the take the must "to dry". The winemaker needs to insure that things are not too hot, not too cold so as to keep the fermentation chugging along.

Next Blog... " In from the Vineyard"

"Picking at Harvest"..

Picking at Harvest
11:15 AM Aug. 22, 2008 - 0 comments - [ post comment ]

"Picking at Harvest"...

Long before the sun came up on the 20th, I was preparing for picking. This was a long and physical day, but exciting and energizing because this represented the beginning of the 2008 crush. I find crush to be much like preparing for a marathon, or a race. You train, prepare develop a plan and then go out and execute . Unexpected things come up, you handle them as they arise and then you see what the results are when you are done.
As the sun rose, I had sanitized & labeled the t-bins, cleaned the pick baskets, and was keeping the winery informed of my progress. One of the fastest ways to piss off your crush crew is as a grower, to not keep them up to date on your progress, especially if you are running late. The bulk of crush work is prepping, cleaning, tearing down and cleaning. Having your crew stand around waiting for you is not a good thing .
Picking went smoothly, with one notable exception.. a large amount of fruit was damaged in the upper part of the vineyard from raccoons & possums. As the vineyard is surrounded by homes, I had thought birds would be the #1 enemy. using scare tape had kept the birds at bay, however I soon learned that within the past week, these guys had dug under the fences and were turning the vineyard into a buffet. As with mush that takes place in this, you are always learning something.... Next year... "no more Mr. Nice guy"......
If you haven't had the pleasure to appreciate how much work picking is, or better, to appreciate what a skilled worker can do, just give it a try. Go pick a row and a new appreciation for the skill to work quickly will soon develop. After about slicing my finger off and bleeding like a stuck pig, I finished the pick on time, texted the winery that I was on my way in.
There are a number of ways to approach working crush.. There are wineries that run at high stress, high drama, with arguing , demanding winemakers that bitchout their assistant winemakers that then bitch out their cellar crews. There are others that run it as if it were a piecemeal factory job. My feeling, and my observation of those that do the best jobs ( and make some killer wines) is to keep a good vibe, work hard but make sure to enjoy what you do. When people are empowered and feel a part of what is going on, you not only get your best effort, but you have a sense of team, which means that you'll have others watching your back, making sure things work and keeping mistakes to a minimum. I have seen times when accidents and bad things happen, not so much because of an error, but because the enviroment of the place was such that people have an "it's not my job" attitude.. when you are dead tired, anyone can make a mistake, and having and enviroment where the cellar worker is comfortable telling something to the winemaker is a tremendous asset.
With this said, one of the most critical peices of equipment I packed was the "JDV Crush Cooler" ... this is kept full of ice, water, soft drinks and most importantly beer, thru out crush. keep in mind, "It takes a lot of beer to make wine" .... Believe me, when you are working in 90 degree heat lifting barrels, hoses, covered in grape juice, you are not reaching for a glass of Cabernet!! Icy cold beer makes you lots of friends, keeps your team happy. When the growers come in from the field, taking care of them is just as important. So, packed up , I pulled into the winery, and we bagan crush.
Once this begins, it is a pretty simple process. The grapes go into the destemmer/crusher. you can hand sort, pull out MOG ( matter other than grapes, which we will discuss in another blog) the now crushed grapes usually go into either a t-bin or stainless steel tank, and then a quick analysis is done to measure Brix, TA & pH. The readings all came out well, and there was general agreement that the fruit quality was excellent. I'd rather have great fruit quality but not enough of it, than have tons of crappy fruit. When picking , I kept reminding myself to only take the best bunches and do not settle for less in the name of quantity. We then innoculated the must and then added yeast the next day.
It is now a different feeling for me with my grapes in the barn, and the fermentation process under way. All the work for the past year in the vineyard is finished. That aspect of my job for this year is at a close. It even feels quiet somehow out in the vineyard. With my estate Zin in, I feel a bit relieved. I will be able to have my Zin in barrel as the hieght of crush hits. I am glad for this, as it is always a distraction when you have your personal project going at the same time you are working all the other fruit.
Now it is on to fermentation, measurements and punchdowns..

Next blog... "chewing up the sugar".....

"Laying the Game Plan"...

"Laying the Game Plan"
5:32 AM Aug. 16, 2008 - 0 comments - [ post comment ]
Yesterday, I ran some sample fruit up to the winery for analysis. I have been monitoring the Brix (sugar level) readings for the past month, and I have been constantly surprised at how fast the Zin has been progressing. My feelings were confirmed when the Brix, TA (total acidity) and pH readings all came back and said... "Pick now!" ... OMG!!! this is a full month early! Harvest is alot like having a baby. The Doctor can give you a due date, but the baby shows up when they are good & ready. Seems , much like my eldest daughter was, they are ready to go a full month early..
Preparing for crush involves a number of things. Checking equipment that you haven't used for a year, cleaning, moving equipment into place on the crushpad, cleaning, clearing space for fermentation, cleaning, checking & prepping hoses, ... did I mention cleaning?
This is also the time of year that a winemaker lays out his or her plan for harvest. As a winemaker, this time of year becomes nerve racking. you get only one shot at getting everything right, and you cannot do anything differently for another year. You begin with having an understanding of what the vineyard will give you. The more familiar you are with the vineyard, the easier it is to know what to expect, what to do or not do. Understanding the vineyards also allows you to work with the grower regarding pick. If you walk the vineyards, know what is going on, then you can have them pick from one row, but not another. You may find that one row has had broken irrigation line, the leaf pulls were not done correctly or that the fruit on the morning side of the vineyard is superior to the fruit on the afternoon side of the vineyard. Knowledge is power.
You also lay out the plans for what and how to go thru fermentation. What yeast to use? What nutrients? these can have a huge impact on your wines. A yeast that cannot motor thru fermentation or is not tolerant of certain temperature ranges can lead to a stuck fermentation or worse. Yeast also has alot to do with everything from color retention, to flavors & aromas. Deciding which of the many different yeasts to use is only the beginning.
How you want to approach fermentation is also critical to your wines and winemaking style. Cold Soak? punch down regimen? whole cluster fermentation? hand sort the fruit? how much if any stems & jacks ( the little bits of the stem the grapes attach to) do you leave in? This is the stage where you lay out how you think you want to go to work on the fruit. The best part, though is that as John Lennon said.. "Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans" The best laid plans are going to change and you have to deal with what comes your way during crush. Never let anyone kid you about this. Forget all the crap on the back of your wine bottle. Remember that wine is a living organic thing, and as such it is never the same, it is always different and you can never fully predict what and how things are going to happen.
One of the great tragedies of the growth of the wine business is that when you visit wineries, you almost never meet & talk with the winemakers. Instead, you chat with a tasting room employee who is generally more interested in a) what he or she is going to be doing on Friday night or b) getting you to sign up for their wine club so that they get a bonus. If you really want to understand the wine, find the winemaker. This is a great reason to get off the beaten path when touring wine country and get out to the small artisan and cult wineries. You will come back with more knowledge and appreciation from one visit, than a month at a large winery.... and you'll probably enjoy some kick ass wines!

Next blog.... "Picking at Harvest"

Wine Blog: Crush 2008

Wine Blog: 2008 Crush
11:22 AM on Aug. 14, 2008
One of the most interesting things to me is that you can appreciate wine from so many different perpsectives. As a consumer, producer, grower, winemaker, each has a unique take on wine and what it means. As we approach the 2008 harvest or "Crush" as it is referred to, I thought I would share my thoughts feelings and observations as a boutique winemaker in the Northern California wine country. As we go thru crush from now till about November, I'd like to share the work, intensity, craziness, pitfalls, and all the effort that goes into bringing fruit from the fields and turning it into wine. As we go, feel free to write back, laugh with (or at) what takes place and ask any sort of question..

Today, a bit of background.. I am a small (300 cases) producer working with my own Estate Zinfandel as well as Chardonnay, Syrah, Cab & Sauvignon Blanc. I work thru a winery located in the Livemore Valley just east of San Francisco. We are just south of Napa & Sonoma. Wine making has been taking place in Livermore for over a century.
I had been interested in wine for many years. Yet I always gravitated to the vineyards. While everyone else was in the winery tasting wines and admiring artwork or some such thing, I was out in the vineyard, looking at drip irrigation systems or trellis design. I owned a steep hillside property behind my home, and after a lot of thought, and research I decided to make the leap. In 2004, I planted an acre of Zin with a bit of Pinot Noir ( Why Pinot? you ask? Because I could!) The property was so steep everything had to be done by hand. I can assure you, that you get good at something once you've done it a few hundred times!
After planting, I had a couple of years to wait till I would have a meaningful harvest. At first I had no interest in winemaking. How ever I thought I would like to know more about the other side of the equation if you will.
I began taking classes at UC Davis, reading everything I could get my hands on. I went out and met with vineyard owners and winemakers. I began making wine in '04 with a Cab and became hooked. As I learned more about the wine business I realized that it was similar to many things in my own preofessional background. The idea of starting my own wine business grew and after writing a business plan and submitting it to two people I respect and knew were not enamoured by the romance of the wine business ,I asked them to review this and stop me before I did anything stupid..... I got a ringing endorsement from both of them and have been developing my small wine label since.
Two people that were very influencial on me were Jack Cakebread of Cakebread Cellars and Nancy Tentua of Tentua Vineyards. Both of them shared their own stories of getting started, and provided encouragement and advice.
I am now in my second year of bringing my wines to others. Last year, I served as a winemaking intern in Sonoma and was able to work with 4 different winemakers, all with different styles and approaches to making wine.
In 2008, it will be exciting to see what the vineyards bring us. In most cases making wine is this simple. Great wine is make in the vineyard. As winemaker, your job is to not screw up what nature gave you. This year, nature gave us frost, early heat, dry conditions and wildfires. It will be interesting to see what we make of this vintage...

Next blog..... "Laying the Game Plan"...........