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"...........