Monday, October 1, 2012


Grapes are an agricultural product. After the fruit sets in the late spring it ripens slowly during the summer and into the fall. As harvest approaches the time comes to begin sampling the various vineyards from which we source our grapes to get an idea for when we will pick the fruit. I’ve never experienced commercial farming in any form besides grapes, but the nature of winemaking calls for rather precise monitoring. If the grapes get too ripe, high sugars generally translate to high alcohol (which, more or less is undesirable… see the alcohol debate in California Pinot Noir). Too ripe means very low acidity, which is also undesirable, making for a ‘flabby’ wine that won’t drink or age well.  Pick too soon and you will have very high acidity but also run the risk of  ‘green’ and undesirable flavors and compounds that won’t help the end result. Of course there are always ways to manipulate the juice into a desired form, and many producers follow suit. To me, the end goal is making the best wine possible with the least amount of intervention. I think that’s everyone’s goal, as a small producer at least.

The entire growing season affects how the final crop will turn out, down to the day. Sometimes the most stressful part of it all comes in the last week or two prior to picking. Take this year, for example, as the season has been relatively normal. This weekend we’re experiencing what’s called a ‘heat-spike’ where the temperatures rise well above normal and if it’s extreme enough, can damage or ruin the entire crop. Hail, rain, frost, there are many worries. There’s a lot of talk about and time spent looking at the weather during the end of summer and early fall in the wine industry.

I’ve logged hundreds, thousands of miles in the past month driving around to various vineyards in Sonoma and Lake counties visiting small, rural, often family owned vineyard sites, hiking up and down rows with landscaping clippers in one hand and a plastic bag in the other. I cut clusters off the, trying to get the most accurate representation of where the vineyard is at as a whole in it’s ripening. I’ll bring the samples back to the winery, crush up the grapes and strain the juice off into beakers, going on to test the sugar content and measures of acidity present in the juice. From there I’ll have a pretty good idea of the overall ripeness, but I think the foolproof method always comes back to taste. If the numbers look right, but the juice doesn’t taste ready, we’ll wait it out. If the juice tastes ready, but the numbers don’t look quite right, we might just take a risk and call for a pick (this year we had to sign a wavier from one of the growers because we picked at a ripeness that was too low for his contracted threshold).

Even with the other stresses of a busy harvest season involved, there’s something to be said about getting out of the wet and artificially lit winery, out of the city and driving through the windy country roads outside Occidental or Sebastopol. Thistles in my leg hair, sticky grape juice running down my forearm, dirt in the cracks of my boots, and sunburn on my face, these are the uncomfortable sensations out in the vines that I somehow find comforting.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Remember the first time you ever stayed up past midnight?

The day started off early. I was out of the house by six, fueled by a cup of oil-thick stovetop espresso made pleasant with ample sugar and half and half. Destination: Keller Estate, also called La Cruz Vineyard. The midnight pick of our 114 clone Pinot Noir was well finished and I was headed down to make sure the fruit got loaded on the truck without fail and collect grape samples from a few other vineyard blocks of Pinot Noir. I cruised down the 101 just before rush hour hit and made my way out some country roads to the ostentatious landscape. The fog in the air was heavy and the temperature cool as the winds started clearing the sky and the sunrise signaled another day of harvest.

Fast forward a couple hours, back in Santa Rosa, to the grapes arriving at the winery stacked in giant plastic bins on the back of the flatbed. Bob, the trucker, was happy to deliver. We weighed the valuable freight and manned the sorting line. Today we would be making some very fine rosé. Half the grapes were sorted ‘whole cluster’ and dumped into the press; the juice squeezed out over a two-hour process, aromatic dark pink nectar reminiscent of strawberries and cinnamon with just enough acidity to tickle the tongue. The other half, crushed and de-stemmed, put to tank to soak for 12 hours and leech some color from the thin purple skins. This latter batch would be why tonight I had a flashback to the first time I stayed up past midnight.

I don’t remember too many details, but the image is vivid in my mind: sitting in the den in my pajamas, maybe age six, with some sparkling grape juice in hand nestled up to the television with family as we awaited the countdown to the ball drop on a new year.  I don’t know what was cooler, sipping bubbly like the adults, seeing the new year’s broadcast, or being able to be badass enough to be up past midnight.

During harvest being up past 12am is not only typical, it’s pretty much certain. Added to morning starts often before sunrise and regular recreation post workday, sleep becomes an afterthought. With the fact that the grapes were not processed until after 9am and needed to sit for 12 hours so the juice would have contact with  skins, the time to commence the second pressing  needed to be after 9pm. A two hour press cycle and a cleanup time of an hour MINIMUM meant I was, today, at the winery until just after midnight. Luckily I had my boss and another guy there to help, with Funkadelic blaring and enough Lagunitas to make a guy happy. As we were finishing up, my feet soaked through my boots, arms sticky with juice and hair matted down underneath a beanie from an awkward sensation of sweating in the cool autumn night, I carried a clean hose to the drying rack and laughed to myself…
Remember the first time you ever stayed up past midnight?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Back at it.

It's been a while (seems to be a theme in the beginning of my last few postings).
I'm back in California to work yet another harvest. #Harvest2012 was calling my name and I figured it was time for me to get back in the cellar. All irresponsibly and impulsively, I quit my retail job in Minneapolis and made the move back out to the West Coast at the invite of an old friend.
I'm living in Santa Rosa, working for Ryan Zepaltas helping manage all the projects he has his winemaking hands involved in. We call it the 'executive style' harvest as I'll be doing a lot more managing and coordinating than tank and drain cleaning. Hopefully I'll still get a chance to get in there and get my hands dirty once and a while. From what I hear, the weather this season has been relatively 'normal,' especially compared to a number of difficult vintages prior. Pending some terrible terrible change of events, it looks like things could turn out quite sanely.

I've already had a breadth of experiences in the few weeks I've been here. Last week I was in PA representing our wine at a couple trade tastings in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The weekend before I helped a friend pour his wines in the WineLands tent at the Outsidelands music festival and got to see a heap of great bands for free (a Stevie Wonder sound check at 10am and Jack White guerilla concert in the woods to name a few). The food was amazing too. The weekend before that I was again representing Zepaltas, this time at the West of the West festival. It was a gathering of small producers promoting the authenticity of the far Western reaches of the Sonoma Coast AVA. There were some surreal moments when I had to quell my inner excitement as I found myself standing shoulder to shoulder with winemaking giants, this time as a peer and not a distant admirer (see: high school girl backstage at boyband concert).

Most recently, I've spent the majority of my time logging hundreds of miles on my trusty Subaru as I drive from vineyard to vineyard collecting grape samples. We have no 'estate vineyards,' no bucolic setting. Our winery is in a business park, a winemaking ghetto. So much for any romance. Strictly business, tasty tasty business. I guess we could be called Negociants. We leave the grape growing to the farmers. It's our duty, as winemakers to take the quality grapes they give us and not mess anything up. As many people, especially those in Burgundy say, 'great wine is made in the vineyards.' That being said, I'm excited to spend so much time out in the vines as it's something I've really never had a chance to do.

Now and the coming weeks leading up to picking are quite exciting as the grapes really start to change. They develop all their color and start to mature towards optimal ripeness (Veraison). With the juice collected from each sample we can analyze the acid and sugar content (among other things) to tell us how long it will be before we will pick. We can also gain a general idea for how the winemaking process will transpire. The focus of our winemaking is Pinot Noir, however, Chardonnay, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc all get serious attention. I'm excited to be on board. The wines have a very distinct signature of higher acidity, lower alcohol, finesse and food friendliness that help them stand apart from many others. They're wines I would buy to drink on my own; it's so much more enjoyable to get behind a brand you believe in. Ryan is doing it right.

I'm going to try to post more as harvest starts up again, but I've proven in the past that it could be difficult. Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Food (and wine) Porn

My days off lately seem to largely consist of sleeping in without an alarm, a trip to the co-op, an afternoon at the coffee shop down the street, and a mouthwatering feast of feasts to wrap up the night. Life is good, I must say.

Today was no different. Inspired by the crock-pot that I discovered in my belongings during my latest move (a gem of an appliance that had sadly never gotten attention from me), I embarked on an online search for a worthy recipe. Winner: Jambalaya. The recipe I chose was nothing out of the ordinary, and the only change I made was in adding an habanero and red chili pepper (which did wonders in stepping up the spice factor).

Given the fact that I owed myself a sleep-in after a stunning night out, the crock pot didn't actually get rolling until about three in the afternoon; the fast track was my only option. Next time I'll have to plan better so the grub stews in it's juices for an entire day, not just half of one.

I set off for the cafe around four and tossed a bottle of 2008 Villa Maria Marlborough Riesling in the fridge before leaving my chilly bachelor pad, my mind and mouth drooling at the prospects of the aromas that would fill them upon my return. Three hours of coffee, conversation, and cigarettes with old friends (one who's an old, Ethiopian Mathematical Genius of a Janitor at the U of M who knew me at the green age of 18 when I was slinging espresso to pay my tuition) warmed my soul and a long dive into a book on Biodynamic Wine by Nicolas Joly filled my carefree time.

Seriously, when I opened the main door to my apartment complex, I could smell the cayenne, thyme, onion and pork stewing in harmony two floors above. Unlocking the door to my apartment, I was hit with a humid wave of sensory bliss. Two more hours passed before I put on a pot of wild Minnesota rice, dropped some frozen shrimp into the jambalaya, and waited, very patiently.

The Riesling tasted pretty watery and un-appealing before dinner, part of which I attribute to the fact it was very very cold. As it warmed a bit, notes of kiwi-fruit and grapefruit tickled my tongue with pleasant acidity, though I wished there would have been a touch more of residual sugar. (If you've never had Riesling from New Zealand, I compel you to do so. You are definitely missing out). Nonetheless, when I finally filled my bowl and dived into the meal I'd spent the better part of the day preparing and followed a mouthful of severely spicy mush with a sip of the waxy juice, I actually yelled out loud in joy. Even though I had nobody to share in the wealth, I like to think I make my neighbors jealous with the aromas that frequently waft from under my door and through my walls. Now I can't stop thinking about how the left-overs will taste tomorrow for lunch, and the day after, and the day after. Too bad I can't drink wine with lunch at my current job in the States.
Oh the joy in being a food loving wine-geek.