Category Archives: Winery

This Crush Is Almost Done

Crush Almost DoneThis crush is nearly over for me.

In my last post I talked about leaving Westwood and starting something new. Thanks to all who have contacted me expressing support. I assure everyone that leaving Westwood has not been especially traumatic. Some of you know that 5 years ago (nearly to the day) I started treatment for an aggressive stage IV cancer of the head and neck. Compared to that discovery, living through the (really, really painful) treatment and recovery, getting over an addiction to narcotics, and growing back my taste buds — this was nothing. Getting over some things is painful but leaving Westwood wasn’t one of them for me, and I’m thankful every morning I find myself on this side of the grass.

Plus my exit left me with the opportunity to do this new thing, entirely under my own power. For 2014 I bought grapes from the Westwood Estate and from the Thomson Vineyard on the Napa side of Carneros. I started picking early this year, on September 1st — the earliest since 2004. I finished picking September 17th: one of my shortest harvests ever and at just 17 days start to finish, one day longer than the disastrous and rainy 2011 vintage — and in contrast to that dreary year, under beautiful skies and perfect weather in 2014.

So far, I’d say the quality is outstanding. Sometimes I think of it at random and get an ecstatic thrill, raising the hair on my arms and neck. This is a better vintage than 2013, and portends to exceed even the legendary 2007. The wines are just so balanced and elegant, boldly delicate. While there are some in pursuit of balance, many who are not so dogmatic will have achieved it this vintage without even trying. My friend Marcel has dropped in several times, and he concurs.

The two of my three regular readers who have ever tasted my stuff know it is non che male and distinctive, perhaps because I take risks. They are calculated risks, based on hard-won knowledge and long experience, driven by conviction. I may be wrong at times but I’m never uncertain — and sometimes I fail as spectacularly as I succeed. (Um… I don’t bottle up the failures, or dwell on them. Lesson learned, move on.) I don’t have or need a muse. My inspirations are internal, all natural extensions of what I have experienced before and am dreaming up now.

Since I started making wine under my own power, I have sought to adhere to a simple, unadorned approach. I see my role as merely creating an environment where the grapes can express themselves and the wines can thrive. I have always sought to exercise a light, patient, and gentle hand. I do not possess my wines, imprison them and demand they entertain me. I don’t abuse them and try to bend them to my will. Instead, entrusted with a responsibility to treat them with respect, I nurture and watch over them and take pleasure in how they choose to reveal themselves. This vintage is no exception other than the fact that what I am seeing is so utterly unexpected and exciting.

This year I produced just five lots. Four are already fermented and pressed, and one of those is already resting in barrel. The experience of this vintage has felt sudden to me, and too brief. But I’m giving the final lot the space and time to see if it has a chance to become something more than it is today.

I’m giving the Cabernet an extended maceration, to see what might still develop — a calculated risk, made riskier by the new, unfamiliar, and at times inimical environment I find myself working in. Extended maceration mostly involves leaving the ferment alone, protecting it to keep it sweet, carefully smelling and tasting it every now and then to see if it is coming to me or moving away, on point to pull the trigger and get it off the skins when it is ready, or do what I can to rescue it if it goes sideways. This has the chance to become something really exciting. Or a disaster — but I’m an optimist. I’m doing this for the wine. But I’m also doing it for me.

Because this crush is almost over…
And I’m not ready for it to be …

Thoughts On The Napa Earthquake

Carneros highway break, Elise NerloveEarly Sunday morning the earth ruptured about 15 miles from my home. I was awake when the quake hit. It was twenty seconds of increasingly violent shaking that had me racing to the back of the house to get everyone under the doorways. Then it was over.

I was in the lab at UC Davis during the Morgan Hill event. I felt the building sway and worried a little that the gas cylinders next to me were clanging around but otherwise had no idea of the extent of the devastation suffered near the epicenter.

I was driving down the Silverado Trail when the Loma Prieta quake hit. It punted my truck into the oncoming lane. Fortunately there was no oncoming traffic (though perhaps they might have been pushed off the road by the same shockwave) but I was mildly alarmed that the announcer on the radio station I was listening to had time to say “what was that…?” before the signal turned to static.

But this was the strongest quake I have experienced, the first one where I felt fear for the lives of my family and friends. I’m forever grateful that nobody died, or was seriously injured. Given the damage that we saw in some of the barrel cellars… Broken Barrel, image by Carole Meredith …it is just very damned lucky that this quake hit at 3:20am on a Sunday morning, and not at 3:20pm on a workday. A full barrel weighs 600 lb. and has steel-reinforced sharp edges at both ends. People working in those cellars that suffered the kind of damage we’ve seen in images like the one above would have been maimed or killed.

Sunday wasn’t over before the punditry in media started hyperventilating. One that got my attention was an article in the Sacramento Bee, crying that the quake should be a “wake-up call” for the Napa Valley wine industry. Quoting Tom Rockwell, a seismologist at UC San Diego,

“…this could have been a much larger earthquake. What I mean by a wake-up call is I think it’s important for the industry up there to realize they do have an active fault that goes up the valley. It could produce earthquakes that are even larger than this.”

My first thought was “brilliant analysis, Mr. armchair quarterback 520 miles away.” I’ve been through the planning and permitting process for several wineries, and seismic risk is always taken into consideration. The West Napa Fault — the likely focus of the rupture — is identified as a zone of special investigation according to the provisions of the Alquist- Priolo Earthquake Fault Zoning Act of 1972. ABAG West Napa Fault shaking map This shaking intensity prediction map for the West Napa Fault provided by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) is evidence that anyone applying to build a structure in Napa likely doesn’t need a wake-up call when it comes to seismic risk.

Corison Winery in St. Helena was well out of the zone of most intense shaking, but like many of us winemaker Cathy Corison felt the quake, and posted on Twitter @cathycorison to reassure friends and family: Cathy Corison I was at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars when Loma Prieta hit, and our barrel stacks — like those at Corison — didn’t budge. Contrast this with barrels Steve Matthiasson @matthiassonwine had stored at one of the facilities in the damage zone: Matthiasson So yes, maybe the wine industry does need a wake-up call. Not a general wake-up regarding seismic risks, but a very specific call to stack our barrels more safely.

I spoke with Chris Cotrell (@FineWineSpecilst) — Morgan Peterson’s assistant @BedrockWineCo — after the quake and he said he’s never been more relieved that they switched to 4-barrel racks from the 2-barrel steel racks most commonly used in the industry. Even these 2-barrel racks can be constructed to enhance earthquake safety. It should concern all of us in the wine cellar that these features are not incorporated into our work environment.

In the meantime, friends and neighbors continue to clean up, pull their lives together, and get back to harvest. Napa schools are open today, and most grocery stores are cleaned up and re-stocking. But over a hundred buildings and counting are being red-tagged as uninhabitable. Some of our friends and neighbors have lost much and some of them are among those with the least wherewithal to rebuild. Like some of my friends I made a cash donation to Community Action Napa Valley ( and am taking a big bag of non-perishable items over to their food distribution center today.

Right after I get back from sampling a vineyard. After all, there’s grapes to be picked — earthquake or no.

Catching Our Breath …

At The Winery 9/16/13The title is meant to be slightly ironic. Walking into the winery right now it is actually difficult to catch one’s breath, as the CO2 being thrown off by all the fermenters in the picture above is nearly asphyxiating. But we are getting a little break in harvest, and metaphorically catching our breath from the hustle and the bustle of the last ten days.

We put together a wine club shipment at the end of August and started packing and shipping it the first week of September. We had a bottling scheduled for 9/4 that my normal bottling line needed to move to 9/3. I agreed to the change, with reservations, as scheduling ANYTHING the day after a long holiday weekend is risky. Unsurprisingly, we had equipment problems that forced us to cancel bottling with our normal truck.

Fortunately, the problems were resolved with minimal effort, but I still needed to bottle to free tank and barrel space before harvest. And harvest was coming—fast. Luckily, our neighbor across the way was also bottling and I was able to piggyback on their run. We bottled on 9/6.

On 9/7 we brought in our first grapes of the 2013 vintage—clones 115 and 667 of the Pinot Noir from our Estate vineyard. Our picking crews went to church on Sunday, but then we brought in grapes from the Estate every day the following week through Saturday. And on Sunday we rested.

The winery is full. In the picture above you can see 32 T-bins, each holding about 3/4-ton of fruit. I don’t have any empty T-bins at the winery, and probably could not buy, beg, borrow, or steal one right now even if I had to. The eight bins on the left are the pick from the first day, and are nearly done fermenting—I expect to start pressing those lots by the end of this week. The eight bins to the far right have not even started fermenting yet, but I expect the caps to have risen on feral yeast when I go into the winery later this morning.

One might ask “why is he writing at 3 am?” The answer is I napped from 9 pm to 1 am, then had to go in to do punchdowns—the absolutely necessary process of pushing the cap of grape skins down into the fermenting wine in each and every one of those tanks in the picture, mostly to release the heat generated by the yeast in the course of converting sugar to alcohol and the aforementioned CO2. I have to punch the caps down more or less every 6-12 hours, and due to uncontrollable factors just now I am on this ridiculous middle-of-the-night punchdown schedule.

But for the moment, we are taking a break from picking grapes. If the gods put a gun to my head I could bring in six more tons of fruit right now—I have two 3-ton wood fermenters just out of the picture that are almost ready to use (they need to be rehydrated every year so they don’t leak when filled)—but otherwise the winery is full until I get some Pinot pressed off and sent to barrels. Kyle and I are taking a little breather. Except for the punchdowns. And the pressing. And the barreling-down.

Here’s a few preliminary observations on our 2013 vintage:

  • The 2013 harvest started two weeks earlier than 2012, and a full six weeks earlier than the difficult 2011 vintage. This current vintage is starting out early, like the famous 2007 harvest.
  • Unlike 2007, the crop yields are up—making two years in a row that yields are above average, and that wineries are so full that some picking decisions are forced to be delayed waiting on tank space.
  • The grape quality is—so far—very, very good. Looking back, 1993 and 2003 were also excellent vintages for us; it appears that 2013 could perpetuate this decadal pattern.
  • I have noted that the coldest fruit we have brought in to date has only been as cold as 63°F, where in our “normal” past vintages we have brought fruit in at temperatures more like 45°F-55°F—even in early and otherwise “hot” harvests like 2004 and 2007. This is the strongest signal of climate change I have seen yet.
  • In spite of the relatively warm harvest temperatures, the majority of my Pinot ferments have been astonishingly tame. Where I have become accustomed to my Pinot ferments rocketing from around 22° Brix to 2° Brix or less in 12 hours or so, this year I am seeing mostly steady drops of 0.4-0.6° Brix an hour. This is such profound break from what I am used to regarding managing Pinot ferments that I am slightly unnerved by it.

So now it is 4 am and I am finally sleepy again. I will catch a couple hours and then meet Kyle at the vineyard to sample Syrah and Tannat. And maybe to find something to sacrifice on the altars of the weather gods so that we might be spared the rain that is forecast for the end of this week.

Calling Budbreak — Finally

PN 96, 4/12/2013 Everything has broken bud at the Estate vineyard, at last–even the late-breaking Counoise. That’s young, cane-pruned Pinot 96 in the image above, where shoots are already out about two inches.

We finally managed to get a little rainfall accumulation last week, nearly an inch last Thursday. You can also see in the image above that this has really helped push the cover crop, which is topping 2 ft. in some areas and is no less than 6″ anywhere. The bromes are setting good seed, and I’m seeing more rye and clover than I did last year. And the mix with turnip, marigold, and the many other annuals and perennials in our mix, is gorgeous.

PN 943 April 12, 2013 I just like this picture. What you can’t see from this particular angle is that a very large fraction of the buds in the Pinot are pushing two shoots, and most of them are sporting two clusters. This means we are in for a lot of work to manage canopy density and crop load this vintage. Traditionally we call and end to frost season in the middle of April, but the weather pattern has changed enough that I won’t stop worrying about frost until at least the start of May and more likely the middle of May. Jet and geese I snapped the pic above just before leaving the vineyard this morning: a small flock of geese with a low-altitude jet still throwing a contrail.

It’s been nearly six weeks since my last post, but then there has been a lot going on. First, my assistant (and friend) Justin Moulton moved on to a new job early in the year (he’s now managing the spirits program for Bounty Hunter in Napa). It took me a while but I eventually succeeded in bringing Kyle Altomare on board. Here’s a pic of the new guy: Kyle Altomare Kyle came to Westwood from Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, where he managed their wine club (which is substantially larger than ours). Kyle hopes to rapidly expand his knowledge of the industry through participating in all aspects of production, sales and marketing with me.

The other thing that has been occupying my attention is preparation for bottling. We did a pretty big day on Friday, April 5th: Bottling, April 5, 2013 We had originally scheduled the bottling for Thursday, but could not guarantee we would have all our labels in time. That turned out to be a blessing, as nearly an inch of rain fell (as I mentioned at the start of the post). Friday was supposed to be clear, but we ended up with an hour rain delay after we started on the day. Wasn’t too much of an issue, but I was very glad when it stopped.

I’m really happy to have got one of the best rosés I have ever made in the bottle. We also did a bottling for custom crush client, Marcel Petard—a white blend of 80% Roussanne and 20% Viognier. Marcel bought the juice from the grapes we pressed off for us to use the skins and seeds in our Syrah ferments. I thought Enkidu, Bedrock, or Tricycle would buy the juice, but this guy showed up at the right place at the right time with cash in hand. Don’t know a lot more about him or his brand, but we will be selling the wine for him out of our Tasting Salon. 2013 New Wines

Finishing Our 2012 Harvest

End Of Harvest October 31, 2012
We are picking our last grapes of the season this morning: Grenache and Counoise. It is supposed to start raining this afternoon—probably about an inch, locally. For those that need to wait it out, the grapes can probably handle it. But our stuff is ready and ripe. I take a certain satisfaction in picking our last fruit right up against a storm.

We have been bringing in fruit for six weeks, just a few days longer than average but twice as long as last year and nearly 2 weeks less than our record 8-week long 2007 harvest. At this point Justin and I are working at half speed for safety, but still making a few physically painful mistakes. Winemaking is hard work—as I posted on Facebook the other day I feel like I lost a fight with a bunch of bikers.

The quantities of fruit we have brought in have been huge—and it’s not been just us. Pretty much every winery I have been in contact with has been full to capacity since the second week of harvest. The heavy yields drove spot prices for every variety down to a third of pre-harvest contract prices. This abundance may lead to some temporary softness in the local bulk market, but consumers should not expect to see lower wine prices in a year or two. The dismally tiny 2012 harvest in Europe will even out the global wine supply.

I am so thankful that the quality of the wines we are producing this year is just amazing! This is not 2007—the acid levels in the fruit were nowhere near as high—but the concentration is there, as is the tannic structure. The 2012 wines are going to be more elegant than the 2007s but no less powerful and long-lived. And there are going to be very few low-alcohol grands vins from our area this year—in general, ripeness happened at relatively high sugar levels across the board.

Harvest may be over today, but vintage is not done yet, for me or for anyone else. We have a shortage of barrels here in the North Coast. I’m getting a couple of calls and emails a day from people looking for anything to store in. We are even seeing random strangers walking into the winery asking if we have any barrels for sale. I’m going to be OK if I can find tank space to put wine that is currently in barrel but it is going to be tight.

We have another month of work before we can put the wines to bed. I have a bottling to do as well. I may be able to poke my head up by Christmas. But I’m relieved that our fruit is safely in the barn. Today is a good day.

End Of The “Perfect” 2012 Harvest

Cabernet at the Estate, Oct 16, 2012
The next couple of days are the last time this season that the fruit at our Estate will look this good. Monday it will start raining, with another rainy front forecast for Wednesday and another for Friday (thought the latest forecast update suggests these later two storms may slide to the north of us).

A week of rain is not a good thing for grapes hanging on the vine, as we demonstrated in 2009, 2010 and 2011. After the last three difficult vintages we were all excited about the potential for 2012 to be the “perfect” growing season, but it is shaping up to be just another year where we have wines made “before the rain” and stuff we made “after the rain.”

Still I’m jazzed at what we have accomplished so far. We started this harvest a month ago and the fruit we have brought in has been outstanding. By comparison, in 2011 we didn’t pick our first fruit until October 19th—ten days after a huge storm that dropped 5″ of rain across the region.

This weather has the potential to hurt us, but probably won’t do much more than knock down the dust. The upside is that the break will give us a chance to catch our breath in the winery—we still have a lot of stuff we need to press and get put down to barrels.

2012 Harvest: Halftime

Welcome to the 2012 Harvest Halftime Show…

Full Tanks Oct 01, 2012Yes, that’s right—it’s the second week of October and I think we are about halfway through the harvest. So far I have brought in 32 tons of Pinot Noir from our Estate vineyard, and drips and dabs of a few other varieties, mostly for customers. By comparison, this is at the tonnage (or more) than I brought in for all varieties in every vintage since 2007. Partly this is due to seven acres of young vines that we cropped for the first time this year, but the big news of the 2012 vintage is that, across the North Coast, for all varieties brought in so far, nearly without exception, the crop load is unexpectedly heavy.

Forthwith, here’s some bullet points on what I believe will define 2012:

  • Grapes are coming in at 50% over estimates. Anybody who tells you different is lying. The culprit here is mother nature, not “greedy growers.” Nobody planned to hang this kind of tonnage. We thinned to set cluster counts per vine as we always do, and for whatever reason the cluster weights just blew up.
  • Despite the heavier-than-expected crop loads, quality is outstanding—the best I’ve seen since 2007: excellent physiological ripeness, thick deeply-colored skins, high seed content, and intense flavors.
  • The weather has been as perfect as the weather can be. It has been dry, cool, warm when we needed it, and dry. Did I mention that it’s been dry? Dry is good. Unlike 2009, 2010 and 2011 we have absolutely zero rot. So far. (But it’s only halftime, so “shhhhhhh.”)
  • The cool, dry weather has meant long hang time. This has led to moderately low acids (unlike the high acids in 2003 and 2007) but with better tartaric/malic balance than in recent years, relatively low potassium levels and decent pH levels—all amenable to judicious adjustment.
  • The heavy crop correlates with lower than average juice nutrient levels: there’s only so much nitrogen to go around, and when the crop comes in heavy the levels of ammonia and assimilable nitrogen are lower. Winemakers that are not feeding their ferments are going to run into trouble, especially if they are relying on feral yeasts to do the job.
  • The heavy crop correlates with other things—logistical things. First we ran into labor shortages. The industry relies on migrant labor. The poor economy has meant fewer migrants, which means we have to rely on the smaller pool of skilled permanent residents to manage a larger harvest. Add to this gas prices north of $4.50/gallon and it’s no surprise that the crews are going for the picks where the biggest money is. Several times so far this harvest I have had to delay bringing in fruit because my crew decided they would rather jump on a 20-ton pick before my 8-ton pick. The driver for the decision on when to pick went from “are the grapes ready?” to “is there a crew and equipment available?”
  • The labor situation has turned around a little since the start of harvest. The heavy crop has meant that growers have been delivering well over contracted tonnages, unless the wineries have been adamant about only taking the contracted amounts. And ripening has been bunched up: for example, Chardonnay and Cabernet are both coming in right now, which is unusual. What this has led to is no empty fermenters in either valley for the time being. Many of us, myself included, have grapes ready to pick but no place to put them.
  • And these delays in picking mean that the fruit that is going to be coming in over the next couple weeks, as we free up fermenter space, is going to have higher sugars than we might prefer. Remember how all the cool kids were blathering on for the last couple of years about how “alcohol levels are coming down”? Well, they are going back up.

And that’s about it from the trenches.

We are starting to press and barrel down some of the best Pinot we have ever made over the next couple days. The band and cheerleaders are coming off the field, and by next week we will have the team back out there, bringing in grapes as fast as we can manage: Tannat, then Syrah, then Mourvedre, then Grenache, and finishing with Counoise. Wish us luck, and pray for more dry weather.

Necessary Pre-Harvest Shopping

Macro Plastics macro-bin (front) & T-bin My industry friends will recognize these! The other day my vineyard manager asked “so are you going to buy more Macros for harvest?” Yes. Yes, I am. And more T-bins, too. I find it a little amazing that I have been doing this long enough that the price of a Macro-bin has more than doubled from back in the day.

Out every other morning, wandering the vineyard counting clusters and guessing at what the weights are going to be—I have no doubt in my mind that I am looking at my largest harvest yet off the Estate vineyard. Partly it is that I have 7 acres of young vines coming into production. But mostly it is that I’m seeing the best set of fruit I have ever seen at this property. I need more picking and fermenting capacity.

I’m also in the middle of managing construction in our production space: new water, power, and drains. Need to get this work done before the bottling truck gets here, and bottling needs to get done before I start picking any grapes. Since my last post was about the start of veraison, I’ve got about two months to get ready.

And this year I will be ready.

2011 Vintage—Not That Bad!

vineyard weather

“I have never seen anything like this…”

I heard this sentiment expressed by more growers and winemakers during the 2011 harvest than ever before in my 25 years of doing this. I said it myself any number of times. It’s not that any one thing about this vintage stood out on its own as unusual or unprecedented. What was unusual was the additive effects of the sheer number of unusual factors. I brought experience to bear on the problems we faced. Also, I was very lucky. Our wines have turned out well. So as we sail into 2012 here is my look back at the wild, wonderful 2011 (n.b.—long post ahead). Continue reading

Harvest 2010 — Initial Debrief

I’ve gone on and on here about how this was such a tough vintage. I saw some really awful vineyard problems (luckily, few in our vineyard), heard some unprecedented horror stories from growers and winemakers, and tasted some pretty sketchy wines (thankfully, none of them in our winery).

When the 2010 Grape Crush Report comes out, I think we will see yields down 20% from averages here in the North Coast. Zinfandel may be down more; Syrah will probably be down less. Cabernet may be down but I don’t have a good handle on that — folks just aren’t talking about how much fruit may not have been picked because it rotted or senesced before it got ripe. White grapes in the coastal and riverine appellations reportedly suffered heavy losses to mildew in the early part of the season and sunburn later.

As I have noted, we lucked out and avoided the worst of these problems in our Estate vineyard. We experienced no mildew and little sunburn. I’ve now identified three errors I made this year in the vineyard: one strategic, one tactical, and one unavoidable. In my earlier post I discussed the strategic error of not following a program of maintenance irrigation through the season. The downside to this failure this season was that we saw leaf senescence earlier in the year than we might have otherwise. I’m not sure if/how this may have affected juice quality. The upside is that the root systems of the vines should have responded by digging deeper, faster than they ever have to date — meaning that we may need even less irrigation in the future.

The tactical error came late in the season. In retrospect, I should have responded sooner than I did to the rains between October 21th and 29th with heavier thinning and more canopy opening in the Counoise. In prior years this variety has shown good resistance to Botrytis, and I relied on this experience more than I should have. This year the Counoise rotted, and we had to drop 2/3 of the crop before we finally picked.

The “unavoidable” error was getting caught out by frost which damaged the Grenache. I mentioned this back in June but it wasn’t until October that we finally got a handle on how much crop we lost. We had no forecast warning of this particular frost event, and the cold air rushed down the hill above us so fast that the damage had been done before we could have turned on the frost protection. Farming.

A lot of predictions have been made that this will be a very “European” vintage, especially with respect to higher than usual acid levels and lower pH. I have heard some reports that folks brought in some Sauvignon Blanc with screaming acids early in the season, but didn’t hear much after that. The acid levels in our juice were pretty average, but — surprising me — the potassium levels were also relatively low though the pH was high. The concern is that with low potassium, the wines will stabilize with high acid levels as well as high pH.

The finished alcohols in our wines are turning out lower than average — so far I have measured nothing over 14% (for a change). Our grapes achieved what I would describe as “average” physiological ripeness in the seeds, skin and pulp at sugar levels that were less ripe, acid levels that were on the high side of “normal” and at pH levels that were over-ripe. I don’t have an explanation for this.

There may be a few wines coming out of the North Coast in the 2010 vintage that are relatively thin and vegetal (IMO — this does not equate to “European”) but so far it seems that these will be the exception and not the rule. Certainly none of the wines that I have made so far this vintage are thin or vegetal — even the Grenache and Counoise that we picked so late. Again, this vintage for us it was all about the luck. My skills were hardly challenged, though my patience was.