Category Archives: Winemaking

What I do

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 …

Are Winemakers “Bad” Tasters?

“The Tasting Panel” magazine is one of those small wine publications that boosts its circulation by sending free copies to wineries and other trade outlets. Otherwise I would have missed this gem of a column by editor-in-chief Anthony Dias Blue:

Why Are Most Winemakers Terrible Tasters?

Some years ago, I called out a certain large winery about their wines, which were consistently overwhelmed with vegetal flavors. The winemaker couldn’t understand what I was talking about. To him, the wines tasted exactly the way they were supposed to taste. He had become cellar blind.

Winemakers seem obsessed with flaws. Clearly, many American winemakers have been taught in their university courses to put each wine through a rigorous check list of defects. They are adept at breaking a wine into many pieces. This obsessive attention to detail can obscure the view of the wine as a whole… to miss the individuality and character of a wine. The wine completely without flaws is going to be a wine without character, an innocuous, boring and totally forgettable wine.

When I became director of the San Francisco Competition one of my first official acts was to nicely but firmly tell all winemaker judges to stay home.

Then, paradoxically and apparently without irony, ADB finishes his piece with:

Winemakers, listen up. Go out there and taste other wines, a lot of other wines. Maybe someday you’ll get to be a judge and, more important, it’s sure to make your own wines better.

Tony, Tony, Tony… where to start? First off, I’m going to dismiss the assertion that a wine without flaws is always, by definition, “a wine without character, an innocuous, boring and totally forgettable.” This apologia—that there is a distinction between flaws and faults, and that the former are forgivable in certain wines while the latter are not—seems to be making the rounds just now in the various media. This is hogwash. There is no distinction. And while flaws/faults can be tolerated at certain levels (levels which vary from taster to taster and flaw to flaw) they are never to be celebrated.

Secondly, it is a winemaker’s job to say: “I am making this wine to taste like THIS, not like THAT.” Every winemaker does this—each of us has an archetype, an ur-form, an ideal that informs and inspires the profile of each wine we choose to make. This is not “cellar blindness”, it’s conviction.

Third, again, it is our job to be able to thoroughly deconstruct any wine and identify flaws. Any winemaker that can’t do this doesn’t deserve the title. And the ability to do this is a prerequisite natural talent—not something “taught in university courses.” Some winemakers choose to intersect professionally with wine only in this mode, but every one I know (and that is a considerable number) in their personal relationship with wine appreciates the whole, and understands individuality and character—perhaps on a level a mere wine judge can only dream of.

And that leads to my final point. It was Anthony’s exhortation that “maybe someday you’ll get to be a judge” that I found utterly risible, in that it’s ridiculousness had me nearly falling off my chair with laughter. Anthony seems have to have forgotten something. The Right StuffIn the world of wine, us winemakers are the astronauts. We are the ones with the training, the skills, the talent, the intuition, the guts—the right stuff—to fly this thing. Guys like Anthony are the ground crew: indispensable, talented, specialized. We couldn’t do what we do without them. But we don’t aspire to do what they do.

No, I think it’s Anthony and his like in the ground crew that need to get out more. They have fallen into the same sort of complacent trap exhibited by Howard Chua-Eoan in the misogynistic bit of dross he recently penned for TIME Magazine, “13 Gods Of Food“. In her exquisite riposte, chef Amanda Cohen notes:

One thing we all have to keep in mind when reading these pieces… is that Mr. Chua-Eoan can only include what he knows and, like most editors, he spends so much time typing that he can’t get out into the world like the rest of us and see what’s actually going on. Instead, he’s trapped in a bubble, going to the same parties again and again, seeing the same chefs over and over, fighting for gift bags at the same events as all the other food editors.

Mr. Chua-Eoan can’t get out into restaurants like us normal people and meet chefs on his own… [he] is not so lucky. He has to meet chefs at special events which, as we all know, have their own problems inviting women. It’s a human centipede out there and instead of criticizing we should all just count ourselves lucky our mouths aren’t stitched to some event organizer’s anus.

I don’t have the same level of disdain for wine editors that Chef Cohen apparently has for their counterparts in food media, but her point about “the bubble” is as real in our industry as it is in hers. I believe that folks in the wine media simply can’t get out enough to know what is really going on.

Anthony Dias Blue’s view of winemakers and their tasting modes are clearly based on just a few anecdotes. According to the frequently mis-quoted UC Berkeley political scientist Raymond Wolfinger, anecdotes ARE data—but only when you have enough anecdotes. As my fellow winemaker (and excellent taster) Tyler Thomas commented when I pointed out ADB’s column to him, statistical certainty is dependent on sample size.

But really, I do get it that it’s a lot of work acquiring an adequate sample size to understand how winemakers actually taste wine in the wild. It’s just so much easier for guys like Anthony Dias Blue to create an under-informed, simpleminded fiction. And their readers will never know how they are being misled.

…And Then There Were None

Clear Deck 9/27/13Compare this picture to my last post. Thirty-two bins of Pinot are pressed off, and I have not brought anything in since the 14th. If you don’t work in a winery you can hardly appreciate how much of a luxury this is, to be able to clear the decks between bringing in waves of fruit.

We had a little rain the morning of the 22nd. The forecast was for a tenth of an inch. We received about a half an inch, and I know a few vineyards up our way that got nearly an inch. This was worrisome—we don’t expect or need a lot of rain midway through September—but didn’t amount to much agitá in the end, as we had a few very dry and windy days after to dry out the fruit before rots could set in.

As luck would have it, we had two crews doing a night pick of the remainder of our Pinot at the Estate for another winery when the rain started to come down hard at 2am. We tarped what we had picked—half of the total job—and the crews went home. The trucker showed up at 5:30am to load. Radar showed that the rain was going to stop around noon, and the winery indicated they were fine with accepting wet fruit. We convinced the crews to come back and pick the rest. They finished about 4pm but the trucker refused to come back to take the second load. (It’s been like this all harvest; I can’t remember ever having to deal with drivers this overworked and surly.) Anyway, the buyer finally found someone who would haul for us, and we got the last load delivered by 8pm. Long day.

Today the weather is perfect: warm, very dry and slightly breezy. It smells and feels like indian summer weather. We are picking Syrah for customers Sunday and Monday, then picking Syrah, Roussanne, and Tannat for ourselves Tuesday and Wednesday. I expect to be long in Syrah just like we were in Pinot, so I will spend the rest of the week looking for buyers.

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.

I “Must” Do WHAT?

Rubs Me The Wrong WayThis past Thursday, W. Blake Gray put up an interview with Clark Smith he titled “Winemakers Must Come Clean”. Maybe it’s because I’m running on little sleep and a lot of stress, but this just rubbed me the wrong way. There’s are many things I HAVE to do over the next couple of months (and into the future) but “come clean” is not one of them.

Clark is plumping his new book, “Postmodern Winemaking”. In his interview with Blake, Clark asserts:

“Almost everybody uses technology, but they want to be seen as on the artisanal side. That’s why we all ‘do the minimum,’ whatever the hell that is. It’s an illusion, and we’ve worked very hard to create it. I’m offering an alternative that we just be straight with people.”

Clark Smith is an interesting guy. I’ve known him nearly 30 years—I taught him biochemistry lab when he was studying at UC Davis, and he hired me for my first winery job at R.H. Phillips in 1987. Clark has always been a strong advocate of technology in winemaking (he’s built a couple business on it) and he’s never lacked for an opinion.

Clark has long been a proponent of interventionist methods for improving mediocre wines made from average grapes—which means the target market for his approach represents most of the wine made in the world. Technology IS good, and we can thank numerous technological improvements—some with Clark’s fingerprints all over them—for the fact that industrial wines have never been better.

But I take issue with the disconnect in his statement:

I’m offering an alternative that we just be straight with people.”

This statement supposes a “we” that doesn’t exist. A lot of wines really ARE made with very little input of recently developed technology—Clark’s all inclusive “we” is false. In fact, most wines are made without these technological interventions.

But beyond that, I object to the implication that “we” are not being straight with our customers if we don’t trumpet how “we” are using technology in our winemaking. And Blake Gray’s “must come clean” headline not only plays into the implication, it further implies that by not touting the technological solutions sometimes used in some winemaking, all winemakers are engaging in sordidly deceiving our customers.

If a winemaker is careful and lucky, most modern winemaking technology is unnecessary. Flash détente, centrifugation or filtration, micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, spinning cone, velcorin—every one of these processes is like a medical procedure, and using them is an explicit admission that something went wrong and needs to be fixed. In the barely-controlled chaos of industrial wine production, things go wrong all the time and these tools and procedures are absolutely necessary.

But just because these tools and procedures can rescue a bad situation does not mean they make better wine when things are going well. I have tasted the results over the years, and I have concluded—as a scientist who has done the duo-trio/triangle tastings and run the stats, as well as a winemaker—that wines made with these methods do not taste as good as wines made without them. The same goes for Clark’s absurd contention that oak alternative/extract flavor is as good as new barrel.

One of the commenters on Blake’s piece noted:

“If Mr. Clark’s methods ensured the best possible wine is produced, the world would be beating a path to his door.”

In other words—we aren’t stupid—if these technological procedures really did make the best wine, every one of us would be using them all the time. Clark is a smart guy, but his insistence that “we” are deluding ourselves about the inherent superiority of traditional methods and the actual utility of these new technologies would be insulting if it weren’t so laughable.

And the same goes for the assertion that “we” must “come clean” about using these technologies. If our customers cared, we would. Our marketing people would insist on it. When I have a customer who wants the nitty-gritty details of how I made the wine in their glass, I give it to them honestly. But every one of us in this industry knows that the VAST majority of people who buy and hopefully enjoy our product have zero interest in knowing how it is made. What they care about is that it tastes good, and that the taste validates their decision to have spent the amount of money they did.

It serves Clark Smith’s agenda to legitimize these technological tools. But it is overly self-serving to imply that “we” are all using these tools all the time, and lying about it to our customers. That is a “fake-troversy.” Blake Gray is hardly the first journalist to sell an article based on a fake-troversy, and I’m not critical of that. It just rubbed me the wrong way.

In a couple of months, when I can get some time, I won’t be so grumpy. I can chill out, and get someone to rub me the right way. Rubbing Me The Right Way

Acid Trip Mea Culpa

Acid Trip by Sergeant KeroroThe 2013 harvest is coming up in in a few weeks. Every year I start planning the next vintage as soon as the previous one is done, but as the harvest draws near the thought process gets particularly fraught. About now I make a dispassionate, unstinting assessment of what worked and what didn’t, and what I’m going to do differently this year.

Back in April I released out 2010 Estate Pinot Noir. Let me say at the outset — I LOVE this wine. It is complex, fruity, mineral, has great concentration,and is generally representative of our vineyard site and my winemaking goals. I believe that this wine has the potential for at least 20 years of positive development.

And I also believe it could have been better.

I’m absolutely certain that it is my fault that it is not.

This Pinot exhibits two characteristics that are the direct result of things I did or didn’t do in the winery, things that I made a conscious choice about. 1) The wine exhibits ethyl acetate — a very fruity, estery, slightly chemical solvent smell. We used to say “it smells like airplane dope” because model dope is mostly ethyl acetate. But almost nobody builds those kind of planes any more. Anyway, the wine has a pronounced whiff of ethyl acetate. And 2) the wine is VERY acidic.

Both of these things are there because of choices I made in the winery. The ethyl acetate is there because I chose to not inoculate the Pinot Noir with a commercial strain of Saccharomyces yeast. For years I have been allowing the Pinot fermentations to take off on indigenous yeast — the yeast present on the grapes and winery equipment. One of these indigenous yeast is Kloeckera — a fairly robust fermenter that produces ethyl acetate as a by-product of fermentation.

In past vintages, I have allowed the Kloeckera to conduct part of the ferment, and then inoculated with Saccharomyces both to ensure that all the sugar is used up in the ferment (Saccharomyces is more alcohol-tolerant than Kloeckera, and so will complete the fermentation of high-sugar musts that would challenge most Kloeckera strains) but more importantly: for the Saccharomyces to take up and metabolize the ethyl acetate produced by the indigenous Kloeckera.

The 2010 Pinot fruit came in at lower than average sugar — 23.9° Brix. The ferments blasted through, such that Kloeckera pretty much completed the fermentation before the Saccharomyces could take over—much less dominate—the yeast population in the tanks. The ethyl acetate was there, and there it stayed. I actually like it a little, but it doesn’t need to be there. And a part of me still associates ethyl acetate with some nasty-ass “natural” wines I tried back in the 70s and 80s. Lesson for 2013: Don’t allow the strain of Kloeckera I have floating around the winery to dominate the ferments.

But I have a bigger issue with the high acid level in this wine. I have posted before about the 2010 vintage. The vintage presented a number of winemaking challenges arising from the relative coolness of the season. The juices had normal to slightly above normal levels of acidity, more malic relative to tartaric than usual, unusually LOW levels of potassium, and relatively high pH. Trial tartaric adds did not drop the pH significantly, and so I made little or no acid addition to the various lots.

What surprised me with the 2010 Pinot was that very little of the total acidity fell out of solution as tartrates. The resulting wine was tart post-malolactic. And this is where I did something I have sometimes chastised consulting clients for: I let a philosophy trump practicality.

The philosophy was “hey let’s be more natural and true to the site and the vintage, and keep the number of additions to a minimum.” The practicality is that this wine probably would have tasted better if I had added a little carbonate (to precipitate some of the acidity). I never even did the trial. But here’s the reality — with all due respect to Alice Feiring, Raj Parr, Jon Bonné, Dan Berger and all the other writers and sommeliers (and winemakers) touting a lower alcohol, higher acid style of wine:

High acid wines are just not as enjoyable to drink as wines with moderate, balanced acidity.

I’m no fan of what I call “cocktail” wines: the high alcohol, high pH, high extract, high oak, high point score grape-based beverages that have dominated the attention of the wine world for the last decade. I am all for moderate alcohols, by which I mean under 15%—preferably closer to 14%. I have tasted some varieties of North Coast wines that are balanced at even lower alcohol. But I’ve been doing this long enough to remember when this pendulum swung before. I recall that the North Coast produced some really insipid wines in the late 70s and early 80s when last the industry felt it necessary to produce a more “European” style. I don’t want to go back there.

So here’s the lesson learned: Spend some time and money doing acid add forecasting. Don’t hesitate to go to the bag, for tartaric or for carbonate, as needed to get a “balanced” wine — by my definition of balance. Don’t let some dubious “philosophy” dictate what I do in the winery.

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.

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.

Practical Advice On Managing Wine Alcohol Levels

Fourteen percent, more or lessThe other day I came across this fact sheet: “Reducing Alcohol Levels In Wine” published by the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI). Directed at the professional winegrower, this is the best agenda-free piece on wine alcohol levels I have read, period. It’s worth the interested reader’s time.

All of my own efforts to manage alcohol levels in our wines are mentioned here. Continue reading