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

Harvest Is On For Some, Not For Us

Grenache sun side vs shade sideFolks are starting to pick for still wine already. I’ve seen some trucks on the road, and posts to social media showing some Napa Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc coming off the vines. Yesterday folks posted some Pinot noir picks, but I’m sure at least half of it was for sparkling wine. On the other hand, at Westwood we are still weeks away.

I took our first grape sample of the vintage on 8/16, in the young-vine clone 90 Pinot. Saw some basal leaf yellowing and tasted some pretty ripe berries showing the beginnings of seed maturity (crunchiness). Sugar went 21.8° Brix on that sample, which—at “normal” rates of ripening—puts us 2-3 weeks from picking that block. As an indicator of how scattered things are this vintage, Cathy Corison tweeted on 8/21 that she has Cabernet at 22° Brix!

Today I had Kyle sample our block of Calera Pinot. Berries are tasting less ripe than the clone 90—the Calera Pinot seeds are incredibly bitter just now—but the skins are showing softness and releasing from the pulp (another sign of ripeness). That sample showed 20.4° Brix, 4-5 weeks from harvest.

Since Bedrock Wine Co. is buying some Grenache from us again this year for rosé, and Morgan Peterson wants the fruit at 19.5°-21.5° Brix, I thought I would grab a sample even though the block is not yet all the way through veraison. The refractometer tale: 15.0° Brix. So, hey Morgan! We’ll be delivering in a month.

The picture leading this post is of our Grenache, and shows a phenomenon I have observed every year in this variety. The fruit on the shady (morning) side of the canopy always colors up first, leaving the fruit on the sunny (afternoon) side behind. Sunlight on the clusters appears to inhibit veraison. For this reason, you can see we only pull leaves on the morning side of the canopy. Yes, I geek out on this stuff.

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.

So Long, Dear Friend

Rex Geitner
I received a message today that my friend of many years, Rex Geitner, passed away after a brief battle with cancer.

I met Rex when I went to work for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 1988, where he was Warren Winiarski’s manager of the Stag’s Leap and Fay Vineyards. I recall that Rex had worked for the Chappellet’s, and for Al Brounstein at Diamond Creek, before coming to Stag’s Leap.

After I was hired, Warren directed me to do research for the vineyard when I was not engaged in the cellar. I had about 6 months experience in production at that time — I was as callow and green as they come. Rex was gracious and kind even when I was brash and arrogant; he taught me most of my first lessons in the vineyard, gently allowing me to make my own mistakes, and introduced me to people like Daniel Roberts, from whom I also learned much. Rex moved on to manage the vineyards at Spring Mountain some time after I had moved on to Duckhorn and Sonoma-Cutrer.

We lost touch with each other for a while, until one day he turned up working for my friends TJ Rodgers and Valeta Massey on their ambitious and challenging Clos de la Tech project, with its three amazing vineyards in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. It was clear that Rex reveled in this opportunity, and I was happy to be working with him again, however loosely and infrequently. He seemed very serene living in Half Moon Bay with Amy, the love of his life, and bringing his kids up to adulthood.

None of us ever knows the “real” self of another, but the Rex Geitner I knew was generous and pleasant to a fault. Strong in his faith, slow to anger and gentle in it, quick to forgive, always upbeat in the face of adversity. I’m sure he left his life as I believe he lived it. I grieve for his family and friends and offer my deepest condolences.

As for my friend, I will miss you. This world is a poorer place without you in it. Thank you for your knowledge and kindness, and for sharing both so freely with those around you.

A memorial service celebrating Rex’s life and memory will be held at 1 p.m. on June 29 at First Baptist Church San Mateo. I’m saddened that I will not be able to attend, and offer this small piece as a lasting testimonial to a good man I was fortunate enough to call “friend.”

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

Sailing Into The Seas of Spring

Grenache, Mar 02, 2013I can’t believe it is already March. February came and went and I barely noticed it. My lack of attention was due in part to having a recurring respiratory infection (didn’t I have that same thing the first couple of months of 2005 or 2006?) and then the flu. But really, very little has actually happened.

The shot of the Grenache above shows that the crew has completed pruning the vineyard. That’s about it, so far as real work goes. Wines are still asleep. My healthy hours have been spent catching up on business financials, interviewing potential new hires, and selling wine at the shop when people are around. January and February have been pretty quiet, sales wise.

The weather has been very mild. Recently, daytime temperatures have warmed up out of the high-30s-low-60s range into the mid-70s but it has not been enough to push budbreak yet. It has also been extraordinarily dry. I recorded less rainfall in January and February 2013 than I have since we started keeping records at the vineyard in 1998. People paying attention are starting to talk about drought, but I think (hope) that worry is premature. Our November and December were relatively wet, so our season-to-date accumulation for the 2013 vintage is still ahead of 2001, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012. Grenache close-upEven with the warmer temperatures recently, there is very little bud push visible in the vineyard. In fact there is very little sap bleeding from pruning cuts yet—perhaps a function of the dry soil. I did find a little bit of sap in the cane-pruned Pinot, and the bare beginnings of bud swell: Sap on large pruing cut in PN 943There are a lot of trivial things going on in the industry that I will not be writing about, among them: the implosion of the Wine Advocate, balance in Pinot Noir, hipster wines (high acid, obscure varieties, orange, etc.) and the continued delusion in some circles that social media have changed everything and that Millennial wine drinkers are fundamentally different from older generations. *yawn*

Dead Of Winter

Grenache Jan 23, 2013. Click for larger image.Yesterday marked the first day since early January that we have had any rain here in Sonoma Valley. So far, with less than an inch of accumulated precipitation, this month is the driest January at our vineyard since I started keeping records in 1998. Only 2007 even comes close.

As in 2007, we also have had an extended period of dry, cold weather. In 2007 the stretch was about a week long. This year we had almost 20 days of freezing nighttime temperatures—in the high 20s to the low 30s. I can’t recall such a long period of cold weather in 27 years spent here (which is one of the reasons I started keeping this blog—to help my recall). So this is probably the coldest January yet at our vineyard as well.

The cold temperatures mean nothing is happening with the vines. It will be at least a month before the sap rises. The crew pruned two rows of Syrah on Tuesday before the rain started. Unless we get an extended heat spell—and there is nothing in the long term pattern to suggest we will—we’ll have plenty of time to finish pruning before the vines wake up.

The cold and lack of rain have stunted the growth of the cover crop we drilled into the soil of the young blocks after harvest. It remains to be seen if the cover will grow enough to set seed before we have to mow to get into the rows to work this year. Ah, farming.

The cold also means the malolactic ferments that weren’t complete have stalled. We have a few stalled lots with relatively high pH that keep me up at night. I’m struggling with the decision to add a little SO2 to some of them to try to avoid spoilage, but always worry that the ML could be inhibited further as well. Ah, winemaking.

Chez Kelly have been dealing with a persistent respiratory bug since before Christmas. It’s sounded like a tuberculosis ward around here, and since everyone was sick we did very little for the holidays: it was restful, but not much of a vacation.

Prostrated exhaustion from illness is only part of the reason I have not posted here since mid-November. I’ve been experiencing social media fatigue (Facebook! Twitter! Tumblr! Instagram! Interest forums! Yelp! Trip Advisor! even SMS – all demanding immediate and constant attention) so I took a break.

Plus I just haven’t felt much like writing. I had nearly finished a snappy little rebuttal to Mark Bittman’s latest misleading screed on pesticides in agriculture when the tragedy in Newtown, CT kicked me in the gut (we have two elementary-school aged children—I suppose that’s why my reaction to the slaughter of those little kids is wrenchingly visceral to this day). So Mark got a pass. Besides, I already posted a similar rebuttal to the notion that “pesticide” use is increasing back in 2011.

I never got to my customary post-harvest review, as harvest ended so late in 2012. I’ve got a post nearly done on the tension created when wines are ideologically labeled that I may complete. And I just checked my editor to find that I have a dozen other posts in draft (schnikes!) that I need to finish or round-file.

Anyway, I’m starting to feel that the fires have been banked long enough. My urge to write is tied to my overall productivity, and it is about time for me to get my act together and rise from the dead of winter.

Clone vs. Site: Which Is More Important?

Yesterday my friend Daniel Dycus recounted a conversation he had the other day with a certified sommelier. Daniel told this fellow he thought grape clone was at least as important as site in determining the characteristics of a wine. The somm told Daniel that he would “sound like an idiot if he said that to someone who knows anything about wine.” Well, Daniel was not sounding like an idiot, because this somm doesn’t know diddly about clones, at the very least.

Simply put, in my experience, clone often trumps site—especially when it comes to Pinot Noir. For example we recently had the experience of moving cuttings from a vineyard in Napa Valley (near Coombsville) to our vineyard in Sonoma Valley (near Santa Rosa). Different soil, different climate, different rootstock, different vine spacing, different trellising, different farming—and yet the wine we have made from this block is recognizably more similar to the wine we made from the older Coombsville site than it is to the wine we make from the Dijon clones of Pinot grown at our site. For that matter, there are reproducible differences between the wines we make from the Dijon clones we grow at our site, differences that I recognize in wines made from the same clones grown at other sites.

That Daniel’s somm friend gets it so wrong is emblematic of a larger issue: a total misconstruction by the supposed cognoscenti of what is meant by terroir. This somm along with scads and scads of other “experts” has been taught that terroir is all about location, location, location. It’s not, and never has been, even in Burgundy.

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.