This isn’t my first rosé rodeo. In fact, the first wine to ever carry the mark of my hands was the 2007 Calcareous rosé. I was the cellar assistant back then, and the winemaker felt that experimenting with a rosé might be a good way to let me learn a few things. As many winemakers do in this area, we preformed a saignée on almost every lot of red grapes. Saignée is French for bleed, in winemaking it refers to removing a certain percentage of the juice from your red wine ferment. The primary goal is to increase the extraction concentration of your red wine by creating a greater skin to juice ratio. The juice that is bled off is just a bonus. Often it is allowed to flow down the drain, but it can be treated as a must to ferment like white wine, thus creating a rosé.
I was tasked with making a wine from this bled off juice, consisting mainly of Syrah, Zinfandel, and Grenache. I was proud of the fact that I safely guided the juice through the process and the wine was eventually bottled. It was a decent wine, but a bit off balance. This lack of balance to me was inherent in the process used. The grapes were picked under the pretense of creating dense, full bodied and powerful red wines. The fully ripe grapes did in fact do that. Our 2007 Estate Syrah and Zinfandel set a standard for the type of wines we want to create here at Calcareous. Sadly, this did not in my opinion carry over to the Rose. Without the balance provided by the tannins and other phenolics from the skins, the resulting wine tasted off kilter. The alcohol was a bit more upfront and the acid was lacking, creating a wine with little backbone and character.
Being a fan of pink wines I decided I should try again. In order to push myself to create a wine of quality, I decided I would name it after one of my personal favorites, Robert Sinskey’s Vin Gris. It also meant, taking a new approach to the winemaking process. I would use a single varietal, chosen during harvest from the lot I felt showed the best characteristics for the task at hand. As should have been expected, 2009 was an extremely hot and dry vintage, thus all of the picks came in way too ripe for using in a rosé and I had abandoned hope of making a rosé. Then, right at the end of harvest, along came a freak storm that dropped over 7 inches of rain during a 30 hour period. The only thing left on the vine at the time was the Estate Mourvedre. To prevent any mold or mildew, the grapes were picked right after the storm. During processing, I saw that the sugar level had dropped from 24% to 22%, an obvious sign of rain induced dilution. The lot was going to require a saignée in order to create a Mourvedre of decent concentration. The resulting Estate Mourvedre was perfect for blending with some very ripe Grenache harvested earlier during the vintage, and our elegant 2009 Grenache Mourvedre was born. It was a happy accident, one of those wines that is not planned but creates itself during harvest if you keep an open mind and avoid dogmatic approaches and goals. The juice that was bled off was light and lively, it created a wonderful wine in its own right. It had low alcohol and decent acidity, making for a pleasurable wine. The dilute nature of the wine though showed in a slight lack of fruit and body. Trying to make up for this, I discovered a useful cellar technique. I collected the lees from the finished Mourvedre ferment, and added it to the rosé. This greatly increased both the color and body, and added a bit of real character and distinction to the palate. Again, this was a happy accident and as good an argument as any for making rose. It is liberating to work with juice that otherwise would end up down the drain. You are free to take risks and try new ideas that come to you as there is very little to lose.
Over the next couple of vintages, none of the lots that came in featured any juice I felt would be suitable for making a rosé. So for 2012, I decided it was time to create a specific rosé lot. Most of the blocks of our Estate Calcareous Vineyard naturally produce about 2 tons to the acre. That is, except for the Malbec. Maybe because it is our only truly flat block, but for whatever reason, we have to drop a considerable amount of Malbec on the ground in order to get things properly ripe. Last year I had the vineyard crew leave 12 rows of the Malbec block untouched when they did their fruit thinning. This was to be my “Rosé Block”. The fruit was tasted with the sole intention of creating a rosé, thus I tasted the fruit in the same way I do when sampling Chardonnay or Viognier. Primarily interested in sweetness, acidity, fruit, and the feeling of the pulp, I could ignore the skin because it was not going to be used.
Being a small lot and still early in harvest, the cellar crew and I hand-picked the grapes ourselves. The grapes went straight to press and treated almost exactly how we process and ferment our Rhone whites, except of course for the addition of Malbec lees during winter. The resulting wine is what I feel is an honest Rosé, created for its own sake. I also think it is hands down the best rosé we have created here. It has been in bottle for a little bit now and will be shipping out for our summer wine club. I hope you enjoy the fruition of what has been a 5 year process. Ending with the discovery of how to craft a pink wine that is worthy of the Calcareous label.
Winemaking can really be tough on clothes, especially pants, so finding good work clothes has been more of a challenge than I ever expected. The mix of vineyard and cellar work, hot dry conditions followed by wet and cold on a never ending cycle really tests garment quality. My first few months working I just assumed that a pair of random denim jeans is all I’d ever need. I learned quickly that cheap blue jeans, those on the Ross clearance rack, are not really up to the task. Blown out seams and fabric rips give them a working life of maybe a month or so. By my second harvest I had moved on to the ranch classics, Levis 501s and Wrangler 13 WMZs. While these were a definite step in the right direction, they still only gave me a shelf life of a couple months before some type of integrity fail reared its ugly head.
I eventually decided to trial some of the tougher work wear classics like Dickies, Carhartt and Ben Davis. The Dickies performed much like the hardier jeans, falling apart after a promising start. During testing, the Ben Davis held up great, lasting a whole harvest of wearing 4-5 times a week. But the fit wasn’t the most comfortable. They are a bit baggy which can lead to snagging on things like drip lines, barrel racks, and tank valves, no good! Carhartt became my go to work pants during the 2009-2011 harvests. Overall, they gave the best performance and comfort at work. Plus Carhartt was based in my hometown of Detroit, well Dearborn is kind of Detroit. I thought I'd never have to think about work pants again.
Sadly, something changed. The Made in USA tag on Carhartts disappeared and was replaced with Made in China or Mexico. Call me crazy, but the crotch seams started failing after a few months. I started to get fabric tears and the fit was not what it used to be. Then I started to notice that not a single pair of work pants I had been trying were made in America. This got me thinking, does anyone make sturdy work clothes in this country anymore? A little research led me to discovering probably the world’s best pair pants. The Filson Oil Finish Double Tin Pants have no equal. When the first 2 customer reviews I read were 5 stars from a logger talking about the pants handling a whip from a broken chain saw and a Canadian Railway engineer who’s had a single pair for 8 years, I knew I had moved in the right direction. They are not as cheap as other pants I'd tried, but not crazy expensive for quality clothing. I mean, they are cheaper than most women's denim pants these days! Plus, I don’t think it is physically possible to damage these things. Everyone should own a pair of Double Tine Cloth pants, just to feel the sensation of what a truly well crafted piece of work clothing feels like. It was like the time I was shopping for my wedding suit and my friend took me to a shop in San Francisco that only sold hand-made Italians. Everything else just plain feels wrong and cheap once you wear the real deal.
The only problem with the Big Boy Filson’s is that they are a bit too heavy duty. In August, when it’s 112 degrees in the vineyard, they can get a bit sweaty walking around. Plus, the oil finish has a strict no washing allowed rule. Things can get a bit funky! So in searching for something a bit more daily practical, I came across my current favorite work pants, Earl’s Gung Ho Camp Trouser. These are darn near a perfect pair of work pants. Sturdy 12oz duck cloth, button fly, a unique cut, made in Texas, affordable…etc. I think, after all these years, I’ve found my daily work pants. Sadly there are rumors that Earl's may be going out of business, so stock up while you can. But of course, the experiment never ends. I have pair of these coming in for testing during this year’s harvest. And I’m always open to suggestions, so if you have a pair of pants you think can handle the work, I’m all ears.
A good friend of mine, who is a winemaker, overheard an interesting comment the other day. It was from a beer drinker who stated, "I just had a bottle of (unnamed rather famous IPA) and it had this weird band-aid smell and taste" Alarm bells went off in my friend's head. When he passed on that little bit of info to me, I had the same felling of panic. It was "Oh no, all of my favorite micro-brews are about to all start smelling and tasting of Brett!"
In cases you haven't noticed, a big trend in beer brewing over the past few years has been the surge in beers brewed with Brettanomyces. Brett, as it is called for short, is a "wild" yeast that produces a very distinct olfactory and flavor profile in the beverages produced using it. The most common description of this profile in wine is either "band-aidy" as in the smell of a box of band-aids, or "barnyard" as in hay soaked in the waste of farm animal. Not exactly the most endearing of descriptors.
Along with ripeness (although this is getting smaller with every passing vintage), probably the biggest differentiator between "Old-World" and "New-World" style wines is the presence of Brett. Taste most really cheap imported European wines, and you will get a heavy dose of Brett. One of the big problems with Brett, is once it shows up, it is pretty much impossible to get rid of. Even with all our sanitation gear like ozone generators, steam generators, UV barrel lights, gaseous sulfur dioxide, if a hint of Brett shows up, there's not much to do. Here at Calcareous, if I smell or taste it in a barrel, the wine is destroyed far away from the winery and the barrel goes straight to the BBQ wood pile. All the sanitation work is the lock on the door, once the intruder get's in; the only option is to blow the place up.
Brett Wood: Coming to a Tri-Tip near you!
Why such drastic measures? It goes back to one of the classic "throw-away" winemaker interview terms that actually does mean something to me. I truly want to "respect the fruit". I want the wine produced at Calcareous to taste of our vineyard. The problem with Brett is that everything it touches taste like, well, Brett. The fruit and the vineyard definitely take a back seat to the yeast in its case. The reason I like to use commercially available yeasts is that it allows me to choose yeasts that have as neutral an effect as possible on the wine. I pick our grapes during harvest almost exclusively on the flavor profile I get when tasting grapes in the vineyard. I remember what the fresh must tasted like when the grapes are put into the fermentation tank. Once primary fermentation is complete, I want as many of those same flavors to be present as possible. Sure the sweetness has been fermented out, but I aim for that same beautiful strawberry hint I get from Pinot Noir grape to be there in the bottle. This is why I consider keeping Brett out of the winery probably one of my single most important duties as winemaker.
So in the back of my mind as I've been tasting these Brett beers the past few years (most of which I just dump out because my winemaker brain has made me so ruthlessly prejudiced against the flavor) I've been thinking that this is a dangerous game just inviting this beast in the front door. Sure there are schools of thought that small hints of Brett can add complexity. Concerning beer, where for the most part people are not growing or malting their own barley or hops, I can see the appeal of trying to play with the flavors that different yeasts can add. But with wine, we emphasize the place, the work we do on the land should outweigh the work we do in the cellar. The flavors produced by Brettanomyces are just too dominant in my opinion. If there was a way to ensure that it played nice with everyone else, Brett could be a fun thing to play around with in a limited sense. But it tends to be a real bully when it comes to aromatics and palate, pushing everyone else to the background. I only hope that the brew masters of my favorite breweries have somehow learned to tame this dangerous beast and keep it from getting into places it is not supposed to be. If not, harvest season is going to be a much sadder place if all my favorite beers start to taste of my worst enemy.
And for a bonus here is a gif I can't stop looking at. Yu Darvish throwing 5 different pitches from the exact same motion. Makes Albert Pujols look like me at city league softball which is nice.
It looks like the new year is upon us. Besides the difficulty of remembering to end written dates with /13, I got to thinking about what the future holds for us winemakers. I spent the majority of my December online time looking at various "best of" lists for 2012, thinking about what has happened. This gave me the desire to put my thoughts on the future in writing, see if what I think is the future will come to pass.
One of the culinary movements that really took full hold this year was nose to tail cooking. That is, not thinking of anything as waste but using everything you get in the kitchen as a possible ingredient. This probably began as a simple reaction to economics, tougher times usually leads people to think about how to stretch things out a bit more. Then it seemed like every restaurant I went to was using things in entrees and appetizers that only a couple of years prior were solely available at various street taco vendors on Mission and 23rd.
I'm seeing something similar happening in wine as well. Here in Paso Robles, making Pink wines from bled off red juice that would normally go down the drain is now common place. Most producers have used the trick of shoveling in your pressed off Viognier skins into Syrah ferments. Now that is expanding out as more white skins are ending up in all sorts of different red ferments. You are also seeing much more whole cluster fermentations these days. That involves using the stem, which usually goes straight to compost, along with the fruit in order to add tannins and spice to your wines. It also changes your fermentation dynamics, but that's another post for another day. Grapes that have shriveled on the vine to become raisons are easily sorted out by using shaking tables and tossed onto the compost pile as well. Not anymore, they are ending up in all sorts of places now. From straight "late harvest" dessert wines to being used almost like a spice added to ferments to add hints of rich sun ripened flavors to Zins and Syrahs. These are all part of the unending experiment that is wine making.
During this upcoming 2013, the waste product I plan to be trialing around with is lees. Lees is the heavy clay like sediment that settles out of wine over time. Traditionally, wine is continually racked off the lees. That is, over time, the wine is pumped off the top of the bottom sediment layer which aids in clarification and avoids strange flavors that may develop. Well, I for one am not afraid to embrace strange flavors. At a much larger winery, that could be dangerous, but that is the beauty and freedom of making wine at a smaller winery. If an experiment fails, the business does not fail along with it. By virtue of small size, we can afford to try different ideas and techniques.
Incorporating the unique flavor profiles developed in the lees is almost universal in Chardonnay production. The weekly stirring of barrel fermented chards to mix the lees back into solution is a key element in adding body, richness, and a little funk for a more complex white. I'm predicting that this the year that "sur lie" aging makes the crossover to reds.
Good luck happens when preparedness meets opportunity. - Bret Harte
The more interviews I read and wine seminars I attend; the more it seems that non-interventionist winemaking is the over riding zeitgeist of the moment. Every other sentence is “…letting the vineyard speak”, “…showcasing the fruit”, “….creating natural wines”, “…nothing added, unfiltered, unfined” Looking back at tech sheets I’ve written on our wines, and if such a thing existed, transcriptions of speeches I’ve given, there would probably be an ample sprinkling of those phrases to be found. I too shied away from stating that the wines we make here come from the cellar as well as the vineyard. There seems to be some fear of conveying the idea that winemakers actually do anything. I’ve even heard prideful declarations of just putting grapes in a tank, sitting back and seeing what happens.
Well, that’s all fine and good, but I've recently learned to stop worrying about imprinting my personality on my wines and love the craft of making wine again. I firmly believe that great wine is by no means a simple product of entropy. It is attained through determination, skill, guile and the type of luck that pioneer poet Bret Harte was talking about. Michelangelo said that every block of stone has a statue inside of it, the sculptur is simply tasked with finding it. True as that may be, to me the prisoners were interesting to look at, but David was trancendent. The complete unveiling of that which is hidden in the raw material is the gift of the talented and engadged artist. In this way, winemaking approximates art and craft. The vineyard and cellar crew here just spent three straight months working 12+ hour days. Backs are strained, hands are cracked, and boots are worn thin and letting water in. Exhaustion has set in, immune systems are on empty, and there is still work to be done. If non-intervention is the answer, what the hell have we been doing to ourselves? Maybe we could just ship some grapes in a jar and everyone would be happy?
A full description of all the decisions and actions taken during harvest would be quite a tome. If anyone out there is willing to give me an advance on publishing a cellar masterwork like that, please feel free to email me. But since we are using the quick read blog format here, I’ll just touch on one aspect of winemaking, the actual making of the wine.
Those responsible for the physical creation of wine are little single celled creatures called yeast. They perform the alchemical magic of turning sugar to alcohol. The friend of the non-interventionist winemaker is “native yeast”. Here is a video clip of me recently over hearing someone going on and on about the grandeur of native yeast.
I'm not against native yeasts in theory, but in practice here in Paso Robles, something seems a bit off. First, our vineyard and winery is located on what was an oak and manzanita covered hill just 12 years ago. It seems a bit disingenuous to speak of some native culture of yeast that exists here. Much like the cloned vines planted in perfect rows in the vineyard, whatever yeast may be here is a recent transplant to the area. If this vineyard and winery are still here in 50-60 years, then well, maybe we could have something interesting to call our own.
Secondly, inoculating with different yeasts is analogous to having more options in the spice rack. Sure, you might grow some amazing oregano in your home garden, but if that's all that's added to every dish you make, things get a bit repetitive. Each vintage, I make 30-40 different wines from about 15 different varietals. Each varietal and style of wine needs to be treated and prepared in a unique way in order to exemplify the varietal characteristics and stylistic goals. Of course, if your stylistic goal is "Hey, let's see what happens this year", I guess that native route is cool. It just seems to me that using a single dominant yeast that lives in the cellar could work great in a place where you make a single field blend wine, but seems a bit unnecessarily limiting in my case.
I've got nothing against natural winemaking, just as I have nothing against natural medicine and the like. It help to be reminded of the roots of our profession and the basic ideas upon which this craft is based. But it seems that much natural winemaking is rooted in being a response to large scale factory winemaking. An attempt to reintroduce soul and personality in a world where such things are being slowly taken from us via targeted marketing and focus groups. But when you counter dogmatic approaches with a new dogmatic approach, you sadly come full circle to a place of limited opportunity and expression. I’m not afraid to admit that we have progressed many ideas and techniques in winemaking that were not around 100, 50, even 10 years ago. And I’m not about to throw the baby out with the bathwater to go back to some romanticized “good old days” that never really existed. Well, at least until my back get’s a bit older and I start looking for a way to explain why I don’t want to work as hard as I just did this harvest.
Here at Calcareous, we are not specialists in any single varietal. In the cellar we produce a wide range of varietals and styles. This keeps things exciting and challenging for us winemaking types. From keeping the Grenache clusters shaded on the vine to the hyper-oxidative pump overs for the York Mountain Cab, you have to constantly remind yourself that each wine has its special needs and techniques. My overall mantra to winemaking is that it always comes down to the skins. They contain all the magic that makes grape wine the most intricate of the fruit based alcoholic beverages. How to approach producing and then extracting out the compounds that are locked in the skins is where the different approaches for each wine in the cellar comes in.
One varietal that has kept me guessing the past few years has been Malbec. With other varietals, if I get confused, I usually meet up with a winemaking friend in town, buy them a few drinks and try and trick them into telling me their secrets. Sadly, most of the Malbec in this world is in Chile, and that would be some expensive beers, so I'm on my own pretty much. Each vintage comes along, and while walking the vineyard, tasting fruit, chewing skins, and spitting, I probably get most excited about our Estate Malbec. It is always so amazingly dark and rich, my mind starts racing about how I can capture this flavor out of the berry and into the resulting wine. Then each year I have a major let down. The Malbec is never bad; it just hasn't matched my expectations. The one job of the winemaker is to produce wine that is in accordance with the quality of the fruit, and in my mind I have failed to accomplish this these past few vintages. For 2012, things have changed.
I changed from a gentle punching down maceration to a more extractive pump over and delastage routine. As the fruit ferments, the carbon dioxide produced gets caught up by the skins causing them to float to the surface. While floating on top, the compounds in the skins are not in contact with the juice, thus you can't extract out what you want. Punching down is the process of physically pushing the skins back down into the must, like making French press coffee. Pumping over is just what it sounds like, using a pump to spray the must over the top of the tank. Pumping over gets you much more extraction, but is dangerous because it extracts everything, good and bad. So if there are any green, vegetal, or overly bitter flavors in the skins, they too will end up in the wine.
To get away with this more extractive technique I risked things in the vineyard by pushing the ripeness. I let the Malbec hang on the vine about a week longer than I usually would. Once the bells in my head started ringing and telling me to pick now, I forced myself to wait 6 more days. A lot of the resulting clusters looked like this.
The first thing you'll notice is that I should probably be trying to put these grapes into something like this:
But we don't have the equipment to open and shut all those little boxes so we'll still aim for the bottle. Amaizingly, the juice came out at about 26.8 brix with a 3.42 pH. This should come out to about 15.0% alcohol, these are not weird, over ripe numbers at all for Paso Robles. By pusing the skins this little bit more, they were a bit softer which allowed for better extraction, and there is simply no under ripe or simple characteristcs at all to the wine after completion of primary fermentation. I had to battle my gut instinct, but in the end, I think a discovered a little piece of the puzzle on how to make Malbec here at the Calcareous Vineyard.
I don't know why, but one of the most beautiful sights of harvest for me are the streaks left on the press after a full cycle:
It's probably just the fact it is right in my aesthetic wheelhouse. Simple image of two colors, wine and stainless steel, all produced by random chance. But I also love how each press load produces a unique image. Each varietal really shows itself off. This is our Carver Vineyard Pinot Noir, and the bright yet deep pink tint is as unmistakable as the spicy earthy aroma from the drip pan. I'll try to capture all the different varietals during harvest so you can see all this for yourself.
To celebrate our first red wine completing primary fermentation, I was saving some refreshies in the back of the fridge:
Anchor has only been making this beer for a few years. I got initially excited about this because a friend of mine bought me the Arion Press printing of Moby Dick, or The Whale (the trade edition, I'm no fat cat yet!) and it made me obsessed with everything Melville. Seriously, that book is really really good. It was something you were "supposed" to read, so my contrarian spirit forced me to avoid it until my schooling days were over. I guess sometimes those English professors know of what they speak. Wait, where am I going with this. Oh, yeah, Humming Ale is one of those anitquated beer styles that has a chapter in a classic Melville biography named after it. So life came all full circle for me as my favorite brewery made a beer connecting to my favorite author of the time, and it lived up to expectation.
Things have been just beautiful here at the vineyard. Warm days and the nights now getting that little sting of real cold. Things could not be going better harvest wise. So to top off the cheers, here is a beautiful little jam.
As presents became more grown-up, Christmas lost its place atop the pantheon of Holidays. When my insatiable appetite for M&M's and Snicker Bars eventually was filled and I no longer attended college costume parties, Halloween fell down a bit. In a few years, once my children grow old enough to truly grasp the magic of those days, they will return to the top. For now though, Thanksgiving is the King of Holidays for me. A day dedicated to the simplistic perfection of meal and family. Brining the wine that I produce to the table, celebrating the harvest that my life is so intertwined with now adds even more to the special feeling. Sadly, cool years in 2010 and 2011 have made Thanksgiving Day a working day each of the past few years. Imagine my joy today when I got confirmation that this year would be different.
It was August 12th last year when I posted a similar photo. Veraison is the changing of color of the grape skin. It is the beginning of the ripening process. A very loose rule of thumb is that six weeks from now, we will pick this Pinot Noir. Harvest, which did not begin in earnest until late September last year, is looking to come much earlier this year. The timetable jumped on us and now the preparations must begin. All the trappings of the harvest start to take shape. The new barrels start to arrive. The destemmer, sorting table, and press all get cleaned and greased up. Discussions begin on new trial ideas.
I've wanted to try some really short macerations to emphasize fruit in a couple wines. Our assistant winemaker told me excitedly he wants to try some really long ferments, probably in a barrel. You won't really know until you try. We messed around with a new technique for our Chardonnay last year. It's going to bottle in a few weeks, and I'd have to say our new little trick had a positive outcome. A couple more idea will probably come, especially as sleep deprivation induced creativity sets in.
I love harvest. It is probably my favorite aspect to the whole wine making lifestyle. Once a year, one chance, all or nothing, the special mix of creativity under pressure makes for such a uniquely thrilling work experience. You can't really ask for much more. Well, maybe except for vintages like this one, when you do get more. You get it all wrapped up in time to completely enjoy that November meal with the family.
So there you are, all stressed out because of a big final exam tomorrow. You are confident you can pass the multiple choice part. If that was all the exam consisted of, you could be out having a drink and getting a peaceful night's sleep. Sadly, there are rumors of an oral exam. All alone on stage with various professors asking questions that you can't really prepare for. Well, if someone told you that students that skipped the oral exam not only passed, but were actually found to master the topic better than those that took the oral exam. Well, no brainer right, just skip it. I can't help but think of it in these terms when I'm told about unfiltered wines.
Increasingly in recent years I've seen wine labels and tech sheets extolling the unfiltered & unfined nature of the wines. Unfined, sure, so far I've been able to avoid throwing eggs in my Cabernet or pouring bull's blood in your syrah. If you are confident that you picked your grapes at the right time, made and aged the wine soundly, not needing to fine makes perfect sense in small lot wine making. Filtering to me is an entirely different issue. I can't claim to tell you that one train of thought is better or worse. But after years of thinking, reading, asking and doing, I am fairly confident that neither is always better than the other.
Give me a second here and let me tie back into that first paragraph. Bottling is the final exam for the winemaker. After 1-3 years of working with a wine, you mark a date that you are putting it in bottle. After that, you don't get to play with it ever again. It is marked as ready for the world, and you send it out to meet people. Thus those final couple of weeks are a flurry of nerves and activity. The blending trials are sure fun, and make one appear to be an actual winemaker. Dressed nicely while standing around contemplating glass after glass until you feel you've got the best final blend you can make.
Next comes the forklift driving, hose dragging and barrel washing that require less fancy outfits and are more actual work. This is the part of the job you don't wax poetic about during a winemaker dinner. And then there is filtering, the job done 99.9% of the time by assistant winemakers or cellar crew. Let me tell you, nobody enjoys filtering. If you've worked with one, you would know. They take a long time to prepare, (pumping wine through wet cardboard and avoiding a TCA like wet cardboard flavor or aroma takes a bit of magic) then they inevitably clog up. You have to back flush and eventually prepare a new set of pads. The pressure builds up to scary amounts and you hear strange cracking and popping noises making you feel a hose or the pump could explode at any moment. And worst of all, you lose a certain percentage of your wine dripping off the pads. Man, if not using a filter makes the wine better, count me in. That's a couple days of my life back. Plus I could change back into my dry pants and Patagonia fleece vest and walk around the cellar like a proper winemaker. Leg up on a barrel, wine thief in hand, gazing thoughtfully into the distance....but I digress. Quite often, as troublesome as it is, I feel like filtering is often a necessary endeavor.
To understand why, you first have to think about what is being filtered out of the wine. This is not a charcoal filter that is going to strip the wine bare. The filter is a cellulose sheet, kind of like a super heavy duty coffee filter. So you push the wine through the filter sheet, and the large impurities are taken out. These filters are not so fine that they remove the molecules that are associated with flavor or taste. What we're talking about are the dead yeast and bacteria, the byproducts of primary and secondary fermentation, that are suspended in the wine solution. This is what forms the thick mud like lees at the bottom of barrels of aging wine. Trust me, I've cleaned enough barrels and fermentation tanks to have a little lees end up in my mouth. These are not the flavors you're reading about in any wine critics tasting notes of fine wine. They also can make the wine appear cloudy, a massive fault in a bottle that tells me basically the winemaker doesn't care all that much.
There are times I can avoid filtering. If I have been a busy beaver winemaker and racked the wine many times over. This means pumping the clear wine off the top and leaving the lees in barrel. If you do this a bunch of times, all those impurities will have naturally dropped out of solution, so the wine for the most part will be clear and free of most large impurities. If this is the case, well no need to filter. Gravity has done the work for you. But I don't rack my wines that often, usually just 1-2 times over wine's lifetime in the cellar. I feel lees is the wine version of the primordial soup, and all sorts of interesting things are taking place in there. Over the years in barrel, flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel components are being created in the lees and released into solution. Almost all barrel aged white wines are made like this. This along with malic acid and cold stabilization is why you almost never see unfiltered white wines. I strongly believe red wines can benefit from sur lie aging just as much as whites.
The sacrifice I have to make for these lees components though is a couple of long, cold, wet days staring at a pressure gauge, getting that wine all cleaned up and ready for it's introduction to the word.
THe Truth Is Rarely Pure And Never Simple -Oscar Wilde
For the past few years, the great debate in the stuffy world of wine has been alcohol. It is a topic that people feel passionately about. It is also one of those rare topics in the discussion of wine that has actual concrete parameters that can be discussed. Thus it is a great thing to base symposiums and discussion groups around.
I for one could care less what the alcohol percentage is of a wine. Either I enjoy it or I don't. But the number is printed on the label and gives ammunition for all with a bone to pick. The most common bone being picked is that high alcohol wines are a stylistic decision made by lazy winemakers. People who dislike high alcohol wines claim it as evidence as an attempt to make big flabby overripe wines to trick some critic into giving out a big numerical score to the wine.
Like I have discussed earlier in this blog, I pick mainly by using my natural senses. I like to look at the chemistry just so I know what I'm getting myself into as far as the ferment goes. But the decision as to is the fruit ready to come off the vine, I trust mainly my sense of taste, touch, and sight while walking the vineyard. (If I am smelling or hearing the grapes on the vine, that is an indication that I should have picked yesterday.)
One of the big reasons I have decided to swing my decision making so far into one camp is due to the fact I make wine in Paso Robles. This is a unique place making unique wines. If there is a textbook out there that explains making wine in Paso, I haven't read it yet. Most accepted thought on winemaking was established elsewhere, thus I always take lessons from afar with a grain of salt. For a case in point, let's look at the 2011 harvest.
Things are all over the map this year. Early ripeners are developing late and vice versa. I picked some Tempranillo last week that was 23.8 Brix and 3.95 pH. Sure that's just the low acid nature of Tempranillo, but even though it will end up being around just 13% alcohol, the fruit was plenty ripe and I didn't want to let it hang another day. Then this weekend we picked some classic Paso Robles fruit.
Our Kate's Vineyard Zinfandel is always one of my favorite picks of the year. The vines are not overly vigorous for Zin, and produce amazingly complex wines. One of the main reasons for the complexity is high acid and tannin in the must even when pushed for ripeness. Here is the brix measurement after a 4 day cold soak.
28.5! There I go chasing big scores with my big lazy overripe jammy Zin that is going to taste like some Virgin Islands cocktail. If I was making proper wine, I would be pushing for balance, restraint, nuance, complexity. I would have picked it 3 weeks ago at a respectable 25 brix. Instead I'm just going for power to win over some critic who is never going to taste this wine anyway.
Well before we start jumping to conclusions; let's look at some more evidence. I can't have you virtually taste this, so I can't prove that this wine is going to be incredible. But check out this photo:
Wait, what? 3.178 pH. My favorite was the sample I took 2 weeks ago that was 26.2 Brix with a 2.84 pH. So there I go, trying to impress the euro snobs with my austere acidic wines that will take years of ageing to be drinkable.
So who am I making this wine for? Well, I'm making it for the people who have tasted our Zin and love it. Sure these numbers are off kilter, but this must tastes right it its own peculiar way. Big and ripe but with amazing backbone, color and tannin to bring everything into proper balance. Our 2007 Zin had very similar chemistry and it sold out in about 3 weeks. If I could get the numbers to be more traditional, but had to sacrifice what this must tastes like, I would never go for that.
Next time someone wants to look at the % number on the wine label and pontificate about the winemaker's intention, tell them this little story. This world is not always so black and white.