Calcareous is heading down south for the VinDiego Wine and Food Festival next weekend. We are on a panel talking about Bordeaux varietal wines from Paso. To get ready for one of these I like to jot down general ideas and concepts so they are fresh in the mind. Then, once the seminar begins, it is always best to just speak freely and let things go organically. That is the only way to keep things engaging for the audience and make it feel more like a conversation over wine and not come winemaking 101 lecture. Anyway, I decided to share with you my thought scribles I wrote down as my cheat sheet as a kind of behind the scenes. Sadly, I got double booked and have to be Phoenix during that weekend. Luckily for those in attendance though, Associate Winemaker Tyler Russell will be attending in my abscence. We strongly share a general philosophy in winemaking and presentation style. Speak to what you know and believe, and you will speak something of value.
The only crop thinning we perform is on the Malbec, which is a minimal green drop right at veraison. Thus the soils here produce an extremely low yielding vineyard by nature. West Paso land is of such poor agricultural value, it can’t even be used as grazing land in a commercial sense. Thus it has been sitting around waiting for the wine industry.In The Vineyard
The Malbec much more productive due to varietal diefference, but mainly due to planting on only flat part of vineyard, thus the block contains actual top soil. This allows for more vigorous growth. Even with almost double the yield, the stunning quality of the Malbec produced on the property (it is now a main component of the Lloyd, actually biggest in 2010) has cemented our non-interventionist farming style. Unless something extreme happens, trust the vines to produce their fruit as they wish, our job is to work with the vines, not against them. Applying a pre-concieved plan or notion is always a quick road to disaster. Work with your site, this is the only way to stay true to place ( I use Place instead of terroir because I’m from California, not France) and produce a genuinely unique wine.
We harvest almost exclusively on flavor in the vineyard. Analysis is only used to help reference how best to meet the needs of the fermentation. For our Bordeaux varietals, brix ranges from 24-29 brix with pH’s 3.2-3.6. The mix of climate and soil and Calcareous produces complete physiological ripeness while still maintaining very strong acidity. This is the very reason why Calcareous exists as a vineyard and winery.
There is never an established protocol in the cellar as far as production goes. Every lot, every vintage is unique. Just taste, see and feel the fruit, it will tell you how it needs to be handled. In most cases we use open top fermenters ranging from ½ ton to 5 tons. This allows us to stay open to the needs of the fruit and yeast. We are then free to use punch-downs, pump-overs, or delastage as needed, being as reductive or oxidative as will most enhance the fruit. Complete physiological ripeness of skins and pips (brown seeds) allows for extended maceration (25+ days) with no fear of green tannins. Most winemakers go to extremes to avoid seed tannin, we embrace it. (In trials, the past few years, the press fraction of wines have proven superior in blind tasting due to superior tannin structure). These tannins produces a natural toasted wood element in the wine without over use of oak tree tannin. French oak barrels can lend wonderful flavors to the wine, but they do not speak to place. Thus we only use about 20% new oak in our lots.
Broke up, and I'm relieved somehow
It's the end of the discussions that just go round and round and round, and round, And round, and round it shouldn't have been anyway - Issac Brock
Wherever exists some topic that is written about and discussed endlessly, there arises a desparate need for controversy to keep the discussion going. The world of wine definitley falls into this pattern. And true to form as in other worlds, I always find that the "controversies" concerning wine are rather boring and not all that important. In the short amount of time I have been in wine, there are two topics that just will not go away. The first thing people just love love love love love love love to talk about is alchohol levels and ripeness. It's a strange one way debate though as I have never encountered the enraged drinker of fruit driven big full bodied wines lamenting the mere existence of acid driven "elegant" wines. That seems to ring the alarm bells of a created controversy to me and one that demands little attention. This "debate" just seems like a complete waste of time and energy to me. Wines exist in the full range of flavors and styles, drink what you like and let others drink what they like. As George Saintsbury, one of the godfathers of wine writing said:
"The hardest thing to attain... is the appreciation of difference without insisting on superiority"
The problem is that taste in wine is akin to taste in clothes or music, it has become a cultural proxy for establishing your ability to discriminate true quality. It goes back to a great scene in one of my favorite movies, "How to work out what makes good things good is hard isn't it?" And the importance of taste in today's world explains why things can get personal and defensive when talking about wine.
The other topic which is at least somewhat interesting, but again not nearly as important as the time and effort dedicated to it its continuation is wine bottle closures. It is interesting mainly due to it being part of the core idea of wine drinking and the importance of ritual. The cork vs. screwcap story is almost an allegory for the moral debate on souls and brain chemistry. The feeling of "Is there more to this or is the simple explanation the truth?" Screwcap advocates will site the evidence that screwcaps are superior in all regards in terms of performance and ease of use. It represents human science outpermforming nature and all the back slapping that comes with that. The cork set sticks by tradition and likes to say, "Hey man, a cork just feels right." I myself have always gone with the cork. It might not be perfect, but for a completely natural product, it is pretty damn good. And then an old college friend sent me a video in the comments section of this very blog. I thought it was eloquent enough that I should share it up on the front page, and as good a reason as any to stick with putting corks in the bottle, worts and all. And just live with the fact that if you get a tainted bottle, let me know, we always gladly replace them with a fresh bottle.
Every now and then I get the chance to free ramble ideas in what some people call an interview. Well, Marc over at Surf Talk Radio thought it would be a good idea to talk wine and waves with me. You can listen below to 16 minutes of my usual nonsense but in living audio form instead of just written words. Oh my!
If the media player fails, just hit the link below and see if your computer is smart enough to figure things out itself.
While I think the interview went well, it is clearly not the most in depth exploration of the mind and soul of a surfer, that of course would be this 20 seconds of pure California!
It's not much of a secret that us winemakers drink plenty of coffee and beer to keep ourselves awake and sane during the harvest. The other tool most often invoked to keep the body and mind moving forward is music. The cavernous nature of a winery cellar, with its mix of concrete, steel and wood makes for a uniquely rich listening environment. Full of soft reverb and warm low end. Every harvest a few songs stick out, getting repeated often enough that they become intrinsic parts of the vintage. I still can't drink any 2009 wines without hearing Basic Space on repeat in my head. So in that spirit, here were the songs that most influenced the wines of 2013.
Blue Hawaii - Try To Be
Local Natives - Heavy Feet
Phosphorescent – Song for Zula
Mount Kimbie - Made To Stray
Glass Candy - Geto Iko Iko
King Krule - Easy Easy
Cults - High Road
FKA Twigs - How's That
Cvrches - We Sink
In a previous life, music was my all encompassing passion. Although a terrible musician, I loved listening to as many different sounds as possible. I was the music director at my college radio station. I hung out at the local record store almost daily, asking the clerks for things to listen to. I was a constant volunteer to DJ parties, wedding, or any event people would let me dictate the music at. This also meant stopping at any thirft store I ever passed by, and digging trought the stacks of old vinyl. You can't listen to a record at a thrift store, so you buy things based on the design of the sleeve, the year produced, the name of the record label, or just based on knowing something about the artists. Finding a copy of Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants by Stevie Wonder was considered a coup even though I knew nothing about the album. But a double LP soundtrack by Stevie, from 1979, for a documentary about plants, this was obviously a gold mine.
While there were some great songs on the record, it also got me interested enough to track down a VHS of the movie. (Youtube has made life much easier). This coincided with the release of the the Michael Pollan book the Botany of Desire, a book that was being passed around at the coffee shop I worked at. My eyes and mind were suddenly looking at plants in a different way. Plants were suddenly much more alive to me, I became fascinated in learning about the ways they interact with each other and the environment. I didn't know it at the time, but this little journey was another building block in creating a knowledge base for winemaking.
The idea of the importance of vintage, the year of a wine's production, is a whole hearted endorsement of the idea that plants interact with their environment in a pro-active way. It is not just a simple wet years make watery wines, dry years make concentrated wines. The vineyard reacts in much more varried ways. Experience has shown me that the wines we produce from our lands are fundamentally dictated by how the vines adapt to changes in weather for the year. And based on that experience, I could not be more excited for the 2013 vintage.
A fascinating read on the current state of plant intelligence was released last year, What A Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz. This inspired me to watch the 2013 vintage in the vineyard in a different way. I decided to start noting the weather more closely and watch how the vines reacted this year. The end of 2012 saw above normal rainfall, which was a perfect environment for their dormant stage. Since January though, there was very little rainfall. The ground was rather dry as the vine awoke and went through their bud break, shoot growth, and flowering stages. In reaction to this, the vines are producing very small, dense clusters. The berries I imagine are going to be smaller and have thicker skins than ususal, which will help prevent evaporative loss. These are the grapes you dream of making wine from. The increased ratio of skin to juice is what leads to the production of wine with the perfect levels of extraction and fruit. The job of the winemaker becomes when to decide enough is enough, as opposed to wishing you could get more out of the fruit.
This will probably lead to yeilds being be a bit lower this year, but quality is of the biggest concern for a small winery like Calcareous. And if things contiune as they have so far this year, the quality may be the best of I have ever experienced. This of course is all in thanks to those smart vines behind the winery figuring out how to get by in a warm, dry year.
Bonus: Spring in our step Cellar Music For 2013
The cellar can be a dark place. Lights are kept low and stacks of barrels cast all sorts of shadows to make things even darker. Basically, without a flashlight, not much can be accomplished in the cellar. So picking out a good light is not an inconsequtial task. It is also an amazing demonstration as to how the smallest design features can greatly affect daily work at a winery.
Asking an American winemaker what flashlight they use is akin to asking an Aussie winemaker what shoes they wear, there seems to be a universal answer. There are probably five or six Mini-Mags lying around any cellar I’ve ever been in. It is sturdy, bright, and the beam can be focused which is a big help when checking the level of a big tank from up top. While an iconic piece of industrial design, there are a few issues that stick in my craw about these lights. First, it takes two hands to turn on and off, two hands that many times you don’t have available. Another problem is the incandescent bulb. It sucks up battery life quickly, and it can break when dropped onto the concrete cellar floor. Lastly, everyone uses these things so they tend to get “borrowed” which leads to mornings wandering around looking for a light.
Luckily, it seems that the company has heard from people like me before, so an answer to most of my problems exists. It uses a push button on/off that can be operated with one hand, and the battery life goes from 5 hours to 200+ hours, which is nice. Bulb also seems to be a lot sturdier to the inevitable drop. Overall I tend to like this light quite a bit more than the classic and it is slowly taking over.
Another option for overall use that has unique advantages is a headlamp. The big advantage here is hands free operation. Great for barrel work like topping in place and what not. Also, there are many times I need to sample a vineyard before sunrise during harvest. The headlamp is the only way to go here. You can even harvest at night using these and tractor work like spraying needs to be done at night, so headlamps are a winemaker must in my opinion. My personal favorites are the basic models from Petzl and the Black Diamond.
The only problem I have had a hard time addressing is the “borrowing” problem. The better and more functional a light is, the greater the odds it ends up somewhere besides where you left it. Thus I was looking for a light that maybe was a bit weird or unique enough that people would avoid using it. The solution appeared recently with the invention of probably the coolest personal light ever made, the Mini Hozuki . Maybe not the most practical light, but it is just plain fun to use and cool to play with. It is bright enough that it lights up the entire interior of a tank, so it does have come practical applications. It can even hang from a barrel rack with the built in magnet. But most of all, people just won’t borrow it because they have no idea what it is. This is just one of those items that you just plain will not be disappointed in.
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.