It has been talked about for a couple of years, usually during harvest breakfasts. "We should get some chickens out here in the vineyard. It'd make this meal way better." Then the return to working the grapes would make sure that was as far as the chicken talk ever got, just talk.
Well, it finally happened this spring. The new born chicks at the vineyard supply shop were just too cute to pass up. So we brought home a baker's dozen and turned a harvest bin into a nursery. After a month or so of living in the cellar, the ladies were released into the wild. Well, not the real wild. Out here in the western hills of Paso Robles live coyotes, foxes, mountain lions, hawks and eagles. Not the type of place to just let them enjoy free range living. We built a huge coop for them and fenced in to huge area in an oak grove on top of the property. And now that they are old enough, they are allowed to roam about during the day, just make sure everyone is back inside come sun down. Nobody could be happier, and we are all anxiously waiting that first fresh egg breakfast come fall.
Like much of modern life, the ubiquitious smartphone is being used in all sorts of ways in winemaking. One of my favorite new abilities is to be able to see something interesting/worrying in the vineyard and instantly discuss it with my vineyard consultant using visuals. A bi-product of all these close up photos of the vine is the occasional shot worth sharing with people not thinking about nutrients and pest management. This is especially true during this time of year. The combination of new shoot growth and the spring flowering produces uniquely beautiful visuals.
Here is a close up the completion of flowering, the very earliest step of a grapes' life. Each of these tiny green balls will develop into Malbec grapes.
The delicate new shoots reaching up towards the sun produces beautiful lines that seem almost brush stokes on canvas.
Close inspection of the new growth unveils that the new leaves do not yet contain chlorophyl, which gives them an amazing white color. The contrast with the deep green of the mature leaves below can only be experienced this time of year.
The year’s rain has come and gone with the heat of summer now waiting to take the vines the rest of the way. The worry has subsided and now been replaced by anxious expectation. Walking the vineyards these past couple of weeks, watching as the inflorescences flower and begin their transfiguration into fruit, the heart has been buoyed. The months of March and April could not have been more perfect. Gentle rains matched by mild temperatures provided everything a vine needs to awake from winter’s slumber and start life anew. Nothing more could be asked of the vineyard for the time being. The relief and pleasure of a perfect spring can never be overstated.
Fruit set is looking perfect, just slightly heavy so excess fruit can be dropped and yeilds from the vine can be optimized to our liking. Now that we are in mid-May, things are still looking wonderful. While the winter was warm and dry, summer has not reared it’s aggressive head yet. Temperatures have maintained in the high 80’s, preventing any early stress that can accompany the annual 100 degree days of Wine Fest. The flowering also looks to be well spaced. Our Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah flower first, taking their place as the initiators of harvest. The mix of Grenache, Malbec, Cab Franc, Merlot and the White Rhones seem to always jumble for attention mid-harvest. The last vines to set their fruit are the Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre and Zinfandel, the grapes that have you sweating late fall rainstorms hoping for just one more day to ripen.
Breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. -T.S. Eliot
These are indeed the anxious times. After the scars of last year the poetry I grasped at during my life ignorant youth started to speak to me more plainly.
"Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?"
Most people would assume that fall and the time of harvest is when wine making is at its most tense. I have discovered this year that for myself, that is not so. During harvest you can create for yourself a veneer of control. The increasing flavor complexity and daily measuring of the fruit tricks you into thinking you can decide what will happen. You can imagine that your bank of knowledge and experience will guide you and the wine down some certain path. At least this is what you tell yourself to keep the task within some reasonable scale.
In the Spring, we are truly thrown to the mercy of Nature. What will be, what will come, the future that starts rolling towards you is all set in these early stages of growth. All one can do is look to the sky, feel the air, feel the ground, watch...hope.
The burgeoning growth and young buds, in all their vulnerability, are the basis of what the 2012 vintage will be. Last year, a terrible cold decended upon us during this precious time and much of the crop was lost forever, a vintage not to be. That fear is what makes one focus solely on the low when reading forecasts. There exists no cellar magic that repairs what is lost on the vine. This pushing forth of the first hints of green indicates that everything is being set in motion, and the winemaker is now purely a spectator, witnessing the miracle of the vines bringing life anew. How will 2012 be remembered? The most important first steps are toddling up and down our steep vineyard hills as I write this.
It surprised me how in the facing of this great unknown, I suddenly found understanding in poetry buried deep behind my minds layers of chemistry and enology. I tried in vain so often to understand these verses in college, but without life experience, they fell on intellectual deafness. My professor must have felt like a young parent, attempting to teach a lesson to a child that only time can truly deliver. For what did this line mean to me before I was tasked with producing wine from the alkaline soils?
"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?"
These great lines only grow personal meaning once they can be applied to something true from your own experience. The return of Spring is a call to revisit what you hold as truth. To shine light on your plans with an expanded perspective that comes with each successive vintage. This reminder prevents you from standing still, nature implores you to change with it. All is different from where we left it last fall. The winter retreat of the vines produce new character in these Spring shoots. You can sense it when you walk amongst them. They too are wiser, and will write their verse in some new style. What they capture and how they will explain it to us will be revealed in the poem of the wine they bring forth. That shall be the overiding goal of what we put in the bottle this year.
Shantih, Shantih, Shantih
Replace "new phonebook" with "active MJO" and this was basically me earlier today. Which leads to the obvious question, "What's the active MJO, and why is some jerk winemaker yelling about it." Well, it is all due to the fact that the most important aspect to wine is weather. Regardless of what tricks we have learned during human agricultural history, nature still has the first and last say.
I feel it is important to remind ourselves that making wine, at its heart, is simply an agricultural process. We often get away from this perspective due to the strange cultural significance that wine has taken in the modern world. Somehow growing wine grapes, and recently, organic heirloom vegetables, has become "sexy" to the point that it is viewed differently than growing corn or soybeans. For this reason you don't see as many millionaires retiring to start farming cotton for example, in order to return to a simpler or more natural life. Don't fall prey to this thinking. Despite all the flowery language, sales PR, and talk of esoteric viticultural processes, wine making IS grape farming, no more, no less. Wine though does have a unique way of making the relationship between nature and consumption crystal clear. The ultimate goal of wine making is to allow one to taste and interact with the time and place of creation. The idea of the vintage is rooted in this, that the year is as important as the place or varietal in conveying what lies inside the bottle.
With this in mind, I obsess over the weather endlessly. It dictates to me all the decisions I will make during the annual cycle of the vineyard and winery. Luckily, my obsession with weather pre-dates my time as a winemaker. Living on the Pacific coast, I started checking weather on a daily basis as it determined my plans for surfing. What is special about surfing and weather is that it is dependant upon two forms, the local and the global. The waves that cause one to skip morning class during college are not generated locally, but thousands of miles away. Off the coast of Japan and Russia during Fall and Winter, and way down by New Zealand and the Antarctic Pacific for Spring and Summer. You can't look outside and know that a good swell is coming, you have to do some research to be ready.
This research is what introduced me to the Madden-Julian Oscillation. All this winter the MJO has been in the "inactive" phase. This has been distressing for California farmers, surfers, and skiers. The heart of winter, January-Feburary, was basically one long sunny spring. Temperatures in the 60's and 70's, and never a cloud. While this made it nice to be outdoors hiking and biking, it was terrible for things like water tables, snow pack, and thirsty roots. Then last week came a rather substantial storm, and something felt different. After data analysis, the hopeful news was delivered by the web's greatest weather site Stormsurf:
Current wind analysis indicated modest easterly anomalies were all east of the dateline now (a good thing) extending from 140W to the dateline (180W) and continuing to loose ground. The coverage of these winds shifted east and was fading. Westerly anomalies were strong in the Indian Ocean pushing east to 160E and building more directly over the equator rather than displaced south. It looks like the Inactive Phase of the MJO was loosing control of the West Pacific. A week from now (3/29) the pattern is to continue with a weakening area of weak easterly anomalies hovering between 180W and 160E but nowhere else and with solid westerly anomalies building from the Indian Ocean to 160E and making easterly headway. This indicates that the Inactive Phase of the MJO is to be effectively gone by then with the Active Phase starting to take control of the West Pacific.
If that is not music to your grape growing ears, well, I don't know what to tell you. This is leading to hope that maybe some late season storms will produce water for our thirsty state. The vines are just about to start budding and the roots will start pumping water, making for some possible perfect timing. Spring is well underway though, which usually means a wall of high pressure that keeps California sunny from May to November. But that little bit of weather nerdery I read this morning got me in a solid Lloyd Christmas state of mind
The most basic survival advice I adhere to when out in the backcountry or on city streets is this: Stay on the trail, keep hydrated, take care of your feet. Much of this applies to the winery cellar too. Well, at least 66% of it, because who cares about the trail. In fact, get off the trail when making wine, but that's another post. Since talking about drinking water is not a very exciting topic, I wanted to briefly mention feet.
Finding a good pair of shoes for working in the wine cellar is kind of a never ending quest (here's video of my last shopping trip) for the wine worker . It is all important, and you constantly think of ways to improve. Whereas companies make specific shoes for things like discus and javelin, nobody targets the wine maker, so we are on our own on this decision. And before you comment, no, I've never made wine in Australia so Blundies don't count.
So after 5 years of searching and improving, here is where I am on the quest right now:
Behold the Tretorn Vinter. This pair is on month 5 of constant use and just about at the end of the rope. This being January, those 5 months included harvest, so that is about a full years use on a rubber shoe and it is still water tight.*
Besides being fairly tough, having a Euro pedigree, and a psuedo wine related name, what may you ask do I like about this shoe? It is easy to get in and out of for a work boot. Being the California Central Coast, you need to quickly get your boots off and unto a pair of sandals after work. The above the ankle size is perfect too as it keeps from rubbing on your calf like a rain boot, but is high up enough so they don't flood when someone dumps a garbage can of citric acid solution at you. Also, and you can see this better on the Tretorn website, is the fuzzy slipper like lining. Keeps you feeling oh so cozy when walking on cold wet concrete all day long. And finally, they have a sweet action grip on the bottom so you can hike the vineyard or shoot some hoops during lunch without changing shoes.
Sure, this may have little to do with the wine we produce here, but t is an insight into what us wine makers are thinking about all the time. The little obsessions that any job will create when you strive to perfect your experience. Also just a question to other cellar types, "What's your foot gear?", I'm still looking for something to beat the vinter.
* To anyone who might use Tretorn shoes in the cellar, here's a pro-tip! All the sanitation solutions you use will wreak havoc on the rubber. They will dry out and crack quickly, so go buy some silicone oil and give them a little rub down one a month for optimal life.
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.
Picking of fruit for 2011 is now done. Last week was a non-stop pick and process fest as a big storm was heading into town and things needed to get off the vine before the wet weather arrived.
Being a winemaker means you are obsesed with weather. This time of year, the weather you are most concerned with is rain. When rain will arrive, and how much will come down will make your picking decisions for you. So trying to predict what is on the way is of utmost importance.
In addition to basic weather reports, and the fancy wine grape based weather report we get from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, there are a couple of other inputs I use. The mostly I use the Pacific Surf Forecast. Whereas farmers are mostly concerned with what is happening right outside, surfers are more concerened with what is happening 1000's of miles away. If you read this stuff often enough, you start to see how weather, for example, off the coast of northern Japan can affect weather here in California. Understading the global trends and patterns of weather can often give you a good idea of what is comming your way well in advance.
Lastly, and most accurate, is this weather device for rain and cold:
Whenever these dudes start marching around the winery, I know something is up. I don't know if they are heading for high ground to stay dry or warm or what. But once I see a bunch of this kind of action, it's time to talk with the vineyard crew. This was the Saturday before last. I banked on this guy knowing what was up and called for 5 straight days of picking everything we had left on the vine. Worked out as we got done Thursday night and it poured all Friday, Saturday and Sunday. So thanks to my weather guy above for the heads up!
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.
As a winery grows, the most pressing concern on the wine making side is how to expand production without loss of quality. The key reason quality can differ as growth takes place is the choice of new vineyards. In that spirit, it has taken 3 years of patience to find another Chardonnay vineyard here in Paso Robles that we felt comfortable with. The 2011 vintage marks our fist attempt to get to know this place. (People commonly claim that the French word Terroir has no translation to English, I disagree. To me it means place, as in "It's almost as if that building is of this place." Writing this blog has reminded me that the English language can be as beautiful as any if used with consideration.)
The only comparison I can find to this type of nervous excitement is a first date. When all possibilities are still available, your dreams framing what could be.