Monday, January 17

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: 2010 Vintage Report

by Peter Wellington

We're always glad to welcome Peter Wellington of Wellington Vineyards back to the Wine.Woot blog. Here's his report on the 2010 growing season.

The Year They Cancelled Summer

I used to jokingly refer to 1980 as the year they cancelled summer. It was an exceptionally cool and foggy summer in Sonoma Valley, but the harvest went well when we had a protracted “Indian Summer” in September and October. The 2010 growing season started with a very wet El Niño winter and spring. We had over 60 inches of rain here in Glen Ellen, a figure we have reached only one other time (1998) in the 24 years since we bought the vineyard. After some nice warm days in late February and early March the temperatures were substantially cooler than typical all the way into the latter part of August. Daily highs only in the 60’s much of April and May were followed by highs in the 70’s through June and July, when we usually experience 80’s and 90’s. To my memory, we had only two or three days when it even got to 90º...

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Tuesday, July 13

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: 2009 Vintage Report

by Peter Wellington

Welcome old friend Peter Wellington of Wellington Vineyards back to the Woot blog for this look back at the 2009 vintage. Take it away, Peter!

Please accept my apology for the long delay in filing this report. My original intention was to write this in November (2009), but some unforeseen issues popped up and I’ve been behind schedule at work ever since then. There were three main topics that dominated local news stories about the wine industry last fall: unsold grapes, the European grapevine moth, and the big storm.

There have always been cycles of grape shortages and gluts, but during my almost 30 years in the wine biz I have never seen anything like the situation in 2009. Wineries were dropping grape contracts and commitments right and left over worries about inventory levels and cash flow. Almost every summer one will see listings for Lodi Cabernet sauvignon, Lake County Sauvignon blanc or Sonoma County Syrah grapes for sale, but this past year any and everything was available, usually at bargain prices. If you were looking for Dry Creek Zinfandel there were multiple choices. The same was true for Oakville Cabernet sauvignon, Russian River Pinot noir or anything else your heart desired. During crush I was offered “extra” grapes from several great vineyards at very low prices. The usual story was that a very prestigious winery had taken the amount stipulated by their contract but didn’t want / couldn’t afford to buy any excess grapes. I was tempted, but refrained from all these offers because of both budget and space constraints. Even behemoths such as Gallo and Constellation weren’t making their usual low-ball offers.

In October, toward the end of crush, the discovery of a “new” exotic pest in a Napa Valley vineyard was announced. The European grapevine moth (EGVM), Lobesia botrana, is the fourth new insect pest found in North Coast wine country in the past decade or so. So far none of them have caused significant losses for grapegrowers here. The first, and most serious, of the four was the glassy winged sharpshooter (GWSS), a very efficient vector for vine killing Pierce’s Disease (PD). Pierce’s Disease destroyed the Southern California wine industry in the 1880’s. PD was known as Anaheim Disease at the time, named for the utopian winegrowing colony founded in Orange County by German immigrants. It also devastated Temecula area vineyards in the 1990’s, after the introduction of GWSS. Quarantine and inspection of plant material (primarily nursery stock) from infested areas has been effective thus far in preventing GWSS from establishing a foothold in the North Coast. Near hysteria amongst growers has subsided into complacency, but a serious threat still exists. There are also quarantines in place for the Light Brown Apple Moth (LBAM), although it is likely more of a nuisance than a serious threat to vineyards. The Vine Mealybug probably falls in between the first two as far as the potential economic damage it could wreak. It can get inside grape clusters and cause bunch rot, and it is hard to kill because it burrows underneath the bark on grapevine trunks. Fortunately, unlike the GWSS and LBAM, it can’t fly, so it spreads very slowly unless moved by people and equipment.

From what I’ve read, EVGM is potentially more damaging than either LBAM or Vine Mealybug. In early April, when I wrote the rough draft for this blog, the only action being taken regarding EGVM was plans for a detection program. Because the discovery was made late in the 2009 season and EGVM is dormant in winter the extent of infestation was hard to determine.

A much more troubling situation has unfolded over the last three to four weeks (during April). The emergence of the first generation of adult moths since a widespread trapping program was instituted has revealed the extent of the infestation and how it may be spreading. Apparently the pest has been in the Oakville / Rutherford area of Napa Valley for at least two years (probably more), but was not identified because the USDA had neither specimens nor DNA in their database. Growers had found the moths, seen the damage, and brought specimens to the Napa County Agricultural Commissioner’s office, but no one could identify them. One of the USDA’s functions is to protect US agriculture from exotic pests; but how can you prevent a new pest from becoming established if you don’t know what it looks like? Shouldn’t they have a library of all significant pests that aren’t here yet?

Tens of thousands of moths were trapped in Napa Valley during April, and trapping there has been suspended so as not to overwhelm the state entomology lab. Eradication efforts are in full swing, with growers spraying pesticides (both “organic” and “synthetic”) on every vine in the infested area. Stray moths have been found in several other counties, and at least one small infestation exists outside of Napa, apparently introduced by a grape delivery from Napa. Quarantines are being formulated regarding shipment of grapes and handling of crush byproducts. We may have to build a hot compost for all our stems and skins this year to lower the risk of introducing the EGVM into our vineyard.

The third story of the 2009 crush is the one I care about most because it affected wine quality. Weather, of course, is the dominant (if not only) factor in vintage to vintage variation. Late August and September weather was quite typical for the North Coast. There were some intermittent heat waves, but nothing extreme, as in 1999 or 2002. My opinion is that the weather was better than in 2008, but nowhere near the ideal conditions of 2007. Quality should be good to very good for most whites, Pinot Noir, and everything else that ripened fully before the big storm. Our El Niño winter started with a bang on October 13th, when over five inches of rain fell here in one day. Everywhere in Sonoma and Napa got at least two inches, and cool weather with showers persisted for another couple of days. I don’t have the stats readily available, but I think this was more rain during harvest than in 1993, 1989, or even 1983.

The harvest pace was frenetic from Oct. 10th to the 12th, as growers and wineries tried to pull in everything that was ripe. We set a record for our biggest crush tonnage day ever on the 12th, processing over 25% of our red grapes in one day. I would never pick unripe grapes because of an impending storm, and we let several vineyards hang for more ripening. We did incur losses, both in tonnage and potential quality, but I think the resulting wine is still better than if we had picked those vineyards before the storm. Even before the storm, certain experts were predicting a below average quality vintage for Cabernet in Napa and Sonoma, based in part on analysis of the phenolic makeup of the ripening grapes. I personally am very happy with the Cabernet we brought in prior to the storm, and okay with what came in later, but it sounds as if it will go down as an uneven vintage overall.

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Monday, July 20

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: Microbes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

by Peter Wellington

As I started to think about how I would organize this blog I came to the realization that there really should be a fourth category – the “maybe good, maybe bad, maybe innocuous”, with a large aside on the pros and cons of inoculating with pure yeast strains. 

The list of species that can grow in grape juice is quite small, and even fewer can grow in wine.  The low pH and high sugar and/or alcohol levels make for a very hostile environment.  No pathogenic or toxin producing microbes can grow or even survive in wine, which led Louis Pasteur to declare wine the most hygienic of all beverages.  Only two species, Saccharomyces cerevisiae (wine yeast) and Oenococcus oeni (malolactic bacteria), are widely accepted as “good” wine microbes.  Even malolactic bacteria are considered spoilage organisms if malolactic fermentation (MLF) isn't desired...

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Monday, June 08

Random Ramblings: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Barrels, But Were Afraid To Ask

by Peter Wellington

Special thanks go to WineWootaholic (WWA) for several topic suggestions, because he wasn't afraid to ask! 

Barrels have been around for a couple of thousand years. While they are now used almost exclusively for wine and spirits, they are extremely versatile containers that had a multitude of applications for most of their history. If you know anyone with the surname of Cooper, they are the descendant of a barrel maker. Barrels have been used to store and move practically everything from soup to nuts: nails, grain and flour, olives, gunpowder, oil, all sorts of beverages, et cetera. They provided sturdy watertight, insect and rodent proof, portable containers. The bent staves of a watertight barrel also allow for easy movement by hand. A single person can readily move hundreds of pounds of goods rapidly across any somewhat flat surface, up a ramp, and even up a broad flight of steps. Imagine trying to move a six hundred pound crate by hand. Barrels were one of the easiest ways to move goods prior to the development of modern-day devices such as forklifts and elevators...

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Friday, April 24

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: The Vines Must Suffer!

by Peter Wellington

There's an old aphorism (French, I think) that the vines must suffer in order to produce good wine. While this isn't exactly true, its origins are easy to understand. I''ll try to explain the basis for this belief and how that is connected to soils, irrigation, fertilization, diseases and yields.

Grapevines are very vigorous plants, not only capable of surviving in poor soils, but often thriving in soils that are unsuitable for most annual food crops. Vines are very efficient at using water and scavenging nitrogen from the soil, and can grow too vigorously if they have an abundant supply of either or both. You might ask why would high vigor be a problem when most farmers are thrilled to have bigger, healthier plants. Overly vigorous vines not only produce lower quality wine, they also produce smaller crops – a lose/lose proposition.

The reasons for smaller crops are two fold: low bud fruitfulness and poor set. Grapes are borne on shoots sprouting from the previous year's canes, and the potential crop is determined when those buds are being formed. Moderate temperatures and direct sunlight (red and infra-red wavelengths) are critical to the formation of grape cluster primordia in these buds. Cool rainy springtime weather can result in significant crop reduction the following year due to reduced cluster count and smaller clusters. There are people who perform microscopic analysis of buds in an attempt to determine how many buds to leave at pruning time. Poor set is often caused by bad weather at bloom time but can also be the result of internal factors such as nutrient or water deficiency, and also excessive vigor. The teleological explanation of the latter is that if growing conditions are so good, why should the plant bother making seeds. High vigor and low fruitfulness can become a self-perpetuating, vicious circle: vines with less fruit grow more leaves, creating more shade, reducing fruit production, increasing leaf growth, etc.

While wine and grape quality is subjective, most of the effects of excess vigor have universally accepted negative impact on wine quality. The most obvious is dilution of flavor due to larger berry size. Because color and flavor are concentrated in the skin of the grape, the lower skin : pulp ratio of larger berries means less color, aroma and flavor (everything else taken equally). Another effect of vigor is decreased light , both direct and indirect, on the clusters, delaying flavor and color development. A light bulb went on in my head during a 1983 trip to Burgundy and Bordeaux when I saw how the vines were trellised there. I had always wondered why California wines were generally more “green” and herbaceous at higher ripeness levels (in terms of sugar and acid) than their French counterparts. The shoots in the French vineyards were trained into a thin hedge, and the fruit was visible at the bottom of the hedge. At the time, virtually all California vineyards were pruned on a “fruiting wire” with a 24” crossarm mounted a foot higher with foliage support wires at each end. The shoots grew up and out, over the foliage wires and down, no manual labor required. This exposed a large leaf area to the sun, allowing the vines to produce plenty of sugar, but created a tunnel around the grapes with little light penetration. I can remember driving past vineyards a week before harvest and not being able to tell what color the grapes were. In addition to retarding color and flavor development, this system reduced fruitfulness and increased disease problems.

In the mid to late 1980s some growers started changing to a vertical training system. Sunlight Into Wine by Dr. Richard Smart, published in 1991, became required reading for growers and vineyard managers. A large amount of replanting due to Phylloxera that had spread during the late 80s hastened the change. This also led to a dramatic increase in the year-round vineyard labor force. Whereas the old system required hand labor only for pruning, harvest and maybe some suckering, the new system involved placing and moving foliage wires, tucking shoots between the wires, leaf removal and additional suckering, creating work all Spring and Summer. During the replanting many growers also chose rootstocks with lower vigor than the AxR they were replacing.

Now let's look at the factors that limit vigor, or make the vines “suffer”. Choice of location, specifically soil, is the oldest and most obvious. In Europe olive trees and grapevines were grown on low fertility soils with the double benefits of higher quality fruit and not tying up more fertile land needed for cereal grains and other annual crops. Water retention is probably more important than soil nutrient status, but both influence vigor. Without drought stress vines will not only grow excessively, they also will not concentrate sugar any higher than about 20% in the grapes (11-12% potential alcohol). Most of the wine growing regions of France receive significant rain during the growing season (April-September) and have proscriptions against irrigation. This has led to a fairly widely held belief that dry-farmed vines always make the best wine. I would argue that although excess water is deleterious to quality, so is insufficient water. We have 8+ acres of old dry-farmed vines that suffer too much in drier years and would make better wine those years if we could give them a bit of water. Likewise, wine quality in a number of regions of France suffered during the extremely hot and dry 2003 vintage. Vines don't care whether their water comes from a cloud or a drip hose; they do need some water.

As an aside, when I was in Paris in 2007 I found an interesting little wine shop in our neighborhood. When the proprietress found out I was a California vigneron she started telling me all of the California vineyard shortcomings. I highly doubt she had ever even been to the US, but she proceeded to tell me the soils were all the same, the climate was too hot, the vines too young, the vineyards too big and, worst of all, that we irrigate. With my limited French I argued every point: We have some of the most diverse soils in the world, being at the juncture of two huge tectonic plates. San Francisco is colder than Normandy in the summer and you could never ripen a grape there. I have unirrigated vines over 100 years old. My vineyard is only 8 hectares (she responded that some of her growers farmed only 4 or 5 hectares). Lastly, I told her that we don't get any rain during the season, and vines don't care where the water comes from. I'm not sure I caused her to have any doubt of her opinions of California, but she really took offense at that last suggestion. All in all it was an amiable “argument” and I did respect her support of artisan producers – she had wines that were both interesting and good.

Back in the early '90s my friend Organic Bob (the one who tried to get me to buy a propane weed flamer) extolled the virtues of grapes from phylloxera infested vineyards, his theory being that the increased vine stress improved quality. As strange as it seems, there is some, limited, truth to this. In situations of excess vigor, disease can actually bring the vine into better balance. Unfortunately, phylloxera doesn't just weaken vines a little, it ultimately kills them. While one vineyard with which Bob had experience may have made better wine one year, that was the exception rather than the rule. Most phylloxerated vineyards fail to ripen grapes well; I remember one winery marketing a rosé (that was supposed to have been a red wine) called Bug Juice one year. I believe that mild grape leafroll virus (found in quite a few old vineyards) can sometimes have a beneficial effect on wine quality by slowing sugar production and accumulation. These disease or pest problems can only have a quality enhancing effect if the vineyard is otherwise overly vigorous. It is the goal of any good vineyard manager to have a healthy, balanced, fruitful, high quality vineyard.

I know quite a few winemakers (but not grower/winemakers) who claim the lower the yield, the higher the quality. The flawed logic is that if 6 tons per acre (TPA) makes better wine than 9 TPA and 4TPA better than 6TPA (usually true), then 2 TPA will be better than 4, 1 TPA even better...The sins of overcropping are well known, and most growers want to grow as large a crop as they can ripen properly. However, too small a crop can actually harm quality; the vines are out of balance, grow too vigorously, compensate by increasing berry size (diluting flavor and color) and ripen grapes too quickly.

In summary, excessive vine vigor is a lot more common than insufficient vigor, but the best wines come from balanced vines, not suffering vines. Soil and climate are set factors that have huge influence on vine vigor, but growers can adjust and attain balanced vines through informed use of rootstock, spacing, trellising, pruning, fertilization and irrigation. A well designed vineyard needs less intervention to attain balance, is easier and cheaper to farm, and will be more consistent in producing high quality wine. What constitutes a well designed vineyard? It's a vineyard that has a compatible combination of site, rootstock and scion variety, and spacing and trellising that produces a good balance of fruit and foliar growth. It is not so vigorous that a lot of leaf removal or other remedial canopy work is necessary. It is not so low in vigor that it needs lots of fertilizer or irrigation. It's a vineyard that usually sets enough crop but doesn't need a lot of thinning. A good vineyard also has uniformity.  Many vineyards have variable soil depth and composition; this results in uneven vigor if the site is farmed in uniform fashion. One year one of my growers wanted to irrigate his whole vineyard late in the season because a few weak vines were losing a lot of leaves. 80 % of the vines were fine, 15% too vigorous and 5% suffering. I told him you can't farm based on the weakest 5% of your vineyard – there's too big a compromise of quality. The next year he put in extra emitters for the weak vines and also (hooray) valves to cut off water to the overly vigorous areas, which are now virtually dry farmed.. A well designed and managed vineyard compensates for soil variation with different rootstocks, different spacing and variable irrigation.

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Wednesday, March 04

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: 10 Things I Hate About O

by Peter Wellington
Wine.Woot guest blogger emeritus Peter Wellington comes down from the mountain bearing more of his winemaking wisdom!

Let me start by saying I don't really hate organic. I just have some major quarrels with its current manifestation in our culture. The title of this blog is more the result of my obsession with perverting cultural references. Lest I alienate a large number of you, and instigate a bunch of hate mail, I'll start with some background on the environmental and organic movements...

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Thursday, December 04

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker – A Tale of Two Harvests

by Peter Wellington

Hard Times - Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2008

I can usually predict harvest dates quite accurately by early June, when grape flowering is complete. This year I projected that we might bring in our first grapes the week after Labor Day, but that we certainly wouldn't be in the thick of it until the following week. I planned a market visit to Ohio for Sept.2-8, figuring if one small batch came in during my absence it wouldn't be any big deal. I do travel under my own name, unlike my great-grandfather, a merchant during Victorian times who made a habit of registering in hotels as Martin Chuzzlewit because he didn't care for the sly looks he often got when he used his real name, John Smith. I had made my plans well before Lynda (assistant winemaker for the last 7 years) left for a dream job at Hanzell, and before the prolonged heat wave in late August. There was no way I could leave Sam and Dave (the Soul Men) what with it being the first crush at Wellington for both of them, so I postponed my trip until the end of October. My prior blog, This Could Be The Last Time, covered the “first harvest” when we brought in over 80% of our whites plus Malbec, some Zin and some Cab.

Please Sir, I Want Some More

Unseasonably cool weather the last two full weeks of September meant we crushed only 5% of our annual total during that normally busy time frame. Almost everything that was “supposed” to be ready at that time had already been harvested. This allowed us to catch up on “pre-crush” maintenance and preparation, keep on top of white fermentations very well, and recover both physically and mentally from the early September onslaught. It got to the point where I was thankful that one other prospective crush worker had backed out in late August, because there wasn't enough work. I had lots of time to check vineyards thoroughly and sample repeatedly, partly in hopes of finding something that was ready to harvest. The greatest benefit of the long cool spell was that the unharvested grapes had a chance to recover from the heat stress, re-equilibrate and mature slowly and evenly – probably the most important vintage related factor in high quality wine. We brought in our last grapes precisely three weeks ago and just pressed that tank this morning (Mohrhardt Ridge Cabernet sauvignon, only 6½ tons, after 16+ last year)

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

I'm very happy with the quality of everything that came in during the “second harvest”, though Zinfandel gets an asterisk (see below). Quantity, however, was way down – by 42% from 2007 if I don't include grapes from two new (to us) vineyards, by 32% even when those are added. Frost, drought and a heat spike during bloom all took their toll on what already would have been a smaller than average crop; fortunately none of mother nature's little “gifts” had a negative effect on quality. I've always been a Pollyanna, and my optimistic spin is that my bottling costs will be down this year and next and I'll be lowering my inventory going into uncertain economic times. Speaking of that, we set an all time sales record in October. Various explanations come to mind: that people are in denial, that they want to drown their sorrows, that they're drinking more wine at home instead of going to restaurants, etc. My favorite idea is that people want to trade down in price, but not in quality, and recognize the high qpr of our wines.

Great Expectations - Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008

During my recent trip to Ohio several wine buyers asked me about the quality of the 2008 vintage. It's a common question, and I always preface my answer with an explanation of why you can't generalize about vintages in Northern California. This year's wines will definitely be a mixed bag, with some incredible wines, but also some so-so wines. It takes a while to assess wine quality; you get an idea of flavor and aromatic intensity during crush, but you really have to wait until the wines have gone through ML and settled clear to make a good assessment of balance, mouthfeel and concentration. In general, I'm concerned that the wines from the “first harvest” may be lacking in depth and concentration. I think most of our Cabs and other Bordeaux varieties will be outstanding. Zinfandel was our biggest challenge this year.

* Naughty, Naughty Zinfandel

The late Summer blast of heat caused shriveling, dehydration, and elevated sugar levels in all varieties.. This essentially affects all clusters and is more pronounced on the parts of the cluster exposed to direct afternoon sun. It is somewhat reversible in that the grapes tend to rehydrate and swell back up if they have adequate water and cool weather. Zinfandel, however, has a unique problem: random individual berry shrivel. It seems that the stems of individual berries shut down, restricting water movement into the berries. The result is a cluster spotted with raisins before the rest of the cluster is ripe. We have to harvest when the “normal” berries are ripe or we'll end up with unripe flavors and too much acid. This is why Zinfandel wines tend to have more alcohol than any other varietal. The amount of this raisining varies year to year, and 2008 was about as severe as I have ever seen. We had one tank that was 21.6°Brix at crush and went to 26.5°B after four days' cold soak. We drew off some juice for Rosé and replaced it with water, but the fermentation slowed at over 14% alcohol with 5% residual sugar, so we had to add more water to get it to go dry. By back-calculation, the grapes at crush had been approximately 32°B. A subsequent tank from the same vineyard had even more raisining, so I caved and we made our first late harvest Zin ever. Even with extended cold soaks and adjustments based on the assumption that sugars would still go higher, the average alcohol level of our Zins is over 15.5%. I guess we'll be looking into some alcohol removal again.

Only a couple of w00ters got into the spirit of the Stones last time. Maybe I'm too lowbrow for this crowd, so I thought I'd try a different twist this time. Cheers:)

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Thursday, September 18

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: This Could Be The Last Time

by Peter Wellington

Crush Waits For No One / On With The Show - Wed. Aug. 27, 2008

Back in May I predicted our crush wouldn't start until a week after Labor Day, but it started today. We still have a final bottling date Friday, and it's not easy to be preparing for that at the same time we're starting crush, but what else can a poor boy do? My obsession with pop culture references has complicated the writing of this. Before I'm out of time, I figured I'd see how many Stones references I could cram into one blog. Can you make the connections?

Hot Stuff - Sat. Sept. 6, 2008

After a very cool, dry spring we had a moderate, sunny, albeit smoky, summer until mid-August. The last four weeks have been scorchers, with most days approaching or surpassing 100°F. After an ideal temperature regime during last year's harvest (consistent low to mid 80's), I realize you can't always get what you want. At least the air is reasonably smoke free now. I have been saying it probably wouldn't clear up completely until the autumn rains begin. Our vacation in Yosemite high country (during the time of the fire that filled Yosemite Valley with smoke) was the only time we saw totally clear skies during a two month period. Sonoma Valley filled with smoke again just three weeks ago today, when the wind shifted and came in from the northeast.

Sticky Fingers / Stop Breaking Down - Mon. Sept. 8, 2008

We've been bringing in white grapes as fast as we can; unfortunately that's only 5-6 tons a day because the press holds 1.6 to 2 tons of whole cluster fruit and a press cycle is 3 hours. Today the first Sauvignon blanc load didn't arrive until almost 10 AM, so we were here until after 6 PM for just 4 tons (2 loads). Making whites is a royal pain – sticky, sticky grapes and pomace in the air and everywhere.  The sugar becomes like glue as it dries, making the press and everything else hard to clean. Our grape sorting conveyor keeps stopping and starting. I checked all the wiring connections and everything seems okay, so I fear it's a problem with the variable frequency controller (freak drives are expensive). The yields have been a bit light so far. A hot spell in late May shattered a lot of the bloom and after we dump grapes you can see all the dead flowers coating the inside of the bins.

How Sweet It Is - Tues. Sept. 9, 2008

Thanks to the w00t regular who expressed the opinion that a higher alcohol level meant a drier wine. I was pleased to meet you, but I'll let them guess your name. You've inspired a little more wine 101. During fermentation, sugar is converted to ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide (CO2) in a ratio of 51:49. Grapes / juice at 25% sugar, when fermented to dryness, will yield a wine of a maximum of about 12.8% alcohol by weight / 15.6% alcohol by volume (alcohol is lighter than water). Actual alcohol levels are somewhat lower because some sugar is converted to yeast biomass and some alcohol is lost via evaporation. Both sugar and alcohol have inhibitory effects on yeast metabolism, and the effects are additive. Dellè units are calculated as % sugar + (4.5 x % alcohol by vol.), with a sum of 80 generally considered stable against refermentation. This phenomenon explains why the very sweet late harvest wines such as trockenbeerenauslese have very low alcohol levels. Factors other than alcohol and sugar levels, including temperature and poor yeast nutrient status, can further limit fermentation. It gets progressively more difficult to ferment to dryness at higher sugar levels, and many wines above 15-16% alcohol have some residual grape sugar (RS).

The impression of sweetness in wine is affected by other factors in addition to RS. Alcohol lends sweetness, as do sugars and other compounds extracted from oak barrels. Fruity flavors accentuate sweetness and acidity counterbalances it. As cited by Scott Harvey, many German winemakers engineer balance into their high-acid, low alcohol wines with RS. Sugar, alcohol and oak add viscosity and body as well as sweetness. In this era of bigger is better many of the wines getting high scores from Parker and the Wine Spectator not only have lots of extract and lots of oak, but also high alcohol levels, low acid levels, and often significant RS.

I promised a short discussion of acidity and pH, so here's the low down: both affect perception of tartness, but pH is more important for several reasons. Total acidity measures the amount of acid present, but not it's strength; pH measures the strength of the acid – specifically the activity of hydrogen ions. This quality affects color, aromas and flavors, resistance to microbial growth and the effectiveness of SO2 (sulfites). The lower the pH, the stronger the activity of the acid. Most wines range in pH from 3 to 4 (3 is ten times as strong as 4). For reference, tart whites like Sauvignon blanc might have a pH of 3.2-3.3 and soft reds might have a pH of 3.8 or higher). Relatively low pH, low acid wines make winemakers happy, high pH, high acid wines are trouble. Winemakers can add tartaric acid (the main acid of grapes), which will lower pH, but also raise TA. If you're starting with a high pH, high TA wine, you have limited ability to lower pH to desirable levels without making the wine excessively tart.

It's All Over Now - Wed. Oct 10, 2008

I'm moving on with mixed emotions. I'll miss you, but like a prodigal son I'll see you all down the line and not fade away. I have no expectations that anyone'll get the right answer to the last trivia question, but use your imagination and let it loose. Till the next goodbye, SB.

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Saturday, August 30

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: Blame It On SonomaBouliste

by Peter Wellington

(The long interval between blogs is the writer's fault this time; I've just been incredibly busy.)

Out Of Crisis Comes Opportunity - Weds. Aug 13, 2008

Our assistant winemaker of the last seven years, Lynda, cut her family vacation on the Klamath River short for two reasons. First, the smoke was so bad that her husband and kids were wheezing and coughing a lot. Second, a dream job opportunity presented itself. I know it was a hard decision for her because we are like family at the winery, but if I were in her shoes I'm sure I would have taken the job. The timing, people, and nature of the job are a perfect fit for her life right now. I immediately listed a position on, and was overwhelmed by the response. I had over 50 applicants from 17 countries on five continents; fortunately more than half of them were from Northern California. Almost all of them were qualified, so I set about choosing those that I thought might be the best fit. While Lynda, and Chris before her, had worked only half time except during crush, I didn't want to limit the candidate pool, so I set about looking for applicants who had other skills and experience such as vineyard work, marketing, or mechanical skills (i.e. someone who could take on some of my duties in addition to the assistant winemaker responsibilities).

I thought I had settled on the right person, and was prepared to make an offer, when one of my closest friends, David Noyes, gave me a call and asked me to go for a walk (we often walk in a local nature preserve and discuss business, family, the meaning of life, etc.) David was the founding winemaker at Kunde Estate and worked there for sixteen years, leaving a little over two years ago to work on his own brand full-time. Prior to that he was assistant to Paul Draper at Ridge for many years. Although David had previously told me he was looking for a little outside income while growing his brand, I hadn't considered the possibility of what ensued. He ran into Lynda's new “boss” and found out Lynda was moving, thought about it and approached me.

We spent about four hours talking last weekend, and David has agreed to come work with me starting next week. I'm thrilled, and lots of people have been making comments like “I can't wait to try the wines you guys are going to make together.” 

Here's One For You, Nineteen For Me - Sun. Aug. 17, 2008

During the RPM tour, a question came up about all the taxes and government fees we pay. Back in 1988 we had to deal with 14 different agencies in order to build a winery, including paying $400 for an archaeologist to confirm that we wouldn't disturb any Native American burial grounds (the land had been continuously farmed for over 100 years). We currently pay annual or semiannual fees to many different states for permits to sell to distributors, consumers or both. Within California we pay the state for a Winegrower's license, a Processor's license, a Produce buyer's permit, a Weighmaster's license, a Grape Crush Report assessment, a Pressure vessel inspection fee, a Corporate filing fee and a Division of Water Rights filing fee. Sonoma County gets us for a business license, Food Handler's permit, Hazardous Materials Permit, Agricultural Burn permit, Scale Inspection fee, and a Weights & Measures business ID. I'm probably forgetting a couple, too. We pay excise and/or sales tax to a number of states, including California, and Excise tax to the federal government. The only tax I recall ever being diminished or eliminated was the Special Occupational Tax that came into existence during the tenure of a President who ran on the slogan “No new taxes” (although the 529% increase in federal excise taxes that passed during that administration is still in effect). Of course there's also the sales and property taxes that all businesses pay.

Nightmare On Maple Street - Mon.. Aug 25, 2008

The old county assessor's parcel maps show a 96 lot subdivision of our vineyard that was created in the late 1800's. In the early 1980's a developer tried to get a 36 parcel subdivision approved, but couldn't because the ground didn't “perc” well enough for nearly that many houses (there is no county sewer line nearby). The neighbors were thrilled when we bought the property with the intention of building a winery, as they had been resigned to looking at a subdivision. On the old map there were four named streets running through the vineyard, with Maple St. running right between our two winery buildings – through the crush and bottling area.

We bottled over one third of our annual production last week, and it was the most problematic bottling we've had since around 1993. Fortunately, nothing happened that would compromise wine quality, but otherwise, the saying “Murphy was an optimist” came to mind. We had two very full days scheduled, but had an almost two hour delay starting because a switch for the vacuum corker wasn't working properly. We had labeling problems all day long, and more vacuum problems at the end of the first long day. As a result, we had to stack several pallets of wine cork-up for two days, then flip and restack the cases for shipment to the warehouse. We also had to soak the labels off over fifty cases of wine (most still isn't done) and hand label them. Toby suggested a w00t “bleeped-up label” offering. These labels are much, much more difficult to remove than the mystery wine labels, which has led us to the conclusion that an issue with the adhesive was responsible for the application problems during bottling. The specified adhesive was exactly the same as before; our printer took leftover labels and is having them tested.

I can't blame all our problems on suppliers and mechanical problems. I ordered the tin capsules for an entire year's worth of bottling back in November, the bottles in January and the corks in late July. During the blending process, the volume of our red table wine, The Duke, increased and I didn't give a second thought to bottling supplies. When I made a list of supplies for Sam to bring to the bottling area, we had just enough capsules for the Syrah, Grenache and Noir de Noirs, and were a little bit short for the Zinfandel and the Duke., but we did have some plain gold and plain red capsules left over from other projects. By the middle of the second day of bottling it became evident we were going to be tight on corks (it didn't help that the bottling company had gone through a couple of hundred while testing and fixing the vacuum problem). At that point I turned to Sam and said, “Gee, I never recalculated how many cases of glass we had vs. how much wine we actually have.” As we got toward bottling the last of The Duke, we ran through the custom “Wellington” capsules, the plain gold and the plain red capsules and knew we'd have 15 or 20 cases without capsules for tasting room pouring. Then the last glass pallet was almost empty. When there was less than five gallons of wine left in the tank we ran out of corks, so the last couple of cases got corked with samples from different cork vendors. After bottling 2071 cases in claret (Bordeaux shape) bottles we had 11 bottles left over. At least we don't have to worry about storage space for bottling supplies this winter. :)

I apologize for the long interval between blogs. Between time spent filling a key position, a week long vacation, putting up a w00t offering and our largest single bottling in years I just haven't been able to set aside much time. My spell check just suggested I replace Zinfandel with Infanticide:)

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Friday, July 25

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: There's Something Happening Here

by Peter Wellington

Yes, this blog post is later than usual, but don't blame Peter - the delay is entirely Woot's fault.

For What It's Worth - Tue. July 8, 2008

Dan Berger, one of the more interesting wine writers around, would occasionally list various production costs when talking about wine prices. Some were very accurate, but others out of line with each other, e.g. cheap glass with expensive corks. In light of recent discussions on the w00t forums about price, quality and value, I thought it might be interesting to list our costs and some idea of the range of various costs.

Dan always gave the most detail about bottling costs, so I'll start there. Most of our bottles run around $9.00 a case, with a range from $7.50 to $12.00. Industry ranges are < $5.00 to > $20.00. Our corks are around 30¢ each ($3.50/case), with an industry range of < 10¢ to > $1.00 each (there are also low cost alternative closures). We use tin capsules, at 17¢ each ($2.00/case). Polylaminate, PVC, heat-shrink plastic and other alternatives run 2-10¢ each. Front labels @ 7¢ and backs @ 4¢ adds another $1.40 a case for us. Label cost is probably the biggest variable in packaging costs because there is a tremendous economy of scale; small runs of ornate labels can cost a dollar a label. Mobile bottling is around $2.50 a case. If you have your own bottling line (a large capital investment) costs are considerably lower. Bottling labor for us is around $0.60 per case. We spend $19 a case to bottle our wine. Big wineries can get it done for $7-8, high end “vanity labels” may spend as much as $50 a case or more.

Grapes are the biggest cost in Sonoma and Napa wines, but not in the Central Valley. Cabernet averaged over $4000 a ton in Napa in 2007, but only $330 in Lodi and $260 or less in the rest of the Central Valley. The average grape cost in a case of Cabernet is over $60 using Napa fruit, and less than $2.00 using Kern County fruit. Growing your own grapes can be a lot cheaper than buying grapes. In 2006 our own grapes cost us $1160 a ton, our purchased grapes averaged $2040 a ton. Our grape cost per case averaged around $26.

French oak barrels are $1000+ a pop. That means $20 a case for a winery that uses 50% new French oak, a common practice for high end Napa and Sonoma Cabs ($80 a case for Caymus Special Select @ 200% new oak). American oak is $200-350 a barrel; staves, chips and sawdust range from pennies up to $2 a case or so. We average $4 a case for oak (ranging from $0 to 20, depending on the wine). Other winemaking and lab supplies add up to a dollar or so.

Large wineries realize tremendous economy of scale with winemaking labor, often spending less than they do on bottling labor. Counting labor overhead and a portion of my salary, our winemaking cost is $7 a case. I won't consider consultant's fees here, but some vanity labels pay “superstar” winemakers six figure fees to create cult brands.

Overhead can be quite variable depending on renting vs. owning, taxes, depreciation, loan interest, etc. We spent a buck a case on utilities before we installed our photovoltaic system, now we have to add both the accelerated depreciation on it and the interest on the loan to our “book cost” for IRS purposes.

I won't make you do the math. Our direct cost per case is around $57. Two Buck Chuck probably costs about $9-10 a case to produce, and an elite Napa Cab might cost $140-200. Add a bit of tax, warehousing, marketing (can be a huge expense) and overhead and you get to the winery cost of sales. Assuming sales through the three tier system, markup will be 100% between the winery and the store shelf. Hence Two Buck Chuck and $40-50 Napa Cabs.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes - Thu. July 10, 2008

Dry lightning started over a thousand fires in northern California on June 22nd. Even though none of the fires were in Sonoma County, we were inundated by smoke for a week. One night the smoke detector in our bedroom went off at 3 AM. When I sulfur dusted on the 27th I didn't even realize the sun had risen until I noticed a pale red, moon-like circle above the mountains. I had Sam wash the solar panels when things cleared up last week – they were coated with ash and dust. I wish I had looked at the electrical output before washing; I'd be curious to know how much generation was compromised. After a week of blue skies the smoke returned Monday and has been getting thicker every day. There are still over 300 fires burning 18 days after they started, with 20 described as major fires. It's also been over 100°F all week, making for burning eyes, throats and lungs. I feel like I'm breathing with my body uider water; I can only imagine what it's like for people with respiratory diseases.

There's been speculation about diminished sunlight slowing ripening or other fire effects on grapes, but I don't think it really makes a difference right now. Light is rarely the limiting factor in photosynthetic rate. Heat determines rate of photosynthesis, with a maximum rate around 90-92°F, dropping to virtually no activity below 50° or above 105°. We have had a cooler than average year so far, and harvest may start a little later than average. I also saw mention of a company that can remove “smoke taint” - aromas from wildfires adsorbed by the grapes. I'm guessing that may not be much of an issue with these early season fires, but certainly could be if there are similar conditions closer to harvest.

The Circle Goes Round And Round  - Wed. July 16, 2008

We're getting closer to harvest and closer to the end of my year of (mostly) voluntary servitude - blogging. I think my last blog may come during September, so if you have any burning questions, ask now or forever hold your peace. Besides, I'm worried about running out of cheesy cultural references for titles and headings – I'm down to Buffalo Springfield, The Platters and Joni Mitchell this week. We've finalized all our blends for this year, with the last bottling scheduled for Aug. 19th & 20th. The Sonoma Valley Zin is 14.3% alcohol, with 7% Durif (PS to you, Loweel). The Duke is 44% Zin, 28% Merlot, 16% Cabernet sauvignon and 12% Petite Verdot. We've started to re-taste the 2007 Cabernets and other Bordeaux varieties. Now that they have 9 months or so of barrel age we can confidently select candidates for Victory trials, and start blending other lots for the bases of our varietal and single vineyard bottlings. We'll do a few more tastings before harvest, then take a hiatus until December.

I've only got a couple of sulfur dust applications left (no need after veraison), and there's no more mowing – the permanent cover crops went completely dormant very early this year. After that, there's just irrigation and watching. We're starting crush plans – ordering yeast and other supplies, looking for crush help, making barrel plans, visiting vineyards. It's also time for Sam, Lynda and myself to take pre-crush vacations and make sure our batteries are fully charged going into harvest. I've got a one week sales trip planned just before (I hope) crush begins.

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