Thursday, July 03

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: How Dry I Am

by Peter Wellington

El Brujo - Fri. June 20, 2008

It’s official, this has been the driest spring in N. California recorded history. It’s also been one of the coolest, so the vines aren’t showing any signs of moisture stress yet. Shoot growth is well below normal for this time of year in all the vineyards I’ve looked at in Sonoma Valley and bloom is later than usual. It’s been a lot windier than normal, too. Farmers always talk about the weather anyway, but it sure has been a strange year so far. I don’t have any idea of what’s in store for the rest of the growing season because I don’t have my own personal weather forecaster anymore.

Enrico “Joe” Gallo sold us our vineyard in 1986. His father-in-law, Ben Biehler, had planted it, starting in 1892, and Joe started working with Ben when he married Ben’s daughter in 1933. Joe lived in wine country all his life, and right across the street from our winery from 1935 until his passing ten years ago. I have never met an American who was more in tune with the earth than Joe. He knew which doe had given birth to twins the previous year, when and where certain mushrooms would appear, etc. He paid attention to bird, animal and plant behavior and used that, along with other signs, to predict both short and long term weather with startling precision. Several of the old-time growers in the area asked him regularly for predictions. His predictions made the NWS look like they were using a ouija board.

Over the years Joe taught me where the worst frost spots were, ripening sequences, soil variations and how to identify all the grape varieties. He offered wisdom, opinion, a lot of history and lore, and his two cents worth on politics, sports, sex and religion. He was individualistic and open-minded and had strong moral values that combined very socialistic left wing ideas with a bit of far-right libertarianism. He doused wells, including ours (seemingly unlimited), scared away government employees, and, best of all, predicted the weather so well that my vineyard guys took to calling him El Brujo.

Joe used to come over and tell me it was going to rain on such and such a date, and I only half way paid attention, thinking it was just the ramblings of my retired, somewhat bored neighbor. After a couple of years I started paying more attention because it seemed like he was often right. Once I started writing down his predictions I realized he had abnormal abilities and was pretty much always right. Time after time he predicted rain weeks in advance, to the day, or, at worst, one day off. Droughts, floods, date of last frost – he didn’t predict, he knew. I’ll never forget Oct.3rd the year before he died. He drove over on a very warm, cloudless afternoon (he wasn’t walking much at that point) to apologize for the mistaken prediction he had made in late August that we would have our first real rain of the season on Oct. 3rd. A storm had passed well north of Sonoma and was headed over the Sierra Nevada on its way east. The NWS was predicting clear and warm for the next week plus. Oct. 4th we awoke to heavy rain; in a rare occurrence the storm had come back from the east. I once asked Joe, very diplomatically, if he would consider sharing his methods with me, passing them on to another generation. He had already told me of 3 day and 7 day cycles, moon phases, watching the migratory birds and the oak trees, but I asked him if he might describe how he integrated all those factors. He came back the next day and said he had started to write stuff down but got to the point where he realized “ultimately it comes from here” (touching his heart). I still miss you, Rico.

Take My Wine, Please - Tues. July 1, 2008

Thanks to Penkauskasd for the following questions: “I'm particularly interested in your distribution channels and the regulations you struggle under. Who can you sell to? (distributors, restaurants, direct to consumers, w00t, retail stores, etc,) Why would you sell in that channel? What are the regulations? Why do the regulations differ? Who benefits from restricting your channels?”

In California, our state winemaking license allows us to sell retail (from a maximum of two locations), direct to restaurants and retailers and to distributors. When prohibition was repealed by constitutional amendment in 1933, the states were directed to write their own liquor laws, including drinking age limitations and how, when, where, and by whom alcohol could be sold. Naturally, in every state, distributors “influenced” their legislators to write laws that gave them as much of a monopoly as possible under the law. Illinois is the first state to reverse this policy at all, with a “self distribution” law that went into effect June 1, 2008, allowing small out-of-state wineries to sell direct to restaurants and retailers. Until the Supreme Court decision a couple of years ago, we could sell direct to consumers in only 11 “reciprocal” states, most without restriction. Many of the states have had to rewrite their laws in light of the court decision, and this has opened up a number of states for retail sales and shipping. Ironically, some of the former reciprocal states have become more restrictive and controlled.

Direct to consumer is generally the most profitable venue for us, but shipping is much costlier and less efficient for small amounts than larger shipments to distributors. Also, distributors actively market our wine in their states, resulting in much higher sales volume, albeit at a lower per case return. Cult wineries like Williams-Selyem or Screaming Eagle can sell almost all their wine at retail, but most of us need to sell to restaurants and retailers, and to use distributors to do so.

The federal government’s greatest interest in the alcohol industry is revenue collection (the ATT collects more money per dollar of its budget than any other govt. agency, including the IRS), and that is an important concern for many states as well. We have a lot of reporting and tax paying to do for most states where we distribute or sell direct.

Finally regarding who benefits from restricting our channels? The national wholesalers’ organization spends a huge amount of money lobbying against any law changes that would lessen their control of wine sales. It does put a lot of small wineries in a bind because there aren’t enough distributors for all the brands now in existence, and alternative channels still don’t exist in many states.

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Friday, June 20

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: I Heard it Through the Grapevine

by Peter Wellington

What’s Going On - Wed. June 11, 2008

We had a grafter (not a grifter) here for the last four days. This winter I collected Roussanne budwood and ordered Malbec budwood with the idea of t-budding some Merlot (thanks Miles, you *;;-ωλ!). I planned to do four rows of Roussanne and two rows of Malbec, with the idea of expanding the Malbec a couple of rows a year. After bad late April frost damage in part of the Merlot the potential crop was very small, so I decided to do more grafting. We now have six additional rows of Roussanne, four rows of Viognier and nine rows of Malbec. The man who owns the grafting company, Salvador Presciato, told me his business is way up this year due to the frosts. People who were planning to graft next year or the year after decided to do it this year. This type of grafting (changing varieties on mature vines) typically costs you about 1½years of crop, and it makes sense, if you don’t have much crop anyway to have this be the no-crop year.

We finalized the blend of our Meeks Hilltop Ranch Zinfandel today, after eight tasting trials. All four of us had the same favorite, over other blends that only varied slightly in their make-up. The “winner” was 11 barrels “hilltop” block, 2 barrels “front yard”, 2 barrels low alcohol “front yard”, one barrel “over the hill”, and 25 gallons of Durif (the grape variety commonly known by the misnomer “Petite Sirah”). Final alcohol will be around 14.8%. Next up is the Sonoma Valley Zin; anything that doesn’t go into that blend will be used in a non-varietal blend (The Duke).

Another price increase: dusting sulfur went from $0.19 a pound to $0.44. I use roughly 1000 lbs. a year, so it’ll only cost me about $250, but still, a 131% increase? PG&E just asked the PUC for rate increases due to fuel costs, so at least I can be happy that our solar power is “saving” us even more money.

If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Precipitate - Fri. June 13, 2008

I coined the above (I think) when I was an undergrad in the early 70’s (too many chemistry classes warp one’s sense of humor). We just lost one of our best restaurant glass pour placements because of all the sediment in our 2003 Sonoma County Cab. It really presents a quandary. I don’t like to treat wines more than is absolutely necessary. We do filter most of our wines tightly enough to insure against growth of Brettanomyces (“brett”), but we don’t fine or cold stabilize. All red wines will throw sediment with time, but some of ours tend to do so within a year or two after bottling, and a couple of them have formed alarming amounts of “muck” in that time.

And Now For Something Completely Different

I’ve been sharing an article from the June 3 NY Times with lots of people because it gives cause for great optimism. Futurist Ray Kurzweil makes predictions using what he calls the Law of Accelerating Returns. He has predicted when a computer would beat the world chess champion, when a handheld device could read a book out loud, and other technological advances, all with amazing accuracy. The cause for optimism arises from some of his current predictions, including: all our energy will come from renewable sources within twenty years and life expectancy will be increasing one year per calendar year fifteen years from now (making us statistically immortal!). Fun stuff to think about, and a welcome respite from the doom and gloom in most of our news.

Three Faces of Eden  Tues. June 17, 2008

When I was growing up we used to visit family friends who had a walnut orchard in Napa. As far as I was concerned it could have been Appalachia (sorry if this offends anyone). I thought the locals were real hicks, goin’ fishin’ barefoot down by the crick, etc. Napa County was populated mainly by farmers and blue-collar workers. There were cattle ranches, dairies, cherry and walnut orchards, and, oh yeah, old vineyards. I can remember feeling sorry for native Napans starting about twenty years ago – they had become second-class citizens because of all the new money moving into their own hometown.

Santa Rosa was even smaller than Napa when I was a kid. It was a two-hour drive from San Francisco (longer on summer weekends) because the freeway only went about 8 miles north of the Golden Gate. Santa Rosa’s population has grown about twenty fold in 45 years while Napa’s has only tripled. Santa Rosa is much more accessible by freeway now, and most of Napa Valley has been protected from development since the late 60’s. Santa Rosa isn’t dominated by wine like Napa is, but I did see a Riedel billboard on the freeway there on Sunday.

When I moved to Sonoma Valley in 1971, it was still a quiet, out-of-the-way small town with little local economy. There were no commuters, and only a few tourists came to look at the Mission and taste wine at Sebastiani Winery. There were a lot of retirees and “hippie refugees” from the Haight Ashbury. It seemed like half the people in the grocery store used food stamps, and it was rare to see anyone of other than white skin color. At one time or another I was told by various people that Boyes Hot Springs (my current home) had the highest per capita rate in California of: a) paroled felons, b) venereal disease, c) heroin addictionJ

Sonoma is so different now. It’s not as gentrified as Napa, but there is a lot more class distinction than there ever was before. House and land prices have been driven sky high by newcomers buying “lifestyle”, and there is a large, predominantly Mexican, immigrant population that fills most of the lower paying jobs: restaurant, retail, factory, house cleaning and childcare, gardening, and vineyard and winery production jobs of course. There are locals who “blame” the grape and wine industry for the influx of Hispanic immigrants, but it really is a national phenomenon, not a local one. Most of the riffraff have moved away because it’s expensive to live here and hard for them to get jobs, so maybe we’re a little better off in terms of STD’s, ex-cons and smack freaks. 

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Thursday, June 05

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: I Read The News This Week, Oh Boy

by Peter Wellington

A Week In The Life - Sat. May 24, 2008

Monday started early with sulfur dusting dawn patrol. Thursday through Saturday were too hot to dust (risk of burning the vines), and Sunday was too windy, even at 5 AM. I got to the vineyard at about 5:15 and was done by 6:35. After my shower I checked w00t and made a couple of comments. Monday’s payday, so I wrote ten paychecks. I tried a large national payroll “service” for six months last year, but it didn’t save me much work, especially when you count all the hassle and time needed to get their frequent mistakes corrected. We tasted our first trial blends for our 2007 Estate Zinfandel – I wasn’t much use, I think the sulfur made everything taste bitter. I then spent most of the rest of the day calculating cost of production and inventory valuation for our CPA.

Tuesday we tasted Zin again, a smaller variation of blends based on Monday’s conclusions. With the exception of the Zinfandels, we’ve finalized the blends and adjustments for all the rest of the wines we’ll bottle this year. We won’t bottle the Estate Zin until next February, but the “leftovers” will go into the Sonoma Valley Zin to be bottled in August, so we need to finalize this blend soon. We’re also at a bit of an impasse in the blending process for our other single vineyard Zin, Meeks Hilltop. High alcohol levels in a couple of the best lots are getting in the way of finding an ideal blend. I spent some time on the phone getting information on costs and logistics of having some wine “de-alced”, and the rest of the day with my inventory valuation.

Wednesday: After several trials and some calculations we have decided to send nine barrels out for alcohol removal, the first time we’ve done this since 1999. Aside from the expense (it’ll end up costing close to $3000 including the trucking), I don’t like processing or manipulating wine any more than absolutely necessary. We’ll do blending trials as soon as the treated wine comes back, with the option of “fine tuning” the alcohol level of both the Meeks Hilltop and the Sonoma Valley Zins anywhere between 14 and 15%. (The Meeks blend was going to be in the range of 15.5-15.8% otherwise). I finished inventory valuation and faxed a bunch of data to our CPA. Next was a packet of info for a prospective distributor (I don’t want to say which state until/if we finalize an arrangement). I also met with the gentleman who specializes in grapevine grafting to plan some work for next week or the week after. The week after is more likely with the very cool weather forecast for the next week or so. We’re going to graft some more Roussanne and Viognier and our first Malbec.

Thursday I did a quick w00t check-in and called a couple of distributors regarding overdue invoices and remaining wine allocations. Then it was off to San Francisco for a trade tasting in a fancy downtown hotel. I’m a reasonably aggressive and decisive driver, but, Ovaltina my goat, I felt like Gramps from Podunk in downtown SF, getting cut off, flipped off, honked at and almost run into a couple of times. My blood pressure was almost back to normal by the time the tasting started.

Friday I spent more time replying to posts on w00t (beginning to sound like a bad habit?). We almost finalized the Estate Zin blend (57% ancient vine and 43% young vine, with a small reduction of acid). We’ll look at a possible Petite Sirah addition of 2-5% next week. I had to go to Santa Rosa for a follow-up with my doctor to review lab tests. While there I did a few errands including picking up 1000 pounds of dusting sulfur. Santa Rosa is only 15 miles / 20 minutes away, but I still try to consolidate errands and only go once every few weeks because of time and gas. Speaking of gas, diesel at our local station jumped 50¢ a gallon Thursday, to $5.20. After a couple of restaurant wine deliveries I went home to rest up a bit before going to Sonoma Jazz+. What a show! Al Green followed by Herbie Hancock; talk about putting an indelible smile on your face. We had 11th row seats

Saturday: We got 0.5” of rain this morning, our first since 0.35” on April 23rd, the only rain that month. We only had 0.25” in March, making this one of the driest springs on record. We do have some Chardonnay and other varieties starting to bloom, but I don’t expect any serious damage from this morning’s rain. I’ll just put in a little time writing checks and doing some minor bookkeeping after I’m done writing this, then take the rest of the day off. Tonight Diana Krall’s playing at the Jazz+ festival; we saw her three years ago at the first Jazz+ and are looking forward to this a lot. Toby (our tasting room manager and so much more) has become the unofficial wine guy for the artists, and Wellington the unofficial wine of the stars. We give away wine (without having to pay for the privilege), they give us passes. For me, this is the epitomy of a win/win arrangement. Right now life is good. Oh yeah, tomorrow night is Al Jarreau and Bonnie Raitt, yahoo! Lynda and I will be pouring wine before the show and during the between acts dinner in the high rollers’ tent.

Murphy Was An Optimist - Sat. May 31, 2008

The tractor’s “charge” light came on Monday, and the forklift hour meter said it was time for service also. We can’t exactly drive either to the dealer, so service calls at $100+ an hour were needed. I had the tractor guy do some other deferred repairs and routine maintenance after he replaced the generator. The forklift guy says we need two new tires; they’re a hundred bucks apiece, but including installation and all the regulatory fees it’ll be $450 for the pair. Our air compressor broke a belt, so I showed Sam how to look up the part and how to put on the new belt. Between this and other recent repairs it’s made me realize that my combined education and work experience has given me a set of abilities that isn’t all that common.

We’ve had an ongoing problem of etching in our tasting room glasses. A couple of months ago we had an ion exchange column installed in our glass washer feed line and thought the problem was solved. The glasses have started to show signs of etching again, and Monday the dishwasher started smelling fishy when we opened the door. After I tried a couple of different things we got the water guy (who sold us the ion exchange column) out on Friday. He’d done some research and found out that the source of the foul odor was breakdown of the resin in the IE cartridge. We’ve ordered a small reverse osmosis unit, and he says he’ll credit us the cost of the IE unit, but it’s still a big expense. No, we won’t be able to use the RO unit to concentrate wine or remove alcohol. This morning when I came in the tasting room staff told me water was seeping under the wall into the bathroom. The fill valve for the water softener (also in line with the dishwasher) wasn’t closing completely and the overflow hose was obstructed, so I got to play plumber again. Right now I’m kinda wondering what’ll break next.

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Thursday, May 22

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: Even Winemakers Get The Blues

by Peter Wellington

A bad spring cold really zapped me for a couple of weeks. I even went and had blood tests done. They found nothing and I’m fine except for a bit of residual coughing. What with being low on physical and creative energy, I asked the w00t community for ideas, and you responded so well that there’s not really space in one blog. Still, please keep the questions coming. So, in no particular order, here goes:

Joelsisk and yumitori both asked a series of questions about tasting rooms. For small wineries with limited distribution, tasting rooms are very important sales and profit centers. A recent survey reported that the typical 5000 case winery sells over half its wine retail. For some wineries it is essentially their only sales outlet. Over the last couple of decades even large winery tasting rooms have come to be treated as profit centers more than as promotional outreach.

We opened a tasting room three years after we first started selling wine. My father was quite resistant to the idea; he didn’t want to be a shopkeeper, but $20,000 in sales at a barrel tasting weekend changed his mind. We sell almost 40% of our wine retail (including internet and wine club shipments, but not w00t), and get almost 60% of our gross revenue from those sales. Even after payroll and overhead it is far more profitable than selling to distributors. I don’t spend much time with the day-to-day operation of the tasting room; I just try to give Toby the tools and support he needs and let him make most of the decisions. An added personal benefit of having a tasting room is the flexibility to make lots of different wines – that would be a marketing nightmare on the wholesale end.

Cesare asked about sulfites, providing great links to articles by Andy Waterhouse of UC Davis. Sulfite addition probably dates to Roman and Egyptian times, when someone noticed that the fumes from burning brimstone (sulfur) inhibited spoilage. Up into the twentieth century the only means of adding sulfite (as sulfur dioxide – SO2) was by burning sulfur in wine containers before filling them. SO2 serves two functions in wine. It protects against oxidation and it also inhibits growth of (but does not kill) spoilage organisms like vinegar bacteria and Brettanomyces. We now know that SO2 is also produced by yeast, probably an evolved competitive edge against bacteria. Unfortunately, the amount of SO2 produced by yeast is usually not enough to fully protect wine during the aging process. There are a couple of wineries that don’t add any SO2; sometimes they succeed in making wine that isn’t either severely oxidized or microbially spoiled, sometimes not.

A lot of people complained about SO2 in wine after the mandatory warning label went into effect in the 80’s. “Since they started putting sulfites in wine it gives me headaches”, “Do sulfites cause cancer?”, “Why did you start using sulfites?”…. Sulfite levels are actually significantly lower than they were several decades ago. The main winemaking text I had at Davis, Technology of Wine Making by Amerine, Berg et al, 1980 edition, recommended 75 to 200 parts per million (PPM) of SO2 at the crusher. We typically add 20 to 25 PPM, and I don’t know of many wineries that use more than 60 PPM unless they’re dealing with rotten grapes.

MarkDaSpark asked about frost protection and about pest control. The real traditional way of protecting against frost is to plant in areas that aren’t prone to frost after budbreak. At our vineyard, which dates to 1892, avoiding frost damage entailed planting late budding varieties like Zinfandel, pruning late to delay budbreak a few days, and prayer. None of those methods are particularly effective when it drops into the 20’s on April 20th & 21st. Wind machines and overhead sprinklers are the two main modern methods. Wind machines work by mixing warmer air from 30 or 40 feet up with the colder air that settles closer to the ground. They don’t help a lot if there isn’t temperature stratification or if it gets below the high 20’s. Once upon a time orchard heaters (“smudge pots”) were used in conjunction with wind machines, but air pollution issues ended that in these parts about 30 years ago.  Overhead sprinklers give greater protection, but are dependent on having a large water supply because they use about 3300 gallons of water per hour per acre. This method takes advantage of water’s high heat of fusion (for you physicists). What this means is that it takes a lot of heat to melt ice, and, conversely, ice formation releases a lot of heat. Ice forms on the vines when you use overhead sprinklers, but as long as you keep that ice wet it stays at 32ºF.

 This year’s frost damage occurred over a wide range of conditions and situations. Areas that had low frost risk and no protection, such as Sonoma Coast and some mountain vineyards, were affected. Between the combination of low amounts of rainfall and many nights of frost some people ran out of water. On one of the worst nights there was little or no temperature inversion so wind machines were ineffective.

Fortunately (he says, knocking on wood) there are no grape insect pests that require routine treatment in our northern coastal vineyards. We personally have never had to use any kind of insecticide or miticide in 20+ years. There are worries about excluding exotic pests like the light brown apple moth (LBAM) and the glassy winged sharpshooter (GWSS), so many vineyards have detection traps. It’s unknown how much damage the LBAM would do to wine grapes. The GWSS is scarier; it is a strong vector for Pierce’s disease, which kills grapevines. The introduction and establishment of GWSS devastated the Temecula winegrape industry in the late 90’s. Mites and leafhoppers are the most common pests in Sonoma and Napa, and both are easy to manage, usually without pesticides. Many bird species love grapes, and they are the worst animal pests. In areas with lots of grape acreage the damage is generally tolerable; we probably lose fifty to a couple of hundred pounds a year. Some people can’t accept any loss, and deploy scare kites, Mylar tape, propane cannons (real popular with the neighbors), bird distress calls, balloons, trained falcons, or netting (extremely costly). Unless you have a small, isolated vineyard these measures probably aren’t terribly cost effective. Deer can do a lot of damage, especially early in the year, when each tiny nibble can destroy what would become a pound of grapes; most vineyards have deer fencing. Rabbits, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, possums and even bears (one highly publicized incident in Napa) will all eat grapes, but usually not a significant amount.

Lighter asked for more “day in the life” stuff, but that’ll have to wait until next time, and about how much lab work I do. Lynda (asst. winemaker) does most of the labwork; I do some when she’s on vacation and during crush. We’re pretty basic. We check each wine’s pH (one measure of acidity) and free SO2 every time we rack, and sometimes in between. We check alcohol levels after crush, after any blending, and before bottling. We check residual sugar and malic acid during and after crush, until each wine is dry or has completed ML, respectively. We check volatile acidity (vinegar, basically) and total acidity at least once per wine (legal requirements, but only infrequently relevant to winemaking decisions).

Well, as Porky would say, “that’s all, folks!” 

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Thursday, May 08

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: The Times They Are A Changin’

by Peter Wellington

A Bad Night At Black Rock - Wed. Apr. 23, 2008

It’s been so cold all month that the vines have hardly grown at all, but after three weeks we able to discern that the damage from frost at the end of March wasn’t so bad.  That all changed Sunday and Monday mornings.  We had two extremely cold nights in a row, resulting in our worst frost damage since 1988, and by most accounts, the worst damage region wide since the early 70’s.  We lost more than a quarter of our potential crop, and published estimates are 10-20% losses for Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties, somewhat less for Napa.  Losses in Sonoma County alone are projected to be in excess of 50 million dollars worth of grapes.

The Tipping Point - Sat. Apr. 26, 2008

I believe Al Gore used the above term in reference to the situation where the environmental balance is compromised to the extent that it can’t be corrected – when “chain reaction” climate change takes over.  I bring this up because I think we’re near or at the tipping point for a lot of resources that we’ve taken for granted in the past.  Prices will skyrocket as demand exceeds production capacity.  The price of wheat has tripled in less than six months; worldwide rice shortage looks inevitable, salmon season has been cancelled.  Steel prices have risen 30-50% since January, on top of huge increases in recent years.  Despite the powers that be exerting tremendous political and economic pressure, it probably won’t be long before U.S. gas prices reach international levels (currently $8 a gallon and rising in most of Europe).  The reasons are obvious yet complex and interwoven at the same time.  For a real eye-opener check out the current National Geographic issue, which is entirely devoted to China.

Why, you may ask, am I bringing this up on a wine blog?  I’ve been paying bills, and almost all of them have increased dramatically from only a year ago.  Tin wine capsules have gone up 50% or more since last year due to a worldwide shortage of tin.  Apparently demand, particularly from China, has surpassed mining capacity.  Bulk tin has gone from $1600 a ton to $10,000 a ton in less than a year.  Recently, scrap metal dealers have been calling, looking to buy “damaged” wine capsules.  The price of steel grape stakes has more than doubled in five years, stainless steel tanks likewise.  Everybody is adding “fuel surcharges”; trucking wine to the warehouse after bottling last week cost $590 plus a $173 fuel surcharge.  Wine bottle prices have jumped – no, there isn’t a shortage of sand yet, but it takes a lot of natural gas to melt the sand.  The cost of shipping wine seems to go up almost every month as UPS and FedEx pass on their increased costs.  I haven’t asked WineDavid about it, but I imagine this is eating into the take home for both w00t and the participating wineries.  Can $5 shipping last much longer?

Some Like It Hot - Wed. Apr. 30, 2008

Thanks to Clayfu and ieabarry for the questions about high alcohol levels in California wines.  The biggest reason, both direct and indirect, is wine critics’ and consumers’ tastes.  I say direct and indirect, because alcohol levels can be adjusted independent of grape sugar levels.  The traditional methods are decrease by amelioration (water addition) and increase by use of sugar (in Europe and much of the U.S.) or grape concentrate (in California, where sugar is not allowed).  The modern, more technological methods include the cryogenic concentrators used by top Bordeaux chateaux and alcohol removal from wine by centrifuge or reverse osmosis and distillation.  Clark Smith, owner of Vinovation, says that his company removes alcohol from hundreds of “high-end” wines every year.  He touts the theory that every wine has one or more alcohol “sweet spots” – and you can optimize the taste of your wine by dialing in the right alcohol level.  There are some very high end Napa Cabernets that use a “formula” of picking at outrageous sugar levels, bleeding off juice and replacing it with enough water to be able to ferment to dryness, and then removing alcohol.

Alcohol labeling is another issue.  In the U.S. wines are categorized into two tax classes, 14% and below, and over 14%.  When this system was set up, fortified wines (Port, Sherry, Muscatel, etc. – actually the lion’s share of the California industry at the time) were the only wines over 14%.  For table wines (14% or below), the label is required to be accurate within +/- 1.5% (to allow for blending and batch to batch variation).  Almost all California table wines used to carry a label stating 12.5%, which covered everything from 11-14.  European wines don’t require alcohol labeling in their home countries, so a generic sticker (typically 12.5%) is added for export to the U.S.  Above 14% the label must be accurate within +/- 1.0%.  You can’t always assume that the stated alcohol % is accurate.  Someone in the w00t forum referred to a Bordeaux that was 12% alcohol – it could easily have been 13.5%, given standard import practice.  Also, some U.S. wineries strive for full disclosure and accuracy while others label for perception / marketing (usually within the allowable legal limits).  I had one wine recently (coincidentally a w00t offering) that just seemed higher in alcohol than the label stated.  I was suspicious enough to save an ounce to test, and lo and behold, it tested at almost 1% higher than the label said.

Widespread appreciation of fine wine is a relatively new phenomenon in this country.  We look for wines that are easy to like, and many of us look to “experts” for guidance.  I think only if you have been “into” wine for 25 years or more can you fully realize how much Robert Parker and others have dictated tastes.  I don’t really want to renew the debate about that here, so I’ll spare you the crazy stories for now.  At any rate, a large number of American wine drinkers currently prefer wines with lots of body and extract but low acid, soft tannins and sweetness or the impression thereof.  As grapes ripen, sugar levels climb, acid levels drop, tannins “soften”, and flavors change.  The general trend over the last fifteen years or so has been to delay harvest; “hangtime” has been one of the most popular wine buzzwords of the decade.  Higher sugar levels result in more alcohol; they also result in more “stuck fermentations” with residual sugar (RS) left in the wine.  Sadly, in recent years I have tasted a number of Gold Medal winning and 90+ point wines with 16% alcohol and 1% or more RS.  Traditionally this type of wine was considered flawed.  Robert Parker has actually used the term “port-like” as a positive descriptor for non-dessert wines.

Alcohol affects the aroma and flavor of wine in several ways.  Because it is volatile it acts as a carrier for other compounds, intensifying the aromas.  It adds sweetness, body and viscosity, intensifies the impression of fruit, and adds “heat” – that sensation you get if take a shot of distilled spirits.  All of the above make a wine seem “bigger” and more intense.  This is all fine and dandy within the cultural mindset of “if something is good, then more of it is better”, but a lot of us don’t live our lives that way.  In my world there is such a thing as too much garlic or too much hot sauce, etc., and I find that over-the-top wines don’t taste as good with food and the food doesn’t taste as good either.

Determining when to harvest is the most important, and for me the most subjective, decision in the whole winemaking process.  One needs to consider sugar and acid levels, flavor and tannin maturity.  Acid and sugar (or alcohol) levels can be adjusted up or down and tannins affected by processing techniques to some extent, but you really can’t change the basic flavor of the grapes.  I plead guilty to allowing the alcohol levels in my wines to creep up over the last few years.  There is a dilemma for a winemaker who has a philosophical belief of minimal intervention.  I do use flavor as my primary consideration in harvest decisions, but sometimes this results in higher sugars than I want.  I don’t like to add water, so I’ll add enough to ensure we can ferment the wine to dryness, but not necessarily enough to bring alcohol levels to what I consider ideal.  Some winemakers will never add water; some will always adjust to a specific “target” sugar level.

To sum up, higher alcohol levels, whether desired or not, are often a result of harvest decisions.  Alcohol levels can be adjusted.  Changing consuner preferences are the biggest driving force behind this change.

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Thursday, April 17

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: A Paradigm Shift

by Peter Wellington

$60! Per Board Foot Thurs. Apr. 3, 2008

Four or five years ago I proudly told people that all our wines were barrel aged, primarily in French oak, and that we didn’t use shaved and retoasted barrels, sawdust, oak chips or stave inserts. Times have changed; an old friend who’s in the “barrel alternative” business calls it a paradigm shift. We did our first barrel stave insert trials during the 2004 vintage, and have been expanding and fine tuning our use of these products a little bit each year. As with new barrels, it takes trial and error to find which producer, wood source and toasting regime works best with each wine. We have actually preferred the best inserts over several of the new French oak barrels we have been using.

When I came into the industry French oak barrels cost $200 to $240 apiece. I mentioned in a previous blog that I paid over $1000 for a single barrel for the first time ever this past fall (range - $800-$1020). Big jumps in wood prices in France combined with the US dollar’s abysmal loss of value have driven this year’s prices (at the current exchange rate) to $940-$1260. Inserts cost less than $100 per barrel. Economics has finally become a major factor in our barrel use decisions. We no longer can afford to exclusively use French oak barrels in our core line of wines that retail for $18. We will continue to use only the best barrels for our single vineyard Cabernets and Victory Reserve.

Interestingly, most of the cooperages have gotten into the barrel alternative business over the last few years. One factor, no doubt, is market opportunity, but another factor may be the profitable use of scrap from the barrel making process. I liken the latter to bagel shops making bialys, which I’ve long contended are filled with floor sweepings

Are Y’all Harvestin’ or Jest Sittin’ on Yer Duffs? - Wed. Apr. 9, 2008

I heard this many springs ago in a Napa Valley tasting room, uttered by a gentleman who had arrived in a big new Cadillac with license plates from a state where many of my favorite w00ters reside. (I wish I had written down all the wonderful things I’ve heard wine tourists say over the years.) Outside of crush, this is actually the busiest time of year for us. We had a two-day bottling last week and will bottle again next Thursday. Each bottling involves a week of prep work. We’re also very busy with racking and blending. Lynda and I taste several times a week now: blending decisions, vineyard assessments, barrel trials (order deadlines loom). It’s also very busy in the vineyard, with mowing, disking and frost protection. The driest March in memory led to slightly early budbreak, but the weather has been cooler than typical for most of March and all of April so far. This means we are susceptible to frost damage but there isn’t a lot of growth yet – the vines are just kind of sitting there. At this point I think we’re not likely to have an early start to harvest. If I didn’t have enough to keep me busy, there’s always out of state distributor visits and other marketing activities.

We tasted 2007 Merlot barrel (and insert) trials this morning. I’m just as happy with the Merlot as I was during crush. It’s rich, fully ripe, and actually under 14% alcohol (with zero water addition at crush). It doesn’t need as much oak as it usually does, so we’re taking out some of the higher impact barrels at the next racking. Our preferred inserts for this wine weren’t what we preferred with the Cabernet in yesterday’s tasting or in the Zin last week. As we integrate more inserts into our barrel program we’ll target different types for different wines, using the same process we’ve used to select barrels. Our goal with oak is always to complement the wine, to add sweetness, body, structure or length only when we deem one of those properties to be deficient. I still abhor soulless, oak dominated wines, despite their popularity.

We’ve also tasted all of the Zinfandel (8) and Chardonnay (5) lots formally over the last few weeks, as well as the EnglandCrest Syrah (4 lots). I’m happy to report that my early enthusiasm for the quality of the 2007 crush was well founded. Nothing from 2007 has disappointed so far, and certain of the wines may be the best yet from their respective vineyards. I can hardly wait to taste the Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot, but that won’t happen for two weeks as we prepare and bottle our single vineyard 2006 Cabernets and Victory.

In The Black, Or Pink, Or Orange Or? - Sat. Apr. 12, 2008

We just received our year-end reconciliation from the power company, and after our first year of solar power we’re about $550 “in the black”. The system was designed to generate approximately 95% of the electricity we had used over a prior 12 month period, but since peak solar generation occurs mostly during time of peak usage, those kilowatts are worth more. Also, the summer of 2007 was quite mild, so we may have used significantly less energy for air conditioning. Keeping two large barrel cellars at around 60º F does use a lot of power. Unfortunately, our contract doesn’t allow us to sell power back or carry over a credit to the next year.

Not My Cup Of Tea

I’m going to take advantage of slightly delayed posting of this blog to respond to a question by themostrighteous during the Peltier Station offering and elaborate further on the “paradigm shift”. Please refer to the discussion of my most recent blog for tmr’s remarks. Oak barrels perform two main functions: contribution of oak flavor and gradual, limited oxygen uptake. Alternative oak strategies have their proponents and their detractors. “Tea bags” and micro-ox can mimic barrel aging to some extent, and these techniques are very effective for mass produced wines in terms of economics and practicality, but very few ultra-premium wineries use (or admit to using) them. In the 80’s I worked at a large winery that used sawdust infused wine as a very small percentage of its cheapest blends. We used three letter codes for all wines in bulk, so the “high oak red” was the HOR (and she was nasty). The smaller the oak pieces/particles, the faster the flavor extraction, and, IMO, the greater the flavor difference vis a vis barrels. We use large staves inside barrels to mimic barrel extraction rates, have greater uniformity of toast level and minimal end grain exposure. In our barrel trial tastings it is often difficult to tell the difference between new French oak barrels and French oak barrel inserts. We are using these products (and will increase use) in Zinfandel, our Sonoma County Cabernet, Merlot and barrel fermented Chardonnay.

The primary pro and con arguments to oak dust, chip, bean, block, chain, or tank stave use revolve around quality versus control. A friend of mine is the production manager for a very large winery that makes a full range of wines. He’s an ardent supporter of tank aging, oak adjunct and micro-ox (which they use on their low-end and mid-tier wines) because of the great ease of monitoring and controlling the aging process. His opinion is that all their wines would be better if aged this way, but the highly esteemed winemaker (also a friend) doesn’t share that opinion, so their high-end single vineyard wines are all barrel aged.

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Friday, March 28

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: Making Wine and Selling Wine

by Peter Wellington

Ho Ho Ho Chi Zin, MLF is Gonna Win - Thu. Mar. 13, 2008

I wasted this ad-lib on Lynda the other day as she was removing chromatography paper from the developer jar – she’s way too young to remember the Viet Nam War.  Malo-lactic fermentation (MLF) is the conversion of malic acid (named after apples) to lactic acid (named after milk).  This process lowers the acidity and raises the pH, making wine slightly less tart.  MLF is carried out by lactic acid bacteria, usually Oenococcus oeni.  Byproducts of MLF often include diacetyl, a major component of the aroma of butter, which typically is metabolized by yeast but can be left in the wine, intentionally or not, by using ML bacteria strains that produce lots of diacetyl and by racking the wine immediately upon completion of MLF.

MLF can be a real pain.  We inoculate all our wines for MLF except Sauvignon Blanc, some Roussanne and the Rosé.   Inoculation takes place after primary fermentation, and the bacteria usually grow and work very slowly in what is a very hostile environment for all life forms (low pH, high alcohol, no sugar, no oxygen, low temperatures).  Sometimes MLF doesn’t finish until well into spring.  This is worrisome because we don’t add SO2 or rack the wines or bring them to cellar temperature until MLF is complete because all of these activities will inhibit ML even more.  Without SO2 the wines are more susceptible to spoilage, both microbial and non-microbial, so there is risk.  It is possible to inoculate for MLF during primary (yeast) fermentation, when there are more nutrients available, but there is a very real risk of stuck fermentation due to competition with the yeast.  I got stung badly once, and it was enough to get me to abandon early MLF inoculation.  Aside from lowering acid levels, which may or may not be a good thing, MLF serves several functions.  You can get buttery aromas if desired, and other secondary flavor and texture contributions, it makes your wine more resistant to growth of spoilage organisms by consuming nutrients, and you don’t have to worry about MLF in bottle.  MLF in bottle is never good; it results in cloudy, spritzy, often stinky (cheese/sauerkraut) wine.

Is There a Distributor in the House? - Tue. Mar. 25, 2008

Thanks to Bhodilee for the topic – he asked (somewhere in w00tland, but I can’t find it) how one goes about finding a distributor.  If anybody can answer that they could make a lot of money.  Over the last two or three decades there has been consolidation amongst medium to large size distributors while there has been a huge concurrent increase in the number of wine brands sold in the United States, both foreign and domestic.  During that time the United States has become the number one wine consuming country in the world, and a greater variety of French, Italian and Spanish wines is being sold here than ever before.  Wines from Australia, Chile and Argentina were virtually unknown in the U.S. 25 years ago, to say nothing of New Zealand, Portugal, Austria…  Between actual “brick and mortar” wineries and alternating proprietor brands (like Ty Caton or Muscardini Cellars wines that we have made) there are now almost 2000 bonded wineries in California alone.  Large wine companies have created multiple brands such as Gallo’s Dancing Bull, Anapamu, MacMurray Ranch, Frei Bros., Turning Leaf, Barefoot, Red Bicyclette, Black Swan, Ecco Domani, etc. etc. in order to claim a larger portion of retail shelf space.  All this brand inflation makes it very hard to get wines reviewed by Parker or the Spectator and even more difficult to find distribution

So far all I’ve done here is complain why it is increasingly difficult to find distributors.  I’ve poured wine at various trade events, made cold calls, used recommendations and intros from various contacts, even hired a national marketing company for two years (at 10% commission on gross sales), all with fairly minimal results.  Over the years Wellington wines have been distributed in 24 states.  We currently have distribution in twelve states plus California, with highly varied results.  Three of the states are hardly worth the effort of maintaining licenses and filing reports.  Of the remainder, two states (Missouri and Ohio) are responsible for over 50% of our wholesale business.  I am currently in various stages of discussion with distributors in three other states – it’s kind of an ongoing process.  The biggest markets (California, Florida, New York and Texas) are the toughest.  We have yet to find the right company in FL, we lost our NY distributor post 9/11 and our TX distributor closed shop in the mid 90’s.  Our greatest success has been with small, relatively young companies that have sought us out rather than vice versa.

Thanks again to Bhodilee and keep the suggestions coming.  I promise there won’t be a long a gap before my next column.  Things are getting busy, but there’s a lot to write and talk about this time of year. 

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Thursday, February 28

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: Does (Crop) Size Really Matter?

by Peter Wellington

Less is More, Isn’t It? - Fri. Feb. 8, 2008

There is a widely held belief that wine quality is inversely proportional to yields. I would like to look into when and where these ideas came about and if /when they are valid. Yields in Europe are typically expressed in hectoliters per hectare, an amount of wine per area measure rather than grape yield, and this is an important distinction. The first appellation laws and yield restrictions in France were designed as market control measures to protect both price and image of a region’s wines. They date to a time when wineries generally sold wine in bulk and rarely bottled at the winery. Bottled wines were marketed with regional names (e.g. Burgundy), sometimes adding a village name (e.g. Pommard), and occasionally a vineyard name (e.g. Les Épenots), but very rarely the producer’s name. Grower/wineries wanted to protect the value of their product both by limiting production and maintaining quality. Allowing each grower to sell only a certain amount of wine helped protect against both overproduction and various types of fraud. Note that nothing in these laws limit the crop your vines produce, only how much wine you can sell with a given appellation. A few years ago one of the regular writers for The Wine Spectator devoted his entire column to the news that the commune of Puligny-Montrachet, home to some of the greatest Chardonnay vineyards in the world, had voted not to allow increased “yields” for the previous vintage. He went on and on about their integrity and about how they were maintaining high quality because higher yields lower the wine quality. He seemed to completely miss the point that the grape yield had been huge and they were only deciding how much wine would be allowed to be sold as Puligny-Montrachet (the rest would have to be sold as “Bourgogne”).

We also need to look at the definition of grape and wine quality and how that has changed. Historically, ripeness and alcohol level were the most obvious quality factors. In regions such as Burgundy and Bordeaux under ripe grapes were the norm. Therefore the riper (or “less under ripe”) the grapes, the better the wine. In this situation smaller crops would almost always result in “better” wine. With better viticulture and, dare I say it, global climate change, ripeness is much less of an issue than it used to be. Even the French are learning there can be too much of a good thing. With better winemaking technology and knowledge the definition of wine quality has also changed somewhat, at least to the extent that low alcohol levels and spoilage issues are nowhere near as prevalent as just a few decades ago.

I think everyone involved in winegrowing would agree that over cropping lowers wine quality. Only a minority (myself included) would contend that “under cropping” also lowers quality. I believe that vines produce the best fruit and best wine when they are balanced and the fruit ripens gradually but completely. So how do we define “ripens completely”? That means different things to different people. As an example, some winemakers actually want 16%+ alcohol, so one of their criteria might be minimum 28º brix (28% sugar w/v).

How do we define crop size and yield? The most common metric used in the U.S. is tons per acre (TPA). We all use that kind of number when we talk about our wines, especially when we have low yields. Few catchphrases or buzzwords are as commonly used in wine promotion as “low yields”. I plead guilty. However, there is no way we can put a number on the ideal crop size. What if a grower had rows 12 feet apart (the most common row width from postwar up into the 80’s) and planted a new row in between each row, reducing his row width to 6 feet? If his yield went from 3½ tons per acre to 7 tons per acre would the quality be diminished? I know a grower who did this in the 80’s, and the answer is no. Another way of measuring yield might be lbs. per vine; I have a friend who contends that each vine should have a maximum of 6-8 pounds (PPV) of fruit. If your vines are 6 feet apart in the row and you plant vines in between so that the vines are 3 feet apart, but still have 6-8 PPV would the quality be diminished? Yes, if that original 6-8 PPV was the right amount. I like to think in terms of lbs. of fruit per foot of trellis wire. This takes out the variables of spacing. Of course, all the numbers are meaningless if the vines are not healthy and balanced and the fruit evenly distributed and evenly exposed to light.

So, if we can measure yield in a way that best correlates to vine balance and grape quality (lbs./ft.), can we come up with a number for the crop that will ripen completely for any particular winemaker’s ideals? Again, no. We’ve got more variables to deal with, specifically site and year. Given the same spacing, etc., 3 TPA could be too much for one vineyard one year and 8 TPA ideal for another vineyard. I’m not trying to say yield doesn’t affect quality, just that numbers don’t tell you much at all. For me, crop levels for both our vineyard and those we buy from are determined rather subjectively. Fruit thinning decisions (we thin more than half of both our blocks and growers’ vineyards) are made using past experience, flowering dates and intuition.

Our 84 to 116 year old vines produce 1 TPA or less, and I use that statistic regularly and shamelessly. There are many missing vines and many very weak, small (slowly dying) vines in those old blocks. In my opinion, the best fruit comes from the vines that are still healthy and reasonably vigorous, and those vines typically crop at the equivalent of three TPA. If we had an old vineyard full of completely healthy vines I believe we could make even better wines at 3TPA than we do currently at 1TPA or less.

No Occupation For Old Men - Fri. Feb. 22, 2008

We bottle five or six times a year, spread between February and August. After nearly six months since the last bottling it was back to my least favorite part of the business this week. Bottling is very stressful; it is when the greatest amount of bad things can happen in the shortest time frame. It also involves long days of preparation. I don’t want wines to be in tank any longer than necessary, especially whites and rosé, so the racking and filtration schedule is calculated backwards from the bottling date. A few days before the bottling our mobile bottling company called to move the start of bottling from 8 AM Thurs. to 11 AM Weds. because they were concerned we might not be able to finish everything in eight hours. This put a little more pressure on me by taking away the cushion I had left in case of difficult filtration, and Murphy was right. We hadn’t racked our rosé since it had gone into barrels and a small tank at the end of fermentation, and it was pretty cloudy, making for very problematic filtration. I started filtering at 7AM Tuesday, and around ten I was carrying a six ft. stepladder when I tripped over a wine hose. I spun to avoid falling on the ladder and landed on my hip and back and hit my head on a door. If I had been a few inches closer to the door I probably would have knocked myself out. I had to work 12 hours more after the fall, and I’m still quite sore (my hip and I must have twisted my knee going down). It gets me to wondering how much longer I can, or want to, do this. The bottling went off all right, but it was fortunate the bottler allowed extra time – we had a problem with crooked necks on one of the two types of glass we used. This forced the bottling line to run at two-thirds normal speed, adding a couple of hours to the job. The “quality control” person from the glass supplier came out, measured bottles, and told us they were all “in spec”. This supplier already had two strikes against them, so we won’t be using their glass again. As the guy who owns the bottling truck said, “If these are in spec, their specs suck!”

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Tuesday, February 05

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: To Heaven And Back

by Peter Wellington

Oh Lord, Stuck in Shanghai Again - Sat. Jan. 19, 2008

Skip ahead to “Go Back Jack…” if you’re here to read about my work. These first two sections are all about my recent trip to Bali. My 86 year old father had enough miles on his credit card for a couple of tickets to anywhere and wanted to go to his favorite place one more time. His last visit was about 15 years ago, mine was as a teen 40 years ago when we were living in Malaysia on one of my father’s sabbaticals. A lot has changed in that time, but Bali is still one of Earth’s special places and the people have maintained their spirituality and grace. Getting there is another story. It was 32 hours from takeoff in San Francisco to landing in Denpasar, with two layovers of several hours each. One cool thing about the flight was getting a bird’s eye view of our vineyard and winery as the plane went north on the polar route.

The Shanghai airport was immense, all chrome and tile and glass, but almost deserted. While we waited for wheel chair assistance at the end of the jetway, the United flight crew was waiting for their escort. After about ten minutes one of them suggested walking down the hallway towards the airport center, but was quickly rebuffed with a warning that they could end up in jail. I ended up going through Quarantine twice, Immigration, Customs and airport security three times each. Each time a stern faced official pored over the documents to make sure every i was dotted and every t crossed. My dad and I sat on hard chairs (with armrests that made it impossible to lie down) for half the night in the cavernous, unheated (high 50’s maybe) main building. Two thirds of the check-in counters were unassigned, airport personnel outnumbered travelers and seemingly no one spoke English. Only because of a tip from some fellow Americans did I manage to prevent loss of our luggage, which had been clearly marked to be checked through all the way to Bali. I guess it really isn’t the airport employees’ fault that they can’t read the Roman alphabet.  

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? - Thurs. Jan. 24, 2008

After Shanghai the Singapore airport was almost too good to be true. It is the top rated airport in the world. The terminal is a huge first class shopping mall, with a large, friendly, knowledgeable, multilingual staff and there are large banks of free high-speed internet stations everywhere. Best of all, after our ordeal in Shanghai, the well padded chairs and chaise lounges are extremely comfortable. You can even rent small bedrooms or take a shower for a small fee. I decided to buy some Indonesian Rupiahs for airport fees, tips, etc. while still in Singapore, and ordered $100 worth at the foreign exchange booth. When I discovered that would get me 930,000 Rupiahs I got to thinking that I’d never been a millionaire, much less carried a million in my wallet, so I bought $120’s worth. There are way too many great stories to be able to tell them all here, from tiny women in flip-flops carrying 110 lb. sacks of cement balanced on their heads and families of four on a motorbike to verdant scenery and temples everywhere you look. In spite of the arduous travel involved I look forward to going back, would consider retiring there, and would recommend it highly to anyone looking for a very affordable, unique cultural experience in a tropical paradise. The Balinese are among the most friendly, artistic, stress free, spiritual people on the planet. The feeling is pervasive and infectious and one can’t help but let go of stress and worry after just a few days. I believe that just two weeks there has altered my perspective on life.  

Go Back Jack and Do It Again - Sat. Jan. 26, 2008

After our first two full time cellar workers were with us more than 4 years each we now have our third new guy in just over six months. The first one just didn’t cut it and the second one got picked up on a probation violation on his way home after just his third day of work. It seems his probation conditions didn’t include taking a long trip to Mexico. Such a pity, too, he had great experience, glowing recommendations, was a quick learner and hard worker. Everybody liked him a lot. My wife said she couldn’t believe I didn’t do a background check.

It’s time to get back to business after a month plus of very little vineyard or winery activity. José started pruning on the 14th, but rain has put things on hold the last few days. No worries, we’ve got until late March to finish. Our first bottling since August is in four weeks, so we’re making sure all the wines are bottle ready. Supplies have all been ordered – capsules in November (minimum 10 week lead time), glass in December, corks and labels last week. We’ll be bottling 2007 Rosé and Sauvignon blanc and 2006 Estate Zinfandel and Merlot. Most of our ‘07s have completed ml, so the new guy, Sam, will get lots of practice racking, and we’ll all be busy with our first formal tastings of all the different cuvées, including barrel trials and cap management comparisons.  

A Double Shot of Wine Judge Love - Mon. Jan. 28, 2008

You’ve probably read some of my rants about wine ratings and wine competitions, but the fact remains that positive reviews and awards can boost sales. We do submit wines to several major reviewers, and we do enter some of the California competitions. We just got great news from the SF Chronicle Wine Competition (billed as the largest wine competition of American wines in the world). We got two double gold (unanimous) medals – for our 2003 Sonoma County Cabernet (a wine. woot launch wine) and our 2005 Zinfandel “Meeks Hilltop Ranch”. Just over 2% of the 4000+ entries made double gold. At least two dozen wineries that have been featured on wine. woot entered the judging and many of them got great results, including double golds for Mumm, Calistoga Cellars, Stuart, Hahn and Ty Caton. Complete results, if you care, can be found at

Coming soon to this blog: my opinions about the connections and the myths about yields and quality. Please continue to suggest topics or ask questions about any aspect of grapegrowing or winemaking. 

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Tuesday, January 15

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: Last 2007 Installment

by Peter Wellington

And She’ll Have Fun, Fun, Fun ‘Til Her Daddy Takes the Ripple Away - Sat. Dec. 8, 2007

Sweet fortified wines like Night Train, Ripple and Thunderbird were the backbone of the California wine industry from repeal up into the 1960’s. Whether all grape like Port or Muscatel, or flavored like Ripple, these wines were the beverage of choice for budget minded alcoholics, aka winos. The sugar helped it go down easily and provided some energy, and wine was the cheapest high because of the tax structure. The tax on fortified wine was, and still is, higher than the tax on “table wine”, which is defined as 14% alcohol or below. The federal government still considers all wines above 14% as “dessert wines”, not distinguishing between a typical Zin or Syrah and a Port. During the reign of George I, his administration raised the tax on wine 529%. They also levied a one-time floor tax on all wine in any licensee’s inventory. Because the tax was to be calculated as of Dec. 31st most restaurants and wine shops cut way back on holiday ordering that year in order to deplete their stocks and reduce their tax liabilities. We ended up with depressed sales and extra taxes – Merry Xmas! That administration also introduced a bill including a special occupational tax (SOT) on winemakers. The SOT was originally set at $5000 a year, a mere pittance for wine factories, but quite painful for small businesses like ours. In the final version passed by Congress it was reduced to $1000 a year and was recently eliminated altogether. Every dollar of tax paid at the producer level raises the price of the product two dollars or more at the retail level and three dollars or more at restaurants because everyone wants to maintain their margins. “No new taxes” my @;;!

Start Me Up - Tues. Dec.11, 2007

I just got our monthly energy summary from the power company and we only had a net usage of $86 of electricity in November, leaving us with a balance of almost $1200 to the good. The anniversary of our solar electric generation system and annual electricity usage reconciliation is March 30th, and it looks likely that we’ll still have a surplus at that point, and therefore an annual electric bill of $0. The system was designed to generate 95% of our usage in the prior year, but since we did not have a time-of-usage meter they could only guess at peak/off peak usage. Also, we now have a “net” meter so we don’t know if we used less electricity this year because of the mild summer or if the system is more efficient than anticipated. I have a feeling the company that designed and installed the system will be able to tell us which is the case, as they have remote monitoring equipment. I’ve got a board meeting at the Sonoma Ecology Center tonight. Maybe I’ll offer them free charging for their Toyota Rav 4EV (they talked Toyota into a donation when all the other ones were recalled/decommissioned).

Auld Lang Vine - Thurs. Dec. 20, 2007

Thanks to nematic for the suggestion that I address the facts and myths of old vines. I remember when I was growing up I once asked my (physician) father, “Why do old people get thin? Do their digestive systems not work as well?” His response was, “Maybe it’s not so much that old people get thin as that thin people get old.” This has to be true to some extent with vineyards and quality as well – good vineyards don’t get ripped out as readily. There are logical reasons why old vines often make for better wine, but age alone is no guarantee, nor is it impossible to make great wine from very young vines. The factors that do influence quality have more to do with vigor, stress and fruit exposure (all interrelated). Grapevines are extremely vigorous plants, and if given fertile soil and sufficient water they grow excessively and don’t produce high quality wines. There’s an old European saying that “vines need to suffer”. What this really means is that they produce better wines in poor soils; when they actually suffer they don’t produce good wines. Old vines tend to be less vigorous. This means their fruit has better light exposure (important for flavor, color and tannin development), they have lower yields and they stop growing earlier in the season (putting their energy into ripening the fruit). Location is still the number one factor in quality potential; even old vines don’t make great wine in poor locations.

I will be on vacation until mid January. Keep the comments, questions and suggestions coming, I’ll respond when I get back.

Happy New Year to all!

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