Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker

by Peter Wellington
Approximately twice a month, winemaker Peter Wellington (Wine.Woot username SonomaBouliste) of Wellington Vineyards will share his musings on the vinting life in this space. Below is the first installment of his Wine.Woot diary.

Here we go!  From humble winemaker to award winning blogger….well….blogger anyway.  What I hope to provide in this space over the course of time, with your interaction, is a peek into the life and times of a vineyard, winery, and a winemaker.  No frills, no public relations BS, in my own somewhat irreverent way, I want to share my thoughts and emotions as I go through the annual cycle of my life in wine.

A word of warning: I may get a little technical at times.  Winemaking does involve technical details as well as artistic creativity: it is complicated, and I won’t hide this.  Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything: it doesn’t matter if you do.  You don’t need to know the intricate details in order to enjoy wine, and that’s what wine is all about – enjoyment of life.  On the other hand, ask questions if you really want to know about something.  I also would like you to suggest topics that you’re interested in learning more about – I can go on and on about most wine related topics, but I don’t want to waste your and my time on the less interesting stuff.  I’m looking forward to this experience because I cannot think of a better audience than the folks I’ve met at wine.woot.
That Was The Week That Was (“TW3”, if you remember mid 60’s TV)  Sat. Sept. 8, 2007

Every year when we start crush there are usually a couple of pieces of equipment that need some work after sitting idle for ten months.  So far, 2007 has been a Murphy’s Law type of year.  Our only prolonged heat spell of the year hit the last ten days of August and the first five days of September.  This hastened harvest by a few days, giving us only the Labor Day weekend between bottling and the start of crush.  Tuesday was devoted to shipping recently bottled wine to the warehouse, putting away bottling supplies, and getting crush equipment out of mothballs.  The grape scale wasn’t accurate and we found a small tear in the press membrane.  Both repaired in time for the first grapes Wednesday, but then the grape sorting conveyor was working off and on and the must chiller was on the fritz.  Then the bearings on the water pump that supplies both winery and vineyard starting whining something fierce; and I had to make a parts run to hook up my new (slightly used) commercial water heater.  Meanwhile, grapes were coming in as fast as we could handle them, in near 100° weather.  At 6 PM Weds. I was on the phone with my wife when I noticed a cracked pipe on the tractor dripping hydraulic fluid; she said at least I was laughing when I told her – I said “What the #*%@  else can I do”.  I felt like my world had spun out of control.  Oh yeah, and I damn near chopped the tip of my finger off with a barrel.  It took a couple of days to stop bleeding; when my 16 year old asked why I didn’t get stitches, I told her I didn’t have time.  Thursday was better; a lot cooler and I’d fixed what I could fix myself and gotten technicians for the rest; I feel like I’ve spent more time with grease on my hands than grapes so far this crush.

Wednesday’s sugar level was the highest we’ve ever had for Chardonnay, 27.2°B (brix, or % sugar), but the fruit wasn’t overripe, just dehydrated.  We “rehydrated” it before putting the juice to barrel for fermentation (there isn’t a very big demand for sweet, 16% alcohol Chardonnay).  Thursday was more Chardonnay, and Friday and today were Sauvignon Blanc (the correct pronunciation of which is most definitely not “soveeño blah” (as the guy on the BevMo/Robert Mondavi radio ads used to say in a lame attempt to sound sophisticated).  We’ll finish Chardonnay by Tuesday.  Next week will also bring Malbec, maybe our first Cab and Syrah, probably Marsanne, and possibly the first Zin.  I’ll be putting in quite a few miles this week walking vineyards – sampling, tasting, observing (deciding when to pick can be very subjective).  Thankfully, the weather forecast keeps improving.  Three days ago they said it’d cool for one day and then be in the 90’s again, but we’ve had a couple of very cool, overcast mornings (a high of 74° yesterday) and the current forecast calls for mid 80’s for the next week – absolutely perfect!

A Return to Sanity   Thurs. Sept. 13, 2007

Unseasonably cool weather since last Friday has slowed harvest to almost a complete halt.  We’ve got less than 20% of the grapes in.  I was telling my wife the other day that if this were late September I’d be worried about getting everything ripe, but that it’s a godsend right now.  We brought in Malbec Monday, finished Chardonnay Tuesday, and did about half our Marsanne yesterday, but no more grapes for the rest of the week.  Yesterday it was foggy until 3 PM and only reached 64º, so practically no ripening, but the other days have all been clear by late morning with 74-80º highs.  This is perfect (although unusual in early-mid Sept.) for the final stage of ripening.  I’m reminded of 2001, a classic vintage.  We’ve got Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and some Zinfandel all at 22 to 23.5º B – very close to optimal sugar.  The prolonged “hang time” these grapes are getting right now will intensify flavor and soften tannins without losing too much acid or causing sugar levels to get too high.  I was already very optimistic about quality this year because of the small berries, loose clusters and perfect summer weather; now I’m thinking it has the potential to be an absolutely phenomenal vintage.

Another benefit of this cool spell is the opportunity it’s granted us to clean up and organize better and rest a bit, since we were catapulted into crush not quite fully prepared last week.  My finger seems to healing nicely, too.  We’ll also have most of our white wines dry and topped up by the time we get real busy with reds – it’s always nice to limit the circus to only three rings.
Enough Already, Let’s Get The Show On The Road !    Mon. Sept.17, 2007

The weather continues to be even cooler than predicted.  I’ve got a full crew, but not enough work.  Everything is clean and shiny and organized and we’re running out of work.  The first barrels of Chardonnay are dry, so we’re topping them up.  We’ve still only got one red fermentation going (Malbec), and that’ll be ready for pressing Wednesday.  I went to Dry Creek to check the Handal-Denier vineyard (Cabernet Sauvignon) this morning; flavors are beautiful, skins maturing nicely, pH rising (3.60), but seeds are still a bit green and sugars only 22°B.  I’m excited at the prospect of fully ripe grapes at less than 14% alcohol, but maybe 12.5% alcohol is too low for a California Cab these days.  (Sugar to alcohol conversion for reds usually runs .56 to .58, so 22° gives 12.3 – 12.5 % alcohol.)  Weather forecast for this week says today will be the “hottest” day, and it’s 81° right now (2PM).  I heard the largest organic vineyard management company in Sonoma laid off a significant portion of their 80 man crew today – no work.  We’ll start again Wednesday (after six full days of no grapes), probably with the Karren Vineyard (Sonoma Mountain) Cabernet Sauvignon.  Then it’ll be some Estate Merlot Thursday.  The Handal-Denier Cab and the Baron Vineyard Cab Franc might be ready by Saturday.  I’ll go check the Hilltop Ranch Zinfandel tomorrow.  I also need to look at Estate Syrah, EnglandCrest Syrah and Shumahi Zinfandel.  All are very close to ready.

A Leisurely Crush   Sat. Sept. 22, 2007

Slight changes, as always: we picked 7 tons of Merlot on Wednesday, the Karren Cab on Thursday, and the Handal-Denier Cab Friday.  The current plan for next week is more Merlot on Monday, Estate Roussanne, Marsanne and Baron Cab Franc on Tuesday.  I’ll be checking vineyards, ours and others, Monday and Tuesday to see what’s next and when.  Estate Syrah, EnglandCrest Syrah, Hilltop Ranch Zin, Shumahi Ranch Zin, FR Maestas Cab and J&J Petite Verdot are all very close to ready.  It’s supposed to be barely into the 80’s for most of next week – great for quality, but an almost nervewracking slow pace.  We got our first measurable rain (0.1”) today, and I had two calls from growers in minor panic:  “Should we pick?” (No), “Will we get rot?” (Maybe, but I’d rather deal with a little rot than with unripe grapes), “Should I get out my spray rig and blow dry the grapes?” (If it makes you feel better).

Making harvesting decisions this year has led me think a lot about the factors involved.  We’ve already brought in two red grape vineyards at lower sugar levels than we ever have before, but in my opinion the grapes were fully ripe.  So many factors influence when to pick: sugar, pH, acid, seed maturity, grape skin maturity, stem maturity, tannin impressions, and most importantly, in my book, flavor.  Ideally, all of these factors are pretty well in synch, but in the real world of winemaking they often are not, so you have to weigh them all in order to make the best decision.  I know too many winemakers who get on dogmatic kicks involving one indicator or other – “ I always pick my Zinfandel at χ brix”, or “There are still some green seeds”.  I can’t see how it serves you to have soft, rich tannins if your wine smells and tastes like raisins steeped in vodka.  I pick mainly for flavor; if the grapes have rougher tannins, I extract more gently, consider pressing earlier, and keep the press wine separate.  I’m actually quite excited over the potential this year for ripe, rich wines with “moderate” alcohol levels.  (Where and when, except California in the 2000’s, would winemakers call 13.5 to 14% alcohol in wine “moderate”?).

I was supposed to be teaching cap management techniques to a new (this year) seasonal employee tonight, but he didn’t show up.  Cap management is the most rewarding part of winemaking for me; there’s an almost Zen-like feel to the interaction with the fermenting grapes.  We use three methods: pumpover, punchdown, and pneumotage (using compressed air to force fermenting juice up through the cap).  Choice of technique is based on type/characteristics of grape, type of tank, stage of fermentation and the amount/type of extraction desired.  For each technique, frequency, length of time and vigor are also variable, of course.  Tonight would have been an ideal time to go over all three with Crisantos, because we only have three fermentations going, and it was punchdown for the Karren Cab, pumpover for the Merlot, and pneumotage for the Handal-Denier Cab.