Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: 2007 Harvest, Take 2

by Peter Wellington

Approximately twice a month, winemaker Peter Wellington (Wine.Woot username SonomaBouliste) of Wellington Vineyards shares his musings on the vinting life in this space. Two weeks ago we ran the first installment of his Wine.Woot diary. Here's the second.

Looks Like Crush, Feels Like Crush, Smells Like Crush: Saturday, Sept. 29, 2007

Vines losing basal leaves, hot, very dry air that chaps the face, and the wonderful smells of fermenting grapes leave no doubt that crush is in full swing.  Seems like the weather forecasts have been even more inaccurate than usual.  We got into the high 80’s / low 90’s a couple of days this week, and it was enough to push quite a few vineyards to full maturity, and almost everything else is very close now.  We brought in almost as many tons this week as in the preceding three weeks added together.  We finished Marsanne and Merlot, started Roussanne, Syrah and Zin, and got the biggest crop we’ve ever had of Cab Franc.  We usually use the Cab Franc in our reserve Bordeaux style blend, with what little is left over going into our Sonoma County Cabernet or our Merlot.  This year there’s so much, and it looks so good that there’s the possibility of bottling some separately. We’ll have to see how it turns out, of course.  Speaking of things looking good, I’m still very excited about quality this vintage.  Fruit and wine so far has great aroma and flavor, tannins are soft yet full, and alcohol levels are lower than typical.  Our merlot all came in at 23.2-24.2°B, the lowest in the last decade, if not ever, yet the fruit is rich and ripe with no greenness at all.  Aromas are all cherry, berry, violets and spice.

I didn’t set out with the intention of making lower alcohol wines this year, but I’m thrilled at the opportunity to do so.  I believe in letting each vineyard and vintage express itself; otherwise wine would be boring.  I try to make the best wine each year, with a consistency of style, but I don’t try to make the exact same wine each year.  Who wants wines that all taste the same anyway?  (Yes, I know some people do, but there are oceans of wine out there to keep them happy.)

My number one winemaking rule is that there are no rules.  If I don’t at least experiment with a few new things each year my wines won’t improve.  It’s a bit like cooking, where the more times you make a certain dish the better you get; you try small changes and fine tune things.  We only get to make each dish once a year, and the raw ingredients are highly variable year to year, so the fine-tuning continues forever.

Last night we poured at the Sonoma Vintage Festival, a tradition that dates back to the 1850’s.  The best part for me is the opportunity to compare notes with my contemporaries.  I had long chats with Joel Peterson (founder/winemaker of Ravenswood), Jeff Gaffner (Saxon Brown), and Steve MacRostie (MacRostie) and all are thrilled at the quality of grapes this year, especially concerning full ripeness at lower sugar levels than usual.  Of course there were some other (generally less experienced) winemakers waiting for more sugar (“We’re only at 25”) or for fully brown seeds.  It’s always affirming when winemakers I respect have similar views to mine.  Tonight is the Sonoma County Harvest Fair awards night.  In spite of my opinions of wine competitions and wine reviewers, we do enter some competitions and do send samples to the main wine reviewers; after all, gold medals and good scores do help sell the wine.  The only out-of-area competition we enter is the Orange County Fair.  It is non-profit, funding scholarships and wine education.  It also is the only wine competition to use only formally trained judges (mostly winemakers).  I find it more rewarding when I get a top award from a jury of my own peers. 

When the Whip Comes Down, When the S#@& Hits the Fan: Sunday, October 6, 2007

Prior to this week the slow pace of the crush has spoiled all the members of the crew.  My new full time cellar guy, Enrique, who started in July, just hadn’t taken it seriously when told to organize all the different barrels so that he’d be ahead of the game when things got busy.  This week we brought in as much fruit as last week, but also had a larger number of fermentations to manage, lots of pressing and barrel work.  By Tuesday we were way behind, with no workload let-up in sight.  Wednesday I fired one of the seasonal guys because he was slow, didn’t listen to instructions, and was bad for morale because of his lack of focus or work ethic.  Thursday, our vineyard foreman started working in the winery.  José been with us 20 years, is sharp as a tack (although illiterate), and commands the respect of the other guys.  There’s very little of our own fruit left to harvest, and not much other vineyard work, so he’s available just when really needed.  By Thursday night we were caught up in spite of all the additional work.  I felt good about everyone for the first time this crush, and let them know it.  Friday we crushed 18 tons, approximately one eighth of our projected total.  Friday night we had every tank in the winery full.  Enrique said, “too many grapes”.  I told him that if we didn’t fill everything at the same time at least once it meant “too many tanks”.

This brings to mind some thoughts about the advantages and disadvantages of small wineries.  The greatest disadvantage is lower efficiency, particularly with labor.  The biggest advantages are flexibility and attention to detail.  At big wineries they fill all their fermentation tanks many times each crush, and fairly often are unable to harvest all their grapes at the optimal time.  One of our growers also sold to a large winery last year, and they didn’t bring in his grapes until three weeks after they were ripe because there was no tank space.  Large winery crushers and presses are sized to operate 12-24 hours a day to keep up with demand, and are typically capable of processing a max of 3-4 percent of a vintage’s production per day.  As a contrast, we have crushed close to 20 % of an entire year’s harvest in one day, and could do even more.  We have fermentation space for over 60% of all our red grapes at one time, so we don’t have serious logistical issues compromising our ability to harvest each vineyard block at the optimal time.  Most small wineries have the advantage of this kind of flexibility and control.

We did well at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, which has resulted in a flush of wholesale orders and increased tasting room business.  It’s a great stress reliever to have a jump in sales, and this is the time of year when I need positive news the most.  Otherwise it’s 6 AM breakfast and 9-10 PM dinner with lunch on the run or no lunch at all.  I drink less wine this time of year (almost none!) because I’m too tired at night and need to hit the ground running early in the morning.  During the peak of crush there is nothing else.  When we first met, my wife asked why I had 15 pairs of jeans, 50 t-shirts and 50 pairs of socks.  I told her it was to get through crush.  Each year around the end of October I would make my local Laundromat smell like a vinegar factory for a couple of hours.