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.