Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: Blame It On SonomaBouliste

by Peter Wellington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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