Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: Harvest Is Over

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.

I Buy the Beer    Sat. Oct. 27, 2007

Every year we all weigh in on the first day of harvest and weigh out on the last day.  He/she who loses the least amount of weight buys the beer and pizza (it means you weren’t working as hard as everybody else).  I typically lose ten pounds or more, but this year I was resigned to losing.  I’ve got rotator cuff tears in both shoulders as well as a torn labrum in my right shoulder; I’m going under the knife in mid November to take care of both issues with the right shoulder.  As a result of my incapacity, I didn’t drive tractor and help dump buckets of grapes when we picked here and I did very few punchdowns.  I actually gained two pounds, but at least my starting weight was the same as my finishing weight last year.  Of course, with the boss losing, we went to a brewpub instead of ordering to go, and Lynda invited as many growers as she could (just to add to the humiliation, I suppose).

We finished Thursday with 16 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon from Mohrhardt Ridge Vineyard, our largest crop there since 1992’s 18 tons.  The vineyard is about five acres, so the crop was still just a bit over three tons per acre.  The gamble of waiting another week to harvest paid off, as several sunny days in the 80’s pushed the sugar content up to 23.8ºB, reduced acid levels a bit and developed more ripe flavors.  Getting the last grapes into the winery is always a good feeling, but there are still pumpovers and pressing, lots of barrel work and labwork to be done before we can call it a wrap.

Where Are the Coyotes?  Weds. Oct 31, 2007

It’s Halloween and no howling coyotes.  Usually my only company during nighttime pumpovers is the coyotes, but I haven’t heard them at all this fall, even during full moons like late last week.  When there’s a full moon they usually sound like a bunch of teenagers having a beer bash.  Our neighbors lost their dog to a mountain lion last month, and I wonder if the lion has eaten/scared away the local coyote troop.

With just three pumpovers twice a day, it’s time to give equipment one last thorough cleaning and store it away for next year.  We’ll still be pressing, but we’re done with the destemmer, the open top fermentors and related paraphernalia (punchdown devices, drain tube, fruit fly screens, and insulating blankets) and the picking bins and trailers.  This will be the last week for two of the three seasonal helpers.

We brought all of this year’s zinfandel (86 barrels) out today for sampling and topping.  Five of seven lots are bone dry already and the other two are very close, but none are close to completing ML.  The alcohol levels range from 14.7 to 15.3%, which means we did a good job of estimation when we removed juice for Rosé and replaced it with water.  I just looked back over my previous entries and realize the above needs a fair bit of explanation (topping, ML, Rosé):  The wine is still fermenting when we press and put it to barrel, and if we filled the barrels completely it would foam all over, making a big mess and wasting wine.  Therefore we leave the barrels a half-gallon or so less than full.  The fermentation activity fills this space with CO2, protecting the wine short term, but we want to go back and top the barrels completely as soon as we can.  This is a good opportunity to take samples for analysis and tasting.  We check for residual sugar, absence of which indicates completion of primary yeast fermentation (dryness), malic acid, absence of which indicates completion of malo-lactic fermentation, and alcohol levels.  More interestingly, this is our first opportunity to assess richness, balance and mouth-feel.  During crush we get a good idea of aromas, color and tannin levels, but it is hard to gauge richness and concentration until the wines are dry and settled (cloudy, sweet, fizzy wines confuse the texture sensors).

The main reason I brought this up is that Lynda and I are thrilled with the Zins.  The Estate old vine stood out as usual, but the really exciting part is the best Shumahi Ranch Zin in the last seven years and outstanding wines across the board from Meeks Hilltop Ranch.  We thinned Shumahi to one cluster per shoot (removed approx. half the crop) except for a few rows we left for Rosé.  We crushed the Rosé portion along with some Syrah and gave it 24 hours skin contact before pressing.  The balance of the Rosé is made from juice bled from Zinfandel, Syrah and Grenache tanks that had excessive sugar levels.  This juice is then replaced with water so that we don’t alter the skin to juice ratio (don’t dilute the color and flavors).

How To Make a Small Fortune Sat. Nov. 3, 2007

There’s an oft repeated saying that you can make a small fortune in the wine business – you just have to start with a large fortune.  In our case, timing was everything.  Vineyard land prices 21 years ago were about 10% of what they are now, and it took my life savings, a fair chunk of my father’s life savings and a timely inheritance from my mother’s uncle to get us into it.  We finished paying off the 20 year mortgage last year, but we do still have some bank debt.  The other saying is that the only time you make a lot of money in this business is when you sell, and I realize how true that is in our case.  We continue to build equity, but this is not a good cash flow industry.  Of course it IS fun and challenging and allows a wonderful lifestyle in one of the more beautiful places on earth.

We sampled and topped Syrahs and Merlots on Thursday and Friday.  I’m also very happy with both these varieties this year.  In spite of lower sugars than usual at harvest, the Merlots show no greenness or underripe flavors.  The balance is wonderful already, and we’ll be bottling Merlot with alcohol below 14% for the first time since the ’02.  Syrah has great depth and intensity this year, yet is remarkably smooth in its infancy.

My thirteen year old came and helped me with pumpovers today; I think she wanted to be “caught red handed” just like Dad.  She thinks it’s pretty cool here, and wants to learn tractor driving among other things.  Who knows, maybe I’ll have someone to take this over from me some day (in which case I’ll never get rich :).