Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: Over the Hump

by Jason Toon

Approximately twice a month, winemaker Peter Wellington (Wine.Woot username SonomaBouliste) of Wellington Vineyards shares his musings on the vinting life in this space.

Sixteen, er Eighteen, Tons and What Do You Get?     Weds. Oct 10, 2007

After our huge day Friday we decided, more or less on the spur of the moment, to do it again Monday (only an even more difficult day).  We did a little bit of pressing on Saturday, and then a huge amount (14 tons of red grapes’ worth) on Monday.   We only had one four ton block of Zinfandel scheduled for crushing (could have been picked Thursday, Friday or Saturday, but the vineyard manager wasn’t available).  When the vineyard owner came to get our pickup truck at 7 A.M. Monday, he asked if there was any possibility that his other remaining block was ready.  I told him I didn’t think so, but that I’d rush over and check before the crew finished picking.  It was 24.2ºB going on 27*, still a tiny bit tart, seeds still green, but had ripe flavor (nice raspberry, strawberry, guava fruit – no greenness).  There was some rot in this last block and it was going to go to Hell in a hand basket with Tuesday’s rain, so we decided the best thing was to pick (as it was, we ended up culling 400 lbs. out of 3.3 tons).  About 9 AM I got a call from a Cabernet grower with whom I had left phone messages on Saturday and Sunday regarding a Tuesday pick.  We ended up bringing that in Monday as well, and the anticipated 8 tons of Cab became 9.5 tons, for a day’s total of 18.  Four of us ended up working 14 hours; the other two had family commitments that kept their days to 11 & 12 hours.  Once again, all the tanks were full.  A little more pressing and crushing Tuesday, pressing today and tomorrow will give us space for close to half our remaining fruit (and almost all of what is ripe and ready).

Today was slower for me – a chance to catch up on mail & bills and write this.  The shock of the day was paying over $1000 apiece for barrels for the first time (euros selling for $1.44).

* Zinfandel will often have a number of shriveled berries on a cluster before the rest of the berries are ripe.  These will contribute their concentrated sugar to the must (crushed grapes) over a period of days, and can take the overall sugar level from 24 or 25ºB to over 30º in some cases.  This is why you see a lot of Zinfandels with high alcohol levels, and some with both high alcohol and residual sugar.  I think a rich Zin can handle more alcohol than a more tannic wine like Cabernet, but only to a point, and I also want my wines to go dry.  To this end, we cold soak Zin for two or three days to get a better idea of the true sugar level, then bleed off juice for our rosé and replace it with water.

Caught Red Handed   Sun., Oct. 14, 2007

With lots of punchdowns, pumpovers and pressing my hands regularly come in contact with young red wine, staining them purple/red/black.  I’ve even had people ask me if I’m an automobile mechanic.  The best comment, however, came from a (grapegrower) friend’s son when he was about 14 years old.  Emile asked what happened to my hands, and I told him it was from red wine.  He pondered this for a moment and responded, “Man, you gotta stop drinking so much”.

What else would farmers talk about if we couldn’t talk about the weather?  An inch of rain Wednesday, another inch Friday, and a forecast of more rain and cool weather for the coming week has forced our hand a little bit.  We (and several other wineries) are bringing in Roussanne from Saralee’s Vineyard tomorrow.  It’s very susceptible to bunch rot and the risk at this point of letting it hang far outweighs any potential benefit.  BTW – Saralee Kunde is one of the most wonderful growers with whom to do business.  She’s got 16 wine grape varieties and sells to dozens of wineries, but everybody gets personal attention as if they were the only client.  It’s true, nobody doesn’t like Saralee!  We’ll do white port tomorrow as well, and probably pick for our Noir de Noirs on Tuesday (weather permitting).  All that’ll be left after that is the Mohrhardt Ridge Cabernet sauvignon, which could really benefit from another week plus of sun, even if temperatures stay low.  Cabernet in general, and this vineyard in particular, is not highly susceptible to bunch rot, mainly because of very loose clusters.  We’re extremely lucky that we had an early bloom and therefore an early start to harvest.  Since the end of the first week of September fall weather patterns have been a month ahead of normal – October-like in September and November-like in October.  If we had been on an average schedule instead of early this year it would have been a disaster.  I feel fortunate to have almost everything in the barn, and am very happy with quality so far.  I think it’s going to be an “UnParker” year; many folks in the Napa Valley who were hoping for überripeness aren’t going to get it in 2007.

He’s Drinking Cab, I’m Drinking Zin, and We’re Lost in the Ozone Again  Mon., Oct. 22, 2007

Lovely Winefarm came by a couple of weeks ago to pick up a load of pomace (pressed grapes) for her garden compost.  WD came along for the ride, and, inquisitive as usual, asked about the buzzing stainless steel box hooked up to a water hose.  The ozone generator has become a fairly common piece of winery equipment over the last ten plus years.  It is used for sterilizing equipment, hoses, floors and drains, and even oak barrels.  It has by and large replaced chlorine, which has some serious drawbacks, the biggest being the risk of cork taint type compounds.  Certain molds can produce 2,4,6 trichloroanisole (TCA) and related compounds when they grow in the presence of chlorine.  (Chlorinated processing water and organochlorine insecticides have both been implicated in the formation of cork taint.)  Cellar taint can occur when mold grows in drains with chlorine residue or on wood treated with preservatives such as the now banned Pentachlor.  Several wineries have had to gut their aging facilities due to cellar taint.  I find it more than ironic that James Laube of the Wine Spectator, claiming exceptional sensitivity to TCA, “outed” Beaulieu Vineyards’ cellar taint problem a few years ago, when not long before that he was bestowing high ratings on a very prestigious winery’s Cabs that had way more obvious taint problems.  Must be the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome;-).  Ozonated water leaves no residue, poses minimal health hazard, won’t burn holes in your clothes, smells like the air during an electrical storm, and I know it works because it does burn a bit when it gets into an open cut.

Back to crush news:  We had everything except the Mohrhardt Ridge Cabernet harvested by last Tuesday.  The Cab survived two inches of rain the week of Oct. 8 in great shape, and I decided to let it hang through some cool, drizzly days last week because of the promise of dry, warm to hot weather this week.  It was 80º yesterday and today, and could be warmer tomorrow and Wednesday.  The Cab was “acceptably”, but not optimally, ripe last week and I’m confident these few warm sunny days will soften the acid and tannins a bit more and intensify the cherry-blueberry flavors.  I just this minute got a call from the grower, and harvest is confirmed for Thursday.  Things have slowed down to the point where we can start checking on wines in barrel, testing for residual sugar and malic acid.  If both primary and malolactic fermentation are complete we can add a bit of SO2, top barrels up completely, and seal them tightly, all of which protect against formation of VA (volatile acidity or vinegar).  After pressing two tanks today we only have two open top tanks to punch down, and four closed top tanks waiting to be pressed.  We’ll press the last tank of Syrah tomorrow and the last tank of Zin on Wednesday.  They’ll both get refilled with Cabernet on Thursday, along with one of our other two large empty tanks.

Now is when the fatigue sets in.  We don’t have the adrenaline of full on crush anymore, and even though we aren’t working nearly as many hours, it’s more exhausting.  Tomorrow I’ll give another safety talk to address this and stress vigilance and attention to detail.  Now is when we’re at greatest peril of wine spills or injury because we’re more inclined to operate on “autopilot”.