Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: Randy Wino Mimes Fear a Long Warm Break*

by Peter Wellington

* - Anagram Contest:  I’ll give a Bandolier of Corks to whoever comes up with the best anagram for “random ramblings of a weary winemaker” a la Fawlty Towers.

Life After Crush? - Thu. Nov. 8, 2007

Yes, there is life after crush. Today I’m getting a haircut for the first time since late August, when I got my typical, shorter than usual, pre-crush buzz. This weekend I’ll spend 24 hrs.+ with my daughters and two other girls in the Girl Scout Amazing Race. It’s a very intense three-day contest of mental and physical challenges all over the greater Bay Area. Last year included orienteering, fire building in the rain, scavenger hunts, blind tasting of jelly beans (including Bertie Botts flavors – ughh) and a grape pick/grape stomp (guess which team won?). Now I can catch up on neglected paperwork and start planning next year’s bottlings. Some supplies have a very long lead time and need to be ordered months ahead.

I’ve got shoulder surgery scheduled for next Wednesday; this is the only time of year I can afford to do without my right arm for an extended period of time. I’m hoping recovery and rehab won’t last long enough to interfere with late winter / early spring tractor work.

Smells Like Victory In the Morning - Sat. Nov. 17, 2007

So, WineDavid springs a wootoff on me, kinda last minute, scheduled for the day after my surgery. Fortunately, the surgery was shorter, easier and less painful than anticipated. I won’t need to have my shoulder immobilized for 6-8 weeks as feared, and can begin PT right after Thanksgiving. I’ve still got 45 of the prescribed 50 pain pills left, and fierce bidding has begun among coworkers (note to DEA: JK!). Also the wootoff didn’t happen until yesterday. I can’t believe how much wine sold in a little over an hour. Hopefully, this puts WD in good graces with the Woot powers that be, and me in good graces with WD; think lab capybara. :)

After winning the whole thing last year, our Girl Scouts finished third (out of 37 teams) this year, less than a minute behind the winners after almost 72 hours (a lot of shoulda, woulda, couldas in the car on the way home). I’m a verrry proud Papa, of course.

A lot of people seem to think my job must be wonderful because I “get to sit around and taste wine all the time”. Even in light of all the other challenges of the job, mental and physical, wine tasting is hard work that requires a lot of concentration.  When your success depends on your ability to judge small differences and predict how those will affect the wine at a future date it’s not quite so romantic anymore. Assistant winemaker Lynda and I (and often Toby, our tasting room manager) taste formally anywhere from one to four times a week from November through August. We taste in the morning when the senses are more acute, and it’s not too much fun critically tasting young red wines that aren’t ready to drink yet. (I always have my dentist appointments late in the day, when all the day’s stimuli have dulled my senses; there’s much less discomfort than in the early morning.) We don’t taste for more than about an hour, or four to ten wines/treatments (otherwise I lose concentration or get a headache from too much concentration). We taste all the trials or experiments we did during crush: different yeasts and barrels, different fermentation techniques, etc. We also do a lot of blending trials: different varieties, with and without press wines, etc. It is imperative that we be our own biggest critics, picking each wine apart, looking for flaws or shortcomings. I’ve made a point to tell tasting room staff listening to us while we’re tasting not to get the wrong idea about the wines; we can sound quite critical even when we love a wine.

A lot of wooters have asked about the blending process, so I thought I’d go through the details using our most complicated (and ultimately most rewarding) blend for an example. We have made a Bordeaux style blend called Victory since 1991, but not every year. I think we now have the tools to make it almost every year. The 2006 vintage is the first time we have had five different varieties available for this blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot). On May 24th, after assessing the 3 batches of Me, 7 CS, 2 PV, the Ma and CF, I suggested a starting point of 60% Handal-Denier Cab, with 10% each of the other 4 varieties. We liked it, but all felt that it was a bit too lean and hard. We decided to try less PV and more of the varieties that add mid-palate richness: Me, CF and Ma. The next day we tried three blends with 55% CS and 5% PV, each with an additional 10% of Me, Ma or PV. The 20% CF was a favorite, with great richness and mid-palate fruit, but a bit too much gritty tannin. The next week we kept the Me, Ma and PV at 10, 10 & 5% and varied the CS and CF, with inconclusive results. The following week we tried substituting different amounts of Mohrhardt Ridge CS for Handal-Denier CS, with positive results. Then I had the thought that a little more PV could do positive things. As we got down to smaller differences and honed in on a final blend, it got harder and harder to reach consensus; all the wines were good and the small differences became more a matter of individual taste. In our final tasting before the ’07 crush I preferred 40% HDCS, 10%MRCS, 22.5%CF, 10%Ma, 10%Me, 7.5%PV. Lynda preferred 45,15,15,10,10,5. Toby preferred 40,10,25,10,10,5. We let it rest, unblended, and just tried these same three blends last Friday. Amazingly enough, we each picked the same favorite we had picked back in July. My first was Lynda and Toby’s second. Based on discussions of what we all liked and “disliked” in each blend, we took my fave and swapped 5% HDCS for CF. When we tasted this new blend against the others we were unanimous, decisive and excited in our preference for it. Small changes may take place between now and bottling in April of 2008, but it looks like the 2006 Victory will be 55% CS, 17.5% CF, 10% Me, 10% Ma and 7.5% PV. These tastings involve a lot of discussion, and blends are changed / tweaked more on subjective criteria than any mathematical formula. Putting together the Victory is more work, but more fun than any of our other tastings; when we tasted this last blend we were all totally jazzed.