Monday, July 20

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: Microbes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

by Peter Wellington

As I started to think about how I would organize this blog I came to the realization that there really should be a fourth category – the “maybe good, maybe bad, maybe innocuous”, with a large aside on the pros and cons of inoculating with pure yeast strains. 

The list of species that can grow in grape juice is quite small, and even fewer can grow in wine.  The low pH and high sugar and/or alcohol levels make for a very hostile environment.  No pathogenic or toxin producing microbes can grow or even survive in wine, which led Louis Pasteur to declare wine the most hygienic of all beverages.  Only two species, Saccharomyces cerevisiae (wine yeast) and Oenococcus oeni (malolactic bacteria), are widely accepted as “good” wine microbes.  Even malolactic bacteria are considered spoilage organisms if malolactic fermentation (MLF) isn't desired...

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Tuesday, June 23

Scott Harvey on Riesling: Sweet, Dry, Off-Dry?

by Scott Harvey

I cut my teeth on Riesling back in 1972 when I was an 18 year old AFS exchange student to Germany. When I got there, the first thing they did was welcome me with a wonderful refreshing glass of Riesling. I looked out the window of the second story farm house and as far as you could see where the beautiful vineyards of the Rheinland Pfalz. I got my German/English dictionary out and the first thing I asked them was “Does this wine come from those vineyards?” They said “Sure it does, do you want to see where it is made?” They took me down into the basement and I’ve been in love with Riesling ever sense. Last November on Thanksgiving Day I was again in that old farm house enjoying another glass of Riesling.

I guess Riesling is in my blood and it’s there to stay. Jana and I produce four Rieslings. Three are produced in what in German is termed Halbtrocken Kabinet and the fourth is an ice wine. We have or currently produce Rieslings from Michigan, New York and California. With Riesling in your blood, you have to produce a cold climate one now and then...

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Monday, June 08

Random Ramblings: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Barrels, But Were Afraid To Ask

by Peter Wellington

Special thanks go to WineWootaholic (WWA) for several topic suggestions, because he wasn't afraid to ask! 

Barrels have been around for a couple of thousand years. While they are now used almost exclusively for wine and spirits, they are extremely versatile containers that had a multitude of applications for most of their history. If you know anyone with the surname of Cooper, they are the descendant of a barrel maker. Barrels have been used to store and move practically everything from soup to nuts: nails, grain and flour, olives, gunpowder, oil, all sorts of beverages, et cetera. They provided sturdy watertight, insect and rodent proof, portable containers. The bent staves of a watertight barrel also allow for easy movement by hand. A single person can readily move hundreds of pounds of goods rapidly across any somewhat flat surface, up a ramp, and even up a broad flight of steps. Imagine trying to move a six hundred pound crate by hand. Barrels were one of the easiest ways to move goods prior to the development of modern-day devices such as forklifts and elevators...

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Wednesday, May 27

Wine.Woot Takes Brooklyn: Official NYC Tasting Party, June 5

by Jason Toon

Some of you Wine.Wooters have been getting together for a while now on your own, to sip wine and swap notes and soak in your collective cool. Officially, we think that’s awesome. Secretly, we’re consumed by jealousy. It’s all we can think about. And cry about.

So we just had to throw our own get-together in the heart of Brooklyn wine country. You’re all invited to join us from 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday, June 5, at Like the Spice Gallery, 224 Roebling Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211. Currently showing work by artist (and Shirt.Woot fan) Reuben Negrón, Like the Spice is convenient to the L, G, and JMZ subway lines. And the Atlantic Ocean, if you’re planning to come by submarine.

Dave “Winedavid39” Studdert and a couple of the key behind-the-scenes Wine.Woot folks (the ones who get all the work done) will be there with hors d’oeuvres, music, and more than a mere sampling of the never-before-tasted Woot Cellars summer release. Before leaving, participants will be subjected to a minor surgical procedure to excise all memories of the evening, to prevent them from revealing details of the upcoming Woot Cellars wine. It’s relatively painless. Bring your health insurance card.

Then, if you’re one of those city-that-never-sleeps types, come along to the official unofficial afterparty to be named later. If you’re trying to keep up with Winedavid39, remember he’ll still be on California time, so he’ll have an unfair advantage.

All dumb jokes aside, we’re psyched about meeting you guys, and finally bringing the rogue Wine.Woot party scene into our sphere of influence. No need to RSVP, but feel free to post questions, regrets, and Transformers 2 spoilers below.

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Sunday, May 17

Wines Without Vines? Living The Negociant Life

by Trent Moffett

Our latest guest blogger, Trent Moffett of C&T Cellars, grew up in the vineyards of Napa Valley, spending many summers working at family and independent vineyards. Upon graduating from the University of the Pacific with a BA in agricultural business, Trent joined the family business at Livingston Vineyards. There, with his father John Livingston, he learned the appreciation of winemaking from Livingston's first wine maker, Randy Dunn. Trent's multifaceted roles ranged from California sales to cellar master. Within a few years, Trent assumed all cellar operations, collaborating with esteemed winemaker Greg Graham from Rombauer (1992-1996), John Kongsgaard (1996-2001), and Marco DiGiulio (2001-2006). Trent worked a harvest in New Zealand's South Island with Grant Taylor, one of New Zealand's most honored winemakers. In 1993 he introduced C&T Cellars, a négociant wine label.  
 
What is a Negociant wine? How does the winery or wine label find these wines? How can you be consistent when you don’t own or contract with the same vineyards? How do you put these wines together? These are some of the question I hear travelling around the country selling my C&T Cellars wines.

“Négociants buy everything from grapes to grape must to wines in various states of completion. In the case of grapes or must, the négociant performs virtually all the winemaking. If it buys already fermented wine in barrels or 'en-vrac' - basically in bulk containers, it may age the wine further, blend in other wines or simply bottle and sell it as is. The result is sold under the name of the négociant, not the name of the original grape or wine producer.”Wikipedia

How does the winery or wine label find these wines? The bulk market for both fruit and wine is extremely active with tens of thousands of tons of grapes available and hundreds of thousands probably millions of gallons of wine available. This is not to say that it’s all good wine or fruit, but it’s available. For example, if you look at Turrentine's web site you will see one brokers list of bulk wines available. Turrentine is a medium to large size broker and many of the different companies have the same wines. For me personally, I almost exclusively purchase wine from winemakers I know or wineries that I’ve worked with before. I have developed a great group of friends and winery contacts that will call me before they farm the wines out.

How can you be consistent when you don’t own or contract with the same vineyards? This is a great question and the answer in my mind is that you can’t be consistent. That being said, I’ve been very fortunate to work with the same people for 16 years and am able to get some consistency here and there. I always tell people that my wines will not be the same year to year, but they will provide you with an excellent price to quality ratio. Because I’ve been able to deliver that to my consumers, I’ve developed a great trust with them and the wineries I work with. Why would my winery clients care about the quality of the wine I bottle and sell? Because the wine I get from them is still their baby which they have put a lot of time and effort into. Here is an example from my 2004 Napa Valley Cabernet: A family friend and winery owner produces one red wine per vintage that retails above $50 a bottle. They blend 4 different varietals into there red wine and during blending they had way too much merlot from that vintage. The merlot was made in one batch, treated the same, they just had too much. A lot of the time I will find a winery that is running behind in sales and needs to short a vintage to get caught up. This is a great way to find wine that is ready to go and has been treated well.

How do you put these wines together?
This is the fun part of the job. I love being the Master Blender! People talk about it in different ways. I like to compare it to putting a band together. First you find your “rock star” then you start finding the other members of the band. Without the “rock star” you just have a group of artists together making music, but the “rock star” brings the band and the show together. I hardly ever find a wine that is bottle ready. Most the time the wine will need a little help to fit my palate. Most of these lots are also too small to bottle. For example my 2005 Rooftop Red Cabernet came from three different producers with a total production of 289 cases. Literally I took my truck and trailer to these different wineries and grabbed a barrel or two, with the big lot being the cabernet at 8 barrels. C&T Cellars average production per varietal ranges from 300 cases to 1,000 cases.

There is so much more that can be covered on this subject and I hope to cover it with your questions.

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Friday, April 24

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: The Vines Must Suffer!

by Peter Wellington

There's an old aphorism (French, I think) that the vines must suffer in order to produce good wine. While this isn't exactly true, its origins are easy to understand. I''ll try to explain the basis for this belief and how that is connected to soils, irrigation, fertilization, diseases and yields.

Grapevines are very vigorous plants, not only capable of surviving in poor soils, but often thriving in soils that are unsuitable for most annual food crops. Vines are very efficient at using water and scavenging nitrogen from the soil, and can grow too vigorously if they have an abundant supply of either or both. You might ask why would high vigor be a problem when most farmers are thrilled to have bigger, healthier plants. Overly vigorous vines not only produce lower quality wine, they also produce smaller crops – a lose/lose proposition.

The reasons for smaller crops are two fold: low bud fruitfulness and poor set. Grapes are borne on shoots sprouting from the previous year's canes, and the potential crop is determined when those buds are being formed. Moderate temperatures and direct sunlight (red and infra-red wavelengths) are critical to the formation of grape cluster primordia in these buds. Cool rainy springtime weather can result in significant crop reduction the following year due to reduced cluster count and smaller clusters. There are people who perform microscopic analysis of buds in an attempt to determine how many buds to leave at pruning time. Poor set is often caused by bad weather at bloom time but can also be the result of internal factors such as nutrient or water deficiency, and also excessive vigor. The teleological explanation of the latter is that if growing conditions are so good, why should the plant bother making seeds. High vigor and low fruitfulness can become a self-perpetuating, vicious circle: vines with less fruit grow more leaves, creating more shade, reducing fruit production, increasing leaf growth, etc.

While wine and grape quality is subjective, most of the effects of excess vigor have universally accepted negative impact on wine quality. The most obvious is dilution of flavor due to larger berry size. Because color and flavor are concentrated in the skin of the grape, the lower skin : pulp ratio of larger berries means less color, aroma and flavor (everything else taken equally). Another effect of vigor is decreased light , both direct and indirect, on the clusters, delaying flavor and color development. A light bulb went on in my head during a 1983 trip to Burgundy and Bordeaux when I saw how the vines were trellised there. I had always wondered why California wines were generally more “green” and herbaceous at higher ripeness levels (in terms of sugar and acid) than their French counterparts. The shoots in the French vineyards were trained into a thin hedge, and the fruit was visible at the bottom of the hedge. At the time, virtually all California vineyards were pruned on a “fruiting wire” with a 24” crossarm mounted a foot higher with foliage support wires at each end. The shoots grew up and out, over the foliage wires and down, no manual labor required. This exposed a large leaf area to the sun, allowing the vines to produce plenty of sugar, but created a tunnel around the grapes with little light penetration. I can remember driving past vineyards a week before harvest and not being able to tell what color the grapes were. In addition to retarding color and flavor development, this system reduced fruitfulness and increased disease problems.

In the mid to late 1980s some growers started changing to a vertical training system. Sunlight Into Wine by Dr. Richard Smart, published in 1991, became required reading for growers and vineyard managers. A large amount of replanting due to Phylloxera that had spread during the late 80s hastened the change. This also led to a dramatic increase in the year-round vineyard labor force. Whereas the old system required hand labor only for pruning, harvest and maybe some suckering, the new system involved placing and moving foliage wires, tucking shoots between the wires, leaf removal and additional suckering, creating work all Spring and Summer. During the replanting many growers also chose rootstocks with lower vigor than the AxR they were replacing.

Now let's look at the factors that limit vigor, or make the vines “suffer”. Choice of location, specifically soil, is the oldest and most obvious. In Europe olive trees and grapevines were grown on low fertility soils with the double benefits of higher quality fruit and not tying up more fertile land needed for cereal grains and other annual crops. Water retention is probably more important than soil nutrient status, but both influence vigor. Without drought stress vines will not only grow excessively, they also will not concentrate sugar any higher than about 20% in the grapes (11-12% potential alcohol). Most of the wine growing regions of France receive significant rain during the growing season (April-September) and have proscriptions against irrigation. This has led to a fairly widely held belief that dry-farmed vines always make the best wine. I would argue that although excess water is deleterious to quality, so is insufficient water. We have 8+ acres of old dry-farmed vines that suffer too much in drier years and would make better wine those years if we could give them a bit of water. Likewise, wine quality in a number of regions of France suffered during the extremely hot and dry 2003 vintage. Vines don't care whether their water comes from a cloud or a drip hose; they do need some water.

As an aside, when I was in Paris in 2007 I found an interesting little wine shop in our neighborhood. When the proprietress found out I was a California vigneron she started telling me all of the California vineyard shortcomings. I highly doubt she had ever even been to the US, but she proceeded to tell me the soils were all the same, the climate was too hot, the vines too young, the vineyards too big and, worst of all, that we irrigate. With my limited French I argued every point: We have some of the most diverse soils in the world, being at the juncture of two huge tectonic plates. San Francisco is colder than Normandy in the summer and you could never ripen a grape there. I have unirrigated vines over 100 years old. My vineyard is only 8 hectares (she responded that some of her growers farmed only 4 or 5 hectares). Lastly, I told her that we don't get any rain during the season, and vines don't care where the water comes from. I'm not sure I caused her to have any doubt of her opinions of California, but she really took offense at that last suggestion. All in all it was an amiable “argument” and I did respect her support of artisan producers – she had wines that were both interesting and good.

Back in the early '90s my friend Organic Bob (the one who tried to get me to buy a propane weed flamer) extolled the virtues of grapes from phylloxera infested vineyards, his theory being that the increased vine stress improved quality. As strange as it seems, there is some, limited, truth to this. In situations of excess vigor, disease can actually bring the vine into better balance. Unfortunately, phylloxera doesn't just weaken vines a little, it ultimately kills them. While one vineyard with which Bob had experience may have made better wine one year, that was the exception rather than the rule. Most phylloxerated vineyards fail to ripen grapes well; I remember one winery marketing a rosé (that was supposed to have been a red wine) called Bug Juice one year. I believe that mild grape leafroll virus (found in quite a few old vineyards) can sometimes have a beneficial effect on wine quality by slowing sugar production and accumulation. These disease or pest problems can only have a quality enhancing effect if the vineyard is otherwise overly vigorous. It is the goal of any good vineyard manager to have a healthy, balanced, fruitful, high quality vineyard.

I know quite a few winemakers (but not grower/winemakers) who claim the lower the yield, the higher the quality. The flawed logic is that if 6 tons per acre (TPA) makes better wine than 9 TPA and 4TPA better than 6TPA (usually true), then 2 TPA will be better than 4, 1 TPA even better...The sins of overcropping are well known, and most growers want to grow as large a crop as they can ripen properly. However, too small a crop can actually harm quality; the vines are out of balance, grow too vigorously, compensate by increasing berry size (diluting flavor and color) and ripen grapes too quickly.

In summary, excessive vine vigor is a lot more common than insufficient vigor, but the best wines come from balanced vines, not suffering vines. Soil and climate are set factors that have huge influence on vine vigor, but growers can adjust and attain balanced vines through informed use of rootstock, spacing, trellising, pruning, fertilization and irrigation. A well designed vineyard needs less intervention to attain balance, is easier and cheaper to farm, and will be more consistent in producing high quality wine. What constitutes a well designed vineyard? It's a vineyard that has a compatible combination of site, rootstock and scion variety, and spacing and trellising that produces a good balance of fruit and foliar growth. It is not so vigorous that a lot of leaf removal or other remedial canopy work is necessary. It is not so low in vigor that it needs lots of fertilizer or irrigation. It's a vineyard that usually sets enough crop but doesn't need a lot of thinning. A good vineyard also has uniformity.  Many vineyards have variable soil depth and composition; this results in uneven vigor if the site is farmed in uniform fashion. One year one of my growers wanted to irrigate his whole vineyard late in the season because a few weak vines were losing a lot of leaves. 80 % of the vines were fine, 15% too vigorous and 5% suffering. I told him you can't farm based on the weakest 5% of your vineyard – there's too big a compromise of quality. The next year he put in extra emitters for the weak vines and also (hooray) valves to cut off water to the overly vigorous areas, which are now virtually dry farmed.. A well designed and managed vineyard compensates for soil variation with different rootstocks, different spacing and variable irrigation.

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Monday, March 30

Scott Harvey with more on pH and old vs. new world wines

by Scott Harvey

Guestblogger and winemaker Scott Harvey returns to fill us in on pH in wine-making and wine-drinking.

As promised in the last blog post on pH this post will explain how pH plays a role in developing either new world wines (Parker Wines) or old world wines (food wines). Both styles have their place.  Americans consume a lot of wines without food, thus creating a need for the higher pH new world style wines.  

When you sit down to dinner and take that first bite, it tastes so good...

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Tuesday, March 17

Kent Rasmussen on Pinot Noir and Carneros (Two of His Favorite Subjects)

by Kent Rasmussen

In the tradition of Peter Wellington and Scott Harvey, please welcome another occasional Wine.Woot guest blogger. Kent Rasmussen of Kent Rasmussen Winery has graciously agreed to share his insights into the winemaking life. Thanks, Kent!

Once upon a time, when the Boomers were young, the mere mention of “California Pinot Noir” would make a wine-geek go running for a bottle of Burgundy (there weren’t many wine-geeks in America back in those days). Pinot Noir just didn’t do it in California. We were making great Cabernet and Zinfandel, and if I am not mistaken, Louis Martini had just bottled the first varietal bottling of a grape called Merlot (in 1968?) But Pinot just hadn’t arrived. When Pinot was good it was usually because it was half Petite Sirah (in those days varietals only had to be 50% of the named variety) and thus not really Pinot. Pinot Noir, the ultimate cool weather grape was grown in such not-so-cool climates as Calistoga—and Fresno! Winemakers felt that a good Pinot could be made just like a good Cabernet; heat it up, put it in the percolator, and extract, extract, extract. The results? Well . . . we were not making much of a name for ourselves—more of a groan.

But there where Pinot Noir visionaries back in those early days of California viticulture. They understood what a great grape it is—probably the greatest of all grapes…and that something had gone horribly wrong with it in California. They saw how wonderful the Pinot Noir was in Burgundy and they knew they could change it all and make California the greatest place on earth to grow the greatest grape on earth. And they were right!

The first thing those folks realized...

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Wednesday, March 04

Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: 10 Things I Hate About O

by Peter Wellington
Wine.Woot guest blogger emeritus Peter Wellington comes down from the mountain bearing more of his winemaking wisdom!

Let me start by saying I don't really hate organic. I just have some major quarrels with its current manifestation in our culture. The title of this blog is more the result of my obsession with perverting cultural references. Lest I alienate a large number of you, and instigate a bunch of hate mail, I'll start with some background on the environmental and organic movements...

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Friday, February 13

Scott Harvey Says: Wine and pH

by Scott Harvey

Schooled in winemaking in both Germany and California, winemaker Scott Harvey was crucial to putting Amador County on the California wine map in the 1980s. After years spent propelling such wineries as Santino, Renwood, and Folie a Deux to success, he launched his own Scott Harvey Wines with his wife Jana in 2004. We're thrilled to have him take over the regular Wine.Woot guest blogger position. See his first post here.

We as wine makers do not make wine, Mother Nature does. It is a natural process of fresh juice to vinegar. By understanding the biochemistry and the life cycles of the organisms involved we can direct and halt the process at the point where the human species likes to drink it rather than at the vinegar stage where the fruit fly prefers it.

Ever since Louie Pasteur figured out that it was yeast and bacteria that convert juice to wine and vinegar, we have been able to determine the conditions needed to foster the growth of the organisms we desire and the retardation of those we don’t desire for the production of fine wine.

One of the best tools in determining the environment we want to create for Mother Nature to do her job in creating fine wine is monitoring pH. Basically, pH is the measurement of free hydrogen ion concentration in the solution. For some reason, and I don’t know why, they chose 7 for neutral pH. Maybe some wooter out there does know why and can tell us. Everything above 7pH becomes more and more basic as the OH ions increase and everything below 7pH becomes more and more acidic as the positive hydrogen (pH) ions increase. Wine is an acidic solution that is produced in the range of 2.8pH to 4.2pH.

Not until the late 80s was the development and reliability of the pH meter such that we could use it in daily winemaking. Therefore, before that we relied on the measurement of total acidity to tell us what we needed to know. Today, still many winemakers make their decisions on TA rather than pH. It was a German winemaker Ed Friedrich, winemaker for San Martin in the early 70’s that showed Dr. Richard Peterson, then winemaker for Monterey Vineyards, how important pH was. Monterey was a new high quality wine region with a particular problem of producing grapes with extremely high malic acid levels thus forcing the winemakers to find a new way to evaluate the wine. Ed showed us when we are tasting acidity we are really tasting pH. pH will predict taste much better than TA ever has.

Up until 1996 I made wine based on TA. In 1996 Dr. Peterson (my mentor) brought me to Napa Valley to take over Folie a Deux winery. It was at Folie a Deux winery that I learned how to use pH in making my decisions on creating the right environment so that Mother Nature would transform those wonderful grapes into the wines we all enjoy.  

This blog is really an introduction to the next blog that will explain how pH plays a role in developing either new world wines (Parker Wines) or old world wines (food wines). Stay tuned.

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