Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Ferments Away!

Maintaining a vigorous fermentation in your bedroom can be a bit challenging. Especially without such luxuries as central heating. Much similar to keeping my baby carboy beers cold in the dead of winter in Western New York I have employed several methods to keep the Cabernet Sauvignon kicking along at just a hair under eighty degrees Fahrenheit: electric blanket, aquarium heater and space heater at night. Who needs stainless steel tanks with temperature adjusting jackets right?

Monitoring a red ferment is much like having a pet. Let me rephrase that statement, a pet that never sleeps. Jonny Oakes called me at the ass crack of dawn a few days ago and I could only roll over to see his name and roll over once again for a bit of shut eye grumpily groaning 'It's fucking 5 am for Christ sakes!' Please remember folks that unless you are drunk-and-dialin' time zones are in full effect and this princess needs her beauty sleep.

Two hours later I got the message, "Your wine's awake, why the hell aren't you?" Luckily a healthy ferment can go with little to no supervision. Yeast food, two punch downs a day and a bit of heat and shelter goes a long way. Wake up and punch the cap and do it again when you arrive home from work and repeat. Now that I think of it its much more like a house cat.

The Cabernet is down to 15 degrees brix and the Syrah is floating around 11 setting us up for a weekend of pressing. We are crossing our fingers that we have enough for three barrels and toppings. If we are lucky we will escape with enough wine only by my peach hair covered chin.


Today wasn't all about exciting micro-vinification projects. No, no it was back to work as usual. This time setting up straw filled waddles for erosion control at a vineyard outside Geyserville. For each 10 foot drop in altitude we marked a level line outlying the route of the waddles. The process was tedious to say the least. Moving the tripod, recalibrating the laser's level, marking the lines with the help of beeping sensors and repeating the process on down the hillside.

I officially take back my comment today that I chose to pursue a career in the wine industry because every day is interesting. Not today however. Humpday was a tiny glimpse into hell: a laser burning my eye atop a breezy hill and static top forty softly playing while an alarm ring blasted away at my ear drums. I officially hate auto-tune.

Thoughts of my own piece of land bounced around in my head: 'when do I get to do this for myself?'

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Taste of Buffalo

Slow Party Movement

Guests, and traveling kids in particular, can often times be compared to a bothersome case of crabs (yes those crabs): you never know when they are going to show up and how long before you can get rid of them. Luckily, however, visitors from Buffalo are almost always the complete opposite, bringing tidings of cheer, fragrant body odor and a disposition that makes one long for home.

Thursday night Jimbob rang me and I awoke out of a dead sleep. "Yo dude, we finally made it to Santa Rosa. Were at the corner of Sebastopol Rd. and Dutton. Is there a good place to meet you?"

In my groggy state I could only think to ask "Do you like tacos?"


Choosing a better place to rendezvous, we met up at the Safeway parking lot not blocks from my house. "We're parked next to an ambulance" was my only indicator of Jim's location. Upon my arrival I saw two ambulances and imediately walked to the lime-green hatchback hiding behind a pair of EMTs, chilling as per usual. 'Where the hell are they?' I wondered swinging back around to see a sleeping bag being unfurled out the back door of the first rescue vehicle. Ahhhh...hippy van. Now things were starting to make more sense.

"Jim, what the fuck is up" I greeted, turning to see another Buffalonian. "Hey, Tim." Then Nugget jumped out the back door. "Nugget, what the hell is up?" Damn, the Buffalonians were multiplying by leaps and bounds. Kids that call the Queen City home almost always travel in groups or in numbers much like geese, antelope and if you it hadn't popped into your head before, lemmings. I don't think there is such a thing as a city with only one Buffalo ex-pat. We migrate in groups.


Quite naturally I offered my people a place to stay, a bed to crash on and happily bought a case of beer to warm our spirits and lubricate conversation. I've been gone for a good eight months and honestly, let's not kid ourselves, who couldn't use a dose of the latest gossip.

Jim, crooned me the latest dope, ala the lyrics of a late eighties Bon Jovi song: moved out-living alone, waiting for approval of mortgage loan, moving on for greener pastures above the tree line, holding down the fort at the retired punx home, playing in new blazing two minute song hardcore band, etc, etc.

I was satisfied and proud. Yes, my friends have all grown up. It had to happen some time. The real question is who is still keeping it real in the band? Or maybe we are all still keeping it real, we have all splintered and moved on to our own deals.


Josh and prized Fungus

Josh, a good friend of Janet, also arrived in town early this week from Seattle leaving no room at the inn on Augustan. My housemates have taken the increases foot traffic (up 500%) pretty well.

A week of visitors. A week of little to no sleep. A week of birthdays and crappy Himalayan food. A happy week nonetheless. I can't wait to visit Buffalo in December. Hope y'all have your drinking shoes ready!


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Scavenger Cellars

When I see fruit dropped on the ground, ripe fruit, tears well up in my eyes, wavering on the brink of unleashing a tapped fire hydrant and then I realize, it's the business. Wineries chose to drop fruit for a variety of reasons. Most of the times fruit is dropped pre-harvest to lower yields and concentrate flavors but often times bunches are dropped if the fruit isn't up to par or heavily damaged, ie. rot. On Wednesday, however we were dropping bunches with shriveled and unripe berries alike. Reason being is that the winery is seeking quality over quantity and unripe cabernet sauvignon berries might give off unwanted "green" flavors and overripe berries will jack up the alcohol.

Wine grape berries in sunny California often shrivel if exposed to too much sunlight and are not fully shaded by the canopy.

If there is a maxim in the fine wine industry it is balance. Even a wine with high alcohol, say 15 or 16%, can be balanced if it has the fruit and acidity to match. This is California after all where bigger is better is the current trend.

In an attempt to maintain low alcohol levels our client ensured that no shriveled berries would sneak by the fondling fingers on the sorting line. Mouth agape I marched along the rows in the throes of agony thinking about the amount of fruit laying prostrate at its phenological height.

Coming up the vine row with long strides, my boss Dave approached expressing the same sentiments. "Man when I saw you looking at the fruit on the ground I could only think 'Tom must be pissed they are dropping all this fruit'" he ruminated. Right he was. "You should ask Ben if you can pick up some of the fruit," he casually mentioned. The idea of picking up the eighty-sixed cabernet began to twist and turn in my mind like a far fetched Almodovar plot. I couldn't think about abandoning such great fruit to decomposition, no matter how natural the process might be.

After clearing the clean up with the V.P. of operations, the machinery was put in order to pick up the pieces.

Three Nosepickers

Chowing down on four tacos and washing it down with a tall boy of energy beverage my picking crew(all gabachos...what was I thinking?) showed up to Lytton Springs Road and we were on our way north. It was already four o'clock and I knew we were racing against the clock, the sun already beginning its rapid descent below the coastal range.

"Let's go, let's go," I shouted and we paraded up to Cloverdale at warp brushburn speed. The worst part of picking up all the grapes was the fact that they were scattered across the block here and there.

Splitting up we scrambled to gather as many bunches as possible in our picking bins and from five rows over I heard Janet scream "This is just like dumpster diving...except these our grapes." And she is kinda right. Sometimes there is no better price tag than free, but if bumper stickers have taught me anything over the past years it is "Freedom isn't Free". Scratch that Glenn Beck bullshit. What I meant is that even if something is free there is not way to procure it without doing the dirty work.

Do you really think that pizza sitting on top of the dumpster by its lonesome is going to grow legs and walk its deliciousness to your drunk ass's house at 3 am in the morning? I don't think so. You gotta go out and get yours!

De-stemming by Lantern Light

De-stemming. This was a chore I greatly underestimated. I thought 'Hell, a quarter ton. It'll take us two maybe three hours. Max'. I sounded super Californian.

And I was planning on doing it solo before Janet, Lynette and Josh volunteered to give me a hand. Literally. In kind I re payed them with porter and stout. A fair trade I believe.
Four hours latter and I realized the beauty of the machinery. With the help of modern technology we could have finished in a little under ten minutes, but instead we sat on the flat bed shooting the shit for hours in the company of good friends. Maybe it was worth it after all although next time I might wait 24 hours and rent a destemmer from the local homebrew store. Sometimes a good night's sleep is worth more than gettin' er done and a pair of jittery hands in the morning.

A Sticky Situation

The following day I phoned my business partner and spoke of the good news. "I picked up a quarter ton of Cab last night. Thinkin' it might be a good idea to blend with the extra half barrel of Syrah..." I announced to a what seemed a dead line.

"You picked up Cab? What the fuck is going on with you? First Chardonnay and now Cabernet? Maybe you should go get a job in fucking Napa Valley!" Shaunt taunted, half kidding.

And it was true. First, I picked Chardonnay, a grape I swore off for lacking uniqueness and submitting peacefully to oak's evil tricks. Now I was gonna to ferment Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape I abandoned in my early twenties for the allure of the more seductive Pinot Noir and sturdy Rhone Syrahs.
But the fruit! The fruit of this cabernet was too good to give up. Bright blue fruit and dark blueberries, ripe and round, soft, velvety tannins. I am stoked about this wine! Currently it sits in a cold soak outside my room, with three submerged frozen gallons of water taking in the crisp Santa Rosa air and starry sky. At 27.5 degrees brix this baby is gonna be a big wine. Tomorrow or the next and my baby will be inoculated and on its infant march toward winedom.

Being back in ferment mode never felt so good!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Debutantes' March

Old Gregg aesthetic/Old World spirit

Waking up in Boonville is never easy. Maybe it's the Mendo bush weed smoke wafting about the valley, hanging heavy like city smog, slowing the reflexes and desire to pull oneself up, out of bed. Or perhaps it's the drafty, makeship cabins that double as housing units that fail to disguise the cool morning temps. The most likely reason, however, is that I am a lazy pile of shit. That and knew damn well our fruit was not going to arrive at the winery until at least noon.

Ahhhh, Anderson Valley! Preparing a quick breakfast, I could taste the steely pioneer spirit in a couple slices home-baked caste iron bread and a cup of gritty burnt joe. Off to the winery to throw on a pair of gum boots and sort some fruit...


Los Pinche Debutantes

What fruit you might ask? A ton of Syrah coming from a reputable vineyard in Laytonville, CA. Northern Mendocino county for those unfamiliar with Californian geography. Our goal was to create a food friendly, acid driven wine with the ability to age for the next 5 to 10 years.

Let's backtrack shall we. Sometime during last year's vintage, perhaps over dinner, I overheard Shaunt (my collegue in this endeavor) casually mention that he was planning trying his hand at making a barrel or two of wine in the upcoming fall. Keeping quiet and not quite sure of where I might be in a year, I tucked the omission away in the back of my head.

After frolicking for months with Kiwis down under, Shaunt returned to los Unite and I contacted him through via a high traffic social nettworking site. My message was sweet and simple: you want to make wine, I want to make wine, let's make wine together. Thus, our plan for a fermented baby was born.


Picking a varietal was our first chore. Pinot Noir would have been my preffered choice, but astronomical prices and a desire to focus on less worshiped grape varieties led us to pursue other varietals. My collegue had other designs. Shaunt mentioned he was impressed by a number of Syrah based blends on Waiheke Island. "Not a bad idea," I offered. "Let's see what we can find." Hell, I loved Cotes du Rhone Village blends. Pepper, dark brooding fruit and well structured bodies at affordable prices made the Rhone one of my favorite wine regions.

A summer passed by and I didn't hear from Shaunt, who apparently spent a summer eating frozen lentils and taking pre-requisite classes at a community college in the Bay Area. Meanwhile, I was caught up moving tractors and turning irrigation valves that I didn't have a moment to check into the possiblity of purchasing grapes. If anything I became more apathetic than proactive, leaving our project up in the air.

Finally, in August Shaunt emailed me and expressed renewed interest. We began the search for our Syrah in various Sonoma and Mendocino County appelations: Dry Creek, Bennet Valley, Petaluma Gap, Spring Mountain and finally Northern Mendocino. Due to the shape of the economy and a decrease in luxory wine sales, many wineries have dropped existing fruit contracts, freeing up highly sought after grapes that would be unavailable in any normal vintage. Two months, multiple incidents of presidential flip-flopping, and a bottle of wine later we settled on our Syrah. We made an offer to a highly prized vineyard at half the going rate, they accepted and of course we couldn't refuse. It seemed to good to be true.


No berry left behind

Then the rains came, oh did the heavens piss down! Five inches of rain fell on October 13 and it continued to fall on and off for the next week. With the rains often come the increased chance that rot will form on the bunches. Syrah, however, being a thick skinned grape, is typically rot resistant.


D-day arrived and our grapes paraded into the cellar on Friday afternoon. A quick glance into the picking bins saw no signs of rot and what seemed an increased incidence of creepy crawlers. For the real test we popped a few berries into the mouth...then a few more. Just as I had suspected; the rains had done their dastardly deed of dilluting the grape flavors. Instead of bright blue fruit I had tasted in the 470 clone at Los Leones, our grapes boasted only subtle nuances of red fruit. Sabotage? Well maybe, but no vintage would be unique without the finicky hand of Mother Nature.

If anything, I think the fruit will be a great learning experience. Our original plan to make a formidible wine fit for long-term ageing quickly needed to be re-drawn. Low sugar levels, less flavor and watered down acid levels have assured that an imperfect vintage. Shaunt made a good point that instead of trying to craft the wine we want to make we have to work with the fruit we recieve. That means, including little to no whole clusters and a shortened maceration period; essentially less tannin extraction. In the end we will be shooting to create a wine that drinks earlier and has less structure rather than a big behemoth that will take years to open up.

To break it down in more simple terms, if you are reading this you can expect to be drinking our wine sooner rather than later.

We're excited. Maybe not piss your pants excited. But excited nonetheless. Stay tuned...

Moondance Stomp

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Simple Things

Fall has arrived and I'm elated. Not the busiest day overall, but a few things along the way made it worthwhile nonetheless.

Fall colors have begun to show their face in Russian River; pinot noir and chardonnay canopies are finally giving into senescence, providing a striking contrast to the greening grass and bright blue Californian sky. Simple things like leaves blowing across the road and crunching under the tires make me wish I could live the season forever.

The search for nematodes continued today. Apparently they love saturated soil and recent rains have made conditions perfect for colony counts. Just getting the chance to dig and wedge some soil under my nails brought a smile to my face.

Not just any apple, but a scavenged apple. Hanging lonely out on a limb I jumped up (three times) and pulled this painted lady down. Occidental seems to provide excellent growing conditions as the apple was not too sweet nor too acidic, right in the middle with a crisp crunch. And the color, the color! Incredible convertible red, brushed with magma orange. A fruit canvas Rothko might endorse and a perfect mid-morning snack.

Of course I could only think about upstate New York, Orleans County and my roots. Where I have come from and just where on earth I'm going.

That is yet to be decided.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sopping Wet

Absolute drudgery. Picking in the rain is never fun. The ground collects under your boots as you trudge your way along the vine row, craned over picking as the rain pecks away at the nape of your neck.

This was a small snapshot of the scene atop Chalk Hill today as we picked at one of our estate vineyards. The elements caused a number of problems prolonging a simple pick into a six hour affair. First, a trailer's rear wheel lost all air as it rolled stubbornly on its rim. Due to soft ground tractors couldn't pass down the vine rows which forced they guys to carry out the fruit from each row. Then the estate liaison arrived to yell at a crew leader for dropping too much fruit the day before further exacerbating an already ugly situation.

To put the icing on the cake, our last block was a serious of terraces in which we formed a human chain to slide the picking bins down the side of the hill. The situation reminded me of other locations such as the Mosel or Gigondas where a pulley system is set up to hall fruit up the hill. No mechanical advantage today however, so la cadena humana pushed on.

At the end, we were soaked, freezing and blood sugar levels were at daily lows. Even the 200 plus Cabernet Sauvignon berries I ate couldn't stop me from a case of the shakes.

I've been begging for rain and I finally got my wish. It is that time of year to see Northern California's other face: saturated, baggy clouds and no shortage of tears.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Projects! Projects! Projects!

Overlooking Sonoma Valley

Roughly three weeks ago my boss Dave rang mid-afternoon. I picked up and Dave announced "Tom, I'd like to talk to you about something. Do you have a bit of time?"

'Shit', I thought, 'What did I fuck up now?'

Actually, Dave called to ask if I would be interested in making wine for a potential client that would like to see what they could do with a 70 year old vineyard they had inherited when they purchased their property on Sonoma Mountain. Would I like to make a few barrels of wine and keep a few cases for myself? Hell yeah! As if it was a question at all.

The real question was whether or not we had a place to process the fruit. After consulting my colleague Shaunt and making sure we had an acceptable place to make the wine, I called the owners of the vineyard back and told them we were interested.

Napa Gamay (Valdigue) or Gamay Noir?

This morning, I returned to the vineyard for the second time and meet with the owners, praying a little pray that rot had not hit the hanging clusters. On the up side the fruit appeared healthy and undaunted by the heavy rains. Flipping the coin over, two samples showed the fruit lagging behind at about 18 degrees brix, some 6 degrees lower than our ideal sugar levels.

My reservations lie in the fact that the vineyard has gone feral, or rather has not been given the necessary care during the growing season. After all we don't want to take in grapes from vines that have been overloaded with fruit and make a crappy wine.

Another variable factoring into our decision about when to pick and what kind of wine to make is determining what kind of wine we will make. Dave seems to think that the grape is Gamay Noir, long know as the main grape used in fruity Beaujolais Nouveau. Napa Gamay, or Valdigue, is a grape from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France that was commonly planted in Northern Califronia in the post-prohibition era.

Needless to say, both grape varieties are create medium bodied, acid driven wines that have not received much respect in the wine world.

Maybe that is why I am so excited about this project. Not too many people are excited about these varieties as their physiological characteristics prevent them from creating deep, rich, heavy extracted reds that wine critics rave about. Perhaps the world needs a renaissance of low alcohol food driven reds perfect for pairing with fish, seafood, white meat and even vegetables! Vegetarians are people too after all.

I'm stoked! O.k. maybe just hope full that the sugars with shoot up a bit with the upcoming heat wave on the way or maybe we might have to get out the clippers and do a bit of thinning.

Updates on the way....


Pints of Doppel Bock make you strong

This afternoons activities, drinking to Octoberfest and carving pumpkins. Salud!