As a vintner, I share a profession with practitioners of varied backgrounds; there is a broad swath of activities that the title, "vintner", covers. Rarely does one person do them all. These include:
There are many things not included, but fall into my job description. These ALL have to do with the "business" of winemaking. I'm more involved in some aspects than others, but I touch them all. This is also true of Rick Davis, our winemaker. And of Jennifer Halleck, my business partner and ex-wife.
We operate in close communication and collaboration throughout the year. Much we can do by phone and email, each of us acting independently to get the necessary parts done.
But at this time of year, we circle the wagons. This is my favorite! It's in the spring that all the vineyards picked from the previous vintage have become wine-in-barrel. They've been contained for 6-8 months. Each is expressing characteristics of vineyard, vintage, and cask.
This year, we had only 16 full barrels of wine to work with. This is in contrast to 50 last year! 2015 was a lean vintage. We also discovered a slight spreadsheet error late last year that alerted us we were making too much wine for our budget or for our sales. The Gods shined on us with a small crop this year.
A barrel holds about 60 gallons, give or take. This represents approximately 25 cases. The wine from each vineyard has been contained in a unique collection of French casks, representing different coopers (barrel makers), forest sources, toasting regimens (fire applied inside the finished barrel during manufacture), and age. It’s truly amazing how impactful a barrel is to the flavor of the wine. And even more amazing how many barrel variables impact the wine, even down to individual barrel makers, everything else being equal.
It’s is our work to make sense of this amalgam of liquid and determine all the wines made. We decide which wines will be vineyard designated (wines from a single vineyard), blends, the names, and the composition of each.
One would think it easy to take a single vineyard, The Farm Vineyard, let's say, and call it a wine, combining the barrels together. But this isn’t how to make the very best wine from that vineyard. As I mentioned, each barrel imparts unique flavor components. So it’s our job to taste each of the barrels, say eight in this case, and see which combination make a wine that expresses itself the best. And we don’t need to use full barrels. We can employ partials. Oh, and we have the liberty, per law, to use as much as 5% from other vineyard sources, just in case we can elevate that wine with the infusion of more magical elixir. Underlying our creativity, we’re thinking about how much wine we can sell and the price.
Vineyard designated wines, by appearance, are the most straight forward. For the blended wines, we have more latitude, choices and complexity. Laws dictate how much wine from specific sources are required to achieve the AVA (American Viticultural Area) designation of Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast or Napa Valley.
This year, we again had Pat Kuleto's vineyard from Napa. This gave us more juice from a place far from our home turf. Last year’s vintage required care as the barrels combined didn’t add up to a complete wine; we had to bring in surgically precise amounts of our Russian River fruit to elevate that vineyard. The results of the 2014 are stunning! But this year, 2015, the fruit was stunning and yielded a vineyard designate we didn’t anticipate. You will LOVE it!
We ended up with six wines for 2015 as a result of approximately four hours of work. This is how we did it.
Prior to the work-day, Jennifer and I review the previous year of sales, our wine club memberships, and the growth year-over-year. We then look at the vineyards and our wines by SKU (shelf keeping unit or the names of the wine, i.e. Three Sons Cuvee, Clone 828, Estate Grown, etc.). We project what we can sell by channel and SKU: through tastings, wine club memberships, internet sales, and restaurant sales. To a great extent, this is divination. Every business has to do it. They are called "projections" and it’s always surprising how close one can come just by setting the intention. In this case, we are projecting five years out, as our wines for any given year generally do not hit the market for two years, sometimes more.
We provide case quantities to Rick for the current vintage. He must apply the wine in barrel, in gallons, to a rough mix that aligns with our projected sales/desires. Since 2001, when we started working with Rick, he understands what we’re looking for from the wine in the barrels. We often bring in new vineyards and are always looking. But we have maintained the cornerstones of The Estate, The Farm Vineyard and a few others for many years. Rick makes calculations and proposes blends on paper.
On the first day, Rick collects individual samples from all of our single vineyards into small crew cap laboratory bottles. Every bottle has a portion of each vineyard wine collected from all barrels. This gives us a fair and representative sample of our vineyards. We have only 5 vineyards for 2015, vs. 8 last year. These samples await in a conference room at the winery. We also bring in a dozen wine glasses, graduated cylinders, a long pipette, masking tape, flasks, pens and notepads.
First, we taste through the vineyard samples and comment. We do not swallow a drop. We have flasks for spitting and it isn't pretty. We take personal notes. A casual conversation ensues full of chuckles, side comments, critique, aha's, and general observations. We’re formulating opinions about the vintage and vineyards. There are generalizations across the board, indicating vintage character. Then specifics to the vineyards are noted from the past.
Once we have a sense of the component wines, Rick presents his suggestions from the Rubik's Cube of possibilities for the percentages to make up our desired finished wines. These are on paper. After discussion, we construct them, using the graduated cylinder for measuring into wine glasses.
We taste through these: casual comments, critiques, observations. We all have opinions and they often don’t agree. So we try variations. The pipette is used, as small amounts can make HUGE differences in flavor. These small amounts translate into big gallons at scale. The conference room is our lab for concocting the perfect blends.
This goes on until we’ve all agreed with the flavors in the glasses, their names, the amounts of each from our vineyard sources, and the proper percentages for AVAs and vineyard designations. When it's over, however, we still have another day of tasting work.
There are successes and disappointments in this process. One wonderful surprise is the Kuleto Vineyard. In 2014, it needed a boost. So we determined to make it a blend, bringing in wines from Russian River and Sonoma Coast to elevate. This year, 2015, the Kuleto is outstanding on its own. We’re excited to introduce this wine to our Inner Circle members as a vineyard designate.
Our flagship wine, the Estate Grown, however, suffered in 2015. As much as we want to make a vintage every year, we had to be honest with ourselves. The quality of the fruit did not warrant a vintage. So this wine will be blended into our Hillside, which will give it a big boost.
After a week, we convene again on the winery floor. All 16 barrels are laid out in two long rows, side to side and end to end, with space to walk on either side. The barrels are all labeled: HL (for Halleck), cooper (barrel maker), toast level, forest source (in some cases), age of barrel, and vineyard. They are grouped into general clusters by vineyard for ease.
On a clipboard are the results of tasting the previous week. The wine in the barrels (by vineyard) is divided amongst the individual wines to be bottled. We use the barrels to create new samples in glasses. Every vineyard is in a complement of oak barrels by age: new, 1 year old, 2 year old, neutral. They also are made by different coopers, or barrel makers. These each impart different flavors to the very same wine.
We start by vineyard. We pull the bung, or plug, from the top of the barrel. Using a wine thief, we draw wine from a single barrel into a glass. We smell it, take notes, and pour it back. We do this through the entire selection of barrels for that vineyard. This gives us an idea of the character of each barrel. Then we discuss the barrels. If we are blending for The Farm Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Pinot Noir, for example, we start with the best barrels for that particular wine. They are ALL good, mind you. But some sing and some SCREAM!!! This is an AWESOME job :-) We eliminate the singing barrels, but also look for individual character that may not be screaming on its own, but we sense will add something special to the overall blend. Then we taste and spit through our top selections.
When we have a sense of the vineyard and our top selections, we look at our proposed formula. The Farm Vineyard blend may include a skosh of the Estate, or a dash of the Hass, or a dribble of the Marshall Vineyards. To be a vineyard designate, it cannot contain more than 5% of anything else. And that "anything else" has to be the same AVA.
We go through each wine by vineyard and smell through, taking notes. By elimination, we choose the best. We may only need a few gallons. We taste. We very pull from each barrel using a wine thief the rough percentages to create the final blend into a glass. This is alchemy.
We have a VERY different wine than we tasted in the conference room the week prior. The conference room was the starting point. Our second day revealed specific barrels, each with their own character. The flavors are amazing and we keep going, trying different barrels with the formulas to detect nuance.
We worked another two hours on the barrel floor. After determining the specific barrels and vineyards for each of our vineyard designated wines, we’re left a mix of everything else. This goes into one of our blends, depending on the sources of the fruit: Russian River Valley fruit goes into our Three Sons Cuvee and Sonoma Coast fruit goes into our Hillside Cuvee. We taste through the results and we can move wines back and forth to achieve greatness in both.
This is not science. Science contributes an important lens to monitor and guide some decisions: brix (sugar), acidity (pH), volatile acidity (VA), tannins, alcohol level, protein precipitation, bitartrate precipitation, malolactic fermentation, press cuts and many more.
But winemaking is a greater part art and mysticism. Magic is what happens.