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Ross Halleck
April 21, 2014 | Ross Halleck

2013 Barrel Sampling and Final Blends

It was a gorgeous morning in Sebastopol. I was up bright and early in anticipation of one of my favorite activities: barrel tasting to determine the final wines for the vintage.

Rick, Jennifer and I had the barrels laid out on the winery floor in stacks of two for accessibility. Normally, they rise to the ceiling, requiring a long climb to the upper reaches. The winery now has rolling stainless steel ladder-staircases with rails for safe assent. In the early days, we would scale the barrels, legs straddled on either side of the aisle, feet securely placed on one barrel after the other, climbing to the top. With wine-thief in our mouth, a glass in one hand, we would pop a bung with our free hand from the barrel and carefully balance it on the curved barrel side while placing the thief into the bung-hole to extract the wine. 

Today we had 44 barrels of young Pinot Noir to taste through, conveniently spread out in every available space on the winery floor. They held juice from our Estate Vineyard, The Farm Vineyard, and a range of other 2013 harvest acquisitions to comprise our Hillside Cuvee, Sonoma Coast, Three Sons Cuvee, Russian River Valley, and a reintroduction of our Clone 828, Sonoma Coast. 

Yes, it is daunting to taste so many wines. Each barrel holds, in fact, a different wine. Though coming from the same vineyard, the barrel imparts a different signature, or flavor profile. Some are new, some 1 year old (filled once), some 2 years old (filled twice) and some older, which we describe as neutral. But they are made by different coopers (barrel makers), and the wood comes from different forests. We have a preponderance of French Oak barrels, but this year we also experimented with Hungarian Oak, made by the finest French coopers.

So you can imagine this a complicated task: choosing which of our barrels to include as vineyard designated wines and which ones to blend into our Cuvees. This is not about picking perfect wines. None exist at this stage. This is about identifying components that together can construct a perfect wine. We had over a dozen barrels of The Farm Vineyard, Pinot Noir, for example. Only 7 will be used for our 2013 Halleck, The Farm Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Pinot Noir. The balance will be used in our Three Sons Cuvee, some in our Hillside Cuvee for flavor, and even some to "spice-up" our Clone 828. Even though The Farm Vineyard is a Russian River wine, we can add it to our Sonoma Coast blends in modest doses to enhance flavors.

We are creating recipes on the run. These recipes can never be used again. The wines from the vintages will never be the same, the barrels will never be the same, and our palates will never be the same. It is interactive art.  

We worked methodically. We first tasted all 14 of The Farm Vineyard barrels. We identified those we thought were the best, as-is, or had components we thought would complement a final blend. Remember, these all contain wine from a single, 2-acre vineyard. It is all made from the same grapes. But it was surprising how different each barrel tasted. We eliminated those which we thought would be best with other elements we could add to make our Cuvees. We were left with a smaller set. Then we created makeshift "assemblages" in glass. Jennifer took notes and we nodded at the ones we liked, then moved on.

Next we tasted through the 7 barrels of the Halleck Vineyard Estate Grown Pinot. We will make 6 into vineyard designated wine, or about 130 cases. The other barrel will be blended into our Sonoma Coast. This is MUCH more than the "homeopathic infusion" we have used in the past. The Hillside Cuvee will benefit significantly from this additional component. 

Then we tasted the balance of our Sonoma Coast, followed by Russian River Valley barrels. We earmarked as we went using blue stickers on selected heads, comparing our decisions to the final number of cases we hoped to achieve for each type of wine. We discussed every step of the way, comparing each other's experiences and palates. The hours sped by. It was pure delight. 

Bottling will not be for some months. But this hard work is done. Now it is time to wait. We taste along the way to determine the best time to capture the magic from barrels into bottles. It will never be as delicious, in my view. Like a snapshot, bottling is an attempt to capture a moment; But it pales in comparison. Unlike a snapshot, however, something else emerges in wine that can be transcendent. It can be absolutely sumptuous and exhalting. Just different. 


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