I have attended, paneled and spoke at wine events for a long time. When I began, I was an enthusiast: tracking wines, winemakers, countries, regions, varietals, and styles.
I have forgotten most of what I knew about the world of wine; I've become myopic in my new career and old age. I share a profession with practitioners of varied backgrounds and there is a broad swath of activities that "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 50 full barrels of wine to work with. The barrels hold 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 is 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.
So it is our work to make sense of this amalgam of liquid and determine all the wines that will be made from the lot. We decide which wines will be single 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 is not how to make the very best wine from that vineyard. As I mentioned, each barrel imparts significant components of flavor. So it is our job to taste each of the barrels, say nine in this case, and see which combination make a wine that expresses itself the best. And we do not 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. And let's not forget that we also must be concerned about how much wine we can sell and the price.
That is for the single vineyard designated wines; by appearances, the most straight forward. For the blended wines, we have more latitude, choices and complexity. There are laws that dictate how much wine from specific sources need to be included to maintain the AVA (American Viticultural Area) designation of either the Russian River Valley or Sonoma Coast.
This year, we threw in a monkey wrench with Pat Kuleto's vineyard from Napa. This gave us more juice, but from a place far from our home turf and AVAs. So it required care to determine what to do with this wine: do we have more than needed, or do the barrels combined add up to a complete wine, or would the wine benefit from wine from our area to elevate that vineyard, and what do we do with any extra so as not to compromise the designations of our other wines?
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 the next years 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 is always surprising how close you 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 numbers 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. He understands the wine in the barrels from working with us since our start in 2001. We generally bring in new vineyards, like Kuleto. But we have maintained the cornerstones of The Estate, The Farm Vineyard and a few others for many years, given understanding of our program and flavor profiles. He makes calculations and proposes blends on paper.
On the first day, Rick collects individual samples from all of our single vineyards into bottles. Every bottle has an equal portion from each barrel holding the vineyard wine. This gives us a fair and representative sample of our vineyards. We have eight vineyards for 2014. These samples await in screw cap laboratory bottles when we arrive in a conference room at the winery. Also on the table are a dozen wine glasses, graduated cylinders, a long pipette, masking tape, flasks, pens and notepads.
The first thing we do is 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 are formulating opinions about the vintage and vineyards. There are generalizations across the board, indicating vintage character. Then there are specifics to the vineyards we've noted in the past.
Once we have a sense of the vineyards, Rick presents his suggestions from the Rubik's Cube of possibilities for the percentages to make up our desired wines. These are only on paper. After review and discussion, we go to work constructing them, using the graduated cylinder for measuring into wine glasses.
We taste through these in similar fashion: casual comments, critiques, observations. We all have our opinions and they often do not 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 in the overall schema. This conference room is our lab for concocting the perfect blends.
This goes on for hours until we have all agreed with the flavors in the glasses, their names, the amounts of each from our vineyard sources, and the proper percentages to maintain AVAs and vineyard designations. When it's over, however, it is less than success. We still have another FULL DAY of tasting work.
After a week, we convene again on the winery floor. All 50 barrels are laid out in a grid, end to end, side by side, with space to walk along the rows. The barrels are all labeled: HL (for Halleck), cooper, toast level, forest source (in some cases), age of barrel, and vineyard. They are grouped into general clusters by vineyard for ease of navigation.
On our clipboards are the results of tasting the previous week, including percentages. The amount of wine in the barrels by vineyard are divided amongst the individual wines to be bottled. Now it is time to 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 alone have different flavors.
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 line 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!!! As I said, 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 Marshall, or a dribble of the Hass 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 those vineyards and smell through, taking notes. By elimination, we choose the best. We may only need a few gallons. We taste. We very roughly pull from each barrel the percentages we deem correct to create the final blend into a glass. This is nothing less than alchemy.
We have a VERY different wine than we tasted in the conference room the week prior. Those conclusions were just the starting point. Rather than equal parts of every barrel, we have specific barrels represented by character. The flavors are amazing and we keep going, trying different barrels with the formulas to detect nuance.
We worked almost the entire day on the barrel floor. As you can surmise, by the end we have a mix of everything left not in our vineyard designated wines. 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.