Winery Log, Fall 2019; Twenty-one

While lugging this year’s freshly-picked grapes into the cooler, a family member complained about having to heft the grapes an additional time for weighing. Given the number to times we already have to touch those grapes, it struck me as amusing, from both a farm work and wine-grower perspective.
First off, vineyards are farming, with all its dirt, sweat, tools, prayers, and hopes. I want to pick grapes along the Rhine or on the cliffs of Portugal some time to remind my muscles just how easy we have it here.
Secondly, when we use volunteers to help pick the grapes, the winemaker knows we’re going to have wildly erratic lug weights, from a few pounds to thirty pounds in each, as well as empty water bottles, clippers, and gloves tossed in the lugs for good measure. After decades of picking as a vigneron, we can accurately estimate lug weights. Still, if any simple farm task, such as pausing every lug on a weigh scale, can help build the winemakers’ confidence in a vintage, you say “Yes, Boss.” So, let me walk you through how many times we might touch a grape before you drink it.

The first touch will thrill the “life begins at conception” people reading this blog, because the first touch on a grape begins the year before your grape crop arrives. In May and June, we need to leaf-pull the leaves around the clusters of this year’s grapes (See #7), but this also exposes sunlight onto the forming buds of next year’s crop on the canes. Your crop load in these buds is thus established a year ahead of time. Why a grapevine bud exposed to sunlight produces a more fruitful bud makes more sense if you realize the plant needs birds and animals to see the grapes, so they eat the fruit and pass the seeds on, away from underneath the parent vine. Grapes are not good acorns.

 

 

The second touch is eight months later, in the dead of winter, pruning. Cutting the canes of last year’s growth makes room for this year’s crop.

 

Then, of course, you have to do something with those cut canes. Left piled up under the vines; they could cause a lot of disease and pest problems. Raked away into piles or put through a chipper to make a quickly biodegradable mulch are a common third touch, but some vignerons simply burn canes in a wheelbarrow as they prune to keep warm in the cold. Myself, I prune the canes into a trailer, and about one plant in ten into a bucket and use a scale to measure cut cane weights and adjust my pruning accordingly. I then burn the big pile during snowstorms.

Fruit Forming at Hickory Hill VineyardsAs the spring warms the vines up and they bud out, we begin the fourth touch, thinning. We want the same number of canes and leaves per cluster of grapes (See #11) to create uniformity. Too many canes on one plant over another cause imbalance in both the crop and the eventual wine.

The fifth touch is how most wine-growers spend the spring, tying; attaching the new vines to trellis wires or containing them in a specific growth style. Left to wild abandon, grapevines get unruly and become difficult to care for, keep healthy, and pick. Fine in the wild, but bad for business. In places where the vineyard real estate gets pricey per square foot, they use elaborate wire trellis systems, easily costing 10K per acre, and even more for the farm labor to tye them up to it.

Now that the plants are growing comes the Health Care portion of the grape’s sixth touch, spraying. Insects and fungus want the grapes more than we do, and they are not nearly as picky as the vigneron about quality. Whether one goes organic, biodynamic, or modern, the grapes are constantly hand-inspected for disease problems, and something is being sprayed on them to alleviate those problems. Here the “what” has a tremendous impact on the vineyard and the nature around it. Lots of rules and regulations here, no matter what style of sustainable responsibility the vigneron chooses.

For our seventh touch of the grapes, we arrive back at leaf-pulling again, but this time the focus is on getting the current grape clusters more exposed to sunlight, drying winds, and the sprays of #6. And yes, we are also starting the process for next year at the same time.

Rinse & repeat is the rule for tucking, our eighth touch, and begins the traditional image of the vigneron in the summer fields. Wind and nature despise pristine arrangments and the human compunction for an order to things. Still, vignerons dutifully put the canes back into place day after day like Disney employee’s keeping the landscape fresh every morning. Some vignerons go so far as to tye individual vine canes in specific leaf orientations to the sun for wine quality goals. You will know this by the price of the finished wine because this labor is costly meso-management of the vineyard canopy.

Now that our grapevines are growing happily with visible clusters of grapes forming underneath, we begin hedging, our ninth touch. Cutting off the top of the cane stops it growing endlessly. Canes will often happily grow into its neighbors and along wires, causing problems with vine disease and dramatically affecting the quality of the wine. Think of hedging as reminding the vine to concentrate on watching over the kids (the grapes).

With many varieties of grapes, the moment you hedge the top of the cane, it responds by forming new canes off buds up along its length. These perpendicular canes are called laterals. These laterals can act like rogue canes in a trellis, and can often create little “earing” clusters of grapes that are weeks or even months behind the main ripening crop below. Touch ten is removing laterals before they become a more severe problem.

The eleventh touch is a critical, tearful touch for the grapes & grower, and it goes by two names. “Balancing” is what the vigneron is doing, by dropping off certain little parts of clusters called shoulders, or dropping whole clusters off vines that have developed too heavy a crop load compared to its leaves and neighbors. This tearful moment can also be called “dropping money,” because, at $2 a pound for grapes, that is precisely what you are doing. Again, this is a quality decision every winemaker wants and every vigneron fears. Sampling grapes begins here as well, to access that quality.

Finally, in fall, we arrive at the most critical twelfth touch, picking. Picking has so many variables that it would take an entire blog to cover all by itself. Suffice here to say someone or something has to separate the grapes from the vines to proceed. Machinery to do this can cost a quarter of a million dollars, so that is out for the small producer like us. Paying to have a service come to us and use such mechanical harvsters is also cost-prohibitive. Harvest picking thus tends to rely on family and volunteers to get the job done.

Lugging is the process of picking up those picked grapes and taking them to the winery. This thirteenth touch is the back-breaking portion, and at a minimum, requires the picked grapes to be carried and dumped into another container. We use stackable lugs that are lifted and put on a trailer, but again, there are many options here based on size, scale, and personal preference.

 

Removing grapes from the chillerCooling is the fourteenth touch. We once heard in class that you should treat a cluster of picked grapes the same way you would a glass of milk, and I’ve always loved that advice. You can’t just leave the grapes out in the hot sun, and very few modern wineries can crush every grape within minutes of picking it. We also feel the cooling process makes a better wine for us, so the brimming lugs are stored temporarily and kept cool. Under a shade tree is the old stand-by, but we use a walk-in refrigerated cooler. The cooler lets us keep the grapes above freezing but cold enough to stay fresh as we take a couple of days to finish picking the entire crop.

The fifteenth touch is almost as famous as picking; the crush. If you picture Lucy dancing about in a vat of picked grapes, you probably count this touch as feet instead of hands, though nobody really stomps grapes to make commercial wine. Ancient winemakers didn’t always have a wine press available nearby, and medieval lords charged peasants a stiff percentage to use their expensive wine presses, so folks figured out alternative ways to squash grapes into juice themselves.

The sixteenth and seventeenth touches, pressing and fermentation, are reversible, depending on if you are making white or red wine. With white wine, we take the crushed grapes and press out only the juice into tanks, where we will add yeast and ferment the juice into wine. With red wine, we add the yeast to the crushed grapes, skin and all, and then press out the red wine when the fermentation is complete. This critical touch is where good winemakers earn their keep.

Letting the tanks of wine, red or white, settle over weeks is how wine is clarified. Filters would remove lees and things faster, but filters also remove flavor, body, aroma, and color. Fining is where winemakers can add items like oak, powdered milk or egg whites to tweak wine flavors. As the milky layer forms at the bottom, the cellar workers start racking, or draining off the more transparent wine above it into another tank and throwing away the thin cloudy layer. We can perform this eighteenth touch once or repeat it several times, depending on the style of wine and winemaker’s wishes. This can also be the coveted touch know as “barrel-tasting,” where the winemaker (and happy potential guests!) “steals” wine with a long “thief” to judge how the vintage is coming along.

 

Bottling at Hickory Hill VineyardsUnless you want to drink out of barrels like Fortunato (and look where that got him), the nineteenth touch is bottling.

Twenty touches and probably two years from when we started, we arrive at the bottle of wine released from the cool winery into the tasting room, or a fine wine shoppe or restaurant, or perhaps your grocery store shelf.

All this brings us to the last, most important touch. Twenty-one is handing the finished bottle of wine to you.

Sometimes, like live musicians and painters at an exhibition, winemakers get to witness your emotional reaction to their art instantaneously. Usually, though, winemakers, like novelists, now step back from a similar artist’s perspective once they hand the sealed labor to you like a wrapped gift. As you savor the wine, may you begin to understand and appreciate the long process and work that goes into crafting something purely intended for your potential enjoyment.

Winery log: Fall 2019, Wine tasting with the sommeliers

Every art form we humans enjoy has opinionated experts ready to guide and train others in that art’s appreciation. We find it with movies, food, music, books, and yes, particularly wine.
Benjamin Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack: “Beauty, like supreme dominion, is but supported by opinion.” Catchy, especially for our ambassador to France and a guy who palled around with wine aficionado Thomas Jefferson. More to the point, it helps explain good, bad, expectations, and opinions in art taste.

Order ice tea in Pennsylvania, and you will get unsweet tea and sugar packets. Order ice tea in Georgia, and the spoon will stand up without ice. The opinion makes one good or bad for your taste, and the location sets up the expectation. Ordering the fish off the menu and having it arrive sushi raw or blackened to a crisp will not meet most people’s expectations. A popular food critic will know their audience well enough not to insult their social opinions en-masse but will be confident enough to point out actual flaws and mislabeling. If you want to avoid being confused, offended, or are seeking confirmation about your art opinion, it is entirely up to you to find and follow a critic that has similar tastes to yours. And so it is with wine.

Firstly, you need to understand that wine is art. There are faster ways to get drunk and cheaper ways to drink all night. Boone’s Farm, Arbor Mist, and Barefoot are good examples of mass-produced reprints or pop-music. They sell. Whether these wines are any good is subject to opinion. That these wines maybe don’t represent the epitome of artistic expression is not snobbery so much as a common expectation of “you get what you pay for.”

Sommeliers are thus wine art critics, and as an organization, they specifically cater to those affluent enough to be looking to dabble in something special. Think of them as safari guides to wealthy unicorn hunters. Some are excellent teachers and can guide us to wonderful discoveries about wine. Others will talk down to us like an idiot. Seek out the former in your wine journeys, because until we increase our salaries x10, the latter won’t have much time for us.

Understand those sommelier organizations do not exist to uplift the wine world for the common consumer. They exist to help sell high dollar wine in 5-star restaurants and resorts. If it helps, try to remember that “sommelier” to the old French court meant “napkin-holder” and the “supply train.”

So how do you connect with knowledgeable sommeliers? Well, the good ones have already connected with you, before your introduction. Let me explain, using music.

Sommeliers are like classical music conductors. It helps if they can all speak the same language and use the same descriptors, to do their jobs of selling. So conductors learn to read music notation well. When they step up to the podium, they get everyone on the same page.
Conductors know every instrument in the symphony by heart. They not only know who First Chair is, but they can also often name every other musician. They intimately know the difference between the viola and the violin’s mood and effect in the piece and can tease it out for everyone to hear. After the concert, they will schmooze with the big donors, and tell stories about the original composer. Finally, at home afterward, they can play parts of the performance back from memory because they remember the music that well.

You, however, can walk into this concert hall and be completely moved to tears by the music and never know any of that. And THAT is where you and a good conductor have already connected. You share a deeper love of music in the first place.

So find in your sommelier someone who likes what you like, even if it’s only in print or a blog, and let them teach you with a shared passion. You are joining a welcoming social art form that wants to include your opinion. You are joining a herd. Set aside, for now, those critics who recommend what you know you don’t like, understanding your artistic choices may or may not change one day to make them more alluring. And realize if you really want to rub elbows with the biggest stars, you’re going to have to move up on the donor’s list to get noticed. The lion snobs will insist you to spend a fortune on a bottle, but the good sommeliers will recognize your budget and recommend an excellent wine to fit.

The good ones can share their love of wine with yours.

Winery Log, Winter 2019: Marinade pt. 1

Time does exciting things to wine as it is first made and then ages. How long grapes hang on the vine starts the ticking clock. What temperature did the picked grapes reach? How soon is it crushed, how hard, and for how long is it pressed? Once a wine is fermented from the juice, the […]

Winery Log; Fall 2018; Wine tasting with the Unicorn Hunter

How do you meet dead people? Or legendary people who only exist in some other-worldly realm? This is the dilemma of the Unicorn Wine Hunter.

Now, there certainly are the braggarts that want to show off to the people at their table, and maybe the tables next to them as well, by paying a few hundred bucks for a bottle of wine. Revel in the blessings of the Universe if you have such cash to blow on something like that. The rest of us think of that as Rent Money.

But amongst the high priced bottles, estate auctions and quiet couples that wander into out of the way wineries, there are the Unicorn Hunters.

Imagine for a moment that you get to watch a special movie with your favorite actress or actor. It will only be shown once, to one group of movie-goers, and never released on video or TV. Or, imagine a private sporting event with your favorite players. That one day, in that one stadium, they will play a game that will not be recorded or televised; no highlights, just those players, playing at their hardest and best for one stadium full of lucky people.

This is the essence of a Unicorn Wine to a devoted Hunter; the rare treat to find or discover something truly out of the ordinary, an almost magical moment marrying wine and taste and opportunity. The Unicorn Hunter will talk about the rare wine they came across like the moviegoer will describe the movie plot, camera work, and score, or the sports fan will talk about the winning run, goal or save. You missed it. You should have been there.

Now, to be certain, a Unicorn Wine is as rare as real unicorns and can be just as fickle about revealing itself to Herds and Lions. Sometimes it is the rare wine from a legendary winery that is no longer available from anyone, but, look here! In the wine cellar of dead Baron von Blowhart is a case! Call Sotheby’s! Unicorns are treasures.

The inner dream of every winemaker who gets into the winery business is that they manage to craft the legendary Unicorn Wine that some Lion critic wanders in, discovers, and puts the winery on the map of Holy Grail Wineries for the Herds to go stampede. Just like authors and their novels, there is far more day to day grinding of average and even mediocre wines out there than unicorn dreams, and at some point, the overwhelming majority of authors and winemakers have to come to grips with the reality over their dreams.

Not so for the Unicorn Hunter, though, for there is always another winery around the corner. Always another Lion who has a bottle or two squirreled away and willing to share on that rare night. Always a chance, just that chance, they might stumble across a Unicorn if they are very patient.

Winery Log, Summer 2018; Wine tasting with the Lions

Again, how do you meet new people? The answer depends on what kind of people you are looking to meet.

Let’s assume you are looking to make a new friend, either socially or at work. A big party seems too random to make a meaningful connection with someone new. You’re looking for someone in whom you share something in common. This is the essence of wine tasting with the pride. These are the Wine Lions.

Practiced and precise, a wine tasting Lion knows what they like and what they are searching for in a wine. They may try whatever is offered, but they came in the door knowing they wanted a heavily oaked Petit Verdot or a Sémillon heavy Sauterne. Winemakers love & hate Lions, because as tasters they know themselves well enough to be comfortable in their opinions, possibly knowledgeable about other regions and methods to spark conversation and if they have the wine prey being stalked, good sales. The if is the sticking point, and it is just as much onus on the taster as the winemaker. Like good music, a good movie or good art, if it clicks between them it is a joy to witness.

Lions are no better or worse than Herd tasters, in fact, many groups contain both. But Lions will be the first to suggest a glass outside or a shared bottle. Like a pride taking down a kill, the finding and sharing of a good wine is everything to them, and if the group validates their discovery, they will leave with more bottles of it. This is good for both winemaker and taster.

Being on the side of a summer vacation lake, Lions for us are not universally snooty dry-only wine lovers. Like Oog the cavewoman bringing back rabbit, herbs and berries, they tend to have a group with diverse tastes with them and know smooth trumps dry or sweet for a household on vacation. It warms a winemakers heart to see a well-balanced mixed case go out the door with a Lion, though hopefully not to be tied to the hood of their truck. It’s summer, and the best bottle of wine in the world is still subject to the physics of a 95° day.

Lions can take on a negative aspect at times when they begin to believe they represent the epitome of good taste. Wine Lions make the worst sort of wine critics. At a wine tasting they can begin to make fun of other’s tastes as being rank amateurs, or unknowledgeable about the finer nuances of hunting wine. Instead of passing along useful tidbits to help these others, they guard sacred ideas or hunting techniques like some rabid trail guide protecting their secret spot. Besides drunks, few things at a public wine tasting go over so poorly as an opinionated jerk exposing their version of good taste; and this certainly included us winemakers as well as guests. If you find yourself roaring detrimental comments about a particular wine over the heads of others at a wine bar, go ahead and put on the fur collar, Mufasa. The winemaker is regretfully going to watch the quiet couples at the end of the bar disappear out the winery door, driven away by your indiscriminate roaring, and taking their sales dollars with them.

On the other hand, if a winemaker is going to watch a full case of Cabernet Sauvignon go out the door, it’s going to be in the hands of a Lion.

Winery Log, Spring 2018: Wine Tasting with the Herd

How do you meet new people? The answer probably depends on what kind of people you are looking to meet.

Let’s assume you are looking to make new friends socially, and not related to work. A big party sounds like fun to some people. Meet many new people at once, with many possibilities to hit it off with someone new. This is the essence of wine tasting with the Herd.

Somewhere between speed dating and the ultimate hors d’oeuvre sampler platter, a common entertainment method of Herd wine tasting is the “start from the top” wine sampling. For those looking to party, or unable to make a timely choice off a menu, it is a leave no stone unturned, bottoms-up flashing glass quest to try half a dozen, or a dozen, or maybe even two dozen wines, all in fast succession. Burp. Excuse me.

Rinsing between samples is simultaneously both forbidden and required, to further dilute the barbaric nature of the imbibement.

Herd tastings are the big party of wine; you get introduced to many different wines at once, it can be a lot of laughs, and it almost never, ever, takes place alone. Herd tasting is a decidedly group effort.

A herd group comes into the tasting room. Maybe they are a pair of elephants, or a herd of gazelles, or a family of meerkats, or a flock of penguins. All shapes and sizes, Herds are a group that tends to bring the party rolling in with them, and the dominant members of the herd tend to rule the roost in an effort to provide the entertainment wisdom. It takes a knowledgeable barista to not get overwhelmed, trampled and drowned out.

In group Herd tastings an artificial tradition has grown over whites – reds – sweets, with sweets dropped off the menu entirely if it’s a snobby winery. They only do “serious” wines. Seriously? 30% of the market and 100% of history revolve around sweet wine drinkers, and the one group most likely to impulse buy in a rapid-fire tasting environment are sweet lovers. Why put a dry-humored bouncer at the door to make so many people feel unwanted? Wineries that try to break with the traditional arrangement face confused tasters used to white-red-sweet from all the other wineries around them. Wineries that try to limit the available choices to a reasonable few, or charge per tasting, get a nasty rep quick. Such is life on the Serengeti.

While a new wine drinker in a Herd tasting may find a style of wine they did not know about, they may just as easily be overwhelmed and forget most of what they discover in the race to the finish. The most unfortunate example of a Herd wine tasting is the group just out to get drunk. Like a big party, they cut it loose and let it fly. The problem is, the wine was never intended to be a fast-food drive-in-window item any more than Thanksgiving dinner. The winemaker’s hard-made product is slammed down and spat out of bitter faces complaining at how awful it is, only to eagerly extend the glass for the next alcoholic lash of the whip.

Most folks enjoy parties, many winemakers included. Just stay sober and respectful in wineries. I will tell you as a wine crafter that after hundreds of thousands of poured wine tastings, none of us have ever enjoyed being the bartending butt of a drunk herd’s wine tasting joke. Years ago wineries didn’t charge for a wine tasting. They were complimentary, both ways. Like a restaurant, clients usually bought an obligatory bottle as a gratitude tip at the end, if nothing else. Like an angry Mexican chef, over time too many cheap people came in for the free chips & salsa and stiffed us with nothing, and like a trashing house party, drunk herds are why most wineries now have a tasting fee. Nothing moves the party elsewhere faster than having to pay for the cleanup afterward.

 

How can you avoid the Herd mentality? A few tips.

Slow down! This is the first and best advice to ENJOY a sampling of several wines. There is no reason reasonable wine tasters looking to learn more have to race thru them all like an adrenaline parachute jump.

Eat food! Treat a winery like a restaurant, NOT a bar. Eat before going, or bring (or buy, if they offer) food at the winery. The wine will actually taste better, and you’ll make smarter purchasing decisions. Are you going to drink the wine without any food when you get it home?

Break the tasting up!  Try only the whites first, then buy one glass (or enough) to share them with the rest of the herd and everyone talk about the wine, life and the winery. Take your partial glasses to a table or outside if necessary, and when everyone in the herd is ready, go back for the reds and do the same thing again. Then the sweets. Make an enjoyable experience out of your winery visit.

Be picky! If you are going to more than one winery, consider just trying Chards, or Cabs, or 20XX. Everyone in the herd doesn’t have to have the same wine sample, they can each focus on something different they like. You can still compare notes, and you may get more out of both the tasting and the rest of the herd.