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Label Law Lacks Levity

I think some wineries pay their graphic designer more to make the label that goes on the bottle than they pay their wine maker to make the stuff that goes in the bottle. On a personal note, while I think that there's some awesome and inventive eye-catching labels out there, the best wines have simple labels because a good wine can speak for itself. So I tend to stay away from the flashy ones while trying to decide among the multitude at the grocery store. Instead I pay attention to what the label says. And that's because I know that there are very strict rules to ensure that whatever information printed on the label is true.

There are several pieces of information that must be present on every bottle of wine. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms the minimum requirements are:

  1. Some kind of brand identification (i.e. Deerfield Ranch Winery)
  2. The "class, type or designation" (i.e. Cabernet or Red Table Wine)
  3. The location of bottling (which can be EXTREMELY misleading)
  4. The alcohol content by volume
  5. The amount of liquid in the bottle

Local and state laws can vary and often do. I say that the location of bottling can be misleading because while the style of winemaking can vary from place to place, the characteristics of any wine are derived from the grapes they are made from, which in turn get their characteristics from all of the factors of location they are grown in. Those collective factors, like the soil type, climate, altitude (and a many, many more) are what we call terroir - it's everything that goes into producing a grape. And so it's easy to be mislead when a wine advertises it's made in the famous Napa Valley but really you're drinking a wine that's got a character of grapes grown in Lodi.

I'm sure that some of those rules are in place to make sure that no unscrupulous wine peddlers skew the facts about their juice, but sometimes a label can have misinformation even though the winemaker has the best intentions. A lot of times this happens because a wine changes after it's been bottled or the labels have been printed. This happened to us a few weeks ago. It's common practice to run tests on the wine after it's been bottled and before it's been released. We noticed that the alcohol content of one wine had dropped dramatically and was no longer consistent with the label. Every so often a tragedy like this is bound to happen and there was nothing left to do but uncork each bottle and dump it back in the tank. Robert, genius improviser that he is, devised a brilliant way to efficiently decant the bottles without exposing the wine to air. The only down side was that it took a long time, a lot of people and even after working all day we weren't able to sterilize all of the bottles once they were emptied. So once again we ended up with a lot of glass bottles that are only good for target practice.

While we're on the subject of labels I thought I'd mention that my favorite is the Super T Rex. It's my favorite to drink too!

It Worked For Pharaoh


Friday was a great day. I spent the whole day working with Robert in preparation for an upcoming Heart Of Sonoma Valley Association event that Deerfield is hosting. It's going to be great fun because the public is inviting to smoosh grapes the old fashioned was - with their feet! But the smooshing has to be done in something and in keeping with the theme of tradition and old world technique Robert decided to refurbish a redwood wine fermention tank that we have had for years. Wooden wine tanks really aren't used in larger California wineries today mainly because they are so much more difficult to keep clean and Deerfield isn't an exception. But there were two old redwood tanks that hadn't been used in 10 years just sitting around, so we set out to cut one in half so that it's a good size to hop in and get stompin'!

First I numbered all of the staves of the tank so that we could put it back together in exactly the same order (Staves are what you call the planks of wood that make up a barrel or tank). That's important because after so many years they become warped and fit together just so. Then we took off the metal hoops that bound it together and all of the boards collapsed like a flower blooming in fast motion. Then Robert collected all of the staves and took them to the Ranch where he cut them in half. Meanwhile I was given the job of scraping all of the old dirt off of the sides of the boards that made up the floor (also important to get it to seal correctly). When Robert returned he brought something that really surprised me: He brought a big bag of flower. I thought maybe we'd switched professions and become bakers. I've never been a subscriber to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it philosophy" so I was a little skeptical when Robert told me we were going to use the flower to make the glue to seal the tank. The ancient egytians used flower and water to make glue for papyrus fabrics in 1500 B.C. I'm sure humans have been doing the same thing for wine barrels for a few millenia. But as I learned they really did get it right the first time and it worked like a charm. After we replaced the hoops, we tightened them down almost to the point I thought they'd buckle.

The trick to make it water tight is simple but brilliant: Get the boards squished as close together as possible and then get it wet - The wood swells and expands and fills in any gaps. Or at least in theory... I'm writing this on Monday, we've been running a sprinkler in the tank since Friday and there are still a couple gaps. But Robert is commited to making the event as genuine an Old World experience as possible and he said that tomorrow we're going to use reeds from the marsh to patch it. I'll let you know how it goes!

Information on the event is here:

It's the whole weekend of the 18th of September and it's $30 dollars a person. Should be a blast!

Tasting 2009

On Sunday I attended another wine event with Sandra. Tasting 2009 was sponsored by the Family Wineries of California Association. It was a little different from the laid back event I attended the previous week: Upwards of three hundred wineries from across California showed up to pour their wine. Needless to say, I got to try lots and lots of good wines. I wasn't the only one though. The event drew an enormous, gregarious and eventually all-too-tipsy crowd of wine aficionados from all walks of life. To accommodate the crowd Sandra wisely thought it would be best if we had three people to work our booth. So we brought a friend of the winery and Kenwood local, Matt Quinones, who besides being incredibly helpful and knowledgeable, took the time to show me the ropes. He knew many of the wineries present and was nice enough to make me a little guide book of which wineries to check out, who to meet and which wines to try. That was great because I have to admit, I was a little lost in the sea of wine and the din of voices. Having three people was perfect because it allowed us to take turns walking around the event, mingling and expanding our palettes. The only catering was a cheese company who really stepped up to plate and delivered 650 pounds of out-of-this-world bleu cheese (and a really nice rosemary and olive oil asiago). It was fun until the very end when the only people left were leaning precariously and all too eager to engage in muddled conversation. All in all, I had a terrific time and it was a great learning experience and I made my first real friend in my new town and I found twenty dollars in my pocket!

As I lay in bed that night, exhausted, I realized that I was really looking forward to the next day of work. And that's something really special. I've had jobs that I've enjoyed in the past but I've never been excited to go to work. Especially when work involves getting up at 6:30 and doing hard physical labor. But I couldn't wait. I love what I'm doing and I couldn't rightfully ask for anything more then that.

The Cast And Crew

The reference in the article title to the crew is what you were thinking it is. The cast probably isn't. I broke my hand last Thursday falling off of my bicycle. Nothing glamorous - just a random accident. A pear was involved. I flew headfirst over the handle bars and managed to catch myself before my head hit the pavement. I saved my skull but I fractured the fifth metacarpal on my left hand. In case you're not sure where you might find a metacarpal, here's a picture:

So I went to the doctor and he put a large misshapen cast on my hand. Nowadays you can get a cast in the color of your choosing. When I mentioned I worked at a winery, the nurse told me that the color selection included Cabernet. I must be in Wine Country. They were able to leave three fingers sticking out of the cast, so now I've been reduced to one hand and one wine tinted claw. It's going to take at least four weeks to heal so I'll pretty much be a crippled rat for all of September. One problem is that I can't get my cast wet and, as you know by now, being drenched comes with the territory. So my dear mother found a solution: A latex arm-length mitten that vacuum seals onto your skin. It's like the Chiller - effective but ugly. The goofy thing is bright blue and when I wear it it looks like I ran into Dr. Frankenstein and he took it upon himself to replace my arm with that of a Smurf's (an obese Smurf that underwent a botched liposuction).

I could tell you how disspointed I am or how difficult it's going to be. But I'm not going to do that. I'm going to keep on working and do as much as I possibly can with a smile on my face. When I showed my cast to Robert he gruffly told me to pick up a bottle with my hurt hand. I picked it up with my claw hastily. "See," he said, "You'll be fine."

I'm not going to dwell on it. I'm just going to move on and eventually things will be back to normal. So let's do just that.

It occurred to me that what really makes the winery experience fun has a lot to do with the people you work with and insofar I haven't really provided you, the reader, with a sense of what the crew is like. They're all hard workers but they're also a bunch of characters. Right now my fingers feel like dumb bells and I need to get some rest, but tomorrow I'm going to break it down and describe everybody's stories and their idiosyncrasies. Stay tuned!

Full Circle

Ladies and gentleman, Harvest has arrived. The grapes arrived like the first rain of Fall: They showed up abruptly, without warning and aren't going away. Actually, the first grapes of Deerfield's 2009 vintage appeared on the crush pad in the middle of bottling. The crew split in two with one team manning the sorting table and the other team running a skeleton crew on the bottling line. It was very cool how everything had come full circle so that the very beginning and end of the winemaking process were happening concurrently, side by side.

Everyday since then we've been receiving literally tons of grapes and have been staying at the winery well into the evening to finish processing them. So far we've crushed about 12 tons of Pinot Noir and about 6 tons of Sauvignon Blanc. Depending on what kind of grapes we're crushing and what we are trying to do with them, the configuration of the crush setup changes. For example, red wines like Pinot are fermented initially with the grape skins so the process looked like this:

The grapes arrive in the large macro-bins described in "Bin City" and are placed one at a time in the tall dumping device. The dumper can be precisely controlled by a worker on the sorting table, who empties the grapes into the hopper at one end of the table at a speed comfortable for quality sorting. About four people man the sorting table, keeping constant vigil for any bunches of grapes that don't meet Deerfield's high standards. There are many criteria for acceptable grapes but some of the factors that cause us to toss the grapes include over or under ripeness, mold and raisining. Often the only way to tell whether a bunch is good or not is to taste it. I've never eaten so many grapes in my life! We throw away a sizeable percentage of grapes that we paid for. But it takes grapes of only the highest quality to make wine of the highest quality. Next the grapes fall into the destemmer, which does 90% of the job. The destemmed grapes then fall onto a shaking table which most of the seeds fall through. Lastly the grapes fall onto the berry sorting table where the remaining stems are removed along with any other dissatisfactory grapes that escaped the first sort. The grapes fall off the end of the line into another macrobin. Those in turn are dumped into a larger bin intended for fermentation instead of transport. Once full, the bin is placed in the cave where it awaits the inoculation of yeast to begin maceration.

But that's just one way to skin a cat. Sauvignon Blanc isn't fermented with its skins, so once the grapes have been sorted they go straight into the press. Because they won't be destemmed or furthur sorted it's important to weed out the unripe grapes the first time. The juice is pumped straight from the press to one of the large stainless steel fermentation tanks. The process of making white wine is really much easier.

Harvest is in full swing now and I've already started working 12 hour days. The crew is really starting to become a team and work together. Tempers are already flaring, and pressure is mounting. Harvest is a very dramatic time. Though the work is hard, it is fun to be part of such a dynamic process and everyone is clearly excited for what lies ahead.

Because of my hand I've been given a new job until it heals. Learn just what it is next time!