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My First Wine

There's definitely a distinction between working at a winery, helping to make wine, and making your very own concoction. So you can imagine my excitement when my fellow Cellar Rat Ari suggested that I collect the precious juice that was dripping from the bottom of the sorting table. Apparently the juice isn't of a high enough caliber to be used by Deerfield, but it's perfect for the experimentation of a fledgling winemaker. And so I happily filled up two empty water cooler jugs with the Sauvignon Blanc must (must is the industry term for unfermented juice). Robert explained to me that the jugs were referred to as carboids and Ari showed me a clever way of filtering all of the grape leaves and other junk out of them by siphoning more must in to force the waste out. I stowed my treasure in the safety of the cave and asked Robert what the next step was. He told me I should add bentonite and sulphur dioxide. He explained that the bentonite causes the sediment to settle on the bottom and makes the juice clear. Further research shows that, more specifically, it is capable of absorbing large amounts of protein. The SO2, as I explained earlier, scavenges the dissolved oxygen. For now, the wine is sitting quite still, waiting for the bentonite to to it's job. In a few days I'll rack it into another container and add the yeast to start fermentation.

I'm going to update this post as my wine continues its journey so check back here to see how it's progressing!

Lab Rat

Hello and welcome to! If this is you're first visit then allow me to express my gratitude for checking out the site and I hope you enjoy reading. If you're a fan of the site then please accept my sincere apology for leaving you out of the loop for the last week or so. I know some of you are really enjoying following along with the harvest, but as you know it is in full swing by now and you can probably imagine that it has been very hard to find the time to write. But I'm back at the keyboard now so let me fill you in:

Last time I left you with a cliff hangar. Due to my debilitating injury and thanks to doctor's orders I had been reassigned from normal duty and asked to fill a different role. This is what happened: I reported to Robert that the doctor said I was to refrain from using my left hand as much as possible. Our laboratory technician was present at the time and unfortunately for her, Robert, doing some quick thinking, announced that she had a new assistant. Amanda and I glanced at each other, equally surprised at the verdict. I was pleased (as I always am at the prospect of learning something new). I can only guess her feelings about acquiring a new assistant. Truth be told, I have a pretty good idea about it because that was two weeks ago and she got rid of her meddlesome assistant pretty quickly. Ignoring doctor's orders, for better or for worse, I returned to my daily duties as a Cellar Rat, single-handedly conquering each task appointed to me, after only one day of shadowing her in the lab. In that time though I did get to learn how to test the wine for Total Acidity, pH, dissolved oxygen and free sulphur. Acidity is a crucial measurement because having the right amount of acid is critical for producing a balanced wine. I learned that pH is actually not a helpful measurement of acid as is just a buffer that compares the level of acid to the level of base. Dissolved oxygen is the amount of oxygen mixed into the liquid of the wine causing it to oxidize internally in a way. That's why we add the SO2. If you recall it bonds with the O2 to become the neutral SO4. Sometimes it does it's job and there's some left over. That's what the free sulphur test is for.

Even though I haven't been spending much time in the lab I have been spending a lot of time doing something that has a real chemistry feel to it. As you may already know, yeast is the crucial ingredient that transforms grape juice into wine. That amazing, rapidly multiplying, living organism, munches the sugar and produces alcohol. It occurs naturally in the vineyard and because it only takes one yeast cell to create a colony, grape juice left alone will eventually ferment, which is how, I imagine, they discovered wine in the first place. These days though we take a more advanced approach, selecting and adding species of yeast that accommodate specific species of grapes. In fact, we have cultivated yeast so much that we can use different kinds to produce specific flavors. The yeast have fairly unromantic names like "RC212" or "D47". Occasionally a charmer comes along like "Rhone 4700". The process of adding yeast to the juice is called inoculation. Care must be taken during this process because happy yeast makes good wine and if you don't make sure those microscopic buggers are having a good time, they'll make sure to spoil your dinner party. Before you add the yeast you add it's food. Superfood to be precise, a delicious mixture of nutrients and amino acids that prevents the yeast from becoming cannibalistic and consuming the carcasses of cadaverous comrades (please excuse my fit of alliteration). DAP, or diammonium phosphate to be exact, is also added to feed the hungry critters. At this stage tartaric acid is added not for the yeast, but if it is determined more acid is required to balance the flavor. The juice is now ready for the yeast to be added, but first the yeast must be awakened. You see, the yeast is in a dormant state and needs to be activated after it's long hibernation. So water is heated to the exact temperature it likes: 105 degrees Fahrenheit. A catalyst called Go Ferm is added to the water and then the yeast is slowly mixed in. It takes about 15 minutes for the yeast to wake up and after that period a sufficient amount of wine is added to acclimate the yeast to the temperature of the juice it is about to call home. The mixture of water, juice, Go Ferm and yeast turns a phenomenal shade of violet and is then evenly poured over the surface of the bin/tank. The punch down method is insufficient to properly mix the yeast with the wine so we use the pump over technique: With the use of an air pump, juice is sucked from the bottom of the bin and pumped over the top. After fifteen minutes the juice has everything it needsto begin fermenting. The Brix will drop every day from now on and the temperature will rise. Fermentation is an exothermic reaction and the temperature can get up to the low nineties. The reaction produces an incredible amount of CO2. After one to two weeks the juice will have, by definition if not taste, become wine.

Well I hope that this article makes a up for my absence. I promise, readers, another article tomorrow! I'll be talking about pressing the wine after it's finished fermenting!

Return Of The Rat

The Cellar Rat is back after a much needed harvest hiatus and I've returned with all of the stories and adventures that transpired during the rainy months that constituted the second half of the harvest. Where we last left our intrepid intern, he was crippled, without the use of his left hand, and relegated to the laboratory to aid the insular Amanda as she dutifully created and catalogued the mountain of data an ever-changing ocean of wine inevitably creates.

If you've been hanging on to the edge of a cliff for the past few months then let me now extend my paw to you: With my hand encased in fiberglass and a recommendation from my doctor that I refrain from doing anything that made strenuous use of it, lest the healing fracture break again, I attempted to pay heed to his costly advice. But our lab technician was deft in her craft and needed little assistance, so after a day following her around like a duckling I soon grew frustrated with my impotence and with increasing confidence I suspected that the pair of eyes staring over her shoulder were becoming more and more bothersome. Amanda was a good sport but I realized that another arrangement would have to made at least until my hand healed and I could return to my duties. Robert suggested that I do some office work for the time being. I probably should have accepted the offer, but I was enthralled with the exciting work at the winery that was only just beginning as the rest of interns arrived and harvest was getting into full swing. Loathe to miss out on the action, as well as peck maddeningly at the keyboard with one hand (partly a reason for the discontinuity in my posts), I decided I would continue work as usual and see how I could fare with one hand tied behind my back. I realized early on that my main enemy would be water. I believe I mentioned earlier that this job tended have the effect on a Cellar Rat of having jumped in a pool with their clothes on. My dear mother, thoughtful person that she is, ordered for me a special cast protector that, in addition to keeping my arm completely dry, had the added effect of making me look like I had the arm of a Smurf. It was a lovely shade of blue and when the air was sucked out it seemed as if I had shrink-wrapped an oversized cooking mitten onto my forearm. Having a soaking wet cast is a horrible condition, but being heckled about the strange appearance of my left arm was even more intolerable. So it was soon discarded and as harvest progressed my hand became quite sore and smelly. But the moral in this story is that I soldiered through it and hardly missed a moment of harvest because of my ill-timed injury. A few weeks and several casts later my hand was tender but healed. The brace I was given to wear for several more weeks also lasted about half a day on the crush pad. But maybe making use of it was the correct therapy because today it feels good as new.

As the coming weeks progressed the crew really began to learn to work as a team and the flow of work became steady and regular. With the wine now at multiple stages of production a daily routine was established, although the amount of work would vary depending on how much fruit we were to crush that day. And indeed the amount of grapes coming in seemed to increase everyday as wary grape-growers tried to harvest their crop before the coming rains that posed a major threat to their precious berries.

Next time I'll be talking about what a typical day at the winery was like with harvest in full swing: With all the fermentation tanks full of grapes at various stages of maceration, grapes being pressed and barreled down, and more grapes coming in to be sorted, all on the same day!

I will be posting at some point every Wednesday, though sometimes in the evening, so you can always be sure to check in every Thursday for the latest from the Cellar Rat. Also don't forget to check out Cellar Rat TV which also airs right here every Friday at 3:00pm. Until next time!


Slightly Cloudy With A Chance Of Mold

I would imagine that for most people the mere thought of wine evokes mental images of long vines and rolling hillsides covered with trellises. That's why I'm always perplexed at the disconnect it seems people have between the vineyard and the finished product. We don't at all view wine as a product in the same light that we see other agricultural products in the grocery store, like say... artichokes. Somewhere along the way the grape is transformed. It is fermented, studied, blended, bottled and lo! It becomes wine. And at that point, I feel, we cease to see it as an agricultural product. We hate to compare it to the likes of carrots and potatoes and arugula. That is what makes it easy to forget that wine really is a product of the land and that a crop of grapes is susceptible to all of the trials and tribulations that Mother Nature throws at it. In fact, the wine grape is far more imperiled by disease and weather than most crops. Vitis Vinifera is one of the toughest plants in the world in that it can grow in extremely poor soil and without much water at all, but it is especially vulnerable to pests, disease and molds. And when a farmer intends to make wine out of his grapes he can expect to grow more than a few grey hairs. To make a wine worth its yeast, the grapes that went into it must be harvested at optimal conditions: When the sugar is at the perfect concentration in each berry (known as brix). It's mostly up to Nature to decide when that will be, if at all...

And that is why this harvest, when the weather forecast came in for the end of October, we started to get many panicky growers showing up at the crush pad, asking with increasing melancholy when their fruit would be harvested. The person who is purchasing their grapes is the one who gets to decide when the harvest occurs but the fruit is weighed and paid for after it's been picked. So if the grapes get moldy due to rain, as was the case this harvest, and needs to be discarded, it comes out of the pocket of the grower and not the winemaker (if the two aren't the same party). So this can create a tenuous situation, as the winemaker is obviously more concerned with making the best wine possible, and the grower is concerned about selling the as much quality fruit as possible. The hope is that their interests will align. For most of the harvest this was certainly the case. But as the rain loomed towards November it seemed disaster might strike.

This harvest disaster struck. A cool early fall caused many of the varietals that ripen slowly like Cabernet to dawdle and then the monsoon that came at the end of October drenched all of the grapes still hanging on the vine. This made copious amounts of water available to their root systems. The resulting grape is the same as pouring some water into your glass of fine wine. Vines need to be stressed with only just enough water to perform their biological functions. That way the fruit they produce is concentrated in flavor and sugar. The only way to recover from the vines binge drinking is to wait for the ground to dry and the grapes to lose some of the water again. It's a dangerous game however, because a dense canopy of wet grape leaves provides the perfect environment for mold to grow. Almost all of the grapes we got after the rain were affected in some way by the mold. In a lot of places the winemaker would throw up their hands, exclaim "C'est la vie!", and throw the moldy grapes into the fermentation tank. But at Deerfield we rolled up our sleeves and sorted out every single moldy bunch. At our peak before the rain, the crew could sort about one ton of grapes an hour up to Deerfield's level of expectation. After the rain it took up to 4 hours to sort one half ton. For comparison, mass production wineries will sort up to 30 or 40 tons of grapes an hour. You'd be surprised: That type of production is by no means limited to the likes of Carlo Rossi, though I won't name names...

So harvest slowed way down and despite our best efforts, quality suffered slightly but I have full confidence in Robert's ability to save the day. After all, a lot can happen between harvest and the time it's ready to bottle. In the end, 2009 will be a mixed vintage for Northern California. We saw some truly spectacular fruit before the rain and some really terrible stuff afterwards. I hope the sour grapes don't tarnish the reputation of the whole vintage. Sometime I'll discuss how entire vintages can suffer from bad reputations and how that's unfair. Until next time!

The Winter Slumber

This week I'm going to take a break from the recap of the 2009 harvest to talk a little bit about what is happening at the winery right now. I promise though I'll be back to reminiscing next week.

Winter and spring have a very different feeling at the winery then does the late summer and fall. There's none of the clamor and fervor and anxiety of the harvest and instead it is replaced with a muted calm as the vines sleep for winter. The dormant vines need little attention as they save their energy for budbreak as the spring approaches. The wines in the cave are also sleeping, as it is often referred to, as they age and the molecules that form the taste and shape of the wine evolve into increasingly complex combinations. So the work the slows down and a winery that was understaffed with 12 crew members becomes comfortable with just two. Inside the cave there is little work to be done. The barrels must continue to be topped and a watchful eye is kept on them. Racking takes place more often than during the harvest. The pace of the lab tech's work continues as usual as a constant vigil of the developing wines must be kept. The winemaker can take this time to focus now on past vintages and creating the blends that will constitute future releases. This is an opportunity to bottle because of the lull in other commotion. The only problem is that it takes a large crew to bottle and the seasonal harvest crew has been disbanded. Aside from the occasional bottling though the crush pad is peaceful which I like because the surroundings feel more pronounced. There is this incredible shift in the hillside vineyards that line the valley from fall to winter as the rain revives the sun-dried grasses and turns the hills an emerald green and the vines conversely shift from green to brown as they shed their leaves and the shoots become wooden. In the vineyard workers prune the vines, removing all of the one-year-old wood from the arms of the vine so that when the buds start to blossom next spring the energy the vine expends will be channeled into fewer bunches of grapes. Here and there you can see a white pillar of smoke in a vineyard as the resulting piles of twigs are set ablaze. The air is crisp and chilled but the sun is warming and pleasant. The last rains will be over soon. It's a patient time of the year and in the coming weeks the juices of the plant will again begin to flow. The buds will break and the transformation of the plant will begin again as the cycle is renewed. Although it seems a long way off, I'm sure harvest will be upon us again before we know it.


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