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: http://www.familywinemakers.org/index.cfm
It's the whole weekend of the 18th of September and it's $30 dollars a person. Should be a blast!
A lot of wine writers have spoken about the ongoing debate regarding how best to keep wine in a bottle but I thought that I would chime in with my two cents. Corks, to me, are synonymous with wine. What are the first images conjured in your mind’s eye when the word wine is mentioned? For me it’s usually a wineglass or a bottle filled with the wonderful stuff. That bottle in my imagination is invariably accompanied by a cork – that most unique creation of nature, perfectly adept at maintaining and aging wine in an almost symbiotic relationship. I think it’s reasonable to say that the connotations we have and the associations we make are based often on tradition. So wine, a substance whose entire life span, from creation to consumption, is governed by tradition, has even stronger mental associations then most things. If you went to a fancy restaurant in North Beach and your wine was served to you in a pint glass I doubt you’d shrug, assume that they were just trying to be trendy and sip. No. You, being the gracious person that you are, would politely ask your server if perhaps they had a normal wine glass available. Sure, there are plenty of reasons that a wine glass is shaped the way it is: So that the wine is directed to the most suitable spot on your tongue; so that when you hold it your hand does not affect the temperature of the wine; so that your grubby fingerprints don’t mar the surface of the glass… But that’s not why you send the pint glass back. You do it because it’s just wrong. Now this conservative point of view might seem at odds with the California anything-goes attitude and approach to winemaking. I believe though, that that viewpoint doesn’t come from a sort of dogma which asserts that tradition is inherently stifling, but rather from a perspective of “Hey, if this really does work better then why the heck not use it?” If you show me a wine closure today that is superior to a natural cork in every way then I would be on board and gung-ho about it. But the fact is that insofar it looks as though we got it right the first time. In the 1600s, when glass bottles started to come into wide use, a clever man named Dom Perignon rediscovered the use of cork as a natural stopper and modern science has yet to better it. It allows the wine to breathe at a remarkably apt rate. It keeps the wine clean – as Robert says it acts like a “magnet for off flavors”. And from the beginning of the industry, the production of cork serves as a remarkable example of sustainable agriculture as the cork is harvested from the outer layers of the bark of Quercus suber (which is actually good for the tree) leaving it to grow back. In fact, the only threat to the cork trees comes from the decline of the cork industry due to a rise in synthetic and alternative closures. While companies that manufacture synthetic corks made from plastic tout that their product is 100% recyclable, they often forget to add the footnote that that statistic is only true if the cork makes it to the recycling plant. Deerfield uses natural cork on all of our wines, except for one vintage of Sauvignon Blanc where we decided to dabble with Zorks (which are pretty neat actually) and I hear it from Robert that we aim to keep it that way. Cork surely has its drawbacks but until some mind blowing revolution occurs in the future I’ll look forward each time to that satisfying pop rather than the crack of a screwcap.
Also Robert recently added his opinion on natural cork to the public forum. It can be found on Deerfield's Facebook page.
While you're there become a fan if you haven't already!
Recently I had the pleasure of watching Francis Durand, a master barrel cooper with the esteemed Radoux tonnellerie, build a barrel right on Deerfield's crush pad. It was an amazing experience and there were plenty of industry veterans, including Robert, who had never seen the process themselves. I videotaped the whole thing and you can check it out on Cellar Rat TV. I was fascinated by the process and it really got me thinking about the marriage between oak and wine. It is an element of winemaking that is easily overlooked. Trucks would arrive during harvest with dozens of beautiful new handmade barrels and as I helped unload them I gave little thought to the skilled craftsmen who created them or their enormous impact on the wine we were making. My perception of the grapes' journey to the glass had glossed over the entire art of coopering. The grape is grown in the vineyard and transported to the winery where it is transformed into wine and then bottled. I realize now that the fire and hammer of the cooper are just as much a part of that journey as the beaker and refractometer of the winemaker are.
Winemakers have known about the benefits of aging wine in oak for two millenia and the Roman Empire can be credited with expanding the usage of the material for constructing the barrel. There is no substitute for oak. There have been many attempts at using vessels made of other woods like cherry, pine, walnut and chestnut but none have the unique structural qualities and flavors of oak. In the barrel, oak is the right balance between hardness and softness that it is both durable and malleable enough to be shaped into a barrel. It is just porous enough to allow alcohol and water to evaporate through it, concentrating the flavor of the wine, and yet the grain is tight enough that it does not leak. The flavor that oak imparts is just as important as its ability to carefully expose the wine to minute amounts of oxygen. Compounds found in the oak and complexity yet also serve to stabilize the wine and its color. Oak further serves the winemaking process after it has been bottled. The cork tree is actually a type of oak, whose bark we remove to produce the corks so strongly associated with wine. While many alternatives, synthetic and natural, have been proposed, corks still seem to work best, allowing exactly the right amount of oxygen into the bottle to allow the wine to age gracefully. Since the beginning people have known that wine aged in oak tastes better but the science behind it has only been pursued for the last three decades or so. The process of "toasting" the wood, or putting the barrel over a wood fire fueled by more oak, adds a unique dimension to the wine. I had the opportunity to stick my nose in the barrel after Mr. Durand finished toasting it and it wasn't until I inhaled that enchanting aroma that I understood why wine and oak share such a bond - they both offer an incredibly complex and rich sensory experience that only improves when they are combined.
Several weeks ago I talked about the profound relationship that wine shares with oak and the importance of the barrel maker to the winemaking process. The artistry of bending the wood of the oak tree to benefit the crafting of wine extends well beyond the domain of the cooper. The winemaker chooses very carefully which vessels his wine will mature in. The choice is far more complex than simply whether to use French or American oak. At Deerfield, one of the key elements we use to create such nuanced wine is the implementation of what are known as barrel schedules, or programs. A great deal of thought and planning is done by the winemaker to create a schedule to add depth to the wine. Each wine rests in a variety of different barrels, so for example a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, maybe even just one exemplary block in a vineyard, is given a custom-tailored barrel program. What's more, when that Cabernet is included in a blend years later, a new barrel schedule is created for that blend. What is incredible to me is the understanding the winemaker has of the impact on the character of the wine that a specific barrel has. There are three factors to consider in choosing a barrel for the program. The type of oak the barrel is made of: French, American, Hungarian oak, have very different flavors. Usually, at Deerfield, a wine receives a mixture of French and American oak barrels. The overriding idea is that when the barrels are later blended together, the attributes of both will be present in the wine. The second factor is the tonnellerie, or cooperage, that produced the barrel. There is a great deal of room for expression during the creation of a barrel - the heat and duration for which the barrel is "toasted" greatly impacts the flavor of the wood. The same barrel can even be constructed out of staves of different types of oak. Or all the staves can be one type of oak and the heads another. There's lots of variation and innovation within the cooperage industry, and though barrel making is a craft steeped in tradition, ongoing experimentation has invigorated competition among the coopers. During harvest, representatives drop by with a case of beer for the crew hoping to get the ear of the winemaker and tout the strengths of their barrels. Indeed, there are many to choose from. Demptos, Radoux, Bel Air, Tonnellerie du Val de Loire, Saint martin, Kovacs Tokai, Seguin Moreau, Quintessence, Magrenan, Kelvin Cooperage, Sylvain, World Cooperage, Emeritage, Boutes Tonnellerie de France, Trust, Tonnellerie Remond are just a few brands that reside in Deerfield's cave. Each chosen for its unique qualities and carefully monitored for performance. And then many cooperages tout different lines of barrels like models of cars - luxury, durability, longevity, leather seats. The point is you've got options. Lastly, the age of the barrel (in terms of its use) is a significant factor. When a barrel is brand new it has an intense oak flavor and any wine aged in it will assume that intensity. After about four years of wine sitting in it, a barrel has pretty much used up all of the oak flavor. Barrels that are old and no longer have noticeable oak flavor are referred to as neutral barrels. They are still useful - they impart tannins and remove harsher ones and allow the wine to breathe. So usually a wine is aged in a combination of new, 1 year, 2 year, 3 year, and neutral barrels so that when the barrels are blended back together for bottling (or further blending) the resulting wine is well balanced. Also this gives the winemaker options for different blends. Perhaps a Tuscan style Sangiovese blend would benefit from a Cab Sauv that has been aging in new barrels. Here is part of the barrel schedule for 2009. On the head of most barrels you can see the type of oak, the year the barrel was made, the cooperage and the amount of toast. If you stop by the cave take note of what barrels are being used for each wine.