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Entries in winemaking (15)

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!

Second Protocol

Thank you for indulging me last week in my aside - I hope I conveyed the feeling of winter here at the winery. I'll return now to my recap of the 2009 harvest.

Where we last left off the heavy and early fall rain had greatly complicated things, creating mold in the vineyard, and we were slowing down the sorting table to a crawl in a valiant effort to remove the affected fruit. But the sorting table wasn't the only front at which we were to battle the gray-green scourge. We would have to change our entire method of operation to combat our foe...

And so our winemaker put into effect a Second Protocol with which we were to handle all of the wines we were crafting. No matter how discerning we were at the sorting table it is impossible to completely remove all the mold as some of the pesky microbes aren't even visible to the naked eye. The wines would be later treated to remove all trace of the fungi but in the interim it was imperative that the clean wines we had fermenting already not be contaminated. During fermentation it is crucial not use equipment on different lots without sanitizing it in between, in order to prevent cross-contaminating the lots with different yeast strains. It only takes one little yeast cell to create an entire colony.  But there are many stages during production where it is not necessary to totally sterilize everything between working with different wines. After the Second Protocol was instituted those days were long gone. Everything had to sprayed with ozone between every time ANY piece of equipment touched a grape or juice. Ozone is used industrially as a disinfectant. It's useful because Deerfield has an ozone generator which creates it from the ambient air so you have an unlimited supply. Ozone is an O3 molecule whereas oxygen is O2. It's amazing how that one extra oxygen atom changes it from life giving to lethal. Ozone has incredible oxidizing power and as it decays back to the stable oxygen configuration is releases free radicals that can break the carbon bonds of organic molecules making it a deadly enemy of the unwanted spores invisibly infesting our hoses and pumps. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. But it's a double edged sword because since ozone is such a terrific oxidizing agent it must not come in contact with the wine either. So a spray with ozone and a thorough rinse before any work is done is prescribed but not expedient. I think I've mentioned before how much easier the process can be if you just cut a few corners. To follow the protocol to a T required dedication, patience and imagination: You have to imagine how much better the wine will taste if you take the time to do it right. And at Deerfield we do it right. Every time.

Fortunately, this all happened as the work at the winery was beginning to reach its zenith as the last of the grapes came in. As sorting stopped the attention of the crew could be shifted to the fermenting wines and our time was freed up a great deal. Next time I'll talk about the winding down of harvest and putting the wines to sleep so they can mature. Salut!

The Philosophy

Whenever I am pouring Deerfield wine for people who have never had it before I always try share with them the idea behind our winemaking technique. It occurred to me that the readers of this blog have been oddly neglected especially considering that by now you have a great deal of insight into the process of making the wine. In fact, there are so many different approaches to winemaking that understanding the guiding philosophy is critical to making it. You can learn the “how”, but when you also grasp the “why”, well, that’s when the picture comes into view. Why do we clean equipment three times before we use it? Why do we wait so long before we release our wines? Why are Deerfield wines so darn tasty?

One of the core tenets of our winemaking philosophy is an overriding dedication to cleanliness. As I wrote in some of my earlier blog entries cleaning every square inch of the winery and its equipment is integral to the life of a cellar rat. Often to do a job that takes ten minutes 30 minutes of cleaning is required before and after. But all the attention to detail is well worth it because, as Robert says, “wine reflects its environment”.

Another key element in our strategy is careful selection of the fruit that we make wine from. We utilize a three tiered system to sort the grapes: An initial sort is performed in the vineyard as the bunches are harvested. Once transported to the crush pad and weighed, the grapes are again sorted by cluster and we remove any bunches that aren’t perfect. Mold, mildew, raisins, under-ripe – anything that doesn’t belong gets tossed. Then after the grapes go through the destemmer, they are sorted once more by the individual berry. This is a process that is only practical for a boutique winery due to the fact that it is a meticulous and time consuming endeavor. It is of the essence, however, because removing everything but just the grapes keep the resulting wine low in histamines. When the yeast encounters a foreign body that it does not recognize it produces histamines to protect itself similarly to the human body. It has been shown that histamines can provoke allergic reactions which may cause the headache that some people associate with red wine. Because of the careful attention we put into production people who typically suffer from migraines can enjoy world-class red wine that they otherwise would never be able to.

Another thing I always point out is that Deerfield’s flagship wine is a blends.  Sure, we have some truly excellent single varietal wines (like our Old Vine Zin which recently got 95pts from the wine enthusiast) but the majority is made from more than one varietal or one vineyard, or both! Red Rex alone has seven different varietals. Why? Because, as Robert has told me, winemaking shares many of the principles of cooking. The evidence of that is clear: Skilled winemakers are also talented chefs. Why does that matter? I believe you would be hard-pressed to find a recipe that uses only a single ingredient. By adding different varietals you are enriching the tasting experience. Each one brings something new to the palate, each a unique personality to explore. There’s always so much talk about terrior in conversations about wine. How the confluence of environmental factors in the vineyard create a unique flavor. By including grapes from different and sometimes distant locations, you can allow the distinct terriors to mingle and the result can be wonderfully complex wines. The key is balancing all these flavors on the taste buds. It’s no easy feat and perhaps that’s why some winemakers shy away from blending. There’s far more to say on the topic of blending and Robert has invited me to sit in on some technical blending trials so I will have more on the subject soon. 

The Myth Of The Bad Vintage

Coca-cola always tastes the same. Year after year, bottle after bottle, the same flavor. Diet or regular? That's why wine is so unique - because the complexity of flavor and its infinite variation. Each year brings us a new crop of grapes which are different from the ones that preceded it, sometimes dramatically so. Are some years better than others? Maybe the weather conditions during some years are better suited to the certain varietal's needs, but in this brave new world of California winemaking, technology and technique can often trump the whim of nature. I think it has become necessary to dispel the notion of a "bad vintage" because of the damage that can happen to the wine drinking community when a particular year gets a bad rap. "Oh, I heard 2006 was a bad year... I try to avoid anything from that vintage." I’ve tasted some fabulous wines from that year, including Deerfield’s own ’06 Organic Syrah and I can tell you that myth holds little water. 2009 is a perfect example: Northern California experienced some heavy early rains that occurred just before many grapes had fully ripened, causing the berries to swell with water, diluting the flavor and driving the brix down. The only solution is to let the grapes hang on the vine until the ground (hopefully) dries and the berries lose some of the extra water but that in turn poses the risk that mold will develop on the wet leaves and berries. Much of the grapes we processed after the rain were problematic and sometimes the sorting table was reduced to a crawl to make sure no moldy grapes were present in the wine. Yet all of the grapes that were ready to harvest before the rain were excellent. In fact, I remember more than one grape grower commenting that it was some of the best fruit they'd ever tasted. It's all too possible that wine writers will label California's 2009 vintage as being poor even though that is certainly not the case. With a master at the wheel like Robert Rex, '09 will be showing very well for Deerfield. But that's what separates the men from the boys in the wine world, the average winemakers from the exceptional ones.

The other tool in the Californian winemaker's arsenal is the ability to blend wine, guided by tradition but untethered by regulation. Since Merlot is one-dimensional in flavor but has a wonderful mid-palate with a luxurious texture we add a wonderfully charismatic Cabernet Sauvignon and a front palate Petit Verdot to the mix to give the wine a synergistic effect - the finished wine better than each of its components. There are numerous examples in Deerfield's library, like the 2005 Shiraz Cuvee - A testament to how skilled blending can achieve a wine that highlights what’s best about Syrah. Or the DRX which year after year is as elegant a wine as any studied palate could hope for, because only the best barrels are selected for the blend.

I have more to evidence to continue build my case to debunk the myth of the bad vintage and I shall do so next week! Salut!

The Myth Busted

Last week I discussed how each vintage is unique, how circumstances can produce a mixed variety of quality, how modern winemaking techniques and the winemaker's skill improve the wine, and how blending can have an immensely positive impact in the right hands. But there's more to the story: The different varietals have distinct preferences for weather that are sometimes divergent. Each varietal has a personality with its own likes and dislikes. Some like it hot, some like it cool. Some are very vigorous and their growth needs to be carefully restrained. Some need to be coaxed along and provided with an ample supply of water and nutrients. What that means is that a so-so year for Cabernet might be the ideal growing conditions for a Pinot Noir. Micro-climates play a role too. One side of a hill might be several degrees warmer than another or receive more light. That’s why Dry Creek Valley is known for their Zins and the Russian River for the Pinots it produces. That’s also why we have 20 different vineyards under contract from all over Sonoma Valley. I've heard it said more than once that odd vintages tend to be better than even ones. I would suggest that while there does seem to be a consistent difference in the weather patterns over time it does not equate to better or worse wines, merely different ones. It seems that even years tend to produce elegant and nuanced wines whereas the odd years favor bold, spicier varietals with more tannins.

I learned recently that the growth cycle of the vine is actually a two year cycle as well.  The bud that will ultimately produce the grapes for the 2012 harvest are beginning to grow this year. When the shoots are pruned back after the harvest during the winter they are clipped just above the last node that had developed over the year. This is the bud that will produce the fruit of the following vintage. I had always assumed that it was a one-year growth cycle. It makes so much sense to me! There is a difference in character between wines of even and odd years that can be traced back to tangible, biological fact. Of course this information that I'm just learning a talented winemaker knows very well. The key is working with what you have, finding the true nature of whatever Nature has given you and capturing that in the bottle.

The moral of the story is that there’s more to a bottle than the year on the label. Instead find a winery that can deliver the goods year after year.