The Warriors are Better than Wine!

Ok. They’re great. Not as great as wine…but close.

warriorslogoMy wife would say I’m a fair-weather fan. When the A’s are driving for a division title like they did in ’12 and ’13 I get excited for a little while. When the Raiders aren’t bumbling and stumbling, my ears prick up just a bit (and for the last 10 years, I’ve only had to be mildly interested for the first quarter of the season). But basketball season starts tomorrow, and for the first time since the early ’90’s, I have the optimist’s hope that this could be a magical year.  I’m expecting great things; I expect Stephen Curry to continue his rise up the player rankings, and I expect them to be vying for the Western Conference Championship this year. But if they don’t, it doesn’t matter.

Ultimately, I will be watching games on TV and reading blogs and pulling out my hair even if these things don’t happen because I have an unhealthy relationship with this team. Over the last 30 years, my hopes have been abused; my confidence has been built-up then shattered; my general good nature has been dicked-around with. But still I remain ever hopeful. There is just something about this sport and this team; it is the only reality TV worth anything.


So, there may be more posts in the coming months extolling the otherworldly beauty of a Steph Curry off-the-dribble 3-pointer or an Andre Iguodala slash to the hoop. I could be hopelessly obsessed with a late-season push for the division championship and making plans for the Championship parade in Jack London Square. Or it could all come raining down in some horrible shit show. It doesn’t matter. I’ll be there. Golden State Warriors…I can’t quit you.

Oh, What a Week

It has been an eventful last 7 days. The grapes and wines demand a lot of attention and when things are moving at a quick pace, it is easy to forget how much gets accomplished and how much sleep you haven’t had.

For your enjoyment, a quick recap:

  • Harvest ended on October 25th
  • Steven fell asleep on his office floor
  • Craig Ploof, my assistant winemaker, pressed off his first wine…2013 Petite Sirah
  • Steven fell asleep in his truck under an electrical tower
  • Several lots of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Home Ranch and Clone 30 – Ghielmetti Vineyard were pressed off and show, even at this early stage, amazing quality
  • We poured several Pinot Noirs at Sunday’s Pinot on the River event on Healdsburg Square and learned that a distributor from Germany may be interested in bringing our wines into his country.
  • Steven tastes a finished Pinot Noir at the event and does not understand what he is tasting. (Soundcloud describing his temporary lostness here).

Just another ordinary week in the winelife.

Taking the Lid Off

I saw Sergio Traverso, one of the legendary Livermore Valley winemakers, up on the catwalk above the 5000 gallon fermentors at the Wente small-lot winery the other day. He was watching one of the guys pump over Syrah (takiing the pumped juice from the bottom of the fermentor and spraying it over the top of the cap).

I asked what he was doing, and he answered that some times you just need to see the potcookingfermentation process at another angle, to gauge progress by taking the lid off. The reference was to lifting the cover of a pot that you are cooking to gauge the food’s done-ness, and in that way was completely relevant to what I do on a daily basis.

As I write this on a fold-up chair overlooking a pressful of Syrah, it is difficult to contemplate the process of winemaking without the reality of getting your hands dirty. In fact, every sense comes into play when you are converting grapes into nectar. stevenwritingpressRight now, a pump is running, taking the pressed-off wine from the press pan to a tank, and as its frequency changes you realize that the press pan is nearly empty. As you turn the press to mix up the cap, you can tell by the thwack, thwack that the cap is still very wet. I spend part of each morning digging my hands into the cap of fermenting wine to feel the texture of the skins, and as I bring the cap to my nose, another sense is used to determine the “health” of those skins.

As each press fraction comes off the press, I lift the lid on my wine again to see how much more time is required until that dish is “cooked” to perfection. Growth might have to be an inevitable need in the marketplace that we are in, but I can guarantee that we will never be so big that we can’t lift the lid to make sure the wines we make are the best they can be.

Giving Birth

With all due respect to mothers everywhere, I can’t help but feel a little like gestation is over, and I’ve delivered screaming and triumphant….the 2013 Harvest!

Yesterday saw the last three lots of fruit totaling about 10 tons delivered from the vineyards to the winery. Malbec and two Cabernets from Ghielmetti Estate Vineyard finish out our lineup for the year.newborn

When I’ve had a chance to get all of our fermenting wines into barrel, I will give a fuller recount of the harvest and what and how 2013 bodes for LINEAGE | Livermore Valley and The Steven Kent Winery. But few businesses have the built-in, almost inevitably problematic; hopeful but, outwardly ambivalent, nature of agricultural-based ones. There is so much planning done each year in terms of farming well, getting machinery in proper working order, determining the best sites for the varieties you want, figuring out styles today for a product that won’t launch for three years, and on and on. And yet, all of this meticulous attention can be ruined with one badly-timed and placed hail storm.

Though a lot of work has to be done in the winery before the 2013 harvest journal is complete, we were able to make it through the most uncontrollable part of the year about as beautifully as can be expected. Once again, the pacific nature of California wine-country weather held up its end of the bargain and a significantly large and great harvest was the reward.

I raise a (small) glass to the harvest year that was and to the hope that the winemaker is as temperate as the season.

You Say Blood Orange; I Say…Rutabaga?

We’ve all seen those florid tasting notes that throw out 100 different adjectives to describe the aroma of a Russian River Valley Chardonnay or the texture of a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. And, usually, we scoff at the overindulgence, wondering if that guy got paid by the word.rutabaga

We taste only five things (including umami a relatively newly acknowledged flavor), but we can SMELL thousands of different aromas. Trying to figure out what you are experiencing when drinking a glass of wine can be a little complicated given that the flavors and aromas that we take in are mitigated by and attentuated and elucidated; subsumed and elevated by the acidity, tannin, and additives (think barrels) that accompany those organoleptic elements. The age of the wine and experience of the drinker will also add further layers of complexity and challenge. bloodorange

The flavors and aromas of fresh wine grapes are pretty straight-forward. By variety, they certainly differ, but the range of differences is relatively narrow. It is the miracle of fermentation, though, with its vast multitude of chemical reactions that actually create the aromatic compounds that are identical to rose petals or spice or geraniums. Wine is like a piece of cooked meat. The fresh ingredients smell ineluctably like themselves. But throw in fermentation and a fire and the chemistry changes everything.

When I am going through fermentation bins each day, I am looking for the evolution of the aromatics, flavors, and textures of the wine. The first couple of days, the bins smell like the berries I plucked off in the vineyard a couple of days before. Each day, though, complexity increases (hopefully in a good way…I smell, early on, mostly for off-odors that could signal a problem with the ferment) and my notes abound with aromatic descriptions that serve really to help me remember a certain point in time during the wine’s early life that may help me foresee (and manipulate) one out of a multitude of potential futures.

I hadn’t really thought of it that way, until right now. Early on in the winemaking process, aromas are predictive. Later, (sometimes much later) those aromas harken back to a very specific point in time. That very singular combination of aromas reminds me of the wine I drank with my wife on our honeymoon and then later had, coincidentally, when my oldest turned 21…or the spoiled wine I threw away when I cleaned out my grandfather’s wine cellar after he passed (which automatically makes me think of my grandmother’s death and the funeral arrangements I made for her a few years later).

So, taking it another few steps, it can be said that the whole of one’s life experience (all those most important of moments) can be summed up by what we smell emanating from a glass of Cabernet. How’s that for the bottomlessness of wine?

Proportion and Balance; Elegance and Evolution

From the proper pronunciation of Pinot Meunier to a workable and acceptable definition of balance, wine can be a really confounding thing…and that’s just for the folks who actually make it. So much of what we ultimately end up doing – from picking decision to press date to final blending is done by feel. I liken this time of year to spinning a ton of plates for as long as possible, running from one to the other to keep it in motion for just a little longer, and ultimately accepting that the “final” decision (the inevitable tumbling of the dish) is the right one.spinningplates

The elements that I keep going back to, especially when thinking about what my final blends will bloom into, are balance and proportion, elegance and evolution.

I had the occasion last night to take my Reserve Room tasting team through a flight of the 2007 Small Lot Offering wines (our 100% Bordeaux varietal releases) in order to highlight the most important elements of those wines for their guests. I had not had those wines (Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and LINEAGE | Livermore Valley) at the same time since 2010, and I was overjoyed to discover how some of the decisions I made then – in terms of barrel choice, maceration times, etc, were paying dividends in texture, liveliness in the mouth, and elegance of presentation. This flight will be available to enjoy soon in our Reserve Room.

From the first major decision: when to pick the grapes, to the point of putting the wine into bottle, I am thinking about how to make wines that are of a piece. I believe the best wines are the most beautiful and elegant wines. For me, elegance means proportionality and cohesion. It means that there are no winemaking flourishes that are made simply because I can.

Each wine I make must express the point that it is exactly what it is supposed to be – a reflection of a place and time and philosophy that gives room for the wine to BE the wine. While it is true that winemakers MAKE wine, I want to be deft in my decision making, striving to make sure that the choices I make are (first) those that – Hippocratically – do no harm and that are made in service of the most beautiful expression of each vineyard and variety I work with. Great wines are those that effortlessly display their complexity, potential for positive growth and – in the end – a living, beating heart.

With the End in View

My wife – June – is a very talented and intelligent woman. There is no end to the useful things that I have learned from her over our years together. One of the most appropriate ideas, especially for this time of year, is “to start with the end in view.”

Notwithstanding the gigantic overage of fruit from some of our blocks that will have to be pieced into the puzzle a bit on the fly, I had a pretty good idea before harvest where each block of fruit was going to end up in respect to the various tiers of wines I make. But as they say, the plan’s good only until the first bullet flies.

June with Bloody Mary at Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay

June with Bloody Mary at Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay

I figured that clone 30 Cabernet was going to be the base for LINEAGE | Livermore Valley and that the clone 6 and clone 4 Cabernet (if they got ripe) from Ghielmetti Vineyard were going to be components of both a Single Vineyard Series of Cabernet as well as the Livermore Valley blend; PV in the Small Lot Offering, Syrah in the Collector’s Circle, etc. I didn’t exactly anticipate, however, that we were going to have as many iterations of certain blocks of fruit that we ended up having. We picked clone 30 Cab three different times, and each wine is different in fruit expression and relative weight; each also needs to be put into barrels that will augment its present shape.

Though I started with the finished bottle of wine in my mind, Mother Nature will very often give me starting material that just doesn’t fit the original plan. And ultimately, I believe it is more important to be true to the place and the year than it is to try to torture my grapes into too rigid a vision.

A good plan will help navigate one through the inevitable turbulent waters of real life, and it is probably the turbulence that, in part, attracts one to a business such as wine. Despite the curvebalIs that the season as thrown so far, I remain EXTREMELY bullish on the quality of the 2013 vintage.