The (Un) Un-sung Hero

Harvest time is the most beautiful kind of hell. It is grueling; it is full of moments of clenching indecision; it takes you away from your family for 18 hours a day, and leaves the remaining moments that aren’t devoted to a tidbit of sleep, full of self-recrimination and self-loathing. But…in the end, you get this beautiful thing…this liquid treasure that carries 20140826_124303 (1)all your best hopes and prayers for purity. That’s if you didn’t screw things up. If you paid attention. If you curried the favor of the right gods. And also, most importantly, if you worked with the right people.

Like me, Craig Ploof learned about winemaking by doing winemaking. I met Craig first as a member of the Steven Kent wineclub years ago, we became friends, he wanted to learn to make wine and I wanted to make better wine. A few years ago, he started helping me while he had a full-time gig. And knowing a good and dedicated thing, I hired him to help me full-time. It takes a particularly morbid and self-aware person to plan ahead for the worst possible scenarios, and being only partially morbid (and only under the influence of too much Scotch), I didn’t plan for the love of my life to get sick and for our lives to change forever.

The grapes don’t know the troubles of men and come in when they are ready. And thankfully for us, Craig was ready too. Even more than normal, he has worked like a dog, putting in an ungodly number of hours, and making some really nice wine. More than these things – important as they are – he has allowed me to be with my wife and kids, charting our course through these fucked-up waters.

I will never be able to repay him for this.

Time Marches On…

We are in one of those weird confluences that happen every year where the past, present, and future bat up against each other at one single point in space and time.

We are in the process of sending out samples of the 2011 Lineage Family Estate to the press in the next few weeks. This wine has been in bottle since early January and will be released in October. At the same time, the 2012 Lineage blend was just made on Wednesday – individual barrels and portions of barrels were racked to a tank, barrels Lineage- 4 vintageswere cleaned, and the wine was then racked from tank back into those barrels. This wine will be bottled prior to harvest this year and released in October 2015.

And while all this is going on, we have finished initial evaluations of the 2013 vintage of all of our wines (there are probably 25 different wines to whittle down to the 4 or 5 that will be part of the blend – including 6 or 7 sub-lots of just one block of Cabernet from Ghielmetti Estate Vineyard), and we’re at a point where we are conjuring a picture in our minds of what that wine can be…and then blending to that vision.

One of the amazing things about wine is its aliveness. It is living and breathing and evolving constantly. We make scores of mock blends of Lineage each year and finally have to decide on THE one that rings truest and most authentic knowing full well that the blend we have chosen has already moved on and become something else. In this crazy time of year, when three different states of wine-being are foremost in our minds, having faith in our fruit and our experience is about the only weapon we have against inevitable Time.

Lineage 2013: The Beginning

lineage-capsule.jpgOver the course of the next 18 months, we’ll be whittling a redwood down to a finely sharpened toothpick as Craig Ploof, my assistant winemaker, and I move through 213 barrels of 2013 Bordeaux varieties in 23 separate barrel groups to get to the perfect 20 that will become Lineage 2013. There are many ways of tackling the complexity inherent in this task, but I want to be sure that in getting to our

Making Mock blend

Making Mock blend

answer we don’t miss out on the joy and beauty of this most essential thing we do.

As Craig and I taste through the barrel groups we will be taking a lot of notes, talking a lot about our individual preferences and making a lot of mock blends. One of things that makes blending this way so interesting is that neither one of us tastes the same thing as the other. What may seem thin and lacking in varietal character to Craig may be overly wooded and too viscous for me. So, in the journey to craft a wine of beauty and tension and complexity, Craig and I must “battle” our own individual (and sometimes – idiosyncratic) biases to get to a point of agreement, and – more importantly – a point that most honestly serves the true nature of this particular wine.

When Lineage 2013 is released my profoundest hope is that the wine is not only spectacularly delicious but that it serves as a symbol for the way I want to make wine and live life. Hopefully, it prods and maybe even provokes a little. This wine should transform, if only to a tiny degree. And if we succeed, we will all see wine and winemaking a little bit differently, and perhaps feel it a little more deeply.

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.

You Squeezed ‘im to Death… or: Anatomy of a Press

Taken from a Police Department interview transcript:

Is it true, that on or about 8:50 am on 21 October, you willing caused a lot of Clone 30 InterrogationCabernet Sauvignon from Ghielmetti Vineyard to be pressed until it was devoid of juice? And remember, we have witnesses.

I’m not sure why I’m here officer. But, that’s what I do.

So, you admit to causing grievous bodily…pressing…to said lot of Cabernet?

I’ve got nothing to hide. At about 8:50 I drew off the free run wine from two fermentors and then dumped the skins into our press.

Slow down, pal. Let’s back up a second. What wine are we talking about, specifically?

It was the second pick of Clone 30 (or See clone) Cabernet from Ghielmetti Vineyard, our estate site in the eastern foothills of the Livermore Valley. This is our best block of fruit and typically makes up the base for our Bordeaux blend – LINEAGE | Livermore Valley.

So, this is the wine that came from a pick on October 8, 2013.

It is.

I have sworn testimony here that you picked fruit from this very same block on October 4th as well. Why didn’t you press that lot first?

Well, there are a couple of different philosophies….

Don’t get cute with me, winemaker man! Just the facts.

Ok…there are different curves of ripeness in a vineyard. Not all fruit gets ripe, even in the same block, at the same time. And, not all wines – in fermentor – exhibit the same sense of structure and completeness in a predictable period of time.

You’re saying that some grapes picked earlier – from the same block – take longer to

Press fraction samples

Press fraction samples

resolve tannins and display the richness that you are looking for than grapes picked later?

I didn’t saying it quite so poetically, but yes.

FIne, fine. So what happened at 9:40am on the same day? Something about a press rotation?

What I am trying to do is get as much wine out at the lowest possible pressure.

Why is that important? 

Well, it gets back a bit to the philosophy thing…

Go ahead, go ahead. We don’t got all day. I’ve got a case of enzyme addition to deal with.

In my mind, great wine is about balance. And, texture (the way the wine feels in your mouth – how astringent, how full, the nature of the astringency, etc.) is perhaps the most important quality for me when I’m considering the quality of the wine. More important, even, than flavor and aroma.

I use a stair-step approach to pressing. I get out what I can from 0 pressure, then stair-step the pressure up .2 to .25 bar until the flow slows sufficiently to warrant the next step. At about 1.0 bar (or one atmosphere of pressure), I vacuum out the press, opening up the bladder inside, then rotate the press a few times to redistribute the fruit. Then I reinflate the bladder to a pressure high enough to start the flow of wine again. I stop there for a while then move the pressure up in increments to as high as 2 Bar (depending on the wine).

How do you know what’s happening at each step up in pressure?

That’s where the tasting comes into play. I draw a sample at each

Press cup lets me grab samples

Press cup lets me grab samples

step so I can taste (in essence, so I can feel the wine’s texture) if there is enough tannin – or too much – being drawn out at a given pressure. What I find generally, and in the wine

Tartaric acid residue looking like river tributary

Tartaric acid residue looking like river tributary

you’re questioning me about, specifically, is a bouncing around of flavor and “color” of fruit, and weightiness (or tannin content). Interestingly enough, in the first turn, the wine at lower pressure (say .25 to .45 Bar) seems more tannic than samples at higher pressure. You’d think the opposite would be true, but I think it could be sugars from raisins that are finally being drawn out…or it could have to do with the interaction with tartrates that seem to come out most heavily earlier in the cycle that cause an astringency I don’t see after the first turn, for example.

So what’s the second turn at 9:53am all about?

Post-press. Grape skins are dry

Post-press. Grape skins are dry

Well, we’ve talked about drawing out various organoleptic characteristics (flavor, aroma, texture) from the wine as we move up in pressure. We also want to maximize the amount of wine we get from each press. By turning again, we loosen the cake of skins and seeds temporarily, redistribute them in the press, and press again…again, in a stair-step way until the skins are dry.

Let me get this straight. It takes a couple of hours to go from a box full of skins and wine to a tankful of just wine. And during this time, you’re gently squeezing out flavor and texture and gauging the extent to which and pressure at which these elements express themselves so that you end up with a finished wine that causes the winelover to slow down and experience and ponder and become emotionally invested? 

Wow. Well said. Yeah, that’s about it.

So there’s no crime here, then? 

Only if you do it wrong, I suppose.

Pressing Needs or “Youth’s Dreams Torn Asunder”

I’m putting the finishing touches together on the press plan for the Home Ranch Cabernet we produce from our smaller estate vineyard. Consisting of one clone, it would seem a pretty straightforward job to just put all the fermentation boxes together and be done with it. One of the really interesting things about this site, though, is that even at only 2.8 acres, it has two dramatic environmental characteristics that greatly affect the outcome of its

Collecting sample from press

Collecting sample from press

wines. An obvious soil break that affects about a third of the block (this piece is not nearly as capable of holding water as the bigger portion) triggers the production of fewer bunches with smaller berries.

And further complicating (or complexing) the site is a stand of Pepper and Eucalyptus trees that separates the vineyard from the Pepper Tree Horse Farm next door. These trees break up the flow of wind from west to east, and in the process, dump the aromatic oils from the trees onto part of the Cabernet Sauvignon closest to the fence line.

As you can imagine, this small piece of ground  contains a fair amount of variability. We decided to pick out the vineyard into three separate areas (each had significantly different sugar numbers, the back third of the site came in at about a degree Brix lower than the front two-thirds) in order to get a better handle on what the site actually is and how it behaves so that the final wine or wines would reflect the place and season more authentically.

Each fermentation box holds about 1.5 tons of fruit. The presses that we use are too large to squeeze a single box so part of our early fermentation plans try to take into account that we are going to have to put certain boxes together (click here to see press in action). Pressing things together limits the ultimate flexibility I will have in the blending process unless I am able to draw enough free-run juice (a subject for another time) from each individual box to create a large-enough effect in the final wine.

As I write this on Friday, October 18, I am thinking about how to insure enough different sub-lots of wine to get to where this year’s fruit will allow me to go while also accounting for the limits of equipment, personnel, and barrels.  A small, nagging factor also present is that I am short of fermentation boxes for the last couple of lots of grapes I need to bring in. Do I potentially shortchange the structural development of wines already in fermentor in order to bring in fruit in a timely fashion? or do I count the birds in hand as more important than the ones waiting, incipiently, out in the vineyard? These are the kinds of decisions that keep me up at night. As I’ve written here before…you only get the one chance to pull the trigger on one of the most important decisions in the wine year.

Infinite possibility is one of youth’s things that gets put away. I get it. But it is damn hard, when I see so many potential roads to greatness in a specific wine from a potentially spectacular vintage, to allow adulthood’s realities to have a hand in making the ultimate call.

A Little Day Trip…to the Future!

Yesterday I did a little time traveling.

Nothing so mundane as going back to Spain in 1492 to sail with Columbus or to 1776 Philadelphia. No. I went out to the very edge of the future with the wines that will become the 2013 LINEAGE | Livermore Valley!

Making Mock blend

Making Mock blend

One of the profoundest joys of this business is being at a point in the fermentation continuum when the must in boxes has gone over that cataract that separates juice from wine. At near-dryness my wines have reached a point where they have gained enough structure and flavor; aromatic complexity and length that I can begin to think of how each fermentor fits into the larger picture. I am close to being able to say that the best lots of Cabernet this year are X, Y and Z and that they need to go into certain barrels destined for a specific offering while other wines will fit better (because of more or less complexity) into a blend, for example.

Three mock blends - Home Ranch Cabernet

Three mock blends – Home Ranch Cabernet

Yesterday, while going through our Clone 30 and Home Ranch Cabernets, I started making very rough mock blends, taking certain boxes and putting them together in different configurations (click here to hear me talk about the process). Even same-variety blends that are comprised “only” of different vineyards or clones contain an infinite potentiality, and it is my job to take away the elements that muddy the picture that I have in my head and mouth of what that wine can become. Is there too much tannin? Is the fruit too red?, enough acid?, does that one curtail length? Does that box – with that yeast – fill out the mid-palate sufficiently? How will that blend react to these barrels?

There are a bunch of different elements that I am seeking when I’m putting blends together, and like someone’s definition of pornography, I know it when I taste it. The wines must have life; they must be vital and elegant. They must show a time and place and site. They have to be delicious and provoke thought and have the capacity to grow and evolve.

The wines that I tasted yesterday are already different this morning. They have changed in texture and flavor, girth and mouthfeel. So the exercise that I started at 5 in the morning on a Tuesday will be recreated again and again until the final decision has to be made. My vision of what that ultimate wine can be will have changed subtly as well.

While the Platonic ideal of my ideal wine is clear in my head, the season and the multitude of minute winemaking reverberations that occur each harvest (and each day within it) will allow me ultimately only to chase perfection.