A True Day

Some times it is the simplest things that make the largest difference. A walk in the waning light with the one you love, your dogs at your feet, and a good glass of wine in the hand that’s not holding onto your beloved’s. There is nothing simpler and truer.

June and I have been able to settle into this rhythm as we also settle (somewhat) into the house at Steven Kent’s estate vineyard in the Livermore Valley. The natural beauty of this place is mind-altering and life-changing, and it is a constant reminder of my belief that beauty exists everyday…even if it is sometimes buried beneath heartache.

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.

Hamlet in the Vines

hamletWith apologies to T.S. Eliot, April is not the cruelest month. The cruelest month is any month we have to make a picking decision in the vineyard. This is one of those zero-sum moments in the wine life. You can’t staple clusters back to the vine…once you make the decision to pick, you’ve stuck a pin fast into the timeline, and every hope and dream you have for that wine proceeds from that point forever. THERE IS NO GOING BACK!

It would be a lot less heartburn-inducing if every row (even every block) in a vineyard were the same. You go into a section of the block, taste berries, satisfy yourself that everything is ripe (the seeds are brown, the skins have the right texture and tannin content, and the flavors are spot on) and then pick it out and get on with it. Would that it were.

With every minute change in soil type, water-holding capacity, elevation, aspect of rows, and a million other things, the fundamental nature of the grape from section to section is slightly different. Some of that fruit has the potential to make you swoon…some will not quite reach that height. Then when you factor in outside influences – like a chance of rain a few days down the road – the reality of potential compromises (and the psychic pain those bring) start the waffling machine (to pick or not to pick?).

I’m out right now this morning in our clone 30 block of Cabernet; this is without doubt the most important fruit that we have. I made the decision a few days ago to pick part of the block because I thought the flavors were perfect; the textures of the skins and the seeds were right where they needed to be, so we picked about 20 of the 69 rows.  Right now that fruit is in fermentation bins about to get inoculated with yeasts that I’ve chosen, but the rest of the block, in fact, the vast majority of that block is still left to be picked (and subject, still, to all the vagaries of Mother Nature). The fruit from this block will make up the base of LINEAGE | Livermore Valley, and consequently, it needs to be perfect. So, with rain in the forecast, fermentation space at a premium, other varieties to pick, and the knowledge that my most important wine’s forever rests upon the decision I make right now, I dare say that

Clone 30 Cabernet at crush pad

Clone 30 Cabernet at crush pad

the agonizing can reach Shakespearean proportions.

Postscript: I did pull the picking trigger on another small portion of the block, and at the crush pad, at least, the fruit looked and tasted great. We won’t know for a while, though, whether I was blinded by surface beauty to flaws hidden beneath the skin.