crushed & stirred

making wine?

back by popular demand

To make up for lost time, I offer you the following dramatic reenactment of a harvest only just gone by. If you’re a local, this will seem like a drawing of a dream you had once, fuzzy and cloaked in the haze of vintage amnesia. To members of the industry and not, from faraway lands and not, let this be a postcard of what it is to bust your chops in the name of wine in 2014 in Sonoma County.

Harvest started off with a jolt. For the North Bay, a tectonic one; for me, the worker’s-compensation kind. In the space of 48 hours, I fell off a ladder, became a useless and irritable spectator to our first haul of Pinot Noir, then a useless and irritable participant on the bottling line as we kissed two thousand cases of 2013 white wines farewell, and then there was an earthquake and our intern split her head open. 10518602_10204854096579117_3891634936307836177_o

My biggest nightmare (nb: NOT my barrel room, luckily for us)

So it was really all downhill from there. Joe and I had spent months anticipating a deluge of fruit. We’d looked at some alarming ripening models, in which most vineyards were coming in as heavy as the bumper crops of ’12 and ’13 – people, HOW is it that even POSSIBLE – and also mostly ripe within the same two weeks. On one August afternoon, I stood before Joe’s desk, listening to him rattle off the tonnages expected within the space of a week, and agreed with him that it was physically impossible. We did not have the tank space for that. It takes us 10 to 15 days, on average, to turn over a tank of red grapes. It takes 48 hours to turn over white juice the way we process it. Our crémant press cycle for white grapes is 3 to 4 hours long. There are twelve tanks. There are four people. There are 24 hours in a day. There are 140 tons of grapes. There is one forklift. There is only one espresso machine. 20140917_132813

the holy trinity

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working in tight spaces

I tried to remind myself that: every year, somehow, we pull it off. And while it seemed unlikely this year, we did. Ripening patterns shifted in a few key places. Some vineyards held steady at a point of near ripeness, which can be ideal logistically but also physiologically and phenologically, developing flavor gradually without either accumulating sugar or dropping acidbeyond a desirable point.

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The heat stayed on, but it didn’t cook the way it did in 2013. Warm and pleasant days, good for people and grapes, but just mild enough to stem the flow and stave off overt dehydration in most cases. Basically, we got a lot of what we wanted. In a few places, we got too much. Nine tons of Grenache from a vineyard we’ve never had more than seven from? Five tons of Chardonnay from a vineyard we’ve never had more than three from? We saw some strange things happen this harvest, and heard of stranger things yet. There’s a feeling – perhaps a rumbling, impressionistic, gossipy one – that this third year of unprecedented volume in drought conditions, has pushed vineyards to places they aren’t accustomed to, and beyond our scope of hard facts and knowledge. Strange patterns at ripening and at fermentation. Head scratchers and keeper-upper-at-nighters.

Due to some major logistical improvements to the flow of our cellar, Joe and I maintained that it was our most efficient and least torturous harvest. Most of the way, at least. Barrel work felt like a breeze. Our pumpover/punchdown schedule was cake. Our interns worked their butts off. Our sanitation was at an all-time high. Our processing seemed faster than ever, and clean-down quicker. Our barrel-fermented whites were always at the ideal temperature. We were rather pleased with ourselves. And then came the last quarter, where it always feel like you’re tied in overtime, like every other year.

20140909_074528(0)loading white grapes, sometimes late into the night

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filling barrels of finished red straight from the tank; Obsidian Vineyard Syrah

And through it all: tasting. Tasting every ferment first thing in the morning while it’s still dark out and the fog still impenetrable. Tasting again at the end of the day, when again it’s dark out and the next day seems impossible. Tasting all throughout, watching flavors and aromas develop, disappear, reappear, transform, excite you, concern you, keep you thinking. Every year we have our pet favorites and our ugly ducklings, our naughty ferments and our foam-overs.

Quality is high. Alcohols reasonable. Acid levels ideal. Basically, I can’t wait to watch these wines find their way through the next year and two years. They are a promising, intriguing, occasionally puzzling, mostly exciting lot. Kobler Syrah has me waiting on the edge of my seat to see what it will do. Obsidian Syrah is more varied and interesting than ever. Sonoma Mountain Pinot is powerful, earthy, and spiced. Sun Chase Chardonnay is the pear Jelly Belly of my childhood. With harvest wrapped up and tidy in early October, we returned to finished wines sooner than usual. Racking and blending 2013 lots, tasting 2013 lots – we’re closer to finishing 13 blends than we’ve ever been at this point in the year. I’ve logged a lightyear in the lab. We’ve sulfured nearly every red lot and a some of our white lots. 20141218_110915

racking 2013 Syrah

It’s been raining in Sonoma for nearly three weeks now, making national news. Some torrential downpours, some days-long sprinkling, some long-awaited puddle-jumping. We’ve had half our annual rain this month, and our drought-riddled state is sucking it down like a beer after one of those harvest days I can hardly remember now. 20141221_170343 This shot is of a budding vine, surrounded by last year’s bare canes and dried leaves, confused by mild winter temps and plentiful rain into staying awake long after the others have nodded off. This phenomenon has got to be one of the most poetic things I’ve seen in the viticulture world. A reminder of the change and transformation and renewal that govern the growing world at all times, its fluid and impressionable nature, slipping in and out of time and light and darkness somewhere between pure logic and sheer magic. Happy New Year.

the earth moved

. . . . and then this harvest got very weird, before it even got off the ground. Perhaps we should have seen the mischief brewing – the strange conditions a long way out. The eerie spring warmth; the premature budbreak and ensuing growing season; the perverse drought; the suddenly strange cool spell that briefly arrested development of skyrocketing sugars paired with oddly high acid levels. Humid days. Fog so thick it was rain. Then gentle warming again, with the potential for rain. Strange vintage, this.

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Then I slipped off a ladder, three rungs up. It was hot and humid in the cellar and I was concentrating hard as I casually pulled a gas line out of the top of a tank filling with finished chardonnay (delish, btw). Concentrating so hard I didn’t even notice whether my foot had made contact with the rung below me before allowing my body weight to follow it. I don’t know enough about physics, but I’m sure that 140 pounds of woman coming down on the slim ankle of said woman with the added velocity produced by a 3-foot drop – not recommended. Unless you’re a fan of pumpkin-sized feet and purple skin and crutches and feeling horrible about your uselessness and your inability to do EVERYTHING. UGGGGHHH.

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Cuz then we had our first pick. Pinot Noir from Perli Vineyard in Mendocino County. As a first haul goes, it was a good one, minus my grouchy uselessness – clean and delicious and sitting in tank now, awaiting its hopefully long life as a kick ass wine.

Then we bottled. Enough about that; when it happens at the start of harvest, we’d all just as soon as forget it ever happened. We all went home, ready to move on to the fun part, minus one ankle.

And then at 3.20 am the earth shook. I hadn’t felt an earthquake in years, but as a native Californian, it was an instantly recognizable, cruel awakening – as from illness. There’s no mistaking it, that disorienting vulnerability. A reminder that the physical world that is our reference for everything is subject to change, to destruction, even to harming us. And to putting one of our two interns in the hospital with stitches and a concussion from a flying object.

Up in Santa Rosa, Donelan is north and west of the epicenter and nothing was lost. All day, with my leg guiltily raised on the couch, I monitored the photos streaming in from our industry colleagues of fire and brimstone in the Napa Valley next door – of barrel room calamities, shattered wine libraries, busted up streets, burning houses.

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As a preamble to the following: I feel more invested in this harvest than ever before. Yes, my return to Donelan last year was a homecoming to wines and a team I feel motivated by. But this is more than a year hence. A year of caring for those barrels, tending to that lab, lovingly sweeping and lifting and cleaning and building and installing and topping and racking and sampling and tasting and thinking and talking and finishing – actually bottling wines I “made.” And so this year, more than ever, I want to help our stellar sites come through into some stellar wines and learn and experience all the stuff you learn and experience along the way. I want it to taste goooood and feel great.

Anyway.

So now we are a slightly limping, slightly rattled crew, with the whole show still ahead of us. And so goes the show; it goes on. There’s a world of fruit out there. At dawn (as in, tonight – people this is in REAL TIME) we pick the first load of Obsidian Vineyard Syrah, ankle or no ankle.

it comes but once a year

What can I say? I’ve been busy writing other things? I’ve been making wine and memories? I’ve been living and being and not blogging? Yes and thrice yes.

I won’t pretend to properly catch you up on the last, er, five-ish months. Wines in barrels, wines get bottled, vineyards push buds, then flower, then set berries and ripen. The time from budbreak to harvest seems, from the outset, like soooooo long. Looking back on it, it seems like forever ago. But it isn’t; the growing season breaks down into distinctive stages that last just a short couple of weeks, marking the passage of time as they go. One minute we were checking flowering, the next we were doing our crop estimations, the next we were checking for veraison, and suddenly we are staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.

A fast track through the growing season:

20140327_161705buds pushing way back when

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flowering

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“pressure bombs”  measure water stress in late spring 

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Perli Vineyard Pinot Noir, Mendocino Ridge AVA

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Veraison at Devoto Vinyards, Sebastopol Hills

This harvest is upon us faster than we could even have fathomed. We’ve been tracking our vineyards all along, and the numbers all check out – vineyards that flower at a certain date go through veraison at a closely corresponding date and can be mapped onto harvest date at a closely corresponding date. Still, it is the middle of August and all of the pre-harvest work we normally would be starting now has already been checked off the list.

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Running analysis on grape samples collected in the vineyards

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A hefty batch of samples, a small-scale version of what our winery will look like in a couple of weeks

Just a minute ago, it seems, I would wake up for work with the sun already warm on the windows. Suddenly, I’m beating the day to its rays and California’s extreme drought is creating a mock autumn in ordinarily green foliage. Fall feels farther than it should, and closer than I’m sure it does for kids still running through sprinklers the world over (anywhere but here in Drought-topia).

20140811_100210Obsidian Vineyard from the top, through the wild oats

As I drove home from work one night recently, after dark for some reason that escapes me now, I had a visit from ghosts of harvests pasts. Remember the time at midnight after three pressloads of Chardonnay when I was driving home and Joe called because he couldn’t find his car keys and thought he’d have to sleep at the winery? Remember the times I’ve called my parents from the car just to stay awake behind the wheel, arms still tacky with grapes? Remember the time the bottom fell out of my takeout burger into your lap while you steered with french-fry fingers onto the 101, heading northbound, heading home?

I pulled off the highway and onto the split-up asphalt of these, our varicose country roads, listening to the same radio station I’ve been playing since the first day I stumbled into town like a tumbleweed in a dust storm. The moonlight was amplified by the night’s thin fog creeping in and it illuminated the white water tower over a vast Sonoma vineyard that rose and fell like surf. I felt harvest waking from its slumber – the way you can feel the first snow brewing in a certain kind of cloudcover.

Harvest time seems to occupy its own plane of existence, somewhere between sleeping and waking, time stretches out and compresses. As I look ahead at it – less romantically, I must admit, as the vintages accumulate – it seems downright unpleasant. The loss of sleep and schedule. The struggle to find time to be with your loved ones, your friends, to call your family and handle your affairs. But when it’s happening, it’s happening, right there in front of your face, nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, nowhere you’d rather be.

The 2014 vintage still hangs very much in the balance. Will sugars skyrocket with dehydration through all this fitful heatwaves? Will vines shut down immaturely under water stress? Will acids drop reasonably given the shorter-than-normal season? Will acids plummet suddenly and make the sugars seem too high? Will everything work out beautifully?

march madness

My absence here embarrasses me. It’s like the longer you go without flossing, the harder it is to get back on the floss-horse. Soon, the guilt becomes so powerful you would rather dread that your teeth are going to fuse together than even dare trying. And then you begin to question whether you should even really be a flosser. What’s it all about. Do you just want to be another one of those flossers in the bottomless pitt of other flossers?

Yes, I do.

My last post promised of secret locations in wintry cities. Well, it’s true. Donelan Wines whisked me off to New York City for a snowy weekend to pour at a benefit where we were the wine sponsor. It was my first business trip. It was also the first snow I’d seen in three years, after two winters dodged for the balmy coasts of New Zealand and Australia. It was a great experience – the event and the snow and the reunions with my East Coast life.

sledding in Central Park

sledding in Central Park

Also a great experience: my first spring in three years, after two springtimes traded for two extra autums. And I’m obsessed with the spring. When I last wrote, there was still no water. If there were only water, we stalked around muttering, with lips poetically chapped and mouths parched. Eyes short on tears. Not a drop of sweat to spare.

Then it rained. Not enough. But it rained. About half as much as we need. But everything went green, all the mustard came out in the vineyards. The poppies and irises are filling the garden beds. The asparagus sprang up like bamboo, seemingly overnight. The dogwood and cherry blossoms have exploded into perfect colors and allergic nightmares. The roses are in full leaf and the buds are not far off.

Russian River Valley, looking west, in mustard glory

Russian River Valley, looking west, in mustard glory

And then there’s the winery. The last six weeks have been some of the most productive since before harvest, but not in a sexy way. Months-old lists worth of scheduled analysis, blending trials and decisions, rack-and-returns, and odd jobs have been dispensed with. We are now in full-fledged bottling prep. Last Friday, I racked and blended the 2013 rosé. Today, Joe and I racked the 2012 Two Brothers Pinot – 63 barrels and 8 puncheons, now resting in 4 full tanks – and the 2011 Richards Family Syrah. Tomorrow, we attack the 2012 Cuvée Moriah Grenache. Next week, we bottle.

Big Grenache berries with their thick skins are forever eluding us. These survivors made it a 16 months in barrel. Until I hosed them down the drain.

Big Grenache berries with their thick skins are forever eluding us. These survivors made it a whole 16 months in barrel. Until I hosed them down the drain.

Puncheons are big barrels - 500 liters (132 gallons). I choose to stand on top of them while racking. Check out the pretty magenta Grenache illuminated by my torch.

Puncheons are big barrels – 500 liters (132 gallons). I choose to stand on top of them while racking. Check out the pretty magenta Grenache illuminated by my torch.

We’ve been warming up for these two-plus weeks of slam-packed work for ages now. It’s awesome to watch our choices come to fruition – our plans and decisions, things we’ve mulled and labored over. It’s huge for me to have been an active part of all of these blends, and to experience the nuances of accomplishment, satisfaction, and a specific kind of apprehension. I stand by our process of eliminating impossibilities, replicating our preferences, and identifying the best solution; still, there’s a healthy sense of questioning, because there’s no going back once it’s in the bottle. It renews for me what this industry has always represented: material immediacy. Abstract concepts and thoughts become physical movements and chemical reactions and profound alterations in state.

More barrels than winery. Final taste before final blending.

More barrels than winery. Final taste before final blending.

 

After cleaning four tanks in 45 minutes this morning, it reminded me that on the busiest day of the 2013 vintage I did the same work in half the time. That’s what being in harvest shape is. And adrenaline and twice the caffeine. But the muscles are stirring in there, as they are in vineyards all over the county. Budburst is a new one for me, the winter-dodger and spring-misser.

Baby green leaves popping out of spring vines.

Baby green leaves popping out of spring vines.

this and more of this

It’s quiet on this western front, but it’s not that quiet. It’s cold but not that cold and it just won’t rain. The green will not come, the brown will not go, and every time the sky clouds over, it brightens up again. I’ve been assured the quiet months really do come to wineries, but they haven’t come yet.

We have five batches of wine still finishing the last drops of malolactic fermentation – a couple whites and one red. I’ve spent whole afternoons filling the barrel room and I’m still nooooot quiiittteee there, and I may go mad before I get it all in there. I’ve measured the barrel room out to within an inch of its life, I’ve counted and recounted, I’ve moved and removed, all in the hopes of making the space as coherent and workable an environment as possible – for me. That’s the reason. I am the one who has the great privilege of spending the rest of the year topping, sampling, stirring, sulphuring, racking, and just being in that smallish, big room. Working with the barrels, looking for things, hosting tastings . . . I’m trying to get the most mileage out of it for my own sanity. And happiness.

It’s hard to get on top of all the organization because we are still juggling a lot, and now – and for the duration – we are juggling a lot a lot of wine. There is so much wine to top, so much wine to conduct analysis on, so much wine to taste in preparation for major blending decisions, so much to prepare for our spring bottling, so much wine work on the calendar, and so much still to catch up on and plan for the weeks and months to come. It only recently occurred to me that I have yet, since returning to Donelan last summer, to find a day boring. Joe and I have scheduled up the next month of work already, and it’s jam packed.

So I’m doing this:

ImageIt takes me nearly two full days to top all the wine in the cellar, between 2012 and 2013 wines

And this:

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with the blending decisions to be finalized in the next month, we’re doing a lot of tasting and trialling. We will bottle the Two Brothers Pinot Noir, the Cuvee Moriah Grenache-Syrah-Mouvedre, and are making core blending decisions on the Walker Vine Hill Syrah and the Cuvee Keltie Syrah. Many calls to make.

The feeling of harvest buzz, post-harvest hustle, and pre-holidays bustle has turned into a seemingly endless new year worth of action. I’m into it. My next post will be from an exciting, mystery location that will involve a winter coat, a plane trip, and formal wear. Stay tuned.

wax on

Am I getting lazy already, do you wonder? Settling in to the possibility of indefinite employment? Slacking off on this blog, which is part-travelogue, part industry-whinge, part winemaking how-to, part letters-from-camp?

Well, I’m not. As the dust settles from harvest we are chasing after our last few batches of wine finishing malolactic ferment. And with Thanksgiving came The End of the Interns, so I’m now doing a lot of the chasing with my own tiny little hands.

Also, remember how we bottled before harvest? In those crazy days of would-we-wouldn’t-we panic over whether we could empty tanks of finished wine fast enough to fill them with fruit? Well I could hardly remember it – the blur of that week. Indeed, we did bring in Perli pinot noir while bottling, but just eked through in time. It was thousands of cases of wine, out the door, figuratively.

Because then we stacked it a million high in the warehouse and tried to forget about it until harvest was over and we could put the Donelan stamp on it and start shipping it. And this is what that looks like:

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we use black wax on pinot and syrah cuvees

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we melt the wax with paraffin to give it a gloss

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melting, melting

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dip, hang, twist

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repeat

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repeat by the pallet, for two straight days, occasionally barking orders and swapping pallets

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until your tables look like this

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and your shoes look like this

I’ll be back with wine-related updates over Christmas. We got good stuff coming up in 2014. Strap in.

in which I get a job

This has been a big year for little old me. 12 months ago, I accepted my vintage job at Juniper and bought a one-way ticket to Sydney. Soon after, I was hightailing across the Outback in a station wagon and soon after that, I washed up in Margaret River, only a little worse for the wear, and fumbled my way into a beautiful life and vintage that gave me opportunities to step up to the plate in overdue fits and bursts.

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Juniper Estate

By spring (that is, fall in Australia), I was undecided about the immediate future – the same tune I’ve been singing for the last three years. But I knew I was getting tired of setting up shop again every 6 months. The constant hunt for new work, visas, travel means, housing, transportation, bank accounts, phones . . . the constant readjustment to new lives, new people, new expectations, new challenges and setbacks, new opportunities and excitement. If you can’t tell, I’ve experienced some ambivalence.

My return to California – after great deliberation – was also a homecoming to Donelan. Every vintage I’ve worked has served at least one purpose in educating me; this year, the greatest boost came from the sense of engagement that comes with greater responsibility, deeper involvement, more decision making, more opportunities to set the pace and priorities and to participate. The learning curve felt, at times, as steep as my first. But it also solidified my increasing comfort in this industry and my hunger to take that further. I worried before the start of harvest that I wouldn’t be able to keep up, but that’s not how it felt when I was actually presented with situations that taxed me, frustrated me, overwhelmed me. It just made me want to keep working to get it right. I remembered again something said to me a long time ago by a fellow cellar friend: the difference between a worker and a great worker is someone who, when confronted with an arduous task, says: “I don’t like this, I want it to end” and someone who says: “I don’t like this. I must destroy it.”

Destroy it with finesse, I’ve often had to remind myself. There’s finesse, and sometimes there’s force. Force, and sometimes finesse. I feel like my work is just getting started. In the last few weeks at Donelan, I’ve been transitioning to a new role. My first ever permanent job, and as a cellar master at that. It’s a big deal to me. Some things won’t change much about my day-to-day work. But other things will change a great deal and I’m excited at the prospect of riding these next waves and elaborating on them here, on these virtual pages.

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It’s not exactly hard to imagining living here year-round

This is the first time a vintage has ended and I haven’t already been head-first organizing the next one. It’s a relief. Does that mean I won’t have striking photos to post from mountaintops in New Zealand or eucalypt groves in Australia or wineries in Italy? I can still post those, I just won’t be in the photos. Better yet, I can include shots of Sonoma in springtime – something I’ve yet to see. I can sign a lease. Plant some veggies. Get a subscription to a newspaper (whatever, I like hard copy.) And finish wines.

the big pink

Winemaking is colorful, from the growing season in the vineyard to the pressing in the winery and the pouring in the glasses and the people who make and clean up the messes. This post, the last for this 2013 harvest, is an ode on the shades of pink that never fail to astonish me. If you spend enough time watching the fermenting juice pour out of a pumpover hose – as you do – you become as sensitive to the evolving colors and the textures and sheen of the foams as you eventually will to the developing flavors and aromas in the ferment and the finished and bottled product. Joe often remarks on how we get to track these fleeting things, there and then gone, sometimes transforming faster than we can even notice them. Something in this reminds me of Lavoisier’s law of conservation of matter: nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed. It sounds a lot prettier in French: rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée, tout se transforme.

It feels like moments ago that I said goodbye to my last weekend, and here I write from the first one back after the final pressing on Friday. It’s only been a couple of months, but it feels like forever and also a day. We’re proud, tired, happy, and staring at a mountain of barrels. Now we get to make the damn stuff. But before we move on to the next barrage of projects, decisions, and assessments, some pink stuff:

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Inches from the top, this guy eventually foamed over, to the dismay of those who had to clean it up

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With the 31 tons from Walker Vine Hill, we ended up with ten vessels of Walker syrah; fives tanks & five bins, all from different blocks and with different concentrations of stem inclusion, ranging from 0% to 100%. All of these vessels were full to the brim, and these bins, like the tank, made a pretty mess.

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At Donelan, we do both pumpovers and punchdows – each at different points in the course of the fermentation – and sometimes we do a modified “delestage,” a French term for an aerative pumover that involves splashing the juice through a screen and into a sump before pumping it up over the top. It’s designed to help combat any sign of reduction and feed oxygen to the hardworking yeast.

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After about a week of endless pumpovers from the early days of the Walker ferments came another week of endless punchdowns. Ten full ferments translates to ten brick walls worth of Syrah to bust through with this steel arm, morning and evening.

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When the tank is dry, we drain the wine to barrel and start the dig from the outside . . .

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. . . but eventually, you’ve got to get inside. It’s one of the sweatiest and most back breaking tasks in a cellar, but it’s also a favorite job

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Filling the bag press with grapes as we begin to empty the tanks. The bag inflates and deflates over the course of the programmed press cycle, pushing the skins up against the slotted steel of the drum and rotating at intervals to break up the “cake.”

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The juice tray during the press cycle. We pump this out and into barrel too.

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The empty press tray means it’s time to clean the press, which we’ve now done for the last time this harvest. 

As anyone whose followed this blog (thanks, guy) knows, the photos and the posts get a lot less pink from here on out. The colors and the mess are all contained now, which is the goal, really. The strange beauty becomes different. Nothing is lost, everything is transformed.

the last big push

Most vintages seem to follow a trend. 2011 was late, wet, and occasionally heartbreaking. 2012 in New Zealand was later, wetter, and occasionally excruciating; 12 hours of pumpovers in the rain, every day, forever. 2012 in Sonoma was The Big Vintage. 2013 in Margaret River was long and easy. So far, 2013 in Sonoma is giant, early, hot, and erratic.

After a couple of weeks of tearing our hair out, we pressed off every ferment, one by one, stacking up as many in a day as were ready to go. All the pinot, done and dusted. The Obsidian syrah is sitting in barrel, uncharacteristically early. The hours I spent pulling empty barrels turned into hours filling barrels, then hours moving full barrels around and into their warm, temporary homes.

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a pumpover sheet

As I seem to lament every year, there came the lull. We power washed the floors. We topped finished wines. We sampled vineyards, waiting for those last flavors, sugars, and acids to dial in. Even after all that heat and sun, still the syrah and grenache took their time, coming in at a manageable pace. We dragged Kobler syrah in, kicking and screaming. Richards vineyard rolled in with a big, awesome crop. The grenache shook free in all its pink-lemonade glory.

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Grenache juice before the extraction kicks in

But the ultimate pick was still out there – the one pick to rule them all. After one last day of 88 degree heat, Joe said, “I’m inducing labor.”

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scoping out Walker Vine Hill vineyard from the top of Talon’s Hill. Notice the patches of darker green, vigorous vines that drift in and out of the slope of lower vigor vines

Every year, Walker Vine Hill Vineyard gets all of our bins. All of em. As I loaded the truck, I contemplated the potential outcomes. Our 42 bins would certainly be filled. At a vineyard yielding 20 tons in a standard year, we were prepared for 30 tons based on vintage trending and, in hushed tones, anxious about the possibility of a double crop, which we’ve seen in just a few cases. 40 tons would be a serious problem with regard to tanks, man hours, available barrels, and winemaking. Suspense would be one word for what we were feeling.

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All our bins, disappearing onto two trucks

On Monday, we were all out in the vineyard before the sun, riding the tractors, slapping tape on rows, bins, and each other, yelling ourselves hoarse, trying to keep the bins clear of leaves and the blocks clearly separate. By 9 oclock, the first truck was loaded with 24 bins and I raced it back to the winery to weigh out and turn the truck around. Soon, a second truck brought us up to 48 bins. And with a little help from the vineyard’s neighbors on Laguna Road, a third truck brought us to 63 bins. It takes a village sometimes – at least a village worth of picking bins.

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One million hours later, every berry was in its place. I’m glossing over the details because that’s how I remember it – lost in a haze of forklifting and crushing. The fruit was in excellent shape and required minimal to no sorting, so we were able to conserve our energy for running the crush pad efficiently, even though it felt like playing catch up from the first bin to the last squeegee.

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It was full speed ahead from the first ray of light and still the best adrenaline rush around. It’s powerful stuff, that kind of exhilaration. Who knew I could clean 5 tanks in 25 minutes? And all that on one cup of coffee. By the time we paused for dinner, I devoured my takeout burger so viciously I couldn’t taste it. Then we cleaned the place down and went home.

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and then the sky fell

It gets me every time. The departure from the world, the grape-filled days and nights, the split fingers and the aches and pains. This harvest is its own peculiar whirlwind, with wineries plowing through tonnage at an insane pace.

A few weeks back, I noted that all of our vineyards were hovering around a 20-Brix ripeness point. At the time, we were nervous about tank space – nervous about getting finished wine bottled in time for the bulk of our production to come in. But it all happened so fast and suddenly everything was ripe at the same time. We processed 75 tons in ten days, which is to say more than our entire production from the vintages of 2009, 2010, and 2011 (not combined, obviously).

When everything comes in at the same time, everything is fermenting at the same time and we’ve been plugging through hours of pumpovers and punchdowns everyday. In more even-keeled years, fruit comes in stages and tanks get turned over at intervals – some tanks are still cold-soaking fruit; some tanks are actively fermenting; others are nearly dry; and some have already been emptied and will soon be filled again.

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Perli pinot getting all pearly at the cold-soak stage

With every tank and 1-ton portable fermenter full, we were looking at the weather and wondering, all over again: would we have enough space?

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The cap rising on Perli pinot as its ferment takes off and the foam kicks in

And then the weather tapered off. The temperature came down. The fruit stalled out. While many vineyards had jumped 2 Brix in the space of a week (that’s serious movement), suddenly nothing was moving over a week or more. It was a relief. Now it looks like we’ll have every tank empty before we get fruit again.

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The next stage: foam overload

The end result of all tanks being active simultaneously is that all tanks are dry nearly simultaneously. We are under a mountain of dry red grape skins. And barrels. I have spent hours upon hours, every day, pulling barrels to be prepped for filling. Joe selects barrels for each batch, hands me a list, and I disappear into the treacherous cave that is our heavily overburdened barrel room, and emerge several exhausted hours later with a stack of barrels.

My time on the forklift has increased by an inestimable degree since assuming this new position. Prolonged forklifting is a significant energy sap. Corners are tight and everything is in the way. I jump on and off a zillion times, pallet jacking furiously in between to get everything where I need it. My head swivels around continuously, which only exacerbates frustration and fatigue. The upside to all this is that my forklifting skills are getting ninja-fied, which I was due for, and that my Tetris muscles are flexed. I have a mental map of the barrel room that is more useful to me than any single tool I use.

Sometimes harvest can create the sensation that normal life is suspended. The mornings start before dawn and end sometimes close to dawn. I get to feeling out of the loop. There was a shooting in Washington? Miley Cyrus did what, exactly? When did gas get more expensive? I’ve just been pressing the 89 and driving away when it’s full, the gas station looking identical at 6 am and 10 pm.

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In the neighborhood of Lazy W Vineyard – now harvested, barreled down, and fermenting

But life is still there. Bodies are still bodies. In a predictable, unpredictable freak kitchen-cabinet incident, I found myself at the emergency room with a minor concussion. We were harvesting 10 tons of Obsidian Vineyard the next day and I wanted to come in. I felt groggy and stuck to sorting fruit and making lunch. By 8 pm it was clean-up time and I found my second wind as I tackled the destemmer and sang along to Paul Simon. It felt about aright.

Instead of dreading the monotony or sweatstorm of twice-daily pumpovers and punchdowns, I find I jump at wine work – which is the reason we’re all here. You can move barrels all day but they’re nothing without the wine going in them. I remember the feeling of occasional idleness from harvests pasts – of hiding twiddling thumbs by carrying a bucket. That never happens now. I’m just . . . busy. There’s always a list this long of things I still need to do, check, ask about, finish, remember, and end up pushing off til tomorrow – again. Ferments and barrels and everything else move around a lot but I keep track of them better than I ever used to because I’m the one moving them. I notice when things are dirty, out of place, being misused, being missed, forgotten, and found because I know it’ll be my problem in 20 minutes, when I need something.

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Paperwork is less photogenic than grapes but behind every berry there’s a whole ream of paper

We’ll be focusing on red pressing all week. We’ve still got 50 tons left in this harvest, which seems like small change now.  And let’s call a spade a spade here – this post probably sounds tired. It is. I am. But some of our best fruit is still to come and it doesn’t know we’re tired.

 

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