bottom of the barrel

by crushed & stirred

This is it. Literally – the bottom of the barrel.

We have pressed the last of our ferments – two small lots of Syrah, from Atoosa’s Vineyard in the Russian River Valley and Richards Family Vineyard in Bennett Valley.

But there’s still a cellar to run. And now we’ve got to turn all of this stuff into wine.

Pressing marks the end of the alcoholic fermentation and the beginning of the malolactic fermentation, which happens in barrel (for white wines, both fermentations happen in barrel, because unlike reds, whites don’t ferment on the skins).

The first step is to drain the wine into barrel. This means trying not to overfill it, which – for those of you following along at home – is definitely something I have done before.

Somehow after all these months of trial and error, that kind of mistake stopped being a constant threat to me. I’m still a rookie who just tries to get through the day without ruining things – but that mythical feel for the cellar has started to creep up on me here and there. (But let’s not kid ourselves – I still have a ways to go.)

After we’ve drained the ferment, we’ve got barrels full of what we call the “free run.” The next step is the actual pressing. We use a basket press – as opposed to, say, a bladder press. We dig out whatever’s left in the fermenter – usually a couple of feet worth of grape matter (skins, seeds, stems, etc.) right into the basket.

Digging is like shoveling your way out of snow from inside an igloo. Where the oxygen is a little low.

Before we dig out a tank, we strap on a CO2 monitor and a leash (so you can be fished out if the monitor fails). Then, as ever, you spray yourself with vodka, climb in, and dig and rake and shovel until the tank is emptied – right into the press basket.

climing in to git ‘er done

Digging out a bin is a bigger workout – a smaller quantity, but it requires shoveling OVER the edges of the bin from inside.

done and done

Once the basket is full, we forklift it into the press, where an enormous plunger spends the next 90 minutes squeezing what’s left of the juice from the grape matter. We collect it in a sump and then fill so-called “press barrels” with it. As the wines age in barrel, Joe and Tyler will play with what proportion of free-run and press wine from each lot to use in the final blend.

elbow deep; in the background, 4 tons of fruit in the basket

When the pressing is done, we’re left with the “cake” – a super compacted mass of grape gunk that has been juiced for all we think it’s worth. We pull the cake, dump it in a compost heap, and then clean the whole operation to within an inch of its life.

the cake emerging from the press

I’ve referred several times to the many satisfactions of an industry built around endless cycles. Pressing and barreling is one of many conclusions that come and go in the cellar, but it’s hard not to resist a certain sense of closure these days. Now that I’ve pressure washed the floors and drains, the cellar won’t see another grape till next harvest.

We and, it seems, the whole of wine country, celebrated this bittersweet moment with  days of gluttony, cramming all our favorites in and finishing off the beer (don’t worry – we have another one fermenting already.)

Racking our Irish Red Ale

We now have a lot of barrels to keep an eye on. On top of the 2010 wines to be blended and thought about and supervised, there is now a fresh crop of 2011 wines that are sitting in warm rooms, going through “ML,” which smells of butterscotch and sourdough and sounds like pins and needles.

It seems like yesterday that I was driving off into the relative unknown. I had nowhere to live yet, no concept of what my job would be like, no clue who my friends would be or what my life here would be like. I’ve been lucky. I found a beautiful, if transient, life –  beautiful in part because it is transient.

After years in New England, I thought I’d become a fall snob. But it’s growing colder here and the vineyards are turning all shades of yellow and red – even purple and blue – and by golly it’s the prettiest thing you ever saw.

red trees and yellow vines

And now what are we doing?

A hefty amount of blending trials.

I’ll write more about these next (note the stacked bins and sorting table just barely visible through the window; those are now tucked away for the year.)

Putting things away.

bins once full of ferments getting stacked up in their off-season home

And gazing fondly at Norm, the destemmer, once my enemy but now just another friendly face.