Happening Now - 3/28

Spring has sprung, racking a new vintage, in the classroom

Spring has sprung, the grass has riz. I wonder where the birdies is? Some say the birds are on the wing. That’s absurd; I thought the wing was on the bird! — Anonymous

In the vineyard

A fever of color

I’m sorry, I can’t help it. So just humor me please. From the oft-recited doggerel above to a final (I promise!) display of flower photos below, I am swimming in a sloppy sentimental sea of gratitude and relief. Spring has arrived—obviously, officially and metaphorically—and COVID is finally over. Maybe, really?—I declare it now!

With more than two weeks past two jabs in my arm, I’m reasonably certain I’ve dodged another bullet. I learned during the past year that I’m now considered an oldster and have become more vulnerable to dying. That’s absurd; what I’ve become is more vulnerable to living.

Spring growth in this part of California can be mind-boggling. Walking among the vineyards on Moon Mountain I’m exposed to a new kind of virus, a chromatic corona. Everywhere around me it is now nature that is infected, a flu of fineness, a fever of color… no, a nausea of color, vomiting hues of orange and yellow, rose and blood red, bruises of magenta and deep purple, and every shade of green except hospital. I’m dizzy with visual vertigo and have to sit down. Wildflowers appear like a rash on the valley’s skin, while fruit trees explode in blossoms and grapevines literally tremble in the delirium of emergence, pushing xylem sap upward into buds swelling until they break—bud break.

To borrow from Peter Matthiessen, I am once again at play in the fields of the Lord. And it feels so righteous.

From top to bottom: a crab apple tree ragged with color, two classic California wildflowers—poppies and purple lupine, an extraterrestrial-looking ice plant in spring bloom out on the coast, a square yard of valley floor with five species of wildflowers, and one final, improbable smear of mustard.

Bud break. Maybe, really?—I declare it now!

Bud break—that profound, celebratory day in spring when you first see new growth on previously dormant grape vines. Everyone wants to be the first to tell another, but declaring the moment bud break officially arrives is a fool’s errand. It just doesn’t happen all at once, everywhere. There are so many factors that influence the moment, like grape variety, age of the vine, how and when it was pruned, what the weather was like the previous winter, what it’s like right now, the amount of rain, sun exposure, heat, cold.

Take this past week for example: we saw our first vineyard with full-on bud break, while the vines in neighboring vineyards still appeared dormant, frozen in their iconic stick-figure silhouettes. Granted, these vines that were bud breaking were spur-and-cane pruned, and likely an early varietal like Chardonnay, but hey, bud break baby!

To keep the armchair quarterbacking to a dull roar I’ve come to rely on the local newspaper, the Sonoma Index-Tribune, to “confirm” the official start of bud break. In a northern California vineland town like Sonoma bud break is front-page news. Last year it was March 3, and in 2019 it was March 22. In 2018 they ran a story about Sonoma County grape growers battling frost after an early bud break on February 21! In 2017 it was March 14. This year they ran a piece announcing the event on March 8th, although I haven’t seen any sign of bud break until just now.

So, what are you going to believe, your eyes or the newspaper? Either way, it’s a strong, irrefutable bit of evidence that despite the horrendous year we’ve all just been through, the better forces of nature are alive and well—and a new vintage of wine is in the works!

In the winery

Racking a new vintage

I recently read an interview in WineMakerMag.com with some winery worker at Gramercy Cellars in Washington state who saw it this way: “Winemaking is 49% cleaning stuff, 49% moving heavy stuff, and 2% drinking beer.”

I’d say he pretty much got it right, except I’m not sure why he’d pick beer over the thousands of gallons of premium Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon at mop’s length in that storied cellar. But the premise of his statement can certainly feel accurate at times, especially for one-man-band home winemakers pushing the limit on how much wine they make.

You can easily fill a harvesting bucket with 25 pounds of grapes which you then commingle with dozens more in what’s known as a “half-ton bin”—name self-explanatory. A full 60-gallon barrel of wine weighs over 600 pounds. Empty, they’re still over a hundred pounds. And if you’re working a lot in the vineyard, most of those bags of fertilizer and fumigant are 50 pounds standard. You get the point.

All of these objects, and the processes they serve, have the ability—hell, let’s just call it the obligation—to get dirty and/or make a mess. Another concept that doesn’t need a whole lot of explaining. And just when you’ve completed harvest, fermentation and barreling, and you think you’re done with the heavy lifting for the year, you get the not-so-gentle reminder every three or four months that you have to “rack” all that new wine you made.

Simply defined, racking is pumping all the wine out of a barrel into another container, and then washing and rinsing the barrel to remove particulates and dead yeast cells that have dropped out of suspension and become sediment. This is a good thing as it frees the wine of harmful bacteria and odor-causing gases, allowing it to age and clarify properly. The mauve-colored sludge that you disgorge from the bottom of the barrel is like none other and is often a shock to first-time viewers. Once the barrel is clean the original wine is put back in, usually sulfured a little to protect it from spoilage and oxidation, and sometimes adjusted with acid and/or enzymes to correct any unbalances.

My first racking of my 2020 vintage wines was this month and it was a doozy. I had 30 gallons of Malbec, 30 gallons of Cabernet Sauvignon, and 30 gallons of a GSM Blend (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre) that I was not only racking, but also moving through a rotation of a new French oak barrel, a one-year-old French oak barrel, and two steel kegs. Along with those was a 60-gallon barrel of Pinot Noir that my friend Les Bosche and I were making together, as well as all the various glass carboys of topping-off wine for each varietal—yep, those all had to be racked as well (more on this, my third vintage, in an upcoming post).

Check out the new VIDEO BELOW for a fun compilation of the two days it took to get everything done. The first day I tested everything to get an accurate pH on each wine, which I could use to determine how much Free SO2 was needed to protect it. I had just received a lab report from HomeWineLab.com (essential for the home winemaker) giving me existing Free SO2, so together with my pH measurements and some higher math in the form of a terrific online winemaking calculator from WineBusiness.com, I was ready to make any adjustments necessary.

I went on and racked the 30-gallon barrels, the kegs, and the glass carboys by myself, making sulfur and acid adjustments along the way. Afterwards, it definitely felt like a serious upper-body workout at the gym. Les joined me the next day to help with the 60-gallon barrel of Pinot. Everything is tasting pretty damn good… so far!

Here are a few highlights, and a first look at my backyard winery:

In the classroom

UC Davis Winemaking Certificate Program

Back when I first introduced the idea of this newsletter I made the presumptuous statement that I was going to participate in the UC Davis Winemaking Certificate Program. This past Monday I completed the first of five courses, Introduction to Wine and Winemaking, utilizing an online, virtual curriculum with the following stated learning objectives:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the various sensory, analytical and legal criteria used for classification purposes

  • Identify key factors important for successful wine grape cultivation

  • Understand basic winemaking practices and source of some differences between different wine types

  • Recognize the main varieties and wine types as they relate to different countries of the world

  • Interpret the meaning of wine labels from different countries

  • Evaluate the historical, economic and climatic factors influencing development of the wine industry in the U.S. and the world as a whole

  • Distinguish the various sensory attributes commonly used in evaluating wine

Whew! Those are some lofty goals, which is why a lot of folks who just want a better understanding of wine take this class independently, as a stand-alone course on a “no test” basis. It costs $685, takes 11 weeks to complete, and promises a broad overview of the industry. Does it deliver? Yes. Was it interesting? Yes, very much so. Was it difficult? Not particularly, but it did require a certain level of discipline and consistent study. It covers a lot of material and if you fall behind it can become challenging.

If you plan to pursue the full Winemaking Certificate then you must take all five courses for a grade (complete with quizzes, a mid-term exam and a final). And, you must get a C or better overall to go onto the next course. This was where I found it to be a little daunting. I haven’t been in a “classroom” in a very long time and it made me remember just how badly I hated to study and the anxiety of taking tests. I ended up getting an A, but just barely.

The four additional courses after Introduction to Wine and Winemaking are: Wine Production, Quality Control and Analysis in Winemaking, Viticulture for Winemakers, and Wine Stability and Sensory Analysis. The curriculum is more science-based and apparently much more rigorous, requiring one semester of college-level chemistry as a prerequisite. These courses are each an academic quarter in length and cost $2,000 apiece. There’s also a non-refundable certificate fee of $125 when enrolling in course two—for a total of $8,810 for the entire certificate program. Due to current waitlists for the various courses it can take 18 months to 2 years to complete.

I have the required college chemistry credit but damn if I can remember a thing! Since I’m currently waitlisted until fall for the Wine Production course I’ve decided to take UC Davis’s Chemistry for Winemakers as a refresher course—$599, 13 weeks long, starting tomorrow!

I genuinely want to understand the science behind winemaking. There’s a certain power there when you decide to break the rules later on. But I have to say, with all honesty, I’m looking forward to this with more than a little trepidation. Up until now, my entire winemaking experience has been nothing but a good time. Now, suddenly, I find myself about to take a college-level course in chemistry and biochemistry. What the hell just happened?!