Sunday, August 29, 2010

First Pick in Anderson Valley!

Per usual, the first grapes in Anderson Valley to come off the vine will be at Charles Vineyard (our estate) here in Boonville! Early this coming week we'll be picking Pommard 05 Pinot Noir for sparkling wine -- more specifically, for Schramsberg's delicious product down in Calistoga.

You've all heard winemakers wax on about how exciting harvest is and how thrilling it is to bring in the first batch of fruit for the new vintage. However, for us, calling that first pick date reminds us that we better get our butts in gear and start prepping for still wine harvest. :) This means berry sampling, arranging the cellar to bring in fruit, and getting ready to wake up REALLY early, again and again.

A DISCLAIMER

I'm sometimes hesitant to exclaim that we're the first pick to other winemakers and winery owners. It's because being the first can sometimes give the wrong impression of our vineyard site, and so please allow me a few moments to explain about the climates of Anderson Valley.

SHE BLOWS HOT AND COLD

Our valley as a whole is mostly a Region 1 climate -- the coolest in California. The Sonoma Coast is also a Region 1. Our average yearly temperature is in the realm of 55 degrees F, with A LOT of rain and moisture in the fall, winter and spring months. The biggest red we can ripen here, without fail, is Pinot Noir, although a few acres of Syrah seem to do fairly well most years. The ripest we can ever get our late harvest Sauvignon Blanc is 30 Brix, and that's stretching it through Thanksgiving and crossing our fingers that it gets there.

But there are two different sides to Anderson Valley -- ours is the one with the extremes.

OUR SITE

Charles Vineyard (our estate, which we farm) is nestled against Anderson Creek, just below the Eastern mountains surrounding Anderson Valley. We're the second-southernmost vineyard in Anderson Valley, yet our particular site is reliably cooler in the winter and early spring than most Boonville vineyards. And believe me, when the temperature is plunging toward freezing, five degrees is a BIG deal!

We're cooler because of several factors: being directly below the Hwy. 253 corridor, we get all the cold air that funnels down off of the Eastern mountains. We also lie alongside the creek, which is a vast corridor for air movement. And, because the valley narrows again where we are, fog does spill over the Western mountains from the ocean and reach us on the other side (some people assume we don't get any fog on our side of Boonville).

We are warmer in the summer than the north-western end of the valley near Philo and Navarro. We get less fog, meaning more sunny days and colder nights. Fog does cool, but it also provides moisture and moderates temperatures. So, without as much fog, in the winter and early spring our temperatures here plunge, and we have more frost. A LOT more. In the summer we have larger diurnal temperature swings, often 40-50 degrees in between the daytime high and the nighttime low -- good for grapes and acidities. And, of course, less moisture means less mold pressure.

The vineyard to the south of us doesn't have any Pinot -- yet, anyway -- so there's no competition for first pick there. In fact, the original vineyard manager told my father it was too cold here to grow Pinot when we planted. This past year they budded over a number of acres to Pinot Noir. haha! Goes to show you what farming one property for 70 years can teach you! Well, I guess it teaches you the limits of your site and a firm knowledge of what you can and can't grow.
I digress, but because of our warmer summers and sunnier days, we are often the first pick for sparkling wine. Add this to the fact that we pick pretty early for our Foursight still wines (22.5-24 brix max), we can often claim the prize of first still Pinot Noir pick too. We sell grapes to several other Pinot producers, and by the time our harvest is in full swing for them, it usually is throughout our end of the valley as a whole.

So I should be proud, not hesitant, to shout from the rooftops that we're the first pick. Each vineyard site is unique, and that's the beauty of the business, as well as the mystique and driving force behind that elusive term terroir. As I often say in the tasting room, it's the differences that make our industry strong. If we all liked the same wines we'd only need one winery and most of us would be out of business. If we all had the same vineyard site and winemaking philosophies, than the wine industry would be a bit of a snoozefest.

If you're curious about the Winkler Scale (all this Region 1, Region 2 talk), you can find an easy explanation here.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Our Final Bottling Adventure


Our final bottling of this year was Wednesday, with 70 cases of 2009 Semillon from our estate, Charles Vineyard.

A bit of background about this varietal and wine: There are less than three acres of Semillon in the entire Anderson Valley, and only one other AV winery has ever made a stand-alone Semillon (their grapes are in a very different area than ours). So, this wine is a bit rare and a bit special for us. We originally planted the varietal to blend in with the Sauvignon Blanc on our property, but in 2008, due to spring frosts, we got about 25 cases worth and decided to make a 100% Semillon bottling. We ferment this wine with wild yeast and ML, and then age it in about 25-30% new French oak barrels. What we end up with is a tropical, slightly toasty wine that still has good acidity and structure. Estimate release for the 2009 vintage: winter 2011.

So, on Wednesday -- a blazingly hot day here in the Valley -- we had a very small bottling truck come to the winery. Because it was a small truck and a hot day, we had him back the trailer into the cellar and shut the door on the trailer hitch, blocking the space at the bottom with cardboard, floor mats, and everything else we could rummage up. I have to say, it saved our tushes. Both for the wine, which stayed  nice and cool, and the people working the line.

With a line this small you volunteer labor and help get the wine into bottle. So Joe, Bill, Nancy, myself, and friends Gary and Johnny all received stations to work and, within a few hours, the Semillon was in bottle. Gary and Johnny were loading empty glass and unloading the full cases, plus stacking the taped and properly labeled cases on a pallet; I was sparging the bottles with nitrogen and placing them on the filler; the operator was helping with the filler and putting corks into the bottles; my mother was hand-placing the capsules on the bottles; my father was spinning the capsules down (the machine that makes them all neat and tidy is called a "spinner"); and Joe was labeling the bottles and putting them in case boxes to return to Johnny and Gary.

Most of these jobs are fairly self-explanatory. However, if you're not in the business you may not know that bottles are "sparged" with nitrogen before being filled with wine. Sparging removes the oxygen in the bottle, thus reducing the chance of "oxidated" wine (wine exposed to too much oxygen can turn slightly brown in color and taste a little flat, or even worse, sherry like).

Below are some photos of us at work on Wednesday. Just a note: the rubber gloves are so we don't put a bunch of fingerprints on the bottles, which the tasting room person (me!) has to later wipe off.

The bottling crew.


Sparging.

Filler and corker.
Labeler.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bottling Whoopsies

Bottling time is often the most stressful time of year for winemakers. Yes, sometimes even above harvest. Here's why: people are mistake-prone, and after you've spent a year, two years, sometimes even three nurturing along a lot of wine, making sure it's going to be utterly delicious and, as important, sellable, you suddenly have to give up control of your baby to the bottling line.

Getting ready for bottling is a fairly painstaking process. Estimating numbers of bottles and cases produced, allowing for loss from filtration or racking, then ordering supplies like corks, capsules, glass and labels, all the while remembering to allow for loss from setting up the label height and orientation on the bottle at the line, or in case of bottling line malfunctions. Making sure to order 1 3/4" corks for the whites and 2" for the reds, both at different grades and prices of course, and making sure the facility/cellar can store all the supplies and arranging delivery times that don't clog the cellar when they're trying to prep the wine for bottling are also considerations. And there are more, of course.

I've been doing all of this for our winery for several years now, without a hitch. Until last week.

My father and I were hanging out and supervising the bottling of our 2009 Pinots when the owner of the line announced that we weren't going to have enough labels to finish the lot currently making its way through the truck. WHAT???? I mean, I did the math. And checked. And double-checked. I know I was a journalism major, but that's why I triple-checked!! Sure enough, as it turns out, my math was correct. So what else was wrong? We searched for missing rolls of labels (they come on giant rolls and are peeled off by the machine like little stickers), and none were found. No malfunctions had happened with the line to use extra labels, nor could we find any other cause.

We ran out of labels with 80 cases of wine left to go through the line. Luckily, we had plenty of corks, capsules and glass, so we went ahead and bottled and capsuled the wine so at least it was safely in bottle.

Thus began the search for the little plastic wrappers the label rolls came in, on which were conveniently affixed stickers listing the # of labels on the roll for easy double-checking of your math. This took a bit longer, but we did find them and, indeed, they were marked correctly. Hmmm...

We did some more math with the line and, as it turns out, instead of the rolls having 1,600-something labels in them, they only had 1,250. And we were about one 1,250 roll short. So, the printing company somehow had spun the incorrect amount of labels onto the rolls but labeled them correctly. So, after throwing a tantrum and making some phone calls, we found out the employee in charge of double-checking this was recently fired! Yikes.

This wouldn't be such a big deal except you pay by the case to have wines run through the line. Running them through a second time equals double the cost, and that's not even thinking about scheduling with a line to come back out in a timely manner (some popular bottling lines book up six months in advance). Luckily for us, the printing company felt like providing us with good customer service -- a rarity nowadays -- and tomorrow they'll be sending up a small labeling machine to label, for free, the remaining "shiners" (as we call bottles without their packaging). It will take five hours! But it will be done, finally, and our cases can go to the storage warehouse all properly packaged.

This time of year can be so stressful because of whoopsies like this. When labels come in a roll, you're not going to unwind them and hand count them (not sure the bottling line would like you messing with the tightly wound labels even if you had a mind to). So, you have to rely on other people and your own sanity during the supply ordering time. It's hard to do, and when it goes wrong it can be expensive and perilous to the wine in some instances.

So, five hours of bottling for us tomorrow, then we'll return to the winery to prep our 2009 Semillon for bottling on Wednesday. Then we'll be done with bottling for the year and ready to focus on harvest 2010!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bottling Time!

Late summer in the wine business is bottling season. As a new harvest approaches, it's time to get the previous vintage out of tanks and into bottles, making room to the next, latest and greatest (we always assume, of course).

Foursight has three very distinct bottlings this month: one hand bottling, one small run with a very small bottling line, and our biggest bottling of 800 cases of Pinot Noir.

Last week we did our hand bottling: eight cases of 2008 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc from our estate vineyard. We pick the grapes for this wine on Thanksgiving or the day after, coercing the entire family to go out with lug bins and start clipping clusters (we use the clippers and not the knives so we don't cut off any fingers needed to roast a turkey later!). The day is spent putting the lugs into a small, wooden basket press, extracting the juice (sometimes needing to stomp the grapes down), and then letting the wine start fermenting with wild yeast.

Because of the high sugar content of late-harvest grapes, it's unusual to use wild yeast fermentation as these yeast strains are not known to be very tolerant to the higher alcohols produced by fermenting something so sweet. However, we've discovered that the strains we have here on-site plow through without any issue at all, thank goodness, so we let it go wild, as we do with all our wines when we have half a chance to.

When we bottle our late harvest we prepare the wine, sanitize the half bottles, line them up and then start filling bottles with a tiny little bottling wand. One person fills, one person puts corks into the floor corker (requires some muscle), and one person wipes bottles and inserts them into the cases. We then leave the bottles upright for two weeks so the pressure can equalize (to ensure no wine leaks out of the corks later), and then label by hand and wax dip by hand. It's quite a process and I can't imagine having to do this with thousands of cases before bottling lines were invented.

Our second bottling tomorrow is for our 2009 Pinot Noirs, which are all between 13.5-13.9% alcohol! We're excited about this, although it wasn't necessary a style choice on our end. The wild yeasts in the 2009 vintage simply didn't produce as much alcohol as they did in previous years, so our style and winemaking philosophies stayed the same while the yeast did not. The beauty of natural winemaking! We love our wines, however, and are looking forward to being able to have that one extra glass each night. :)

We have 800 cases of Pinot to get into bottle tomorrow -- a huge lot for us -- so we'll be bringing in a much larger bottling truck for this job. We'll supervise (they have their own workers on lines of this size) and then we'll get to take home the first and last cases pulled off the line for quality control (and for us to drink at home).

The third bottling we'll be doing in another week will be with a very small bottling line that's in a horse trailer! This is fairly common for small wineries like ours, and  this line is adapted to do just up to a few hundred cases per day. We'll be using this line for our Semillon, which we're producing 75 cases of from the 2009 vintage. We do have to supply labor for a line this small, which is also customary, so the entire family will be helping to put in fresh glass, put on capsules, box and tape at the end, plus a few other jobs.

So, by the end of this month, we'll have bottled our last lots from both the 2008 and 2009 vintages and we'll be ready for the 2010 harvest! Whenever that begins ...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

I'm A Lazy Blogger

Okay, I admit it: I've been a lazy blogger. As I'm approaching my third anniversary as a blogger next month (!!), I've been reading through old posts -- those chronicling our first months picking grapes, deciding upon our winery name, and working through the process to become a bonded and certified winery. Lately, I've been posting a lot of personal life and "what's happening" stuff: great for my friends, but not so fantastic for our customers and people who may not know us well. Lazy stuff. After all, who needs to know that I just ate goat, really? Well, actually, that one was pretty cool as it was our first goat. ... But you get the drift.

What happened to my posts? They used to be so well written, so timely, so much more interesting, with so many more photos. So I have to apologize to everyone out there. The realities of being a business owner while also working as someone's employee overwhelmed me. I got lazy. And for that I apologize.

So here's my goal for the future: get my ass in gear! Start posting more. Start posting more interesting, relevant stuff that talks not only about what we're doing here at the winery, but WHY, and how it's important. And, please call me out if I get lazy again. Play the worried mother: cut me a tiny bit of slack the first time (after all, harvest's coming up), but jump on it the next time you see it! Now that I've shaved one job off of my life, I think I can do it! And I may need your help. :)

Happy Saturday everyone!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Our Press is Here!

Today a hydraulic basket press that we bought from another local winery arrived. Or, more accurately, my father and a family friend went to the winery, had a crane put it on a truck, brought it slowly back, then unloaded it with a loader (that sounds odd, doesn't it - unload/loader...) using a slightly frightening system of carpet scraps, duct tape, industrial straps and chains. It was quite something to see.

This means that we've even closer to getting set up for every lot of wine we could possibly imagine making here at the winery! Tomorrow Joe and I will pick up a small tank in Sonoma County and add it to the roster of equipment we now own.

Here are images of the move:


video

2010 Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition

On Friday night Joe and I went with some friends to the awards dinner for the 2010 Mendocino Co. Wine Competition. At Goldeneye winery, the dinner is a casual affair with self-serve wines from the brands that entered and lamb sliders, salads, cookies, etc. It was a beautiful evening behind the tasting room, overlooking the vineyard.

We entered three wines in the competition (the first time we've entered as last year we were on our New Zealand honeymoon and forgot!): the 2009 Gewurzt, the 2007 All-In Pinot and the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc.

All three wines are solid, delicious offerings that we're very proud of and we were equally as proud that all three received medals. The star of the night was the 2009 Gewurzt, which not only won a gold medal but also placed as runner-up to the sweepstakes white (second favorite white wine in the entire competition)!! That's pretty good. On top of that, two judges came in to purchase bottles the next day (for their own consumption). I take that as a HUGE compliment given their sharp palates.

I have to admit being slightly disappointed with the Sauvignon Blanc, which only received a silver medal. In our experience that SB rocks every competition that we enter it in -- except this one. Hmmm... We sent them five bottles, so it couldn't have been off or corked I would imagine, but I still wonder. Unusual for this wine, which always places gold or double gold, even among stiffer competition than this. But I guess that's the beauty of competitions - different years, different judges, different medals.

Either way, it was a fun evening. I enjoyed chatting with old friends and judges that I haven't seen in quite some time. Big thanks to all the wine judges who come all the way up to our small valley to cast their vote!

Here are some photos from the event:


Joe watching me, taking photos of him. :)

A wine table and the gathered crowd beyond.

Journalist and Judge Chris Sawyer and MWWC President Dave Batt present awards (on the right).

Monday, August 2, 2010

The End of an Era

July 31 was my final day as executive director of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association! I truly enjoyed my time with the AVWA, organizing events and running the association, but three years of working mostly 7-days a week, 80+ hours each week during festival times, and no time for some of the projects at Foursight that we wanted to accomplish, was enough. I'm happy to now say that I've returned to the land of the living and am (mostly) taking the next few days off. Hooray!

We've decided to go camping up on our ranch for a few days with some friends. Of course, there are always complications, and I'll have to come back to the valley to do a few things each day, but that's the beauty of the ranch: it's only 15 minutes from our house. Otherwise, I plan to do a lot of eating, drinking, and doing nothing except a hike or two.

What's on the menu? Bubbles, of course, a few select bottles of wine, and beer is a given. We'll be eating veggie ceviche, marinated tri-tip, ice cream sandwiches on homemade cookies, cinnamon rolls baked from scratch, burgers, breakfast burritos, and a lot more I'm sure. Yum.

What else is happening here on the Foursight property? Well, Handsome's leg is not healing well, so the vet should be out again and we'll see where that goes. It may be infected -- another twist on a long saga of injured and sick horses. (Will it ever end?) And then on Wednesday I get to take over my new job as president of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers, when we have a board meeting here at Foursight.

Next week I'll spend my days off bottling 2008 late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc (good news to our club members who have been waiting for this - and it's tasting awesome!). The week after we'll be bottling 2009 Pinot Noirs, which will also be killer based on our last tasting. Then, of course, harvest for sparkling wine in late-August, early September this year. We estimate we're about 17 days behind our normal season, so picking will be later for all varietals unless we get some serious heat this month.

Well, after tallying up the above upcoming tasks, I guess I should correct myself and say that, after harvest, I'll be taking some real days off each week. Hopefully. haha. Such is the life of the self-employed.