Thursday, December 30, 2010

Spilling the Beans

I've tried (more or less) to keep the name of my employer a secret. In this age of digital media, I thought it best to keep my commentary separate from the reputation of the winery, especially since negative remarks can spread so quickly throughout the Internet.

Since I no longer work there, however, I think it's now safe to reveal the name: JC Cellars. If anyone was truly curious, it wouldn't have required much work to figure it out (especially since I've posted pictures that were dead giveaways, such as the ones uploaded on September 21st).

Why now? Why reveal the name a few weeks after my last day? Well, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate published its review of JC's 2008 wines and the results are absolutely spectacular. I just had to share:

Robert Parker Reviews JC Cellars' 2008 Vintage

It would be terrific news if one day the winemaker behind all these brilliant wines, Jeff Cohn, gets his own winery and vineyard. He certainly has a knack for putting together super wines, generally from Rhone Ranger varietals, but also Zinfandel.

95+ points - 2008 Buffalo Hill Rockpile Vineyard Syrah
93+ points 2008 Rockpile Vineyard Syrah
93 points 2008 Sweetwater Springs Zinfandel
93 points - 2008 Misc. Stuff
92 points - 2008 Iron Hill Zinfandel 
92 points - 2008 The First Date
91+ points - 2008 Sweetwater Springs Petite Sirah
91 points - 2008 The Impostor

As my wife pointed out, when a wine named Misc. Stuff scores a 93, you're doing pretty well.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


My apologies for disappearing for the past month. The harvest ended rather suddenly, as we expected to get a good-sized load of white grapes in mid-November. Unfortunately, the grapes were harmed by the rains and literally disintegrated into mush when picked. We never even bothered to truck them up to Oakland.

And so my colleagues and I spent our last few days cleaning up the mess we made during the busy weeks of the harvest. We cleaned out the fermentation tanks, the racking tanks, our tools, and the cold room. We even washed down the forklift, which has been thoroughly coated in wine when the bins were emptied into the press!

The harvest of 2010 ended with a whimper, but there's more interesting info/news to come...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Yeast: Part I of XVI

During my time at the winery, I've written about most every step in the winemaking process except for the following:

- Adding yeast & nutrients for primary fermentation
- Malolactic (secondary) fermentation
- Fining and filtering (the steps that precede bottling)
- Blending
- Bottling

If there's one step that's more critical than all others, I'd have to say that it's adding yeast. Unfortunately, it's something that I didn't witness very often. We typically started working at 8:00 am, but the winemaker often added yeast and nutrients to the fermenting must around 7:00 am.

The process is not too complicated, but many things can go wrong. First, a package or bottle of dried yeast is mixed with warm water. The resulting mixture looks like a giant latte (coffee + milk colored, opaque) and smells like baking bread. There are different types of yeast, and choosing the right one(s) is what makes great winemakers great. We typically fermented different bins with different strains of yeast to obtain varying characteristics in the wine.

Syrah yeast.  There are hundreds of different types of yeast that can be used
to ferment must into wine.  We used about a dozen varieties this year.

The liquid yeast is poured into the tanks and bins, and this procedure is called "inoculation". The yeast cells then process the sugars in the must into CO2 and alcohol. And herein lies the difficulty in making wine: As the level of alcohol rises, it kills the yeast. As the sugar gets depleted, the yeast cells run out of food. If the temperature rises too much, the yeast dies. If the temperature is not high enough, the yeast doesn't process the sugar. If the pH isn't just right, the fermentation can be affected. And so on... It's a pretty delicate process, and getting it right isn't so easy.

The amount of alcohol that is produced by the yeast is directly proportional to the sugar content of the must, and since we crushed very ripe grapes we often had to add water to dilute the must. Too much sugar will create too much alcohol, which will kill the yeast before the fermentation is complete (but we have a secret weapon to fix this problem). Sometimes, the fermentation can be re-started once the wine has been transferred to barrels:

The master adds a little bit of WS yeast to some barrels of wine that are
still a little too sweet. This yeast will ferment the remaining sugar and
dry out the wine. It's not the preferred way to do things,
but sometimes you don't have much of a choice...

I'll post a few more things about yeast, most notably a little something about some very special yeast that we use in desperate cases. Stay tuned...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Smoked wild game, herbs de Provence and hints of bitter Swiss chocolate"

If you've ever read some of Robert Parker's wine reviews, you've probably laughed out loud at some of his descriptions. He'll routinely toss in words like "graphite", "roasted meats", "bacon fat", "wet slate", or "cedar" and "spicebox".

But what words would you use to describe the flavors in your wine?  Here's a handy little illustration of a flavor wheel.  It'll help you figure out what basic flavors you're tasting when you're swishing that wine around in your mouth:

Here's a handy wine "aroma wheel" to help you decipher some of the
flavors present in your wine (click for larger image)

If you're making wine, you obviously don't want to find yourself anywhere near the "chemical" section of the flavor wheel, nor do you want your wine to taste like yoghurt. Floral, spicy, or fruity flavors are great, though, and there's a trend toward more herbaceous flavors like hay, herbs, and menthol/licorice.
Print out the wheel and take it with you when you're wine tasting!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Slightly Less Fun than a Barrel of Monkeys

Much of the past 2 weeks has been spent barreling. We've been digging out tanks, pouring out bins, pressing the skins, and putting lots of delicious wine into oak barrels.

The process consists of cleaning out used barrels, prepping new barrels, and then filling them with wine from the press. Since we store old barrels wet, we need to clean them out with the barrel washing tool (see post from October 19 - "Cleaning Barrels and Tanks") and then rinse them with ozonated water:

A 228 liter (60 US gallon) barrel weighs about 550 lbs (1 liter = 1 kg, or 2.2 lbs, plus the weight of the barrel). That makes it very difficult to move a full barrel, so to ensure that each barrel's interior is completely ozonated, we fill them one quarter of the way and roll them on their racks:

For new barrels, we rip off the plastic covering and remove the temporary bung. A brand new French barrel will cost you about $1200 - $1400, so most wineries do not age their wines in 100% new barrels.  Besides, it would give the wine too much oak. So unless you work at Chateau Figeac ( you use a mix of new and old barrels.

Then it's time to fill 'em. We pump the wine from the press (see post from October 18 - "Stop the Presses") into the barrels using a handy barrel filling tool:

The barrel filling tool is simply a stainless steel pipe with a right-angle
bend and a little glass window (to see if wine in flowing)
The small glass window at the center of this picture allows you to see if
wine is flowing into the barrel.  Since it's dark in the barrel, it's really
hard to see if it's filling properly

Wine barrels are typically toasted on the inside. That means that the barrel makers purposely char the wood to give the wine a smoky, "oakey" flavor. It smells amazing! Unfortunately, that also makes the inside of the barrel very black. And since wine is dark red, it's quite difficult to see what's going on when filling barrels. Here you can see our assistant winemaker use a flashlight to gauge the level of wine in the barrel:

Once the barrel is full of wine, we put a special bung in the barrel's bung hole. It's a rubber bung with a hole through it, and the hole is plugged with a plastic fermentation lock. A ferm lock is a small version of the pipes under your kitchen sink, and it keeps air from flowing into the barrel while also allowing gas to escape as the wine continues to ferment. You can see it in action below:

Here's a little more info on barrels: We use at least 4 different sizes of barrels, and almost 100% are French oak. The standard size is 228 liters, or 60 gallons. That will fill 25 cases of bottles (25 cases X 12 bottles X 0.75 liters/bottle = 225 liters).

We also use 114 and 500 liter barrels. When full, they weigh 290 lbs and approximately 1200 lbs, respectively. Our largest barrel holds 2500 liters. No, that's not a typo. The larger the barrel, the less oak flavor will be imparted to the wine.

Barrels also come from different forests, so different manufacturers are used for different characteristics. It's quite common for our winemaker to choose different barrels for the same wine. He'll blend them before bottling to obtain desired characteristics.

A regular 228 liter barrel from Seguin Moreau with Medium Light Toast
(MLT designation on the face of the barrel)

Now that you know how much wine fits into a small barrel, and how much it weighs, you'll get a good laugh at this silly commercial for Jameson's Irish Whiskey:

Friday, November 5, 2010

Visit to a Contract Winery

A couple of days ago I took a quick trip to Napa to visit a friend's contract winery. John Wilkinson is the managing partner at Bin to Bottle, a large operation that makes wines for a bunch of super premium brands in Northern California. When I last saw John two years ago, he was putting the finishing touches on his barrel room:

Bin to Bottle's [relatively] new barrel room.  It's about the size of a football field,
and it's packed 6 barrels high!

Since most of his clients age their wines in barrels for 1 to 2 years, he keeps them in a fully climate-controlled room at 75% humidity. And since Napa gets really hot during the summer, the entire roof of the barrel room is covered with state of the art solar panels that provide 100% of the facility's AC and lighting needs. At night, once the outside air gets cool enough, large vents automatically open up to ventilate the facility and cool it without any need for additional power consumption.

BTB has about 200 fermentation tanks, and most are stacked tanks (2 tanks, one on top of the other). Here's what a couple of rows of tanks look like:

Stacked fermentation tanks with glycol cooling lines.  The main glycol
lines run along catwalks suspended from the ceiling, and individual
lines run down to the tanks.  This arrangement leaves the floor
completely clean of any pipes or lines -- thereby avoiding injuries
and cleaning problems.  Smart!

On a big day, BTB will receive, sort, crush, and pump about 200 tons of fruit into ferm tanks and/or fermentation bins. On a big day, we (meaning the winery where I am working) will do less than 20 tons!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Digging in the Dirt

With all due respect to Peter Gabriel and his groundbreaking 1992 video (watch here:, I doubt that he ever had to dig out a fermentation tank.

Once the fermentation process has ended, it's time to drain the wine out of the tank and then press the remaining skins that have risen to the top of the liquid. The "free run" (aka "free flow") wine is drained from the bottom valve and pumped into barrels or another holding tank. Pumping into another tank is called "racking" and it helps remove the lees, or dead yeast cells, from the wine. Watch the free run wine gush out of this tank:

After the majority of the wine has been drained, we open the tank's door and dig out all the skins. We put them in bins and then squeeze them in the press. The press runs through a sequence of pressings that increase in intensity, and that means that we end up with 3 types of wine:  free run, light press, and heavy press. Free run makes the best wine, while heavy press makes the least desirable (more on this topic later).
This is what the grape skins & seeds look like after fermentation

A tank is considered a "confined space" by OSHA, so we have to follow certain safety rules when entering.  This is why I had to put on a safety harness and ensure that one of my coworkers was present at all times (presumably to rescue me if I were to pass out):

A safety harness that looks like a parachute harness,
and a bucket of ozonated water (sanitizer) for my feet

At work in the tank...

These grape skins were surprisingly cold! Even though this particular tank reached a peak temperature of roughly 90°F (32°C), by the time I got in to scoop out the skins the temperature had fallen back to about 63°F (17°C).

Monday, November 1, 2010

Handy Flow Chart

Some people have asked me for a summary of the winemaking process, so I've put together a pretty basic flowchart that illustrates the major steps (click on image for larger size):

This flowchart summarizes the winemaking process for
grapes with high sugar content.  For cooler grape
growing regions, the process is slightly different

NOTE:  This is a general flowchart, so before sending me hatemail with comments such as "sometimes you DO de-stem white grapes, dumbass!" let me clarify a few things:

1 - This flowchart is for warm growing regions (such as California, Southern France, Australia, etc.). For cooler regions (Finger Lakes in NY, Germany, Canada) the process may be different. Instead of adding water, for example, winemakers may need to add sugar.

2 - While white grapes are often pressed without de-stemming, some grape varietals require different processes. Still, most while grapes are pressed immediately and the skins are discarded. Only the juice is used to make wine. Red wines, however, require that the juice and skins stay in contact for a long period of time.

3 - Some winemakers don't add yeast to ferment their grapes. They use "native fermentation" and the yeast that develops in the must is naturally-occuring. We use yeast and I will discuss the many steps involved in that process in future posts.
4 - The flowchart is simplified and some steps are purposely missing.  For example, addition of SO2, addition of nutrients during fermentation, fining and filtering before bottling, blending before bottling, etc.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Work in a Winery; Get in Shape

I ran the Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon this Saturday. Since this job has been pretty demanding, I didn't have much time to train. In fact, I put in so few training miles that I'd have to say that I barely trained at all. I still managed to post a personal best: 1 hr 47 minutes and 15 seconds!

PR w/o training

And what does this have to do with making wine?  If it weren't for all those punch downs and 12-hour days, I certainly would not have run this fast. Maybe it's time for a new diet/exercise fad. The "winemaker workout" perhaps? I'm going to be rich!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloween Special: What's in your Wine?

I've been sorting a lot of grapes lately, and let me show you some of the stuff that we've been removing from the fruit bins that come in from vineyards all over California. Yes, it's quite disgusting and that's the point.  Halloween should be about bugs, critters, snakes, etc.!

Occasionally we see some small wolf spiders.
They're quick and tend to run away quite fast

We get a lot more spiders that look like this.  They're slower and tend to
end up in the de-stemmer. I guess they don't have much flavor

Earwigs are everywhere in grape bins. We can't remove them all,
and most end up in the must.  Yum!

We also see a few green, leaf-like bugs like this.  We try to take them
out because they're kinda cool looking!

I've only seen one grasshopper since I've been sorting grapes.  I set it free.
I don't know how well it's doing in central Oakland...

Ladybugs are often in our bins, but we try to remove them because they're cute

We get to sort our grapes because we produce premium wines (with the premium prices).  Bargain wineries don't sort their grapes. They just dump everything into a de-stemmer and crush the crap out of it. If you're drinking cheapo wine, you're probably drinking the occasional mouse, tarantula, hummingbird (we've seen them caught in grape bins), snake, etc. Happy Halloween!!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Our Hippo Needs a Name

We ferment a variety of wines in our relatively new "hippo" cement tank.  It's an alternative to oak barrels, because it lets the wine breathe while stainless steel does not. It also gives the wine, um, some minerality -- obviously. But kidding aside, it does give it a different flavor than oak.

If someone comes up with a great name and other [important] people at the winery agree, I'll send that person one of our 90+ point wines for Xmas. Yep, I'll pay for it out of my own pocket. And I'm not making a lot of $$ these days!

Our hippo tank needs a name! Post a suggestion as a comment,
and I'll ship the winner (if there is one -- I don't make the final decision)
a bottle of one of our 90+ pt. wines

We also have some wine aging in our egg, which is somewhat smaller than the hippo. Eggs have become quite popular lately, and many wineries are buying them. A company that manufactures them in Petaluma is having a lot of success selling them. See

One of our white wines from 2009 is aging
in this egg-shaped cement tank

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Here Comes the Rain Again

I feel the way this shirt looks

Thank God it's almost Friday. This is my 9th day of work in a row, and tomorrow will be the 10th.  It'll also likely be the last day that we crush grapes, as a storm is brewing along the entire California coast. The grapes that are still on the vine will be soaked and will start to rot, so we'll never get to make them into wine.

Over the last 3 days, however, we've crushed about 25 tons. We have 5 more to go tomorrow. Our season total is somewhere around 60 or 70, and that means 120 - 140 barrels of wine (3000 - 3500 cases).  It's low for this winery, but such is life in the wine biz. Weather affects your output quite a lot.

If you're wondering who bears the brunt of the weather, the answer is the grower. Most contracts state the if the grapes are not harvested in time (w/ the desired sugar content), the grower will not be paid. In some cases, we'll still pay them 50% as a goodwill gesture. More to come on this topic...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Good Morning, Sunshine!

This morning I saw the sun rise while at the winery, and this evening I saw it set while at the winery. The only difference between a long day of manual labor vs. a long day in the office is the level of fatigue that comes with a physically demanding job. I could probably solve a brainteaser as quickly as I normally do (my brain's not tired at all), but I'm delaying my shower because I don't want to lift my arms high enough to wash my hair.

12 hour day (those are hundredths of an hour after the decimal point)

Tomorrow we're starting at 6:30 am again, but we'll be crushing 9 tons of fruit vs. the 16 tons that we finished today. And we won't be using the must pump anymore, mainly because we're done crushing into large tanks, but also because I blew it up.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cleaning Tanks and Barrels

Before filling our tanks and barrels with wine, we clean them thoroughly. But how do you clean a barrel when the only way to reach the inside surface is through a small hole (a "bung hole") the size of a golf ball? How can you clean the inside of a tank when the door is too small for a person? Ah, there are special pieces of equipment for both these tasks. First, the tank:

Special tank cleaning device

We have 2 large plastic tanks, and they're easily cleaned with a small wheeled tank cleaner (I think we should name it WALL-E Jr.). It's hooked up to a pump via the top and bottom valves of the tank, and it blasts the entire tank with jets of peroxicarb and citric acid solutions.

A similar device is used to clean barrels. Some of our wine will go into new oak barrels (most are French oak, made in France, and shipped to our winery) while some will go into neutral (aka re-used) oak.

We hook the barrel cleaner to the power washer hose and blast the inside of re-used barrels with scalding hot water. The water and steam sterilize the barrels and wash away the tartaric acid solution (we store the barrels "wet" to keep the wood from drying out and leaking. They're filled with a tartaric acid and SO2 solution).

Barrel washer
Washing the barrels for 2 minutes is enough to thoroughly clean them out, and they're then ready to be filled with wine. The wine will age in the barrels for up to several years, depending on what the winemaker wants to accomplish.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Stop the Presses!

No one's stolen our press. Yep, that's the news. This thing is so big that it remains unlocked, outside, sitting there for all to see. We lock up a lot of our crushing equipment and most of it lives indoors when the winery's closed, but the Diemme press is pretty massive. A small Japanese family may find it more roomy than some Tokyo flats. André the Giant would sleep comfortably inside it.

Our bad ass Diemme press
The other side of the press and one of our portable pumps

Once must has fully fermented into wine, we need to extract the wine and press the skins. That means that there's 2 types of wine at this point:  free-run (which will simply pour right out of the must) and wine that must be squeezed out. Free-run makes the best wine, but not pressing the must would leave you with only half the wine you intended to make. You have to press it. Here's how we get the must into the press:

Once the must is in the press, a large inflatable bladder inside the cylindrical tank is pumped up with air. It gently squeezes the wine out of the must and into the pan below the press. A full press cycles takes about 30 minutes, and the press inflates the bag, presses the must, deflates the bag, rotates, and repeats this cycle several times.

The wine that drips into the pan is then pumped into barrels or other fermentation tanks for secondary fermentation and aging. More info to come on that particular process...

Friday, October 15, 2010

Bag It & Tag It

I haven't posted much about the fermentation process, but here's a bit of info on how it ends.  After 5 or 6 days of punch downs to fully extract color and flavor out of the skins, the yeast eventually dies off because of the alcohol content of the must.  In effect, the yeast dies in its own waste products (alcohol and CO2).

To completely stop fermentation, we simply bag the bins, extract as much air as possible from the bag, slap the bin lids back on top, and package the whole thing up. The bins can then remain stacked while we wait for an opportune time to press the juice out of the must:

Bins full of fermented must awaiting pressing

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Popes in France?

Yes indeed. From 1305 to 1377, seven popes (all French) ruled the Catholic church from Avignon in the South of France. This is why you will find the Palais des Papes in Avignon. It's where my father was born, and I visited the area when I was 2 and 5 years old. Sadly, I haven't been back since.

New digs for the popes (as of approx. 1334 AD)

It also explains the Châteauneuf du Pape appellation along the banks of the Rhone. It literally means "the new castle of the pope", and refers to the new residence of the popes. Pope Clement V declined to move to Rome when he was elected to the papacy in 1305 and instead moved to Avignon in 1309. Clement VI started construction of a new palace in 1334 (Palais Neuf) as Clement V and other popes ruled from the old palace (Vieux Palais) until 1334.

Châteauneuf du Pape is mostly made from Grenache grapes, and guess what we crushed at the winery a few days ago? Yep, several tons of fine-looking Grenache:

Beautiful Grenache grapes

Grenache is a thick-skinned grape (don't trust what Wikipedia says about it), and you can really feel the difference between it and thin-skinned grapes like Pinot Noir or Zinfandel. The berries have a beautiful dark blue, almost iridescent coloring. While Châteauneuf du Pape wine often ends up dark red/purple and very concentrated, that coloring is usually thanks to some blending with Syrah. Grenache tends to oxidize easily during fermentation and loses much of its color.  Many Grenache-based wines are pale in color, though Châteauneuf du Pape is an exception.

Châteauneuf du Pape has enjoyed a resurgence in the US these past few years, and you can find much more of it in your local wine shops and restaurants. The bottles are often very ornate, with embossed logos in the glass:

Typical Châteauneuf du Pape bottles

For a more detailed look at the Southern Rhone region of France, check out the map below (click on it for a more readable view):

Click on image above for a readable map of the Northern and
Southern Rhone wine growing regions of France

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Low Down on the Punch Down

Making [good] red wine requires that you use one of two techniques to keep the juice in contact with the grape skins: Punch Downs or Pump Overs.

Our sister winery uses pump overs and closed fermentation tanks. That means that juice is collected from the bottom of the tank and pumped over the top so that it can keep the skins moist (skins rise to the top as must is fermenting into wine). As the juice filters down through the skins, it takes on more color, flavor, tannins, etc.

We use a different technique. Our fermentation tanks are open at the top, and we also ferment wine in bins.  Fermenting in bins allows you to break up the crushed fruit into small 110-gallon batches. We can then use different strains of yeast in different bins, and make simple adjustments during the fermentation process (add water, add finishing yeasts, etc.). With bins or tanks the skins must be "punched down" to the bottom of the tank/bin. Here's a video that shows some skins being punched:

Punch downs are done every few hours.  Multiply that by 20 - 30 bins and several large tanks, and you get an idea of how much work goes into your wine.

Once the skins have been punched down, we have to wipe the edges of the tanks/bins. If there's any juice or grape chunks fermenting on the edges of the container, it's an opportunity for some sort of contamination (foreign yeast strain, mold, fungus, etc.), and that's not good. Cleanliness is important:

Once the edge of the container is clean, we add a little bit of dry ice to tanks or bins that have not yet been inoculated with yeast. Dry ice vaporizes into gaseous CO2, and since CO2 is heavier than air it forms a nice protective layer between the must and the top of the bin/tank. It halts any sort of fermentation that might have begun due to naturally-occurring yeast from the grapes.

We then place a cover on the tank/bin and wait until the next scheduled punch down. Then we repeat the whole process at 8:00 am, 10:30 am, 12:00 pm, 2:30 pm, and 4:00 pm.

Once we add yeast to a tank/bin, we no longer add dry ice after a punch down. The must starts getting warm as the yeast digests the sugars and creates alcohol.  The juice and skins separate, the skins rise to the top, and a cap forms on the must. Here's what the cap looks like (you can see that it's thicker, stickier, and breaks up in chunks):

The yellow powder in the middle of the bin is a fermentation aid that helps yeast finish the fermentation process. Yeast gets "tired" after several days of fermentation and needs a little extra food. You can also see bubbles/foam form when the must is stirred. That's CO2 being released, as it's a byproduct of fermentation (that's why your beer is bubbly).

Friday, October 8, 2010

Attack of the Clones

Since my winery produces mainly Rhone varietals and blends, we got another few tons of Syrah yesterday.  This time, it came from a vineyard on Silverado Trail in Calistoga (Napa Valley). As I was sorting the clusters, I noticed that there was a lot of variation. Some clusters were very tight, and others were a lot looser.  Some were small and fat, and others were long and lanky:

Which one's a Syrah cluster?

It turns out that different clones of Syrah produce different types of clusters. Both clusters above are Syrah, although you probably wouldn't think they're even the same varietal! Syrah 174, for example, produces tight clusters (right side). Syrah 877 is looser (left side). Other clones for Syrah include 300, 383, Hermitage, Estrella, and Shiraz (yep, the Australian version of Syrah).

Not many wine producers list the clones that they use in their wines.  Sometimes there will be some variation in the bins that they receive from the vineyards, and certain producers are pretty picky about the grapes they buy. For an example, see this link for Caldwell: Caldwell notes their clones. They also have a fantastic red blend called Rocket Science. Everyone I know loves it -- a lot!

And FYI, my winery occasionally purchases fruit from Caldwell.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I'm Turning into a Smurf

After 2 straight days of sorting and crushing grapes, my hands have taken on a deep purple color.  I'm afraid that if I keep working at this job, I'm going to look like this:

As long as I never look like this guy, things will be OK:

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

All this Wine Needs Is a Good Bleeding

Some of our bins of crushed Zinfandel and Syrah have been inoculated with yeast, and they're now fermenting outside the cold room. Before the yeast was added, we bled some of the juice and dumped it down the drain.  This raises two questions: One, why waste some perfectly good juice? Two, why bleed the must by removing some of the juice?

Let's consider Question Two first: Red wine is made by ensuring that the juice is constantly in contact with the grape skins during fermentation. If that doesn't happen, you end up with rosé. To ensure that you have the right juice-to-skin ratio, it's often necessary to remove some of the juice. This means that we'll get some nice, concentrated wine with dark red coloring -- maybe even a little purple.

As for Question One, that's a tough one. We just don't have enough juice to make a good batch of rosé. It would be nice to do it, but we'd need a separate tank (it's usually aged in steel), a different bottle, a new label, etc. And since rosé gets no respect in this country, it's not very profitable. In France, however, they're serious about their rosé.

It reminds me of an incident that happened at a restaurant a few months ago. My wife and I were having dinner and a woman at the next table said something like, "Ah rosé, I remember those years!" I should have asked her if she was new to wine because her comment was condescending and ignorant, but I think I just smiled politely. If rosé is good enough for Joël Robuchon's Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, it's good enough for me. I just wish we hadn't dumped a barrel's worth down the drain.

Bye bye!

FYI, if anyone is curious, we bleed anywhere from 20% to 30% of juice from the must. That means that if we process 3 tons of grapes (1 ton = roughly 150 gallons of must after de-stemming), we'll bleed as much as 135 gallons of juice.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

No Cork Soaking Necessary

Most wineries don't have their own bottling equipment. It's expensive, takes up a lot of room, and isn't used too frequently. Wineries use mobile bottling trucks that drive in for the day, fill bottles, and spit out complete cases of wine.

While it's efficient, it makes certain tasks more difficult.  Let's say you want to bottle a few dozen magnums, for example.  You can't call in a bottling truck just for that, but you can uncork some 750 ml bottles and pour 2 into each empty magnum bottle ("marrying bottles", as bartenders would say).  But how do you cork them back up?

First, a quick laugh re: corking bottles (NSFW if your coworkers are uptight people with no sense of humor):

And now, this is how it's really done:


1 Ton of Pinot Noir

If you're processing 1 ton of fruit, it means you're doing 30 minutes of sorting and crushing, followed by 3 hours of cleanup. That's what we did yesterday, as only 2 bins of Pinot Noir grapes came in. Pinot Noir berries are quite small, and for some reason the de-stemmer sprayed grapes all over the crush pad. Cleanup ended up taking most of the remainder of the day.

Here's what the Pinot looked like:

Not-so-great-looking Pinot Noir

INTERESTING FACT:  Do you know how to tell if grapes are ripe? Wine grapes have to ripen a lot more than table grapes, so an easy trick to gauge the ripeness of a wine grape is to eat its seeds. Unlike bitter table grape seeds, they should be crunchy and toasty without any bitterness. They should have the consistency of roasted coffee beans, meaning that they'll crunch and break apart as you chew them.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Literature Class

Since today is a rest day (my fourth in a row), I'll take a few paragraphs to explain the name of this blog. It's obviously a lame play on words on the title of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning book -- a book that I completely abhorred in high school.

Despite the sleep-inducing pace of Steinbeck's doorstop-worthy book, it has some pretty important parallels that led me to use it as my blog's title. For a quick refresher on the plot line, here's a Wikipedia article that summarizes the book:

Set against the carnage of the Great Depression, the main characters (the Joad family) leave their foreclosed Midwestern farm to journey to California. Though on a grander scale, their plight is not much different than that faced by millions of American during our current Great Recession. Like them, I've made the trip across the country, looking for better opportunities.

Agriculture is a prominent theme of the book, and the poor treatment of low-wage farm workers is central to the plot. I can't help but notice that the grapes that I'm processing were probably picked by hard-working farm laborers that made very little money so that we can enjoy our $35 bottles of wine. When I watch the news, I see nothing but angry, white Midwesterners that complain about illegals, but I'm pretty sure that none of them have made the trip to NorCal to pick farm produce. They certainly aren't packing up their belongings to make the journey as they did in the 1930s. Maybe they've lost the drive that people like the Joads had, the desire to find a better life, to move on at all costs, to travel to that new frontier for a better chance at a decent living.

Like the Joads, I'm upending my life to take a journey down an unknown path.  I trust that it'll work out, but it's a big risk and the rewards are uncertain. Though not out of necessity, I am forgoing familiarity and experiencing a radical change in my standard of living.  I am hoping that the gamble will pay off.

Finally, Steinbeck used a character named Jim Casy as a sort of "savior" who takes the fall for a crime committed by one of the Joads. It's an obvious reference to Jesus Christ (they share the same initials). Like Jim Casy, my winery also shares the same initials in its name, though they are simply the initials of the founder.  Still, I'd like to think that it'll save me from a life of corporate drudgery.  It's a stretch, I know, but I just had to draw that last parallel!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Avoid Red Wine Headaches!

Here's a trick that can help you avoid wine headaches.  Saturday and Sunday mornings will feel much better:

How to De-Stem a Grape

If I remember anything from safety training, it's that the de-stemmer is the most dangerous piece of equipment in the winery.  That in itself makes it pretty interesting, so I took some pictures and some video of it in action:

Our state-of-the-art de-stemmer.  Keep fingers away!

The elevator drops grape clusters into the far end of the machine, and rubber-coated paddles gently beat the crap out of the grapes.  The berries fall through the holes in the steel cylinder and are collected below the machine.  As you can see from this video, you don't want long hair anywhere near the spinning paddles and cylinder.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

2 Tons of Syrah and a Wine Country Pedicure

When I decided to work in a winery, many of my friends joked that I would be stomping grapes with my feet. "No way," I said, "we're much more hi-tech in California. We use specialized equipment, and it's all very mechanized."

At 11:30 this morning, 2 tons of Syrah from Davis, CA, showed up. Just like yesterday, we ran the fruit through the typical line and into 3 half-ton bins. Syrah berries are smaller than Zinfandel, and have a very different flavor. They're not as sweet, and the tannins from the skins are more pronounced. Here's what a cluster looks like:

Syrah cluster

Once the syrah was done, we punched down the large Zinfandel tank from yesterday. "Punch down" refers to pushing down the grape skins to the bottom of a fermentation tank. As must slowly ferments into wine, the grape skins will rise to the top of the must and have to be recirculated during the punch down process. As you can see in this video, it can be mechanized (for large tanks) or done by hand.

This process ensures that the liquid (juice) keeps the skins moist. Moist skins means a more flavorful wine, deeper color, and more tannins.

You want the skins to break down, but you want to do it gently. And this is where I have to eat my words and admit that we aren't that hi-tech. Sometimes, you just need some feet to break up those berries without grinding the grapes to a pulp (sorry, Robin). In this particular case, I got to stomp some must that had been sitting in the cold room since yesterday (read: nice and cold). It felt like running in knee-deep snow.

"Uh, yeah, you want me to do what?"

Yes, my feet were thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before I did this

And this is where I will end today's post.  I'm sure there are a few surprises yet to come...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

4.5 Tons of Zinfandel

It's 4:30 pm and I'm pretty much covered in sticky Zinfandel juice. It's on my arms, in my hair, and all over my shirt and shorts. We started the day at 6:00 am, mainly because it's 97 degrees in Oakland this afternoon, and the assistant winemaker wanted to be done crushing as early as possible.

We hauled the equipment to the crush pad at 6:00: bin rack, hopper, sorting table, elevator, de-stemmer, and must pump. We washed everything with the power washer and some ozonated water, which is a great sanitizer, and proceeded to sort and de-stem 8 overflowing bins of fruit.

Zinfandel clusters.  10% - 15% raisins is quite normal for Zinfandel, and this is
high-quality fruit from Paso Robles on the Central Coast

Elevator and de-stemming machine.  The must pump (connected to the hose) collects
the berries & juice and pumps the must into the fermentation tanks in the building

Each bin is sequentially loaded onto the bin rack, which has a motorized mechanism that tips the bin and dumps the grape clusters into a hopper. The hopper then dispenses the clusters onto a sorting table (a long conveyor belt that moves the fruit toward the elevator) and workers sort the clusters. We remove leaves, spiders, earwigs, red berries (not ripe enough) and second-growth clusters. Occasionally, some clusters have some rot and they're discarded.

The elevator then carries the fruit that passed inspection into the de-stemming machine. Here's where things get interesting: Different winemakers use different techniques, and our guy does not crush the fruit in this step of the process. About 25% of the berries are crushed during de-stemming and pumping, but the remaining 75% of the berries are simply pumped (intact) into the fermentation tanks. They'll break down during fermentation, but they're not crushed by a mechanized process.

Must.  This is a mixture of crushed berries, intact berries, and juice.
It's put into fermentation tanks or bins

Stems.  This stuff goes into the garbage

Friday, September 24, 2010

A $7 iPhone App?!?!

Although I probably won't be adding any critical chemicals or yeast to the fermentation tanks (that's the winemaker's job), it wouldn't hurt to know exactly how it's done.  That's why I downloaded an application called Cellar Hand to my iPhone.  Price tag: $6.99.

Flashbacks of Chem 101 and 102 and lengthy unit conversions made paying $7 a little more palatable.  Besides, if NASA can crash a $300-million probe into Mars just because some Ph.D. couldn't get the conversion to meters just right, it's quite possible that I'll screw something up and turn a tasty tank of syrah into a yeasty, sulfurous mess of vinegary swill.

Um, how many hectoliters in Tank #3?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Much of your time spent working in a winery is spent cleaning.  Do all winemakers have some sort of OCD?  No.  It turns out that any mold, yeast, or fungus can negatively impact the fermentation process, so every piece of equipment that will be in contact with the fruit must be thoroughly cleaned. For us, it means a scrubbing with peroxicarb, a rinse, another scrubbing with citric acid + sulfur dioxide, and a final rinse. BTW, blisters + citric acid is not recommended. It feels like lemon juice in a paper cut. Actually, it is lemon juice in a paper cut!

I got a great big whiff of sulfur dioxide while I was cleaning some bins today, and I thought to myself "Hmm...  SO2 + H2O = sulfuric acid, right?"  Nope, it makes sulfurous acid (H2SO3 vs. H2SO4), which is more benign.  It still burns, though, which is why I immediately put on my respirator.

"Luke, I am your father"

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

!%&*$!#* Bins

Grapes are shipped from the vineyard to the winery in half-ton bins.  They're called half-ton bins because, well, they hold half a ton of fruit (1000 lbs). That yields 1 barrel of wine, or approximately 25 cases (300 750-ml bottles). The winery I am working for produces a few thousand cases a year, and that means slightly less than 250 barrels. That also means about 250 half-ton bins full of fruit.

Each bin spends the year stacked outdoors, and therefore collects all sorts of dust, soot, insects, and other crap. We have to clean them before they go to the vineyard, and boy did we ever clean them today!  They were power washed with hot water, then scrubbed with peroxicarb (aka sodium percarbonate or OxiClean) solution, rinsed, scrubbed with citric acid solution (aka Vitamin C or Sour Patch Kids coating, for you junkfood fanatics), and rinsed once more:

The bins are then sealed with a cover and stacked about 7 or 8 bins high, awaiting their trip to the vineyard.  Fun stuff, as you can see from my spiffy outfit.

Clean half-ton bins

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Banker and a Consultant Walk into a Winery...

On Friday I met 2 other interns that will be working with me during the harvest.  One is N, who recently moved to NorCal from Maine.  The other is K, who's been working as a trader for RBC Capital Markets for over 14 years.  He brought his own espresso machine to work.

N graduated from college 2 years ago and has been looking for work ever since.  He'll be working at the winery to earn a living and hopefully gain enough experience to move into a better job once the season's over.  K, on the other hand, seems to have quit his high-paying job just to work another harvest (he has already worked one in Australia).

I'm wondering what kind of weird economic situation we find ourselves in these days: One guy can't find an entry-level job for 2 years, while a couple others decide to check out of the corporate world and crush grapes for a few months.  Strange, to say the least.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Safety Training

If you can't harvest grapes, you may as well begin with some copious amounts of safety training.  I spent all day learning about the different ways to die while working in a winery: crushed to death by a forklift, death by falling into tanks, death by asphyxiation (lots of CO2 is generated during fermentation), death from chemical fumes, etc.  OK, I made up the last one, as I think it's only "poisoning from sulfur fumes, which can most probably lead to death."

Since the focus on instant death got to be a little depressing, we finished with a bit of forklift driving followed by a certification exam.  If you think that driving a 5000 lbs forklift with rear-wheel steering is easy, you've obviously never done it.  Luckily, I didn't crush anyone to death.

Navigating the forklift obstacle course
Stacking some bins...
Stacking more bins...