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!