Flesh Versus Computation- The Enological Struggle


Does the pulp fall off the seed like an exhausted creature?  Do the seeds crunch like hazelnuts or are they ungraciously potent with banana peel bitter?  Does the thick skin push back with a fight against the gnashing teeth or does it fall limp and apologetic?  Does the bite salivate?  Is curiosity ignited? Are the juice flavors nuanced? Do I taste anything other than plum?  Anything?  These are the questions of the artist/winemaker, the poet, the fiery flagrant.

The scientist, the holder of the master’s degree or the phD in enology, might conversely ask, do the brix measurements fall between (reds) 23-27 brix, is the TA (titratable acidity) within the range of 3.5- 6.9 g/L and is the pH below the disease giddy 4.0 pH but above the malolactic-bacteria-leery 3.0.  The true calculator might have access to a spectrometer, run YAN measurements or test malic acid levels.

For so many of us, who you are and who you wish you were, battle along a spectrum, points finding each other and veering, nearing and jolting.  Harvest is rampant with those moments that illuminate where you are within that range.     Are you the gut-trusting artist or the cautious, detail oriented scientist?  To truly learn the science takes (endless) time and to have faith takes… faith.  Both are difficult.

I hope you had a great weekend, Ashley

Ripping the Bandaid


The anticipation of harvest is always worse than harvest itself.  Every morning you wake up thinking, “am I about to make a bad decision today?”  Maybe you do and maybe you don’t, but once you’ve made the decision, these are the kinds of decisions that you can’t undo.  From your pick date to your destemming/crushing choices, from the yeast type to the temperature goals (goals being the operative word here), from the punchdowns or pumpovers to the press settings and oak regimen, the lasting effects are, well, lasting.  The only mitigating factor to your stress level is that you’re too busy to do much thoughtful, detailed worrying. 

You cannot undo the drastically high pyrazine level in a too-early-pick, nor can you run a different yeast and if you’ve got amyl acetate (banana smell) from too cold a fermentation, then there you are.   

Each day is a plethora of moving parts.  If it is hotter, all of those parts move faster.  If it is sunny, they move faster.  If it rains, you re-calibrate totally.  If it freezes, find the largest picking crew before everyone else “notices” that it froze- and good luck there.  From any given freeze, you’ve got about 2-3 days to pull the fruit off of the vines and the faster the better.  Unlike hail or mildew or animal damage, when it freezes, it freezes for everyone and that means labor shortage, tank shortage, fermentation room shortage as well as sleep shortage.  

You must manage temperatures and off aromas on ferments.  Yeasts need to start happy and stay that way.  Over extended macerations lead to an unwanted tannin profile.  Pressing the wrong way can do the same.    

This is my 18th harvest.  Every harvest, without fail, brings dread before it starts and joy once it does.  The adrenaline of its movement, the beautiful days and chats with vineyard managers, all culminate in something akin to a long lost sport from your youth.  Your muscles remember, your pace picks up, something feels right.  You forget the birthday parties and doc appointments, deny the mail is chance to be opened, let the voicemails pile up and get fewer haircuts and you do one thing for a very long time.  You do one very beautiful, fulfilling and exhausting thing for a very long time.

Rocked and Rolled

All lives are more important than all wines.  Thank goodness no one lost their life in this past quake, but what a colossal bummer for the Napa guys.

While some might speculate that the Washington wine industry was pleased to hear that the big, bad competitors lost some wine to last week’s earthquake, we are the people who know best how much love, blood, sweat and tears go into a creation.  When that is taken away by surprise, hearts – all hearts, are slightly broken.   Having said this, I’ve read already that Australia’s industry is gearing up to fill fresh voids in the European export market…  I guess certain traits come with the territory when your territory is staffed exclusively by ex-prisoners.

The media made damages sound worse than the reality, as media is so apt to do. Only a handful of wineries lost barrels, but Silver Oak may have lost quite a bit of library wines.

To assume that wineries, even wineries near fault lines, could earthquake-proof their cellars, would be unrealistic.  The weight of any barrel, any full pallet, stacked barrels, stacked pallets, full tank is tremendous and movements with any one of these, endless.  From a wine that has sold out to a barrel that needs racking, from the tank that needs lees-settling to the pre-bottling blending, there is a constant flow of changes and tweaks.  Because so very many wine regions are near fault lines¸ inevitably souls and cellars will be, on occasion, crushed.

Napa was hit once before in recent history in 1989 by the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake.    


Paso Robles was hit by the 6.5 magnitude San Simeon quake that caused, among other things, 400 gallons of Turley’s 2002 and 2003 vintage to spill.  The quake hit on December 22, 2003 leading to what I imagine to be a terrible holiday season.

By far the most devastating to any wine country was not only the magnitude but the timing of the February 27, 2010 quake to the Chilean wine region (Carmenere, Cab, Sauv, Sauv. Blanc).  The astounding 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit the heart of the country’s wine region one week before harvest was in full swing.  I was in Mendoza that night and felt it.  Just to be clear, I was in a different country and across a mountain range and felt it.  The Casablanca, Bio Bio, Maule and Colchagua regions were hit the hardest.   An estimated 150 million bottles spilled and 12.5% of the country’s cellared wine was lost.  Wine-filled tanks unbolted from the cemented ground and toppled the next tank over and the next, in a domino effect that resulted in swimming pools of wine.   As I write, El Mercurio, one of the major Chilean newspapers has decided that Olivia Palermo’s new shoe line is a more important headline than the Napa’s current woes.  These two quakes were different beasts.

chile 2


Mendoza and Salta, Argentina’s two major wine regions, seem to get hit about every 5-10 years.  New Zealand quakes 20,000 times a year.  Two thousand of those are strong enough to be felt by people.  The Marlborough (think Sauv. Blanc) earthquake of 1848 is almost wholly responsible for how we regulate building codes in earthquake regions.  California, Oregon and Washington are all earthquake, if not volcano happy and are often both.  Australia is certainly prone.

Europe tends to have some respite from the upheavals, branching into more dubious territory the closer one gets to Iran and the east.  Austria (Gruner Veltliner etc.) might be the biggest contender in this category, but this entire wine region seems to have been spared a plethora of fault lines.

For now, it looks like we can all recoup and head into an unprecedentedly high tonnage season. 

Have a great weekend, Ashley


It Doesn’t Get Better Than This (Subtitled: Famous Last Words)

Viticultural nirvana has arrived. What does a perfect harvest look like?  It looks like every ounce of what is headed our way.

There was no winter damage.  There was no surprise spring frost.  There has been almost record low rainfall the past couple of months and not much in sight.  Record high temps are leading us to really ripe fruit early in the season with plenty of time ahead to get even more out of those hanging vines.  2013 was a high yield year and this one looks to surpass it.  Hot ‘n Heavy ought to be this year’s motto.


Phenolics (smells and tastes) will be ripe Because of our hot summer, unripe notes along with pyrazines will likely be cooked out of existence before picking time.

Mildew has been practically a non-issue due to the complete lack of moisture we’ve seen recently.

Skins have thickened in this record-breakingly hot year, so we will see bigger color and bigger tannins.  A bigger skin to juice ratio in the must will give us more of those great, ripe phenolics.  We will have to be wary of sunburned grapes which will lead to quick oxidation and poor ageing of wines, not to mention poor color and weird tastes.

One of the downsides of hot weather is that acids can get cooked out of these grapes if we aren’t careful which could negatively affect aging. But most highly rated vintages emerge from growing seasons that are hot like this one. More likely than not the acid impact would be mitigated by great tannin structure along with a lot of great phenolic structure to work with so these vines will age beautifully

Doubtlesss, some bout of plague or 20 day early frost will hit, frogs will rain or just as awful, rain will rain- but until that moment, I’m going to look at graphs and charts and eat ice cream.  It’s that kind of vintage.

Have a great weekend, Ashley

Addendum- since the initial drafting of this post this morning and the current publishing of it, we’ve had an absolute onslaught of rainfall…

The Demons You Drink

IMG_0122Your ’82 Margaux? It’s got bird poop in it. The ’97 Brunello? Bird poop. And the ’66 Port? Bird poop.

The Huffington Post recently published and promptly rescinded a scathing article on all of the junk that gets thrown in Two Buck Chuck due to machine harvesting. Between the disgust, denial and truth there lies finite room for common sense.

Of course there is bird poop in your wine.

Let that sink it.

This is not to say that I have embraced the reality so thoroughly that, when I am cluster sampling, I directly opt to taste the affected cluster. I choose the next vine over and do not foresee a change in behavior patterns for future vintages, but I have no problem sampling the must.

I’m not advocating for a larger percentage of crushed mice in domestic reds or ladybugs in old world whites. I am saying that I’ve hand harvested, hand selected, manually destemmed and personally leaf stripped close to a thousand tons worth of fruit over my career and I can tell you point blank that you’ve drunk an unfortunate bee or two (no mice).  The more hands on and machine off the winemaker, the cleaner the fruit of course. The resolve however is in the matter, not the manner. I can do a great job of cleaning my fruit but you can bet your tail the wine will do a better job.

Clearly, those of us who have absolutely no fruit fly consumption threshold did not totally “thrive” in the 1300’s. For those with sensitive stomachs, wine was the cure. Our forebearers survived the past few millennia because they drank buggy wine instead of buggy water.

High acidity (3.0-4.0 pH) does a great job of killing bacteria. Think about how often you are recommended to clean with vinegar- same concept. Scientists have recently honed in on the bacteria fighting capacity of reservatrol while simultaneously not impacting your body’s natural probiotics.

If you’ve ever bought rubbing alcohol to sterilize something, then maybe you can guess where I’m headed here.

The 70’s found out that the tannin in wooden cutting boards dehydrated and killed food pathogens while the plastic and glass counterparts did not.

Lastly, we have good old gravity. If I let a barrel settle and rack out the top 9/10s of that barrel 5 times over a two year period, I can get it to pass through a 0.45 micron filter all day long without a clog. Two ingredients: gravity and time.

So the next time there is a lizard staring at you from the bottom of a bottle, yes, you should call someone. Barring that, you’ll be just fine.

Have a great weekend, Ashley

Birthday Dreading


My husband and I disagree on a great many things, but he is brilliant and we do agree on this: bottling a wine is like a child being born. The goal is to maximize uneventfulness. I would imagine launching a space ship might also fall into this category but my area of expertise falls drastically short of that genre.

By definition, only bad things happen during these processes. The results are often fantastic- who doesn’t love babies and spaceships and wine? But at no point during these particular days does one look up and think “man, we just made that wine a better wine than it was 20 minutes ago.”

You can bottle a wine when it is too oxidized, reduced, oaky, sulfited, bacteria or yeast-flawed, tannic, poorly blended, hazy, cold-unstable and so on. Once it is bottled, there is your amber.

Whether you believe philosophically in the validity of fining, sulfiting, cold stabilizing, yeast hull additions, sterile filtering or reverse osmosis is beside the point. You have, as a winemaker, made all of the decisions you will be making on this particular creation. The birthday has arrived. The truck is here and the tired crew is gazing at you timidly and doggedly from behind their steaming cups of black coffee.

The capsules may not fit, argon may run out, hoses may be too short, labels too long, the wine too lees-y. The list is long and tortuous.

So I am proud to say that our Flying Trout and Waters bottlings last week were uneventful and I look forward to an incredibly boring TERO bottling on September 2nd.

Have a great weekend, Ashley


Microwaving Wine


The microwave, invented by Percy Spencer shortly after World War II, was originally named the “Radarange.”

So it was a bit of a surprise when a taster suggested to do a ten second nuke on a glass of too cold wine.

Microwaves work by sending quickly fluctuating waves through food. Any food molecules that are polarized (think AA batteries: negative charge on one side, positive on the other) will try to align themselves with the wave but because it is moving so quickly, that alignment turns instead into a spin. The energy it takes to spin, produces heat. Water has high polarity so it starts spinning quickly.

It leads me to believe that with enough time, this spinning and heat would lead to new bonds and volatilization of some desired aromas and personality.

Someone out of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region agreed with me but assumed that some good could come of it (different from my assumption).

Flash Detente (accents belong on that word but I’m blogging by phone so this is the best I can do) is a recently invented process by which wine must is heated to 180 degrees F and quickly cooled to 82 degrees F and sent down a vacuum chamber to contain alcohols and important phenolic volatiles. The idea is to use extreme heat to break down grape skin cell walls, extracting more goodies from the grapes while nuking off methoxypyrazines- known for grassy, vegetal and spicy aromas.

Opponents to the process, of which there are many, claim a cotton candy aroma to the finished product. Proponents are in love.

It is seldom used because it sounds insane and irreversible. I guess that could be said for both the good and bad in life.

Have a great weekend. Ashley

Cross Training


Last week was a “big week,” where I did lots of “heavy lifting” that was all “work related.”

I really wanted to dye my tongue blue (see last week’s post) but was not able to get around to it until this week because Monday and Tuesday I was doing blending trials in preparation for bottling on August 1st.  Wednesday I went to my manly tasting group (mostly men), where we drank copious amounts of Grand Cru white Burgundy.  It was earth shatteringly good.  Thursday night I went to my ladies’ tasting group (all ladies), where we tasted Sancerre and oddly enough, a rose Sancerre that was fantastic.

I am no expert in food coloring, but if thousands of dollars worth of wine enjoyment were at stake, I figured it would be best to hold off and approach with the theory: “taste now, dye later.”

All of this, of course, is in the good name of hard work.  “Cellar palate” is an affliction that so many professionals suffer from and it is, as MLK Jr. once said, “not only our right but our duty,” to work beyond it, to push the outer limits of our physical constraints. So I did.

Cellar palate is what happens to wine professionals who taste too much from their own cellar, or I would argue, their own region.  You forget how broad of a spectrum within which wine can work.  The confines become more confined.  While you think you are making a drastically different blend from your varietal next to it, you may be making a hazy photocopy.

Terroir, oak, vineyard techniques, yeast strains, maceration methods- the wine creation world is not only large, but overwhelmingly varied and at times the pitfall of comfort and clarity is appealing.  It is times like these when one must power through and prove one’ s professionalism and go drink amazing wines.

Cheers to hard work.  Have a good weekend, Ashley




Turquoise: The Tell Tale Hue


Pressing wine.


For those of you who enjoy turning anything into a competition: you’re welcome.

Some of us can’t smell “asparagus pee,” while others taste cilantro as soapy.  Certain people are more sensitive to acid where others are texture food eaters.  Smell and taste are clearly subjective.

They, in fact, are.

But for those of you who can’t help cramming every last ounce of objectivity into a competition (myself included), help is here.

Dye your tongue blue with food coloring.  Do this outside for obvious reasons.  Taste buds will shine more turquoise than the rest of the tongue.  Take a donut shaped sticker- the ones you used to use to protect hole punches in your school binders.  Place one on your tongue.  If you have over 40 turquoise taste buds within the hole, you win.  Under 15, you lose.  Anywhere in the middle, you are indeed mediocre. Gasp.

This must be taken with a grain of salt, unless you won, in which case, stand by the test vehemently.  Certain people have bald spots on their tongue from ear infections, bad dental work, who knows.  Any number of factors can contribute to the loss of taste buds including the inevitable and sad human ageing process.

If any of you have ever had a physical handicap, you might remember, or are currently noticing, that other parts of your body have gotten stronger to recoup the loss.  This too can happen with taste buds.

And there are people who have amazing taste buds but have never bothered to hone their naming skills.  They can tell you how much they hate the taste of something on a scale of 1-10, but they can’t tell you that it smells like cardamom because they’ve never bothered to think about cardamom while the spice jar was open.

Enjoy your now competitive weekend.  Ashley


Old Men With Drinking Solutions; Our Nation’s Leaders

Presidents get to be presidents because because they find solutions to the big questions in life. So who better to turn to for suggestions on what, in this wide, wide world, do we drink?

George Washington was the kind of man who would make my husband proud. He spent over $6000 on wine in one year, 1775. Almost all of it Madiera.

Thomas Jefferson was probably the president we most closely link to wine due to a vineyard that he planted by Monticello. What so many of us don’t know is that he was never able to try his own wines. The vines took too long to be fruitful.

An interesting novel, The Billionaire’s Vinegar,” details a true story about one of TJ’s wines being sold to someone at an auction for copious amounts of money when the wine actually was… Well I won’t spoil the surprise.

Rutherford B Hayes’ wife, Lucy Webb banned wines at the table. Despite her and the prohibition movement, wines were continually found at the White House.

Reagan, for obvious reasons, began serving more Californian wines.

Nixon used to pour the table mediocre French wines while simultaneously and secretly imbibing Chateaux Margaux as my daughter would say, “all by his lone.”

To his defense, and we’ve all been there, it is slightly painful sharing a gorgeous, precious bottle with someone who you know won’t notice it. But no, I’ve never pulled that move.

And upon his retirement, Carter began making his own wines.

Happy 4th. Drive Safely.