The 2014 Vintage

In 18 harvests I’ve never once experienced a season as lovely as the 2014 vintage. A hot spring flowed into a hot summer that blending into a hot fall. I’m choosing my words carefully here. Hot does not mean warm, it means hot.

We hit record growing degree days, highs and sustained highs by any number of different calculations. Pick a week, a site or a measurement unit and the answer will be that same: hot.

Hot means bad for two main reasons. First, the acids in your grape cook out while they are still on the vine. The wine you subsequently make with that fruit will be flabby, have no finish or structure and will age poorly. Second, that wine may have reached such high sugar levels so quickly that the full spectrum of nuanced flavors may not have had time to catch up and create themselves by the time the winemaker is forced to pick (or make a 17% alc wine).

What became more than a pleasant surprise in 2014, is that the first issue never happened, or not nearly to the degree suspected. The grapes retained a surprising amount of acid. It turns out that heat spikes are more likely to cook acid out than heat. The two, until this vintage, have been synonymous. There was never a heat spike because there was never a cool dip. The vines re-calibrated early on and never looked back.

The latter will be a question for the next couple of years as these wines go through malolactic fermentation and grow up a bit.

From a personal standpoint, the end of harvest is never anything less than brutal. It’s 33 degrees and raining. The wind is blowing, you’re filthy. You’ve resigned yourself to the lack of clean laundry that now is your life. The dog is staring at you desperately and longingly because he is hungry- you didn’t tell him today was going to be a 16 hour day. The propane on the forklift just ran out and is that snow in the distance? Yes it is.

But if all of your fruit is picked 15 days prior to the first frost, it looks nothing like that, nothing at all.

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I hope you had a great weekend, Ashley

The Road to Happiness is Obvious

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I was going to write a 2014 vintage report, but that got interrupted because I just read Monday’s Wall Street Journal article on happiness.  Happiness, according to the experts’ research, is achieved not so much by how much money you make, but by how you spend it.  Here is the kicker:  If you spend it on experiences instead of tangible goods, you will be happier.  You’re welcome.

So where does wine fall into this category?  Simple– wine is an experience and not a material good.  Yes, there are material aspects to it, but one sentence from the article explained:  “We adapt to our material goods” according to Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University.  This has some correlation, I would imagine, with a recent TED talk about a study done (total lack of proper citation here) that showed recent paraplegics and recent lotto winners both pretty much returned to their normal state of happiness after only 3 months.  Happiness, it turns out, is a very Kerouac-ian venture.  It is in the moment and then we re-calibrate all of our surroundings back to our par.  If we create or find something that we know can only happen in a fleeting piece of time- with certain people, in certain places, certain weather or music or… wine… then we revel more in the fact that it can’t be recreated.  We glean happiness from the rarity more than we do from the actual goods.  We appreciate that we were there before the end.  The yoga ball in my living room is definitely no longer special, but any one of the wines in my cellar is.

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The chemical makeup of any wine alters from the moment you pop the cork, hell from the moment the grapes are picked.  And that process never ceases. The wine you open on September 10 is different from that same wine you open on November 10.  For that matter, the November 10th wine at 6 pm is different from the end of the bottle at 8 pm.  And then, though perhaps remembered, it is gone.

According to Douglas Adams, the answer to life is 42.  That may be, but I think we all now know that the key to happiness is a fleeting bottle of wine with the right people.  How’s that for a helpful blog post?

I hope you had a great weekend, Ashley

PS- We will be moving the blog to our new website this month.  Please re-subscribe if you feel that we’ve lost you in the move.  Thanks.

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A recent poll of NASA employees indicated that 75% of them would accept a one way ticket to Mars.  That bears repeating: 75%.  These people would give up all of the comforts of everything that they know and love to be pioneers in populating a new planet.  While the fame and intrigue would be impressive, I would imagine the deprivation to be even more so.

It is therefore with trepidation that I begin today’s lament.  The list of activities mutually exclusive to winemaking is short and, in retrospect, not particularly brutal.  It does, however, exist.

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Winemakers can’t wear lipstick- at least not if you are actively working.  I’m at peace with this.

Perfume, many deodorants and perfumed lotions also fall in the category of being so smelly that you can’t smell for a living.  Unfortunately, practically all lotions are perfumed in some capacity and even more unfortunately, if you’re elbow deep in acidic alcohol and sanitizing solutions, lotion would be nice.

We can’t make yogurt because lactobacillus is generated in great quantities. Lactobacillus is not something many of us strive to have in our wines.

We can’t make any bathtub beer using a brettanomyces yeast.  It makes things smell like horse sweat, bandaid and gym socks and is totally uncontrollable.  In a fit of pure genius, we named our dog Brett for these reasons.  She has since fulfilled this prophecy in abundance.

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And we can’t clean our houses with chlorinated bleach.  Bleach plus many things in the winery turn into tricholoroanisole (TCA).  TCA is housed in porous oak barrels, spread throughout pumps and hoses and survive in floor drains.  It smells like wet dog or mushrooms or just strips the aromas out of the wine completely.  TCA brought much of California to its knees in the late ‘90s.  Once they stopped sanitizing with bleach, things got better, but not without some legendarily expensive overhaul.

Last, we can’t eat spicy foods or drink coffee when writing tasting notes or pressing off a bin.  Doing so affects our ability to sense the texture of tannins and to smell the whole profile of a wine.  Pressing determines the tannin structure of that wine for the rest of its life.  This deprivation is especially hard to handle on a crisp fall morning when the press is taking its sweet time, the wind is whipping past your down coat and you have nothing but time on your hands.  How good does a cup of coffee sound then?  Really damn great.  But it probably not as great as oxygen, water, family, never again eating another chocolate cake or gravity.

I hope you had a great weekend, Ashley

Movers and Shakers

In a fit of pure flagrant nepotism, I’d like to honor my Uncle George Franklin’s new and fantastic book, “Cereal Wars,” by thanking the sweet ground I walk on that my industry is simpler.

“Cereal Wars” chronicles the lobbying that goes on behind closed doors to bring cereal to your breakfast table. It is a world filled with international negotiations, barters, senators with a right place right time story and gobs and gobs of money.

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The truth of course is that the wine industry, somewhere and at some point is exactly like that. For that matter, the industry in Washington state is like that. There are laws that dictate how wines get onto grocery shelves and at what tax bracket. There are laws that affect how easy it is for other states to ship their wines into our state because that, in turn, affects the ratio of WA wines you’re likely to purchase. (Any wines that teach you about the beauty of nature far, wide or near should be readily available in my view).

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An outdated post-Prohibition law dictates that you pay $6 more in taxes for a case of wine that is over 14.1% alcohol than one that is under.

Certain laws allow big brands to pay restaurants to get on their glass pour lists in a way that smaller wineries can’t afford.

All of this to say that I’m just thrilled that my job is making the wine. When I go out to dinner, my innermost thoughts are about tastes, smells texture, and pairings.

My naïveté in this field can be summed up by my mother in law’s view of her new vacuum system- if you never learn how to do it, no one will put you in charge of that task. Thank goodness for the George Franklins of the world.

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I hope you had a great weekend, Ashley

PS- our blog will be moved to the website and off of WordPress prior to November. Please re-subscribe if we lose you in the process.

The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions; A Malolactic Bedtime Story

As a parent, all too often, you find yourself saying things that you regret… Immediately.

Today was such an occurrence. My three-year-old asked my husband what he did today at work. Being an honest man, driven to nurture, respect and inspire his progeny, he answered that he inoculated barrels with malolactic bacteria.

“What is that?” She asked

“That’s a bug, honey” says Brian “I put bugs in the barrels.”

At this point, I’ve decided that it’s a full fledged miracle if I don’t find crickets in my Tupperware drawer next week.

I seem to have a knack for envisioning the future that Brian apparently lacks. A three-year-old hears that it is “our” job to put bugs in things and suddenly you’ve got centipedes in places you’d rather not.

So I set off to fix it. Here is exactly where it gets worse.

I tell Alice that this particular bug doesn’t look like the kinds of bugs that she knows and loves. This kind of bug is so small that she can’t see it. Dead silence. So I Google a microscopic picture of malolactic bacteria. And it dawns on me that when there are worms under our down comforter next week, I can no longer solely blame Brian for a lack of foresight.

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Have a great weekend, Ashley

PS- we will be moving the blog directly onto the new website this month. Please re-subscribe if we lose you in the process.

When You Wish Upon A Star

You get the kind of vintage we have at hand.

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My three year old could make a good wine this year.  A hot spring lead to a hot summer, followed by a hot fall and defying all odds, acids are still retained on the vine.  This makes no sense, but I will take it.  Ripeness is everywhere.  Sugars are ready.  Colors are fantastic.  A lack of temperature fluctuation in the spring led to very little “shatter” and vine damage.  And because temperatures got hot early and stayed that way, there aren’t any major spikes of ripeness or sudden acidity losses during warm weeks in the fall.  Since 2012 was warm, 2013 was warmer and 2014 was even warmer, tonnage is up by about 30% in most places.  This vintage, as shown in the graph below, has the most growing degree days of any harvest Washington has ever seen.

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Because of the heat and speed, everything has been coming in at once.  We are now very fit and even more tired. I’ve included some extra photos for your enjoyment.

Have a great weekend, Ashley

Photos below, courtesy of Jan Roskelley.

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Ugh

Seth Godin, a man whose brain I admire very much, once mentioned that we only think well for brief stints throughout the day, but certainly not for a whole hour. I buy this.

But what is so fulfilling about harvest work is that 95% of actually making it happen, is physical. So at the end of your 19th day in a row of 12+ hour days of non-stop lifting, grasping, pushing, pulling and rolling, you know that you can do no more. There is no question. There is no uncertainty. When the effort it takes to get in a bathtub might be more than you have, you know that you couldn’t have done any better. When you can barely get home because your calf muscles are too tired to push down the gas pedal, that is something worthy of satisfaction.

Was your best good enough to crush all of the fruit, reinoculate the stuck fermentation, or thoroughly sanitize all of the equipment? Let’s hope so. But if it wasn’t, you still couldn’t have done more being you, being today.

How often in our lives do we get such fulfillment? Not often, I would argue. Tonight I know that I and the rest of our crew will sleep soundly and tomorrow we will crush… 18 tons of fruit before sundown.

Have a great weekend- I know I will. Ashley

Tricks of the Trade

Due to company cutbacks please only photocopy one buttock.

Playing with vodka is always fun.  We all know this.  But in my line of work, I actually get to expense it.  Awesome, I agree.

You can run sample trials of whether a company selling corks is likely to sell many corks tainted with TCA or only a few corks tainted with TCA, by steeping many corks in vodka and see which batches give you the best results.  Vodka has that magic 40% alcohol that is optimal for extracting flavors and is a neutral spirit. Compounds that will eventually be extracted by our grapes or our wine in a much slower fashion will shine through quicker in these trials and can be tossed when results are less than stellar.

So I was excited to learn a new trick, Napa sourced, whereby you steep your grape stems in vodka for a couple of days prior to harvest to see if you are going to get bitter or mature tannins off of them and if you should, therefore, add stems back to the fermentor or try to keep the must as clean as possible.

Here’s where I went right: I bought cheap yet unflavored vodka. Not always easy to do.

Here’s where I went wrong:  I did not wash all of the grape juice/pulverized skins totally off of the stems and I did not dilute the final vodka prior to trying it.

The result was, as you’ve already guessed, totally gross vodka.

All grape matter needs to be washed off first.  Grape juice blends in with the vodka whereas stem tannins need to be extracted.  The former happens much faster than the latter.

And if you do not dilute the vodka prior to taste trials,  it is next to impossible to taste through the 40 proof just to get your conceptual understanding of tannin results.  It’s intense and terrible.

There’s always next year.

Have a great weekend, Ashley

Flesh Versus Computation- The Enological Struggle

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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

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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.