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An outdated post-Prohibition law dictates that you pay $6 more in taxes for a case of wine that is over 14.1% alcohol than one that is under.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

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.    

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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.

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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.

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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