Get Out There, Part Two; Growing Up

Not every family has a deep seated fear of the Department of Ecology… and then there’s us.

The DOE is ‘comin to git us’ and appropriately so.  Until recently, there were a negligible number of folk making wine in a vast area.  Where those crazies once roamed, is now being replaced by an Industry with a capital “I.”  The Washington Wine Industry is now over 700 strong and the Deparment of Ecology has noticed.  Water and waste disposal regulations will be coming down the pipeline that could cost wineries anywhere from $20,000 – $50,000 depending on where they are and what they currently look like.  While this strikes dread in the hearts of many, even we recognize this as totally and completely fair.  Come get us.

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These are the types of repercussions that occur when “dudes” convert to “Industry.”  Costs can lower in some areas (custom crush sites can streamline to lower costs of production) but raise in such macro levels that they can’t be ignored.  The goofy Red Mountain carbonically macerated Zinfandel that you made 200 cases of… might not shine as a bright beacon of hope on your excel spreadsheet as you analyze your past to predict your future.

Wealthy dreamers awash in rose colored glasses find themselves glass-less once their vineyard has had frost damage 6 out of 8 years.  This vineyard may have made award-winning wines for the two years that it survived, but the numbers start to sing pretty loudly after a while.  Those vineyards get pulled and you have a wine in the basement that may be from a vineyard that no longer exists.  You have yourself a bottled dinosaur.

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New grape clones that once came into this valley willy nilly now find themselves subjected to various stages of quarantines and selecting.  Fair enough- but the cost shows.  And what once was up for grabs, is now subject to a bidding war among countless winemakers.

All of these changes are both inevitable and necessary.  The inadvertent byproduct of a maturing region is that winemakers have to maybe, kind of, sort of, slightly consider making wines that the public wants, not what the winemaker wants.  The whimsy, passionate, reckless and poetic abandon that you find when a field is filled with “dudes,” diminishes once the guy with some common sense and a little knowledge of excel spreadsheets shows up to pick a flower.

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Take advantage of the now, of the barnstorm-heavy, dude-rich results.   After all, how many of us get to own dinosaurs?  You do.

Have a great weekend, Ashley

Get Out There

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Barnstorming was the practice of flying planes from barn to barn as a form of entertainment, doing stunts and parachuting out when needed.  The remaining flight would crash and burn in some poor guy’s corn field.  Barnstorming began in 1920 and was regulated out of existence by 1927 – only 7 years in total.

There are times in place, industry or practice where we get away with things that we shouldn’t.  These times are amazing, inappropriate and reckless.  They are short-lived and aptly so.  There are moments in time when you, in that moment, know that it is a moment, and that you are there.

Now is such an era for the Washington Wine industry.  Want to meet a winemaker?  Walk into a tasting room.  Want to barrel taste?  Walk into a barrel room.  Want to try an obscure varietal? Buy a bottle.

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The US is now the largest wine consuming nation in the world.  It has had uninterrupted per capita consumption growth for 21 years.  There was a minor and negligible one year dip and then another 4 years of growth before that.

Our country drinks: 34% imports, 57% CA and 9% other.  That means that for decades, WA winemakers have had a) an increased interest from the public and b) such a small market share that we could try practically whatever we wanted to make/do/be.

This will change for three major factors (stay tuned to next week’s post) but for now, dwell on this:

21% of wine drank in this country is Chardonnay, 12% is Cabernet. Merlot makes up 9% and Pinot Gris tops it off at 8%, meaning that 50% of the wines you drink are only 4 varietals.  Despite there being 10,000 varieties of wine grapes in the world, you people are choosing 4.  Shame on you.

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As an industry, a region and a set of people, we, the Washington/Oregon Winemakers, have had a heyday- planting crazy sites, insane varieties, macerating and bottling them in ludicrous ways and you are here for it.  You are in the moment.  Notice it.  Go out there and grab some unusual varietals from really creative producers, sites and ventures before they become extinct in their current form.

*This was a modified excerpt from a speech that I gave at the WAC in Seattle this weekend.  My apologies for the poor timing of the plane reference with the recent Germanwings crash.

The US’ Newest AVA: The Rocks District of Milton Freewater

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It’s not every day that your town gets a new AVA.  Yesterday was special for many of us Walla Wallans, but especially so for Steve Robertson and Kevin Pogue.  Their proposed AVA was, after months and years of hard work, officially approved yesterday.  Below is an interview with Steve Robertson on the new “The Rocks District of Milton Freewater.” Steve is the founder and owner (with his wife Mary) of SJR Vineyard and Delmas.

This new AVA sits on the south side of the Walla Walla AVA and has been garnering awards, accolades and respect for a long time.  Only now, there are some official names involved.  Within our family of wines, our Old Stones Syrah for the Waters label comes out of this new AVA.  With great honor, I introduce you to Steve’s version of making an AVA:

What really propelled you to launch the campaign for this new AVA?

It was such an obvious opportunity. Some of the most distinctive wines anywhere were being produced off of these soils. WA/OR wines struggles to garner attention for distinctiveness/importance on the world stage…there is no question as to the distinctiveness of Rocks District wines. Further, it was an opportunity to refresh the importance of WWV, M-F and even OR. Finally, it forced a long, overdue discussion as to how an AVA that is shared between two states should work. The result of this conversation has been the working together of more people who previously were restricted by geographical and political boundaries. Now those same people are actively and creatively working together with a more NW perspective as to the desired results.

You moved here for a new project, but at what point in purchasing your vineyard or planting it or making wine or drinking Walla Walla and “TRDOMF” wines did you say, this place needs to be recognized as something different?

I knew before we moved here. There were two driving elements for our family project; 1) we were looking for an estate project, small enough that we could engage every step in the process as a family and 2) where the end-product was capable of receiving global respect.

Speaking of which, I know that you and so many others had originally wanted a different and shorter name for the region.  Since it is officially “The Rocks District of Milton Freewater,” and since you were the official creator of that, can you now officially on this blog tell me what a shorthand name for this place can be?

Either ’The Rocks District’ or ‘Rocks District’.majestic bloom

Was getting everything approved harder than you thought it would be?  Did it take longer than you thought it would? 

We understood that this was going to take a while…good things come to those who persevere! What is so cool, is that there is now such strong support/recognition for this positive result!

Was there ever a point at which you thought the whole thing was going to fall through?  When and why- if you feel that you can discuss openly.

Often…we were prepared for push-back from both local and regional factions. Of course, any process that engages something new, or the status quo, will struggle without a strong sense of the possible from leadership. Add state boundaries as well as federal rule making and, well…..this is a recipe for perseverance.

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Was there a governing body that was easier to work with than you thought they would be?

Yes, the TTB was incredibly encouraging from the get go. They were excited to see such a unique AVA petition (where the boundaries were defined by a soils series).

What are the defining characteristics of the geology and terroir of this region?

96% of the AVA is made up of the Freewater series of soils (gravels and cobbles)….no other AVA in the U.S. can claim one land form and one soil series!! Additionally, these soils are incredibly deep.

What are some of the defining characteristics of the wines coming out of this region?

Lovely perfumed bouquet, with a savory palate and prominent minerality on the finish.

What one piece of advice would you give someone out there who wants to create the next AVA?

Be distinctive. Be meaningful.

Thanks so much for being a creator, visionary and organizer for this region,

Ashley

For more reading on the new AVA, go to:

http://www.wawinereport.com/2015/02/the-rocks-district-appellation-set-for.html

http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/ttb-approves-new-ava-the-rocks-district-of-milton-freewater-300032358.html

and it has already landed on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rocks_AVA

Paddling Upstream

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Now that harvest is over; now that the last pushes on wine events are over; now that the holiday season is over, it is time to hibernate and write some tasting notes for wines that will be released in the next 4 months.

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Some days this comes naturally, while other days it seems like the wrath of higher powers has descended in windy, fiery fury, to prevent- at all costs, one’s ability to do something as simple as… smell.  As instinctive as this sense may be, it can be just as elusive.

I like working on tasting notes really early in the morning before my palate has been shot for the day or people have texted, emailed, facebooked, called or appeared with distractions.  I also like writing them not in the cellar because the cellar is cold and I feel like the aromatics come to life more in room temperature settings.  So last week I sat at our dining room table to do what is often one of the most pleasurable parts of my job.

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Then my 1 year old son woke up.

I brought him downstairs, prepared for a lovely mommy/son/wine-breakfast session.  If you haven’t already caught onto my naivete, then maybe you aren’t reading closely enough.

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He did what 1 year olds do best.  In my best attempts at being proper here, I will just mention that this act didn’t help.   Strike one.  Just as this began to subside, my husband came down and in one of his many and appreciated attempts at being a helpful, modern man, he began to cook breakfast.  Strike two.  At this point, you really don’t need any other strikes, but come they did.

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The coffee began to brew.  Toothpaste smell wafted.  Dogs arrived en masse.  And it rapidly began to dawn on me why most people don’t write tasting notes in the morning.

The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions…

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My New Year’s resolution might just be to practice the habit of driving to a childless friend’s house at 6 am to write tasting notes.

Happy 2015 to everyone, Ashley

For more New Year/wine-reading fulfillment, go to The Girl and the Grape:   http://www.girlandthegrape.com/the-winemaking-life/winemaker-resolutions-2015/

Crashes, Guts and Gore

In Spanish you can get away with saying “the cup fell midst my presence” instead of “I dropped the cup” (because I am a doofus).

While it is lovely to think that disasters happen despite us, the truth is, people are imperfect.  Crush crews and winemakers are really imperfect.harvesting

Now that winter solstice has hit and we can all look back at the season as a “past vintage,” the impressive harvest disaster stories from 2014 have risen to the top.  I will stay away from many fresh ones in honor of some still open wounds…

Red wine tanks are pumped into white wine tanks to make surprise rosés in large operations where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.  Fermentation bins are overfilled at destemming amid optimistic hopes that the fermentation will not take too quickly or rise too high, only to find 400 lbs of premium grapes dirtying up your cement floor the next morning.  The wrong yeast is used for inoculation or the wrong bin is inoculated, or in the case of a very tired friend of mine, an empty barrel is inoculated.  The stories have the common trajectory of getting more outlandish as the season progresses and as people get more exhausted.

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A friend of mine- a big, young, athletic guy- had a crew member take the valve off of a 3,000 gallon tank.  He had to let it gush while he found a new and clean valve and clamp, open the valve, clamp the open valve onto the tank and as it shot him in the chest, and close it.  Having this kind of ingenuity makes you a very, very desired presence on the crush pad because while these occurrences don’t happen every year, when they do, it’s a lot of money down the drain, literally.

I know of guys who’ve dropped full barrels off of a forklift 15 ft high.  The crash and splash are impressive. Fruit freshly loaded onto a truck bed gets freshly off loaded when you push it off from the other side because you’re loading another bin and can’t see what you are doing.  I won’t divulge who or when, but there have been some “gravel-sorting-parties” in the past.

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Forklifts are nothing to scoff at.  I myself, in one of my finer moments, long ago, ran a 2 ton bin of merlot into a wall- yes, a wall, and created a very very large hole in that wall.  Luckily for me and the merlot, the way the lip of the bin was formed, no drywall got into the bin.  Really.

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The gravity of the disaster seems to have little to do with the escalation of a winemaker’s reputation.  I know of some very famous winemakers who’ve opened 20,000 gallon tanks only to have the entirety go down the drain.  Some flip trucks fully loaded with fruit while others get caught in presses and land with broken ribs, hips and arms to boot.

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There is of course, “that guy.”  There is the guy who just doesn’t get it.  He falls in bins while punching them down or names fermenter bins with the wrong wine.  He fills a pump with cleaning fluid and wine, simultaneously.  He fills a tank with no valve on it.  To say “he” is unfair, it could be anyone.  But you can spot these guys after about 5 days and they have to go.  Every harvest, someone out there, gets “that guy.”

Luckily for us, it wasn’t Flying Trout, TERO Estates or Waters.

Happy Holidays.  Ashley

An Interview with Derek Pergle

Derek is the Assistant Winemaker for all three of our brands. He is the glue, the biceps, the calendar- he is the goal accomplisher.

So seldom does the very deserving Assistant Winemaker get to come up for light, never the less the spot light, that people have no clue how crucial this player is to the finished bottle.

Here he is, in his own, well deserved limelight:

How did you get interested in wine?

I think that really got started my first job path, in cooking. I loved the ability to elevate both the dish and the wine by finding that perfectly harmonious contrast between the two. Of course, the Italian and Romanian in my gene pool didn’t make it hard to love wine either.

First wine job?

Well, if I were to elaborate further on my first answer, I REALLY got the passion for wine when I was working in the Purple Cafe and Wine Bar. I had been a cook for a few years and liked the idea of being able to interact with the people enjoying it (having your cake and eating it too, so to speak.) I started working as a busser and learning about vino in the weekly wine class that was mandatory for servers and anyone wanting to serve. That is when pandora’s box was opened, and for a year and a half I was paid to educate myself on the wines of the world and develop my palate by a brilliant sommelier. After moving up to serving and advancing my knowledge a while, I decided to move on from the restaurant side and moved into the position of tasting room manager at a new local tasting room in downtown Kirkland. Long story short (or kinda short…), I ended up heading out to Walla Walla for one quick harvest, and the rest is history.

Favorite part of your job?

Obviously barrel sampling. No, there are a lot of things to love in this industry, but I would have to say at least one of my favorite things is the satisfaction I get from seeing the fruits of my labor in the end. You don’t get to really feel or see the results of your efforts in other jobs, but with wine you see a start, a finish, and an end. One of the best things also, is sharing a beautiful bottle of wine you helped make with someone, and remembering the long hours getting dirty, cold, sticky, sore, and tired, and knowing it was all worth it.

Favorite wine you’ve ever helped make?

That is tough. I have to name a few to make the question fair. One that rings out is the first blend I put together and helped in the blending trials with, and that is the 2012 Tremolo from Waters. It has a special place in my heart. That being said, the 2012 21 Grams is gonna be taking you by storm in the near future, and I am pretty pleased with it as well. Of course, the Forgotten Hills Syrah and Gamache Malbec are coming to mind as well, any of the vintages I have had the pleasure to have handled them.

Least favorite part of the job?

The part where I don’t have a glass in my hand. Or cleaning barrels after a big blend has been made, I need more stimulation than that! haha

Favorite winemaking music?

Depends on the task. For early morning punchdowns, gypsy jazz. For after crush cleanup, old Metallica. For the in between, Dirty blues or funk! If you are by yourself, epic movie soundtracks can make things interesting, albeit a little tense…

Biggest wine mistake, if you can divulge?

Accidentally dumping out all the Flying Trout wine, but don’t worry, I replaced it with about 700 boxes of Franzia from the grocery store ;) . Honestly, a bad one that involved other people was at Northstar. I was operating the must pump, and as they were walking the lines to the tank, they shouted reverse but I couldn’t hear them properly, so when they shouted “off” and unscrewed the clamp, the main cellar guy got a face full of must (that ended up hitting the ceiling and a few walls). I had a mess to clean up, and wasn’t allowed to do that anymore haha, live and learn.

Favorite Month?
August, or September. Or March, when I can relax…

Favorite time of day for winemaking, and why?

I actually love really early mornings, before the suns up. It is hard to get out of bed, your coffee hasn’t fully set it, and your groggy, but there is something magical about working then when you know you are one of only a few that are up and active.

Lastly, Is there a variety you’d like to use more in the future and why?

Well, that is tough, because with three brands I get a variety of my favorite varietals already. I would have to say some of the stranger Rhone varietals like Counoise, Carignan, and Cinsault, because I am intrigued by how they change from grape to barrel aged. I also would like to try some more traditional spanish blends with Washington fruit, I think there is potential to get unique flavors from high desert areas that resemble their old world counterparts

*For any of you who are planning on coming to one of our Walla Walla dinners, find a way to sit next to Derek- you can thank me later.

Photos below were taken by Derek on the crush pad throughout the 2014 harvest. Have a great weekend, Ashley

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Nocturnal Picking: Future or Foe

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One of the next major changes that might occur in the following 5 years for the WA wine scene may be happening at night.  No, not better, longer, crazier parties, though I would attend those, but rather, night harvesting.

Night picking happens by industrial stadium lights mounted on trucks.  They are neither small nor inexpensive.  Crews charge more both for the equipment needed but also because of the toll it takes to flip one’s circadian rhythm around.  They occasionally nap during the day to have the stamina it takes to swiftly harvest dozens of tons in time for a 5 am delivery to a local or quasi-local winery.

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The result is a a fresh winemaking crew to  work on cool fruit.  It is important that you have well rested eyes on the final sorting table before all of the fruit turns into must- a soup of juice and solid skins, seeds and pulp.  Starting with cool fruit helps because it gives the winemaker extra time to let the freshly destemmed fruit before adding yeast.  If you have warm or hot fruit that was picked at 4 pm, bacteria and not so welcome (some are, some aren’t) wild yeasts will have a feast.

When there is a hot harvest, like this year, or an early freeze (2 day window to pick that fruit before bad things take over) small wine regions such as ours do not have well established swarms of crews ready for damage control.  Winemakers, estate picking or not, find themselves with no way of getting fruit in the door in a timely fashion.  This lack of infrastructure actually affects the wines that you drink two, three or twenty years later.  The harvest date of any wine is one of the most important decisions that get made.  If the decision is made but ignored because there is no way to meet the demand, the end result is a poor harvest date.

Night picking demands a premium price.  For now, the valley attitude is that we, on the crush pad, can outwork some of these tonnage and time problems.  Sooner rather than later, I believe, we will find that the valley has grown to need more than just a 12 hour work day for 6 weeks per year.  Some have already come around, but as with electric cars or space travel, your desire to do something, does not turn theory into reality.

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Thanks, Ashley

PS- If we have not lost you, wonderful.  We’ve moved the blog to the new website.  If we didn’t lose you in this last transition, then you are set.

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