August 31, 2009

First (red) grapes

Our first fruit arrived today. Nine tons, approximately. Which sounds like a lot, but its rather a small amount, when dealing with 2000+ gallon tanks. The pinot noir was not high quality fruit, rather this will be used for blending in a low end bottling, or may end up being sold on the bulk market, bottled, labeled and sold under a different brand.


Its hard to say why these grapes are of lesser quality, as their sugars and acid match our targets. Yet, these grapes come from a warmer region, ripen faster and are cropped at higher tonnage per acre, which all combine to reduce the intensity of flavor in the resultant wine... something that is hard to imagine when plucking one from the bin and popping it into your mouth. They taste of grapes after all, not black cherries, wet wood, cocoa or any other descriptor you would likely get in a pinot noir wine. The winemakers art it to picture this future manifestation and make his decisions based on this potential.


But beings grapes determined to be destined for lesser futures, our operative was to process these grapes quickly. Its stunning how automated much of this process can be. After weighing the bins, forklifts lift bins into a tray, which tips the grapes into a hopper. An auger feeds the grapes into the de-stemmer/crusher, which dumps berry skins and juice into an auger fed pump, which leads to a fermentation tank. While doing this, small amounts of sulfur dioxide solution are added (to prevent bacterial spoilage; see earlier post), as well as dry ice, which keeps the must temperatures down to slow fermentation. The twenty or so bins of grapes were processed rather quickly, leaving only clean-up.
A video of the whole process will follow.


August 29, 2009

Hazards of Lunch

Much of the permanent cellar crew here at the winery, are Mexican in origin. And one of the pleasures of working with them, aside from learning Spanglish, is lunchtime. We all eat a leisurely lunch in the shade of the winery garden at communal picnic table. The Mexicans often share their overflowing tuperwares, with the oft repeated question, “Taco?”

Beside corn tortillas, the other staple is chillies. All sizes and colors are brought out, with commentary on their flavor, heat and so on. Of course, spicy scales are very personal, and its hard to know what it means when someone says that a certain chili can be eaten like candy.

This last week, I was enjoying my simple pasta lunch, then was temped to try a bright red jalapeño. At first it was sweet and tangy, then it was intensely hot.
Then I rubbed my eye.
Even through I had washed my hands, there was still some oil on my fingers. How ironic that the ignition of my eye with volatile chili fluid occurred right before our general harvest safety meeting. Next time I have chilies with lunch, I’m wearing gloves.

August 28, 2009

Cellaring wine

A few lots of last year’s wine still remain in the cellar room; some five tanks, and a little over 50 barrels. We took the barrels down from their stacks, with the fork lift, and gingerly set them outside while it was still cool outside. We are taking samples to measure sulfur level.
Sulfur occurs naturally in wine. During fermentation, yeast break down amino acids to make nitrogen available, and some of which contain sulfur atoms. When this sulfur is released, it bonds to oxygen, creating sulfites. It is serendipitous that these sulfites occur naturally, as they are beneficial, preventing oxidation and bacterial spoilage. But they often occur at very low levels, and dissipate over time, making the wine vulnerable, which is why we add sulfites to wine... anything other than a clean, fresh tasting wine would be unmarketable. So we measure the wine for sulfur levels, and then make additions as necessary.
The bungs are cleaned before prying them out of the barrels. A wine thief is inserted and lots are aggregated into beakers which are then sent to the lab. Meanwhile, reserve wine is brought out of the cellar, pumps and hoses attached. Once additions are made, we pump reserve wine into the barrel to top them off, then pound in clean rubber bungs with a mallet. Keeping the barrels full means less oxidation.

The tanks are adjusted too. Sampling from the tank is much easier, if messier. 3000 gallons are held back by valves. When opened slightly, wine sprays furiously, so we keep the beakers close and we stand to one side. Adjusting means climbing to the catwalk and opening a sealed hatch. Its mixing that's the problem. A propeller has to be inserted into a sealed tank to turn over 3000 gallons of wine, then removed. Order of operations becomes imperative; clamping, sealing, opening, locking, always double checking, and working though the set of actions. From there the tanks and barrels rest, waiting for bottling.

August 24, 2009


Foggy Morning
The landscape is slow and beautiful; the fog is there when you wake up. It reaches through Napa, up the valley, and hangs out in Los Carneros past 11:00 am. The afternoon is warm, but the winds blow through the vine-rows. The circuitry of the PV array hums, the bird canon sounds every few minutes, bats chirp from their roost.

The process of preparing for harvest begins with cleaning. The fermenters are covered in cobwebs and pigeon droppings, despite the bird netting. Last years wine is bottled, or mellowing in barrels. You drag hoses from place to place, filling buckets, and spraying the tanks. You mix solvents, cleaners, sanitizer. You climb in through port holes, stainless steel gymnastics, vinifying yoga. You scrub, spray, rinse, and exit in reverse. Repeat. Barrels are

Juggling Containers

cleaned. Dark berry and carmel wood aromas are being washed out and into a grate in the concrete. You seal the tanks with rubber gaskets, clean tarpaulin covers and plastic sheets. Dozens of different types of containers pile up. Macro bins, five gallon buckets, French oak barrels, steel kegs, glass bottles. Plumbing is everywhere; water, glycol, nitrogen, air. As grapes become wine, we will begin to juggle them from one container to another. Pumps pushing must into tanks, nitrogen pushing newly fermented wine into barrels.


Wine, as an agricultural produce takes time, preparation, planning, thought. It is not a product that can be delivered to market carelessly or immediately. You think about it, test it, sort it, process it, package it, market it, ask it to be considered, consumed thoughtfully. Producing wine is very involving. There is a considerable team of people working in concert, for the next few months trying to transform raw fruit into a value added product, a more complex expression, a preserved context. But for now, we wait for the grapes to ripen. They are on their own schedule, carefree of our desires. They ripen slowly, we sample them, de-stem them, crush them strain them, then test them, for sugars and acids. And we wait.Waiting

August 23, 2009

The Silverado Trail

Yesterday I went for a ride from Napa up the Silverado Trail to St. Helena. It was about 20 miles up there. The road was well paved with a wide shoulder, wineries located every half mile. The early afternoon was pleasant, but on the way back the wind picked up and tired me out as I headed back to Napa.

St. Helena was nice, full of art galleries and home-ware stores, not least of all the CIA Greystone campus store. I passed by the new LEED Gold dormitories for culinary students, stopped by a wine store for a tasting, and then headed back.IMG_0769

The valley is amazingly beautiful. The oak shrub hilltops, and the flat valley floor, rows of cabernet, the small towns and hotspot restaurants. The trucks hauling bins to wineries use the same roads as the tourist buses. Although its still seems buzzing with people, the number of people out here is definitely less than I expected, due I'm sure, to less disposable income. Still, the grapes will ripen and be vinified, just like any other year. I'm still waiting for the grapes to arrive at the winery; perhaps by the end of the week.

August 20, 2009

Harvest in Los Carneros

It is August, and I have temporarily relocated to Napa. I am taking a break from my desk job, and I am working a harvest as a cellar intern. I am doing this because I want to see what goes into making wine. I want to follow the process and learn the production of wine. I want to be one of the sets of hands that touches the clusters of grapes that turns into wine, and reflect on what it took to make that barrel, that bottle of wine. I want to be close to what wine is. And so I have begun work at a medium sized winery in the Carneros district of Napa, south of the town, where the fog lingers, the wind blows in the afternoon and pinot noir rules. I’ll be documenting what I can of the harvest, sharing the day to day, as well as the revelations.