Friday, October 29, 2010

Diary of a Winery Assistant (Oct. 29)

Like I said, I'd update the diary in the briefest of moments... when time is allowed... when I'm not processing tons and tons of grapes... 14 to 17 hour work days... hard labor... 24-hour winemaking... Pinot Noir... piles of grape skins and seeds four-feet high inside 85-ton tanks... My back aches and my hands are swollen. I've learned how to drive a forklift carrying 4 75-gallon tanks of wine into a refrigerator the size of a tractor trailer truck. I've pumped thousands of gallons of mashed grapes into giant tanks, then pumped them out into new tanks, then into oak barrels.

Winemaking is incredibly complicated yet incredibly simple. I think this is the most surprising thing I've learned. The short of it is this. Grapes come to the winery in bunches. Often, they are simply put into a destemming machine. The destemmer usually breaks Pinot Noir grapes because they have thin skins. This mash of grapes and juice is pumped into steel tanks, where it is allowed to macerate and ferment for 5-10 days. Grapes ferment on their own, but yeasts are often added to help the process along. The grape skins and juices are stirred around 2-3 times a day in order to extract as much color and aroma from the skins during maceration. After 5-10 days, you effectively have wine. The sugars have been turned to alcohol and the colors and aromas have been extracted from the skins. The juice is drained and the skins are pressed to get the very last traces of flavor. This juice is wine. End. Of. Story.

Not quite. While this basic process is the foundation of winemaking, those guys in the labs aren't just their to sport the latest in lab wear. They are inducing malolactic fermentation so that the wine isn't too sour. They are measuring brix to see if a wine is ready to be removed from the grape skins. They are doing things that involve molecules I'll never care to understand.

Wine Maker Joe Dobbes oversees the winemaking process from beginning to end. He works as hard as anyone at the winery. The fact that he's always there, from 6 in the morning to 9 at night or later, is awesome. When I'm breaking my back and tired as hell, it helps to see him working just as hard. Joe also adds the most important final touches to his wines. Though the grapes from each vineyard are macerated separately, they are not left this way. To make more interesting and complex wines, Joe blends just the right amount of wine from each tank into his final wine. Blending is an artistic and scientific stage. Joe produces over 20 unique wines. I've been tasting so many young wines, still ripe with sulfur and malic acid, that I can't imagine being able to identify all of their intrinsic qualities to the point of predicting their flavors after 12-months of oak-aging. That winemakers do this with multiple vineyards to produce multiple wines is mind blowing...

Anyway, back to the crush. Back to Zero to 60. Back to climbing rickety ladders with 3 inch hoses full of grape juice. Back to dumping half-ton bins of grapes into hoppers 15 feet off the ground... Rock on.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Wine-Tasting My Way Through the 2010 Harvest in Willamette Valley

I went wine-tasting in Willamette Valley this weekend. The fruit is still on the vine, so I haven't been doing much at Dobbes Family Estate winery except training and cleaning the equipment in preparation for the fruit. I started the day at Dobbes to get some winery recommendations and to taste the Dobbes Family Pinot Noirs. Man was I impressed, and I'm not just saying that because I'm working there. I've actually been kinda bored and unimpressed by Oregon's Pinot Noirs as of late. Many of them lack character and are over-priced. I wouldn't call myself a Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel/Primitivo guy, but I'm pretty much a big wine guy. I LOVE---with a capital everything---complexity: something many Oregon Pinots are lacking. At least, I thought.

It turns out that I've been drinking the wrong wines. I had a great trip through Dundee Hills and the North Valley (click here for a map). The Pinot Noirs at Dobbes had the depth that I need. I really enjoyed the cuvées, particularly the 2008 Grand Assemblage and the 2008 Skipper's Cuvée, which pack a lot of earth and spice. The single-vineyards were more elegant for the most part, particularly the 2008 Meyers Vineyard. If I had a load of money, I'd definitely pick up the 2008 Meyers Vineyard. But since I don't, I'm gonna go with a wine that packs more punch-per-dollar, and the cuvées are first on the list.

One thing that really impressed me was that each wine had its own personallity---even with 7+ Pinots made each year, the Dobbes Family wines were unique individuals.

The wines at Penner-Ash were also excellent and man, what a view (see above). I really enjoyed the 2008 (or was it 2007?) Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, which uses fruit from 12---count 'em---12 vineyards. The wines at Penner-Ash are superbly refined, while remaining interesting.

Arbor Brook Vineyards also rocked. Winemaker Dave Hanson---who was pouring his wines---was a pleasure to speak with. His wines are definitely Burgundian, and his Pinots feature clones carefully chosen from Pommard and Dijon. Dave's a guy with a vision, and he had such a particular way of talking about the different layers of soil in different vineyards that I couldn't help but stand in awe. He is certainly a terroirist, and it was a fun way to taste the differences between Oregon-style and Burgundian-style-but-made-in-Oregon Pinot Noirs.

He, like most winemakers in Willamette, is very excited about the 2010. "We are in uncharted territory this year," he said. Who knows what will result?

He also told me about the concept of "200% oak." It is the brainchild of a French-design-cum-winemaker whose name slips the tip of my tongue. It involves aging a wine for 10-12 months in new oak, then aging it again for 12-18 months in new new oak. I would think that 200-percent oaking would result in a disgusting wine, but the 2008 Vintner's Select Pinot Noir, which underwent the treatment, was excellent. The oak was not overwhelming, and the wine was a gentle beast: exceptionally massive yet submissively fruity.

So, I'm beginning to change my mind about Oregon Pinot. But why has it taken so long to find these wines? Why aren't they better-represented in restaurants? Is it merely that they're outside of my price range or are the knock-offs dominating the market? Are we looking for a good deal at the cost of complexity? What's your favorite inexpensive Oregon Pinot Noir? For me it's simple: Wine By Joe's 2008 Pinot Noir at $11 bucks.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Diary of a Winery Assistant (Oct. 8)

Picking up where we left off last post, the cold soak is when the grape juice is slowly fermented in contact with the skins in massive steel tanks. The skins rise to the top and are known as the cap. One of the most laborious jobs at the winery is punching down the cap, which must happen 3-4 times a day. This requires stirring skins that are 3-4 feet deep until they are evenly distributed through the entire steel tank. I imagine it's going to be awesomely messy.

When the fermentation process has advanced to a point where Winemaker Joe Dobbes is satisfied, the juice and skin mixture is taken out of the cold soak to the press. The winery features two different types of wine presses: the basket press and the bladder press. When you think of a wine press, you probably think of a basket press. The grapes are put into a basket and a metal slab is screwed down until all of the juice runs free. This press design is over 1,000 years old. A newer press design, the bladder press looks like a giant propane tank. The grapes are put inside, and in the middle is a large inflatable bag. When the bag is inflated, the juices are pressed free.

Both presses have their pros and cons. The basket press presses the grapes only once, while the bladder press can press the grapes multiple times. This makes the bladder press useful if you want to extract more tannin from the grape skins. If you're working with grapes that already have a lot of tannin, you'll opt for the basket press (there are other pros and cons but I can't remember them).

I'm actually unclear about what happens next. I'm pretty sure the juice is pumped back into steel tanks, where its development is further monitored. It can be blended. Then it is transferred to oak barrels or bottled. I'll have to get back to you one that.

Something else I learned was that, because we're working with an edible thing here, every drop of grape juice needs to be kept safe. That means that an entire warehouse needs to be kept sterile at all times. This is one immense job! We were shown the cleaning supplies and a power washer and an ozone machine. Assistant Winemaker Andy McVay pointed out that many chemicals and possible wine additives look identical. Because of this, they are color coded and carefully monitored. There are scales, there are gloves, there are emergency eye washers. There are buckets, soaps, scrubbers, and goggles.

Every single thing done to a wine, from the second it arrives in the winery to the moment it's sold, is documented. It blows my mind to think that every teaspoon of sulfur added to a 22,000 gallon tank in the United States is written down somewhere. Can you imagine documenting every grain of salt you add to a plate of macaroni and cheese?

Alright, I hope we'll get to work soon. Com'on sun!

(Photos are from wineries in Puglia and include vintage presses)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Diary of a Winery Assistant (Oct. 6)

In this post, I'll explain the general process of wine making as I learned it during orientation at Dobbes Family Estate Winery. This post might be for wine geeks only, but I hope to make it a bit entertaining.

Here's a link---in lieu of my own photos---to a slideshow of the 2006 harvest at the winery.

After the grapes come into the winery (and the bees fly away), they need to be cleaned. Two short conveyor belts and one automatic de-stemmer are involved. We pick out stems and leaves as quickly as possible in order to process as many grapes as possible. We are attempting to process 2,000 tons of grapes in 4 weeks with a crew of around 30. The de-stemmer is an amazing machine with four turbines, each with a hundred or more little rubber fingers that are so gentle that they pop the grapes off the stems without breaking the skins.

Next, depending on the grape variety, the grapes are either put directly into a cold soak, or crushed then put into a cold soak. Pinot Noir is an example of a grape with a very thin skin, and because of this it will break on its own. Grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah however, need to have their skins broken in order to release juice. Sangiovese is an example of a grape that can either be broken or left alone, depending on the winemaker's style, and the characteristics of the particular fruit.

Getting to be a winery assistant at Dobbes Family Estate Winery is an incredibly unique experience because it will allow me to work with a huge number of grape varieties, including Tempernillo, Grenache, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, and many more. Neither Wine By Joe or Dobbes Family Estate create wines with all of these grapes: The winery processes fruit for other wine companies.

The cold soak takes place in steel tanks of various sizes. These tanks usually feature dimpled metal siding, which helps to control the temperature. Thermometers, which look like 3 foot wands, are kept in the very middle of the tanks so that accurate temperature readings can be taken. Because the juice and the grape skins---known as the cap---separate, the thermometer must be positioned at the very bottom of the cap, which can sometimes be a few feet deep. Anyone up for sinking up to their necks in wine?

Depending on the grape variety, the cold soak lasts for a longer or shorter time, during which the main goal is the extract as much from the skin as possible. Skins impart color, tannins, and acidity in a wine. The process is temperature controlled so that fermentation does not happen too quickly, resulting in these elements of flavor and aroma getting lost. This technology is relatively new to the world, maybe 70 years old. It is possible to leave the skins and juice in contact even after fermentation is complete. However, that is a matter of style. I'm not sure what the pros and cons of either approach are. Anyone want to enlighten me?

To be continued...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Diary of a Winery Assistant

This year's grape harvest in Oregon is late. Like, capital L-A-T-E. Last year's harvest was late, but they'd been picking for 3 weeks by now. We're waiting on mother nature to begin work. I should start within five to eight days.

We had orientation at Dobbes Family Estate Winery in Dundee last Thursday. We sat around in a circle in the center of the winery, getting to know one another. After the usual job-stuff was talked about, and after we had a sweet burrito and Pinot Gris (by Wine By Joe) lunch, we got a tour of the winery with an explicit explanation of the processes that we'd be responsible for. This was just what I'd always wanted.

Some wine classes cost hundreds of dollars and hour, and what I got was not only a wine class, but an hourly wage to boot. We began from the very moment the grapes are brought in. Apparently they arrive covered in bees. One full-timer said, "I just ignore them. I let them walk all over me and I've only been stung once." Another said, "It's when they crawl in my mouth and around my nose that bothers me." Next, we were asked if anyone is allergic.

This highlights the fact that working in a winery during harvest is dangerous. I've heard that every year someone dies in Napa. We will be working around the clock, six days a week, with forklifts zooming, oceans of wine gushing, and carbon dioxide fuming. We will be sleep deprived and in a hurry. Safety and attention to detail were the primary points of the day.

Unlike bees, carbon monoxide is invisible and lethal. CO2 is naturally created when grapes ferment, and since fermenting grapes is the name of the game, it can sometimes build up in surprising places.

You know those massive steel tanks you see at wineries? I'll be climbing up ladders to the tops of those, opening them, and reaching inside with a themometer to determine the speed of the fermentation. After the wine's been pumped out, I'll also be jumping inside these tanks and shoveling out the leftover grape skins. If there's a large quantity of CO2 built up inside, it can cause seriously strong reactions. Most people describe it as feeling like an electric shock or whip lash; you're head actually snaps backwards to escape the scent. More dangerous however, is the smaller but more pervasive quantities of CO2 that go undetected until it's too late: the toxic gas causing a blackout, then death.

Celebrate the Holidays With New Washington Grape Varieties

Looking for a rare and unusual wine to sip with Christmas dinner or on New Year's Eve? It's easy to throw cash at a well-known bottl...