Friday, January 28, 2011

One Early Morning In Willamette Valley

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The half-awake drive into the winery each morning is one of my favorite memories. The vines in Dundee Hills were especially bright.

They popped against the fog.

Then disappeared.

Another favorite memory was hanging with Winemaker Joe Dobbes. We were standing beside the half-ton bins of macerating grapes and he stuck his arm into one up to his elbow. He said, "Feel that. That heat is what makes this all possible." The heat was the energy released in converting sugar to alcohol.

When Joe pulled his hand out of the bin he held a complete bunch of grapes. At first, I thought it was a mistake. I'd spent hours de-stemming grapes, and these were still on the vine.

But it was no mistake. "This is whole-bunch fermentation," said Joe. "It creates a lot of different flavors, sometimes giving the wine more spice."

He plucked off a whole grape. "This is a true wine grape," he said. "Fermentation has taken place inside the grape." We both ate one and sure enough, it was wine.

I went into the winery's lab and tried a few of the recently racked, single-vineyard Pinot Noirs. Racking signifies the end of my job at the winery. It's when the wine has fermented, been pressed, and put into a clean container.

We filled barrels...

...and tanks. Then we went home. Harvest 2010 was over. I cut off my beard.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Earl Grey Martini - Nope, This's Not Wine

The Earl Grey Martini cocktail is too surprising to ignore. The flavors will treat your mouth like a gimp, but I think that even you non-martini people out there will like them. Earl Grey Martinis are easy to make but have the unique flavors that we usually associate with the unearthly drinks concocted by mixolodists... er, mixastrologicalists... wait, I got it: mixologists. This drink is a reason for a cocktail party at your house. Tonight.

Here's a link to the great Earl Grey Martini recipe as designed by Audrey Saunders. My Earl Grey Martini recipe is simpler, but if you have the time, definitely try the above. I also leave the sugar off the rim.

Earl Grey Martini Recipe:

Add 3 Earl Grey tea bags to two-large-martinis-worth of gin for at least 2 hours (this will make 4 cocktails).
Make 1 cup of simple syrup using 1 cup of water and 3/4 cup of sugar. Let cool then chill.
You need lemon juice. I keep some frozen after making limoncello, but you can use fresh lemons or store-bought juice.

Get the ingredients in front of you then put ice in your cocktail shaker. At 2 parts gin to 1 part simple syrup, then add lemon to taste. Brace yourself.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Cabernet shall press, ah, nevermore! ...or Merlot, Pinot, Zin...

The future looks bad for our favorite grape varieties. Richard Black reports on the BBC that all of the grape varieties commonly used to make wine are overly susceptible to disease, resulting in the overuse of chemical treatments. Fun fact of the day:

"Seventy percent of fungicides used in US agriculture are sprayed in vineyards."

Scientists are thankfully against this overuse, and the wide use of fungicidal chemicals is going to stop in the near future. What happens when powdery molds and fungi - the parasites killed off using fungicidal chemicals - grow unchecked? Well, crops diminish. Wine production falls and prices rise. And ultimately, our favorite grape varieties will be replaced by genetically superior varieties invented in science labs.

The first challenge for enologists and winemakers will be discovering which of these new varieties will make the best wine. It takes four or five years for vines to mature. The second challenge will be to popularize these new varieties, which will have names that neither you or I have heard of. So much for the 5,000-year-old Vitis vinifera vinifera, the vine that gave rise to merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay, semillon, riesling, and so on.

The BBC article does not say when all of this will happen, but I can see the future. What's with this delicious Zocklen Noir? Ah, a beautiful vintage. And, with notes of blackberry, it pairs well with rabbit stew.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Putting Napalm In The Wine Cellar

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From the Dispelling Myths About Aging Department

On and off I've contemplated the glories of constructing a wine cellar. Not just buying the bottles, but actually going through the process of creating one, a process that my friend describes as "napalming my bank account." But in this new world of wine, what's the point? It seems old fashioned.

Unless you're super rich or a collector looking to make money, there's no reason to keep all those wines around. The majority of the wines made today are designed to be drunk young. Further, older wines can be found being sold at their peak. This appeals to my generation: a generation that moves every six months, that dwells in apartments without basements, who discovers, from time to time, that their wine rack has been demolished by their best bros who carried the party on after they'd fallen asleep. Most importantly, it appeals to those who like fresh flavors.

When I was twenty-three I tasted in Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley for the first time. At Ferrari Carano Winery, I got the chance to buy the white wine that began it all: the white wine that made me actually like white wine: Fiorella Chardonnay. As I paid, the tasting-room guy said, You should lay this down for at least two years. When I moved out of my San Francisco apartment two weeks later, I drank everything else, but I packed the Fiorella. In my new midget-sized apartment, which I shared with two guys in Duboce Triangle, I had a lot of parties. A lot. They weren't the kind where you drank Fiorella Chardonnay. Having literally no extra place to tuck away the bottle, I kept it in my underwear drawer.

When I sublet my apartment for a three-month trip to Italy, I had to find another hiding place. When I returned, I'd totally forgotten about it, and it wasn't until - months later - that I rediscovered the bottle. It was standing upright in a closet beneath a sleeping bag, two bar stools, a couple tennis rackets and a broken guitar case. That was it, I decided. I'm drinkin' this sucker. But my girlfriend had a better idea, and we drank it on my birthday with lobster in Healdsburg, CA.

You could argue that that may have made it all worth it, and while you would be correct that's not really the point. The point is that we're hungry for great wine now. I could have bought the same vintage of Fiorella Chardonnay that day. The restaurant probably had it on its wine list. Further, there are really very few wines that are worth aging for more than 5 years, and they are well outside of almost everyone's budget. Why does the wine media focus on these wines? Are they like a 1961 Ferrari 250 GTO, a thing designed to make us drool?

Here's a quick list of wines that do not need to be aged 99% of the time:

Pinot Noir
Pinot Gris
Sauvignon Blanc

Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons only have to be aged some of the time. Many California and Washington producers produce Cabs that should not be aged more than 10 years. That means that these are designed to be drunk young. How's that for liberty?

Here's a relevant quote from San Francisco Gate:
"With the possible exception of Barolo, well-balanced Cabernets are the only non-sweet wines likely to be better in 15 years than they are upon release."

With that in mind, here are some wines that could be aged:

Well-balanced Cabernet Sauvignon, Burgundian Pinot Noir, Amarone, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Pressing - Memoir of a Winery Worker

I always thought that pressing takes place the moment that grapes arrive to a winery. This is the case with white wine, because you want to separate the juice from the skins immediately in order to limit the amount of color added to the juice. With red wine, you want all that color. Further, most of a wine's character comes from the skins.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, juice and skins are often left in contact for 15-30 days. An act of artistic expression, some winemakers choose to immediately press the skins when the process of fermentation is complete. As Charles Scicolone writes (in a particularly revealing post about Barolo wine), other winemakers choose to leave the skins in the juice after fermentation has finished. These latter wines can exhibit a large number of possible differences, in particular, they become more concentrated.

Below is a slideshow that shows the gushing process of pressing. The grape skins that are pressed are those left at the bottom of the stainless steel tanks after the fermented grape juice (now wine) has been transferred, or racked, in another tank. Pressing is another artistic process because it determines how tannic a wine will be. The more times that the skins are pressed, the more of their intrinsic flavors are released, including tannins and tartaric acid.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

WINE EXPLOSION! - Memoir of a Winery Assistant

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Yeah, that's a lot of wine.

During orientation, Vice President Rich Martinoff warned us that one overlooked valve could result in mayhem. We always checked that the six valves and two doors were secure before filling the winery's stainless steel tanks with freshly destemmed Pinot Noir grapes. This is called prepping a tank, and it would be a cellar rat's neck if something went wrong. Luckily, this never happened.

What happened was worse.

For some reason, pockets of wine developed inside the mountains of grape skins. In the previous Memoir post, I talked about digging out tanks, which involves draining the wine from a tank so that only the skins and seeds are left. Before you can open the doors of the tanks and dig out the grape skins, you have to drain the wine from a side valve. Normally this goes smoothly, but because large pockets of wine got somehow trapped inside of the grape skins, huge floods of wine randomly exploded in three tanks this year. It happened like this.

At the time of the largest explosion, I was walking through the winery. All of a sudden, I heard the sound of rushing water. It sounded like a dam had broken. I turned and saw a small wave of wine (probably two inches high) rushing toward me from the far side of the winery. I ran around the row of tanks and saw five winery workers pushing with all their might against the door of the exploding tank. Wine gushed from the door in a massive wave about ten feet in diameter (think of a submarine movie, when everyone's trying to close a leaking portal). I had no choice but to hurl myself into the wave too. Eventually we closed the door, but not until half of the winery was flooded.

All in a day's work for a winery assistant.

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