Last Thursday we bottled the last of our 2008 wines.  “Last” sounds like we made many wines, we only made wine from two vineyards, but it does feel good to have our 2008 vintage safely in bottles. Now we wait for the delicate Pinot to recover.  As many of you know, wine goes thru a shock when it is bottled and needs some rest to recover before it is ready to drink.

Even though the bottling process is mostly automated, contrary to our home wine bottling in the last 7 years, we still make sure we touch every single bottle and leave our prints on  it. Such are the joys of winemaking.

Take a look at the steps in pictures:

First the bottles are emptied of oxygen, filled with wine and the wine level is adjusted.

Bottling  Machine

Bottling Machine

Corks are inserted and the red sleeves are put on and spun into place.

Corks inserted and bottle sleeves put on.

Next, the labeler applies our lovely label to the bottles.

Labeling Machine

Labels applied to Stomping Girl Pinot Noir

Then the bottles come off the line and are boxed by hand.

Kathryn boxing Split Rock

Kathryn boxing Stomping Girl Pinot

fermentation bin  

We are increasing production this coming year, 2009, and purchasing some additional equipment–barrel racks, macro bins and barrels.  Uzi found some lightly used barrel racks and macro bins from a contact at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in Napa and made arrangements for me to inspect the equipment in person before purchase.   

My trip to Joseph Phelps reminded me why Napa is such a sought after destination.  Uzi and I tend to visit Sonoma or other wine regions more frequently than Napa.  A drive on Hwy 29 is like a trip down the wine aisle at a large grocery store–Beringer, Mondavi, Sutter Home, Freemark Abbey.  There are countless B&Bs, Auberges, tour buses and gift shops. Despite all that, the scenery this time of year in Napa Valley is spectacular.  The grape vines are lush, full and green.  There are mountains, country lanes and weathered barns amid the vineyards.  And once you get off the beaten path you can find less frequented, more intimate wineries.  

joseph phelps   Napa vineyards

Unfortunately my business in Napa Valley this time did not include wine tasting or luxury accomodations.  I was there to inspect winery equipment–which passed the test–and camp with some friends.  Our big splurge was Taylor’s Automatic Refresher in St. Helena where you can enjoy Calera Pinot Noir in a proper glass with your cheeseburger and fries. A fine way by me to enjoy Napa Valley.

The vineyards are alive!  After a long winter dormancy, signs of life abound and the cycle begins again.

Bud Break in Sonoma

Bud Break in Sonoma

This is one of the most exciting times in the vineyards–the beginning of the next vintage. The buds popping up all over the place now will develop into canes which will  eventually bare the fruit. Don’t take my word for it, it is front page news in Sonoma. In between the rows, cover crops which supply the vine with nitrogen and other nutrients the natural way, are growing too.

Now is also a time of danger, for the young buds are susceptible to frost damage. Temperatures that dip below the freezing point cause frost that will burn the young buds. Everyone is watchful of the thermometers and are on alert. Vineyards on hillsides are less vulnerable because frost flows downhill, like water. Some vineyards are ready with a host of frost protection measures, from wind machines which circulate warmer air down with the colder air and increase the temperature, to heaters and overhead sprinklers. Some, like our grower, Chris, cut down the cover crop to allow the frost to flow downhill. It’s a trade off, says Chris, because the bees that made the cover crop their home and have been busy pollinating the pluots nearby will have to find a new home.  I am sure they will manage.  p1020833

Chris also has owl boxes around the vineyard.  The owls take care of the gophers which seem to come out once the cover crop is mowed.  Not all of these safety measures are 100% gaurentee but we do what we can.  In any case, this is an exciting time.  I have been getting updates on frost from my weather widget and from Chris.  A few more weeks and we will be over the frost hump and on to the next stage, bloom. In the mean time, 2009 looks like it is off to a good start.

Kathryn, my lovely wife, sometimes gives me a hard time about the pile of books I have collected over the years that sit by my bed side.  She thinks that rather than buy these books, I should better utilize the libraries we fund so generously here in Berkeley (a topic for another entry) and she decries the sheer numbers of wine books we have.  I need your help.  Am I being unreasonable in my obsessions?  Collecting and reading so many wine books?  Or is this a realistic number of wine books a reasonable wine lover and winemaker would have?

 Adventure on the Wine Route, by Kermit Lynch. This is a tale of Kermit’s travels throughout the wine regions of France in search of the best wine to import. Kermit Lynch, besides being our favorite local wine merchant for the last 25 years, is formidable figure in the wine world.  He is also one of the few Americans to receive France’s highest honor:  the Légion d’honneur. This was in recognition of his influence in bringing about some changes for the better in French wine making. He is also one of the first importers to start shipping wine in refrigerated containers.  Some of his stories are funny and some are sad (buying wine in Burgundy was no picnic 20 years ago.) Once we got turned on to Chevillon’s Nuits St Georges, there was no turning back. A must read.

 Romanee Conti by Richard Olney

What can I say that hasn’t been already said about DRC or Olney?  Just read Olney’s book and you’ll understand what all the fuss is about. Olney’s description of the Vendanges alone is well worth the book’s price. The description of the Pinot Noir grapes, the vineyards and the wine making methodologies of the most celebrated domain of Burgundy are pure poetry; the description of the food procession during the harvest, mouthwatering.

The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell

About how a Texan, T.V. Munson, saved the French wine industry, no really! In 1869 France, as well as most of Europe was devastated by the Phyloxra bug.  You see this habit of saving France started way earlier than you think. The book reads as good as any mystery novel.

 Knowing and Making Wine, by Emile Peynaud.   A very technical book that is at times a bit dated, but never the less a superb, thorough enology manual by one of the most renowned wine educator in France.  A classic.


I could go on….

Winery Technology and Operations by Yair Margalit

The House of Mondavi by Julia Flynn Siler

The Heartbreak Grape by Marq De Villiers

Techniques in Home Winemaking by Daniel Pambianchi

The Way to Make Wine Nicely written by our neighbor and fellow winemaker Sheridan Warwick

Vineyard Simple How To Build And Maintain Your Own Small Vineyard by Tom Powers

The Grape Grower by Lon Rombough

Pacific Pinot Noir by John Winthrop Haeger


What’s your vote?  Overboard or reasonable?  Any titles I have forgotten that you recommend?  Please feel free to comment.

Here’s a summary of what we’ve been up to in the last couple of months with our new wine venture:

The season started out like a real roller coaster as some of you may have heard.  Following a spring frost, which reduced vineyard crop by 10 to 20 percent, we had a heat wave in the first two weeks of September which dehydrated the grapes and accelerated grape sugar concentration. This double whammy resulted in an almost 30 percent less yield in some places.  Luckily, we were still able to get our hands on some Pinot…
We started the harvest with the picking of our Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir from Gap’s Crown Vineyard on September 6th and we were off to the races!
The grapes just looked beautiful–small, tight clusters of world class Pinot Noir.  It would have been a shame to crush them 😉 so we didn’t*…

She is a beauty!

She is a beauty!

We sorted the grapes–sorting removes any green leafs, bugs or moldy grapes that might have gotten in during the picking. The term for these ‘sorts’ of things is MOG, Material Other than Grapes. We did not have much to do as the pickers did a great job in the field, picking almost flawlessly clean clusters.

Kathryn and Hannah sorting Gap's Crown Pinot

Kathryn and Hannah sorting Gap's Crown

Sorting is conducted just before de-stemming, which removes the grapes from the stems.  In most cases, crushing immediately follows de-stemming.   However, the grapes were so gorgeous, we decided not to (see above *) and instead opted to do a hundred percent whole berry fermentation and not crush the grapes.  The intention of retaining more of the fruit character in the finished wine was behind this decision.
Next, the bin full of de-stemmed grapes moved in to the cold room for a Cold Soak period of five days at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cold soak delays the start of fermentation and the skins have a longer time to release their color into the wine.  We started the three-times-a-day punch downs, pushing the cap (the grapes skins that rise to the top during fermentation) down into the must in order to get better color extraction and prevent anything bad from forming on top.
This is the fun part.  We even gave up our gym membership for a while as doing the punch downs on such a large bin at 50 degrees in a freezer room will give you an incredible work out in no time!  At this temperature and stage, there is no cap to speak of so punch downs are very hard.  Add to that covering the whole thing with dry ice to form a protective layer of C02, measuring and recording sugar level (Brix) and temp three times a day and you get the picture of how busy one can get.

Hard work in the cold room!

hard work in the cold room!

early halloween

early halloween

After five days in the cold room, we were glad to move in to normal room temperature to get the fermentation started and do our punch downs in more ‘normal’ surroundings. Our plan was to try to prolong fermentation by trying to keep a moderate fermentation temperature, but the yeasty beasties had other plans! That thing took off and shot up to 85-90 degrees in no time at all. Since we truly believe in as little intervention as possible in winemaking, we just let nature take it’s course. Seven days later, all the sugar was gone, the yeast was exhausted from all that feeding-on-sugar frenzy and it was time to press.
We first drained all the free run out of the bins and then dumped the must into the press.   We proceeded to press in phases, tasting and monitoring the tannin level of the wine coming out of the press until we felt that we had just the right balance of tannin to fruit. This is the tricky ‘artistic’ part as you need to try to guess what the final blend will taste like when the press wine will be combined with the free run wine. We ended up with about 80 percent free run and 20 percent pressed wine. That was a lot of fun!

Chris starting up the siphon

Chris starting up the siphon


must into the press

must into the press

Yummy tannins
Yummy tannins

With the newly minted wine put away into the barrels, French oak, (Francois Freres, Medium Plus Toast, if you must know), we can now take a little breather.
Or so we thought!
Simultaneously to making our first commercial wine, we continue making wine at home with friends. As luck would have it, our Carneros Pinot Noir grapes must have gotten together with their Sonoma Coast brethrens, decided to conspire against us and mature during the same week. We ended up shuffling back and forth from the winery to our home in Berkeley to do the second shift on our Carneros Pinot.  We were so tired by the end of each day, we slept very well during these nights.

Much smaller scale, Ben still manages to do all the fun work!

Much smaller scale, Ben still manages to do all the fun work!

Now that both wines are in barrels we are taking a little breather to write about it and pay some attention to the ‘business part’ of our venture (but that is another post all together). All this while we wait for out Lone Oak Vineyard Pinot to be picked.  We are going down to visit this vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands this weekend, so we should have some picture to post and more stories to tell shortly.