“Choose to be an optimist, it feels better.”
-Dalai Lama XIV
I secretly relish last day of the calendar year. It forces you, whether you like it or not, to realize the impermanent aspect of your life and your time here. Like the annual birthday celebration in which you are reminded that another year has passed, you are not getting any younger and time is essentially running out. That can be a terrifying realization for many of us. I find it momentarily frightening but I mostly shrug it off with a dash of good old-fashioned optimism. Even after a year in which the winery lost money (due to increasing our production) and I was still not able to pay myself a real salary, I look forward. I continue to believe that this year is the year. Perhaps that is the optimist in me speaking (you have to be an optimist to run a winery, or a sadist).
Optimism alone is a lot like exercising while maintaining a diet based on junk food. While it might make you feel good to run 5 miles, that cheeseburger you ate for dinner is a net negative. Optimism may keep the dismissive voices in my head somewhere between mute and 2, but at the end of the day (or the year) I still have to be willing to do the heavy lifting. I have to figure out and then implement the improvements I need to make whether it is in regards to winemaking, vineyards, sales or telling tales.
It is October and I have once again fully re-installed myself at the winery in Lompoc. The past two months has seen a remarkable warm and clear end to the summer. After three of the coldest years on recent memory in California (2009-2011) this year has been a welcome to return a normal or warmer than normal vintage.
Many winemakers began picking Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the warmer parts of Sta. Rita Hills in the second week of September. Up through September it had really been an ideal growing season: a cool spring, but no frost, a warm summer with no massive heat spikes and ideal conditions for harvest. The last day of September and first day of October did finally see 100˚temperatures inland and 90˚’s near the coast.
So far we have brought in about half of our harvest for 2012. All of our Pinot Noir from Radian vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills is in the winery. There were only 4 tons of Pinot Noir from our 3.5 acres at Radian. It is chilly spot and cool, windy weather during April flowering affected the fruit set. We have also harvested 2 of our 5 Syrah sites: Harrison-Clarke in Santa Ynez Valley and Watch Hill in the cooler Los Alamos Valley. Both the Syrahs have less overall acidity than the past few vintages and flesh and body due to the warm summer.
If the next few weeks hold up with no rain and lots of sunshine it should continue to be a very good vintage here in Santa Barbara County!
We recently bottled the 2010 Hocus Pocus Syrah at the winery in Lompoc. The wine tastes very good, sadly there are only about 485 cases of it. It is always a great relief to get wine into the bottle. The winemaking part of my job is over, though the selling part now begins. We have freed up a little bit of room in the cellar which is a relief as space is at a premium. In the old days, meaning a generation or two ago, wine was bottled by hand over a period of months, barrel by barrel. This led to great variability from case to case: imagine, was your case from the lot bottled in January or June..? Hand bottling also exposed the wine to unwanted oxygen in the process, another strike.
Fortunately for todays consumers hand bottling is virtually non-existent (I’m sure I’ll get some message from someone saying Jean-Paul-so-and-so STILL hand bottles, it’s so great!).
In California, even small little 2,000 case wineries like us can use state-of-the-art equipment bottle their wines. It’s quite an amazing process to witness if you have never seen it. At about 7AM a truck loaded with close to $1,000,000 worth of bottling equipment and shiny stainless steel pulls up to our winery. Once the line has received a careful cleaning with ozone-water, and all the parts and pieces have been adjusted to get the label on straight and the corks at the right height, it all starts running. In the following video here is what you will see: empty bottles get sparged with nitrogen (nitrogen good, oxygen bad!), then they are filled with delicious Syrah and perfectly leveled, then in goes the cork under pressure to pull a vacuum, then the foils are put on by hand and mechanically wrapped tight, and finally the labels are pressed on.
Here is a link to a video of our bottling:Bottling Line In Action
The last grapes of the season for Black Sheep Finds have been picked and processed. On November 3rd we brought in our last bit of Syrah, from the White Hawk vineyard near Los Alamos. It’s a good thing we did: it rained later that night, the vines had little left to give and in three weeks it will be Thanksgiving. If one can avoid having grapes fermenting at the Thanksgiving holiday, one should. There is nothing quite as un-celebratory as stuffing yourself with stuffing and then going back to punchdown tanks (as we did in 2005). It really messes with eating, drinking and football watching that I so look forward to each year. In fact that is what Thanksgiving has come to represent to me over the past 11 years: it is a goal to reach for that symbolizes the end of another year and another vintage. By then end of November I am thankful for the all the hard work performed during the growing season and the harvest that has transmuted and fills our barrels. I am thankful that I get to move back to LA to be with my family. And I am thankful that we are able to plan an excessive holiday meal with homemade food and great wines from throughout the world. And I am thankful that I can return home with a sense of accomplishment, that I have got another 15,000 or so bottles worth of wine into barrel and that our wine business gets to continue for another vintage.
I do love the time of harvest, the making of the wine, the unique semi-rural/agrarian experience that I get to have each Fall. It is a welcome change from the other nine months of the year spent in the middle of Los Angeles slagging around town trying to sell my wares. It is a process in which I get to be in control, making decisions and evaluations each and every day. From when to pick the first grapes at the commencement of harvest, down to deciding when to press the last tank at the end. It feels good to be in control, or at least attempt to be for a few months out of the year. And you know pretty quickly if you have been making the correct decisions during the growing season (mother nature withstanding). Once the wine is in barrel it tends not to lie to you: you know pretty quickly whether you did a good job or not so good a job.
At times it seems like growing grapes and making wine in California is the complete opposite experience as it is in most of Europe. Here have a long and relatively cool growing season (night-time temps in the 50’s all summer), while in Europe they have a short and compact warm growing summer. season We try to pick our grapes with the hope that they don’t have too much sugar/potential alcohol, while they harvest hoping there is enough sugar and won’t need to chapitalize. And now here in the end of September with both California and much of Europe frantically picking their respective grapes, we pray that we don’t get blasted with a late season heat wave, while our friends across the pond are hoping to avoid an early deluge of rain and storms.
Much of the west coast has been dealing with temperatures in the mid to upper 90’s all week. This is the last hurrah of summer here in California. The only problem is if you are a Pinot Noir producer (like us) and your grapes are 7-14 days away from harvest, extreme heat is the last thing you need. Unless your fruit is well shaded you risk sunburn and bleaching of the grape clusters. One also faces a rapid increase in sugar levels without the corresponding “ripening.” You are also often forced to do a tiny bit of irrigation (2-3 gallons per vine), something you really hate to do at the end of the season. In the 2010 vintage we were fortunate enough to be able to pick our Pinot Noir before 4 days of blistering heat in late September. This year the Pinot Noir was hanging out around 20-21 brix before the heat wave so we just have had to wait it out. I hope that the extra leaves that were left around the clusters will protect them from sun damage and shrivel. Hourly checks of the temperature and humidity reports at the nearest weather station is all we can do to soothe our worried minds.
On a separate note: if you ever plan to visit California come in September, it’s the best month: warm, no fog, lots of great summer produce in the markets and restaurant menus and few tourists.
Having just recently returned from 10 days in France visiting wine producers in Burgundy and the Rhone Valley, I have the somewhat unfortunate opportunity of being awake at 4AM due to the 9-hour time change I am now re-adjusting to. 10 days is just enough time to allow your body to be fully adjusted to the 9 zone time shift, only to whip yourself back 6,000 miles in the opposite direction. Even Bubbles, the dog, does not want to get out of bed at this hour. The questionable look I got from my wife at 5AM when she came into the kitchen to see what the early morning noises were was enough to challenge Medusa to a staring contest.
When we say we are going to France for 10 days to visit wineries most people think we will be slurping Cotes De Provence rosé by the gallon and having a picnic surrounded by fields of lavender. What it really turns out to be is 4-5 winery appointments per day, tasting 10-20 wines per appointment. Each day is only broken up by a lunch that leaves you craving for a vegetable and bean filled macrobiotic salad that will never come, instead it is escargots de Bourgogne and Charolais beef and innards followed by cheese AND desert. Ready to whip out the world’s smallest violin and play me song for my troubles?
These trips are previews to taste yet to be released wines that Amy’s employer, Veritas Imports, will bring to California to sell later in the year. Essentially the company must figure how much to purchase of each wine and how to sell them against an ever-weakening US dollar/Euro ratio. You have to be on your game each day and not get lost in the romanticism of tasting some of the greatest Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in the world (while in a 200 hundred year old cellar).
The invigorating and refreshing part that I love about visiting the cellars of other producers (both in California and abroad) is the feeling of brothers in arms (no, not a Mark Knopfler reference). Attempting to make great wine and trying to operate a profitable business is virtually the same no matter what part of the world you are in. Of course there are regional differences in weather, winemaking styles and AOC laws (or lack there of in California). Ultimately as winemakers we are all facing somewhat similar challenges: growing conditions to get the vines to perform the way we want them to (man vs. nature,) making the wine in the style that you imagine in your head and not screwing it up (man vs. self) and then figuring out how to do it without losing money (man vs. society). This situation reminds me of a scene from the 1966 Bruce Browne surf film Endless Summer in which he says that if you are going to surf in sharky waters it’s best to not do it alone, that way it’s not so scary and if you get bitten it might not hurt so bad. It’s totally insane but remarkably true. There is great pleasure of tasting very good wines in barrel from some else’s cellar. It’s also just nice to know that they are right there beside you, knee deep in the struggle.
Yesterday we bottled the first white wine ever on the Holus Bolus label, our 2010 Holus Bolus Blanc. It is 100% Roussanne from grapes grown at the McGinley Vineyard (formerly Westerly). The finished wine really turned out lovely, especially considering how difficult the growing season was. Roussanne is always a late ripening grape variety, but the record cold 2010 growing season made it even more challenging. By the first week in November that days are getting shorter and colder and many vines don’t have much energy left in them after working hard for previous 6-7 months. You essentially reach a point at which you have to pick because there is little else to gain. When we did harvest, the grapes only reached a potential alcohol of 12.5%, which is low for California (though quite normal for Europe). The juice was settled overnight, and fermented and aged in 1/3 stainless steel and 2/3 French oak. We did not filter the finished wine so in the glass it is clear but not crystal clear. I just don’t believe in stripping the wine down in an effort to clarify it.
344 cases bottled of the Holus Bolus Blanc and I am making some kegs for Lukshon Restaurant in Culver City. All of their by-the-glass wines are pulled from 5 gallon kegs. It is a great way to supply a restaurant with wine, kegs created to order by the winery every few weeks, keeping the wine super fresh. Ecologically it is great: no glass bottles, no corks, no labels! Every little step we can take in the wine industry make a smaller foot print and use less stuff is a step in the right direction!
We also labeled up 3 different new Holus Bolus Syrahs from the 2008 vintage. These wines were bottled last August, but we gave them some time to rest (and develop new labels) in the interim. These are small lots of vineyard designate wine: White Hawk, Watch Hill and Rim Rock. These are all very cool climate sites and unique vineyards which we think are worthy of capturing in bottle. There are only about 75 cases of each of the Syrahs.