Reduction and Waitresses

I’ve written a few times about reduction, and sometimes I wonder if I should not. It’s one of the least understood terms in winemaking. People use the term reduction to describe a lot of different things. Some studies have actually shown that people use the term correctly less than 50% of the time.

Reduced simply means that there are smells or tastes of sulfur in the wine. Sulfur is a product of fermentation, so it happens naturally in the wine, and it’s added as a preservative and anti bacterial agent. Usually you add about 25-75 ppm, or parts per million. At the worst you can get Hydrogen Sulfite, which smells like rotten eggs, but you can also get smells of matches, or simply what many people call ‘minerals’.

Reduction happens when the wine is not in contact with Oxygen. Oxygen has a molecular effect on sulfites, which lessen the smell they have in a wine. That’s why if you have those smells in a glass, you can often get rid of them by swirling the glass and exposing the wine to air.

So the hard part for a winemaker is that Oxygen can ruin your wine if you expose too much of the wine to air. So in my winemaking I’ve taken the approach of limiting Oxygen as much as possible, and I taste the wine regularly to check for reduction. If I start to smell sulfur smells in the wine, I then have the wine moved from barrel to barrel.

This is called ‘racking’ the wine, and the exposure the wine gets to air in the process will eliminate the reductive smells and tastes. It’s something you need to stay on top of in the winery and find the right balance.

So my last tasting note on our Syrah was that it was ‘reductive’ and I was going to rack the barrel. We took a sample of some of that wine to share with friends on Sunday night, and just the exposure it had in going from barrel to sample bottle had eliminated the reductive smell. Instead it had a nice nose of violets and blueberries.

Our friends at dinner really seemed to enjoy the ½ bottle and it was met with a lot of enthusiasm at our table. The highlight for me though was we shared a glass with our waitress. She was full of praise and took our card to give to the manager. A small little thing, but that made my night. A big part of our plan is to get our wine into local restaurants and really get the staffs excited about it. So every waitress who really likes it is a great little victory along the way!

Out in the Vineyard, Checking on the Grapes

Saturday morning I headed out to Elandrich in Portola Valley and Llama Vineyard in Bonny Doon. Time to start checking on BRIX readings to see when harvest will come. BRIX is the sugar content of the grapes and it determines potential alcohol. I like to pick between 24-25 BRIX if I can, but having good flavors in the grapes is the most important thing, so I taste the grapes too.

At home the Syrah and Grenache are both above 25 BRIX right now and looks like we’ll harvest on Saturday. The seeds and stems are brown, and the grapes taste ripe.

I headed off to Elandrich next.

The sun was out but it was still cool.

I started with the Zinfandel. The first task is to walk the perimeter and make sure the bird netting doesn’t need any repairs. There were signs that two doves had been caught in the nets, or at least taken down by the nets. Just two sets of feathers, the work of a hawk that has nested in the oaks near by.

The readings on the Zinfadel were low, just 17.1. It looks like harvest will be the end of October. The grapes looked great though, healthy and with great color.

I trecked down the hill to the Merlot section next. The Brix was a little higher, 21.2 and the netting was in good shape. It looks like Mid October for these grapes.

I drove the long drive to Bonny Doon next. I’m not sure there will be enough grapes to harvest there this year but wanted to check on the vineyard anyway. The Fog was still in at noon when I arrived and the vineyards looked in good shape. Harvest looks like it will go well this year, if a little late, now it’s just waiting on good weather.



Getting that honest opinion

One thing I never expected making wine was how hard it would be to get opinions from people on the wine. It seems people don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or say anything bad or maybe bruise an ego. It seems so many people making wine have egos out of context with reality, maybe that’s why getting feedback is hard.

But here’s the deal. There’s no such thing as “handcrafting” a wine. You can’t really craft anything about wine. It’s not something you can just deconstruct and put back together if you don’t like the way it is coming out.

The truth is winemaking is you make a lot of little choices all through the life of the vine and the wine trying to get an end product you like. How much do I prune, how many bunches do I leave, do I weedwhack or use Round Up, Sulfur or Eagle, do I totally crush or use whole berries, how long until I press, how hard do I press, what kind of oak, new oak or old, do I blend the wine, do I rack it? All things you have to choose on. Each one effects the outcome. But it’s very hard. They all work together, and none of the results are immediate. You have to wait and see how it comes out.

With the Syrah last year I planned on using 25-50% whole clusters. But the grapes came in and I tasted the stems and inspected them and said, “No 100% destem. The stems are not ripe, I don’t want them in my wine.” I had no idea how that choice would work out. Would it be right, would it be wrong, did I do the right thing? It turns out it was the right thing. Crushpad made a barrel with the same fruit after me and left 50% whole clusters. I tasted that wine in June and it was scared with a stemmy green streak and high acidity. But I didn’t know I had made the right choice until then.

So I want honest opinions about our wine. Even if it’s a critical, and even if it’s negative. It’s the only way I can judge if the choices I’ve made are turning out right, and knowing that is the only way I know to make changes for the next harvest.

Not enough color? I can do thing different this year to get more color. Not enough fruit? I can make changes.

It’s not going to hurt my feelings, I want to make better wine every single year, every single time I make it. I want to keep improving, keep making changes and keep making better choices. When it’s 35 degrees and raining and I’m out pruning, I want to make sure I’m doing it honestly to get better grapes, and when it’s hour 18 of a 20 hour day of crush I want to make the right call at the crusher. I can only do that if I hear from people how the finished product is coming out.

So as the barrel samples start coming out, and the wine heads to bottle, I want to hear what you think. Tell me, I’ll make it even better next time and you won’t hurt my ego, I promise.

Barrel tasting the 05’s

Friday Stefania and I drove up to San Francisco to taste our 2005 barrels.

It was a trip I was a little worried about. I have not been happy with the 05 Cabernet. It’s been a nice wine, easy to drink and I think would fall into the 82-84 point range. Not bad, but as Stefania has said “It’s a $10 wine.”

I couldn’t really afford to bottle and release a $10 bottle of wine, my production costs are in the $18 a bottle range. So, this was a make or break for the Cabernet. If it had not shown improvement, I was likely going to sell it on the ‘bulk’ wine market. I don’t want to release just ‘nice’ wines, I want them to be better than that.

(searching for our barrels)

(giving Dave topping instructions)

So we started the tasting with Dave Gifford who always guides us through the barrel room and takes down my instructions.

We started with the 2005 Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah. The wine had just been sulfured so we were expecting some reduction notes. Wow. This wine is turning out great. Some of the rustic edges from 3 months ago are smoothing out. It’s a dark, rich, layered wine. Lot’s of complex black fruit flavors and notes of black pepper. The 25% new oak adds some really nice sweet spice flavors without showing obvious oak. This was just what I’m after. It’s not a little Syrah, and I think it will be best after 3-5 years in bottle. I was very happy with this and I think people will really enjoy this wine.

(Finding the Syrah, pipe in hand)

(Zebra barrel, 50% new oak)

Then off we went to the Cabernet barrels. Stefania knew I was worried about these barrels so it was hushed as we tasted.

The first thing that surprised us was the change in color. This wine has gotten much-much darker in the past 3 months. It’s now a deep red. A dramatic change from the light red of June. The nose was much more pronounced. A green spice/currant note that is typical of young Cabernet, then lots of red juicy fruit. It also had nice notes of anise and cinnamon and much better length and depth. The 50% new oak had added a lot of backbone to the wine.

(The red labels mean we sourced these grapes ourselves, they are not ‘Crushpad grapes’)

(tasting the Cab, notice the color!)

We then did a quick blend of about 5% Syrah with the Cabernet. That was the magic combo. The Cab got darker still with black fruit.

I left Dave with instructions to rack the Syrah. I want to avoid any reductive notes from getting in. I also told him to start topping off the Cab barrels with the Syrah. This should bring it up to about 3-4% Syrah at bottling, and and the color and black fruit the wine is short of now.

We then headed South to Bistro Elan in Palo Alto with some samples to share with friends and get some non-biased opinions from the wine manager there. The Syrah showed well, and the kitchen staff polished off the bottle! We showed the Cab last, waiting for feedback on our problem child. The verdict: “It’s a nice cab. Not too heavy, and with good red fruit. It needs a bit more color and some length and breadth of fruit, 88 points.”

(tasting with food at Bistro Elan in Palo Alto)

I went home happy and finally not worrying about what to do with the Cabernet. 10 more months in barrel and the 3-4 % Syrah should add what it’s short on right now, and lift that 88 points to the 90+ range I’m after. I was feeling much better, that in a year the Cabernet will be drunk as quickly as the Syrah was that night.



So someone is reading this.

I was very suprised to see 24 views in the profile page the other day. I thought, “Who is reading this, and I wish they’d leave a comment.”.

I started the blog early for our website. Mostly so our web guy could make sure the links worked and figured for a few weeks it would be me and Stefania reading it. well, me reading it and her correcting typos.

Well the website is now up. We haven’t announced it to anyone yet, we’re still in “beta test”. Correcting typos, loading up the pictures pages and generally getting it ready for public view. If you’ve come across this though also take a look at our site http://localhost/wordpress and let me know what you think, and any improvements I can make.

Call yourself a beta tester and let me know who you are!



Bird netting party recap.

Saturday we hosted a party for 25 people to celebrate finishing bird netting our vineyards, and finishing new hardwood flooring in our house. We wrapped up the flooring at 5 PM Friday and moved all the furniture back in place, including the bar.

This is the only time all year where there is really no labor to do in the vineyards. Once the netting goes on, we just wait and take measurements of sugar and taste the grapes until they are ready to harvest. That’s one reason August in vacation month in Europe. If you have vines, it’s the time of year you can be away from them.

The party got off to a little bit of a bumpy start when I cut my finger making anchovie bread. But friends Kenneth, Wes and Sissie stepped in and took over running the bar and opening the wine. I had smoked a pork butt and beef brisket for 24 hours over old wine barrel staves as the main course.

There was not really a wine theme for the party, just bring something good. Some of the highlights for me were 2003 Copain Syrah Garys’ Vineyard, 2003 Kathryn Kennedy Syrah Santa Cruz Mountains and 1987 Ridge Cabernet Santa Cruz Mountains. We opened 27 bottles total. People ended up hanging out in the cellar all night again.

I did get to sit and talk with some of our 20 something friends for a long time. First with Eric and Johanna and then Jessica and James.

One of the reasons Stefania and I like to have these big events is to be able to introduce people to different wines in a casual fun environment. Somewhere where it’s really easy to learn and ask questions while you enjoy yourself. Too many wine events are way too serious and intimidate people. We hope after people come to our parties they have confidence to say what they like and don’t like in wine.

Anyways; Eric, Johanna, James and Jessica all said how much they really liked being able to taste so many wines and learn so much at our parties. They also said how easy it’s made it for them to start drinking wine more on their own. Eric and Johanna have even started wine touring in Carmel and Napa.

That made my night. We’re making wine because we love to share wine with people and we think too many people treat wine and the ‘wine lifestyle’ too formally. We want our wines to be fun for people, and we want them to have fun when they drink them. It made me feel like we’re doing it right!



Getting started at Stefania wine.

Day one of our Blog.

Today our web designer finished his first draft of our new website, so I’m finally forced to actually start our blog entries. I hope to keep a good update of this years harvest season and winemaking, which should be underway in just a few weeks.

It’s been a busy week on the winemaking front. We’ve had our notice up at home on the front door for two weeks now and the ABC came and did an inspection today of our office. Checking to make sure our permits were up and the posting was visible. I hope it went fine.

Our barrels are all getting marked as well this week and I exchanged messages with John at Hallcrest to make sure we are ready to go with the 15 or so barrels we’ll need this year. Mostly we are using old wood so I needed his help in rounding up good older barrels.

I also got the contract for Cabernet Sauvignon from Martin Ranch. We’ll be using that fruit with the Merlot and Cab from our vineyards to make a Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet. That was the last grape source I needed to round up, so am really glad to have that done.

More soon I’m sure!

Cheers, Paul