An afternoon at Laird with winemaker Jeff Morgan
Recently, on one of the rainiest days I have personally ever experienced in Napa, Brian Quinn and I were running around wine country picking up cases of wine for this event from back in August. Having just left Ma(i)sonry in Yountville, we called Jeff Morgan to pick up his wine. He had literally just passed us on Highway 29 heading back toward Napa and told us to join him at Laird. We pulled in together and he told us to park in an employee space. Over the next two hours we received one hell of a crash-course in winemaking — it was incredibly exciting.
Laird rents out space to winemakers, Garragistes, and there are many incredible people making all different styles of wine under one (well, really several) roofs. Jeff was checking in on two clients’ wine, and let us trail behind, mesmerized by the myriad wine apparati: wash buckets, hoses, 3,000-6,000 gallon tanks, barrels, grapes coming and going, punch downs happening, labs, pressure and temperature controls, on and on.
First order of business was to locate barrels in need of filling. Then we climbed a series of stairs and walkways until we came to a 6,000 gallon tank that had been filled with grapes and juice not 24 hours prior – Jeff was keeping the concoction cold, very cold so that fermentation would not begin – and a trick he learned from David Ramey was to be employed…but first, a lesson in Fermentation:
This photo was taken seconds before I stuck my head inside this tank and took a very slow whiff. “VERY SLOW and don’t stick your head in too far,” Jeff warned. He wanted me to experience the bi-product of Fermentation, right at the source. He cautioned me to be very careful, and I was. Barely extending my already extended nose into the top of the tank, taking a very slow inhale, I jumped back from a sharp and burning sensation followed be a slight light-headedness. “Pure CO2,” Jeff said. “You fall in there, you die.” Period.
Wow. Suddenly winemaking took on an entirely different appeal to me and the dangers associated with the job immediately fostered a new-found respect for this work. It’s dangerous – massive tanks with juice fermenting – from the tops of some tanks you can even see the CO2 in small poufs come wafting out. I asked Jeff if a tank has ever blown and he matter-of-factly said, “Yes.” Smiled and said, “Comes with the territory!” And we were bolting on to another tank where he was about to cold-circulate the juice in a method passed down from David Ramey.
Jeff loves what he does – it’s invigorating. His office(s) are expansive open-air facilities with beautiful backdrops (like the Mayacamas Mountains which you can see from Laird), and darkened cellars where wine is aging, in need of racking, in need of fine-tuning.
Once the juice was fully circulated, he closed the lid on the tank and said to follow him. We ended up in a cold cellar where a Chardonnay was sitting, not a few weeks old, in barrel fermenting. We tasted samples from the many different barrels as Jeff explained that different barrels impart different characteristics and the idea is to eventually blend the wine together so that all those elements mold into one finite and delicious wine. “How do you know what kind of Oak barrel to use?” asked Brian Quinn. “Lots of experience. Trial and error,” answered Jeff. “Here, get in there, smell that – “
A little toast on the barrel and that is going to impart a smokey, toasty, delightful element that can be blended to add character. Each sample of Chardonnay, only weeks old, already becoming an elegant and balanced wine – helped Brian and I to realize the importance of the winemaking process from vine to glass. Once your juice is in tank or in barrel and fermentation is over, it’s on it’s way to becoming what you (the winemaker) makes it. There are many decisions to make, however, what is most curcial is that the juice is in the best shape possible before it begins its year or several years long experience of aging. And that’s where vineyard management and attention to detail during harvest come into crucial interplay. This is where the decision to hand-harvest, de-stem, sort, punch down, pump over, ferment, let natural yeast do it’s work, innoculate, etc, all come into play. Experience teaches the winemaker what to do in terms of aging, but a bit of it is mystery, hope, and luck.
Jeff is one cool cat and the experience trailing him at Laird was invaluable for us – as we are looking for every opportunity to learn and expand our understanding of what is in, what goes into making… a bottle of wine. Knowledge breeds understanding and having a personal comprehension, a personal connection to a bottle of wine, makes all the difference. Of course: you still have to be true to your taste buds – you either like it or you don’t. Well, we like Jeff’s wines and so that we say, L’Chaim!
Jeff Morgan makes Covenant Wines, visit his site: www.covenantwines.com