Trailing a Pro: An afternoon at Laird with winemaker Jeff Morgan
Recently, on a rainy day in Napa, Covenant Winery winemaker, Jeff Morgan, gave Brian I a two hour crash-course in winemaking — it was revelatory.
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. I was 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.
Jeff’s first order of business was to locate barrels in need of topping. 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 “must” very cold so that fermentation would start.
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. He cautioned me to be very careful. 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!”
Jeff clearly loves his job. 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 Jeff finished his work cold-circulating the juice in these tanks, he closed the lid and said to follow him. We wound our way to a cold cellar where some of his Chardonnay was barrel fermenting, mere weeks old. We tasted samples from the many different barrels, and 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, was already on its way to become wine. There are so many decisions a winemaker must make and part of those decision begin in the vineyard, as Jeff explains, because in order to bring in the grapes you want, they have to be cultivated the way you like, to reach their desired ripeness. “This is where the decision to hand-harvest, de-stem, sort, punch down, pump over, ferment, let natural yeast do it’s work, inoculate, etc, all come into play,” said Jeff. “Experience teaches the winemaker what to do in terms of aging, but a bit of it is mystery, hope, and luck.”
Learning is the key to understanding and Jeff gave us an upfront, invaluable, personal experience–bringing us a bit closer to understanding just what goes on, in a bottle of wine. As Jeff would say, “L’Chaim!”
Jeff Morgan makes Covenant Wines, visit his site: www.covenantwines.com