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October 12, 2011 0 comments Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

2011 Harvest — Days 3-6 at Alpha Omega Winery

The glorious moments of "Cold-Soak."

It’s Wednesday, October 12, 2011. I’ve been ordered by the town Doc in St. Helena to “take off” 10/11, 10/12 & 10/13 and then some. Apparently, I’ve been… overdoing it. A slight case of Vertigo and the ailments that follow have set me back. And I’m happy to have been knocked down into a chair for a few days because I realized I haven’t had a day off since June 8, 2011. Well, one day off, but I hiked Mt. St. Helena with Amanda Wells – the same Amanda Wells that happens to be married to me. Okay, listen: It’s Harvest, can you smell it? The salt air? I brought you to — wait, wrong movie. The fermentation in the air? I’ve brought you to Napa Valley!

Harvest work ain’t easy work and the hours are not for us, good-natured humans, to decide when the grapes are ready to come on down! Just as an example you can see what Ram’s Gate Winery went through for the harvest of their first ton of Chardonnay grapes. At Alpha Omega, we experienced a day where 23 tons of grapes had to be pressed with the juice of whites going into stainless steel tanks and the reds going into barrels for an extended cold-soak maceration. Now, what in the good name of Grape Juice is “cold-soak” and “maceration?” Good questions. After spending three days doing punch-downs of the cold-soaking macerated juice and grapes I asked winemaker Jean Hoefligger what this “nonsense” is all about. I said “nonsense” and here’s what he said more or less:

Jean: We cold-soak for an extended period of time because when the grapes are not fermenting and with the absence of alcohol, the tannin extraction, fruit and flavor extraction works best. We can make a wine with more concentrated, nicer flavor and aroma characteristics when the exchange of flavor and aroma profiles happens in the absence of alcohol.

Alcohol can inhibit and effect flavor and aroma, and so before the yeasts even think about turning sugar to booze, cold-soak is the way of this wayward winemaker. What that means for me and the rest of the cellar team hour and hours of punch-downs:

Punch-downs - juice is bubbling from the dry ice we add to keep the temperature down and hence prohibit fermentation.

We'll spend 5 minutes on each barrel, punching down the caps. That's 5 minutes per barrel on all these barrels, and apparently, I'm told , "This ain't nothin'." Well, I'd love to see what "something" is because this "nothing" is pretty intense. About 5-6 hours of work if alone.

***

Wine Connoisseur: “This wine has a nose of graham cracker and toast!”

Me: “Who’re you fooling buddy? It’s grapes! Grapes! Ain’t no toast or crackers in that!”

Wine Connoisseur: “I tell you, Jonny, there’s graham cracker.”

Me: “Prove it.”

Wine Connoisseur: “Surely, take a look at the photo below…”

Inside of a new Oak Barrel -- looky that toast!

If you were to stick your head into that barrel, as I did just after snapping this shot, you’d smell, so help me bloody merry, graham cracker and toast. And what a delightful smell too! But you see, good wino, that’s a reality and in a red you might just find that the aromas blend in such a way that you think you’re drinking a glass full o’ s’mores.

***

The Rain has been a’comin.’ On lunch break just last week (10/5) sunny, cook skies gave way to an instantaneous rain storm that looked like this:

Rain.

Not sure what this means for many growers, but as they say, we’ll find out. And I’ll let you know. So, we spent time inside recording the temperatures of the cold-soaking goodness.

13.1 degrees in the Celsius. Stable and good. Carry on! (Tastes great! Sweet!)

The forecast calls for more sunny days though. I’ll pick up cellar work next week. In the meantime, tune back in tomorrow as I’ll write about a dinner party hosted with Tim West of Grub.ly in a mansion at the top of Lombard Street in San Francisco, a Harvest dinner at Quintessa, and a partridge in a pair…

 

September 23, 2011 0 comments Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

2011 Harvest – Days Two and Three @AOWinery

The way to Enlightenment is the way to listening.

Cigar’s log, Star-date September 21st, 2011, 9:30pm Pacific Standard Time:

My… body… is on… fire.

I have to commend my fellow cellar workers at Alpha Omega. These chaps are incredibly hardworking people who take their job seriously (though intermittent joking is rampant and necessary to break up the routines of cellar work which, truth be told can be very repetitive). I’ll introduce each of them here in Winetology as we forge ahead and the grapes keep-a-comin’. Though I should mention a young man from Napa, named Aldo, who left us today to take work in Calistoga. He was with AO for half a year, but the reality is he needs to earn much more money because he has a second child on the way. We had an interesting conversation about marriage and parenting and he put it to me like this: “In the Latino community – at least the way I was raised – when you have a kid with someone, you’re with that person. Married or not, you’re together.” He scoffed at me when I asked if he was married. He has no interest, but like he said, it doesn’t matter. He’s with the mother of his children until the end. Everyone at AO wishes Aldo the best of luck.

Listen:

This work ain’t easy – not that anyone ever said it was – though I’m beginning to understand the “you’ll see” winks and smiles that I’ve been met with leading up to Harvest work. And I’ve only been at it for three days! Some work year-round. Without these tough-skinned, incredibly smart and quick-thinking cellar teams (who work tirelessly around the wine countries of the world) these wonderous-grape-elixirs we all love to open and share and experience would simply not exist – at least not at the level of quality many of us expect. Once you’ve been bitten by an amazing bottle of wine, there’s no turning back… so next time you pop open something that drinks itself before you do, toast to the cellar workers, the vineyard workers and the winemakers who have made the wine what it is.

So what’s happened in the last two days? A hell of a lot.

A lot of cleaning, and some pressing of grapes. They like to say that winemaking is 80% cleaning and 20% making. About right, I’d say. Before the wine goes into barrels some have to be cleaned and that looks like this:

Clean Clean Clean! Power washing with 180 degree water.

Once they are power rinsed with hot, hot, caliente water, they are doused with Ozone. That’s right. Ozone. How fantastic is that? This machine makes Ozone. Someone should tell the Obama Administration that there is a machine that simply makes Ozone. So we can deplete it as much as we like! But in the winery, Ozone (O3) is used to sanitize. Electricity hits water and inside this contraption makes Ozone and the smell is definitive… oddly enough it reminds me of being in a plane… hmmmf! By a process of grabbing onto certain molecules the O3 sanitizes the inside and then we rinse the barrel with cold water and et voila! Ready for fresh vino.

This machine makes Ozone.

On Day Two some Russian River Pinot Noir came into the winery and it was destemmed, sorted and put into barrels for an extended maceration with the skins and daily punchdowns. I was on the sorting line. As grapes whizzed past it was my duty to extract anything “green” i.e. stems. Also, any clusters or grapes that looked shriveled, gnarly entrenched in leaves, etc. This is the only opportunity to grab all the stuff you don’t want in your wine before it begins the fermentation/aging process.

Sort through that.

These grapes/juice went into barrel for an extended period of maceration – the time the juice is in contact with the grape skins and seeds. This allows for a free exchange of tannin, i.e. color and texture tannins.

Looks like Bluerberry gazpacho. But it's Russian River outrageousness, really.

Later, there are punch-downs. The skins begin to form a cap, and harden a bit and so they need to be punched down. Exactly the same thing that would happen to me if I went for a midnight stroll through Bed-Sty in my Astor & Black bespoke suits! This kind of punch-down is much more fun though. And at this point the “wine,” which isn’t wine just yet, looks like a massive vat of blueberry gazpacho. Yum. Smells great.

Punch...

Down...

Day Three I was introduced to the Sutter Penumatic Press. An expensive machine that takes several tons of grapes and presses out the juice. At Alpha, there are three stages of pressed juice:

  • D-Juice
  • Free Run
  • Press
This is incredibly fascinating because each juice goes into its own tanks and is blended into the final wine when the winemakers feel it’s time. D-Juice is the first bit of juice that comes from the weight of the grapes (gravity) on themselves… and it’s a lot of juice, sometimes as much as a barrel or two. Free Run is the golden juice, the coveted juice that comes from the gentle pressing of the grapes. Press is the juice that comes from really applying gravity to the grapes that have already been pressed — there’s still something in all of the skins and grapes and when you’re paying thousands of dollars a ton you want as much juice as you can get.
Here’s what the grapes look like when the come in from the fields:

Sauvignon Blanc in from the fields. Tastes SO good. Juicy and sweet.

Here’s what they look like after going into the Sutter Pneumatic Press:

Stem Mountains and valleys

And here is Mr. Sutter:  I had to climb up in that thing to shovel out some of the pressed grape skins and stems. The cellar team had a good time when I was inside. Some of the remarks were, “We’ll turn it on now, okay?” and “It’s gonna start to rotate” and “Just let us know when you want us to stop it.” Again, “Ha ha, very funny you guys,” was about all I could muster in response. They did in fact hold my life in the … push of a button. Now that’s winemaking!!

Sutter.

 And that’s not even half of it. It’s 10:13pm PT on Thursday, September 22, and it’s taken me a day to write this because of how exhausted/busy I am (if you noticed the beginning of this post begat itself yesterday). I’ve just gotten in from a dinner at the Morgan’s (Jeff and Jodie Morgan of Covenant Wines) and I learned that on my first day of Harvest work, the stirring of the sulfur in the wine is called “Batonage.” I’ve always wondered what that was. Turns out I did it. If some of this is incorrect, or makes no sense or if you are concerned with any of the grammar in this article, please feel free to get on a plane, come out to Napa and join me as we work this year’s crush, together :)