December 21, 2015

Sleeping out

Moving my wine production from Portland out to Yamhill county this past fall meant some big changes for me during harvest.

Harvest ended up going fantastically well though not without minor hitches. Some white wines fermented more slowly than I might like (some are even still going). One red ferment got a bit hotter than I'd like though the wine is still delicious (maybe the heat wasn't a problem!).

Then came the most poignant moment this season, the one night I slept out at the winery, something I expected to do more often but just didn't. 

I thought a winery move to the country would require staying the night several times. Turned out the drive back to Portland was usually just the thing the I needed, even late at night. The moon and stars, quiet roads that make for a fast trip and then a hard, fast sleep in my own bed.

Then the last Saturday in September, when all but the last of the Pinot Noir had come in, a few of us slept out on the crush pad for the night. Turns out I didn't sleep much. Too much on my mind. Everything.

That evening I had this horrible sense of dread, like waking up from a nightmare with a sick feeling when anyone around you would say nothing's wrong.

And nothing was wrong in the winery. Just me.

I don't really think I'm all that exceptional of a person, but I believe the thing that inspires me is. It's this indescribable force that drives me, that gives me the confidence to do anything I do. To believe in myself, even when I worry something's off track or seems off track (which is common). My muse, to be fanciful. 

That night it was as if my muse had told me my inspiration wasn't mine at all, a language I thought was unique but wasn't. Which struck me pretty much as my nightmare, the one thing I'm really afraid of, not because it stops my work but calls into question the purpose of my work. Meaning I didn't really sleep, could only think that what I thought I had wasn't unique after all.

Maybe it's saying too much to say this, but I worried that I've tapped into some deeper well than I've ever known in this work I'm doing, that I'm actually on to something more special than I could have ever imagined. I guess the shock I felt was like climbing out on a tree limb full of confidence, sure it will hold, and then feeling that it isn't. You wonder if you were a fool to let yourself go there, to believe in a notion and commit.

That night I was so cold, and not just because I didn't have enough blankets. I put so much of myself in this work and that sudden feeling that everything's all wrong was too much.

Dawn on the crush pad after a cold night

When dawn came I was relieved. Bright sun, a glimpse of the moon, I felt so still. 

Plenty of people are making terroir-driven wine, fermenting naturally with a reactive, improvised approach instead of seeking total control. More listening than talking as it were. Surely what I'm doing isn't unique.

But then I understood that my inspiration is still there. Even if I can't always find it, even if some moments feel so cold like that night. My job is to keep listening, and to believe even when it seems crazy. And this is whole thing is surely crazy but the best crazy I've ever known. Even when all I can do is lie awake and wonder. 

So I got up and got back to work. I felt different but more honest, and now there was less to fear. I have this goal of making wine without fear, focused on what could go right instead of all that might go wrong. In some strange way, after that cold night I felt better, still there, no matter what. 

December 14, 2015

Everyday harvest

Harvest is an everyday thing, the days become weeks and a month without much notice. Once the grapes start coming in, I'm at the winery every day until the very end. Not every day needs to be long. I learned from my mentors to pace yourself, perhaps to take Sundays (mostly) off, when you can.

The pH meter is the hands off winemaker's best friend - calibrating here

There might seem to be a monotony to harvest, the daily punch downs and tests. We test everything daily to track fermentation progress. or most days depending on where something is in its progression and what else needs doing that day.

Really things are ever changing during harvest, nothing is routine. Fermenters that two days ago were quiet might now be fermenting madly. Another that was harvested only yesterday might already be showing signs of fermentation starting, where others take their time. Every day things are changing and our job is to pay attention and respond.

Stacks of empty barrels outside the winery waiting to be filled

There's planning ahead, sorting through the stacks of empty barrels to find the one you want to start filling with the first wines ready for bed, lining up times the press will be available to use.

Then there are errands around the valley, returning picking bins to vineyards, heading into town for winery supplies and maybe a decent lunch. While there's still fruit out in any vineyards, there are trips to check out the vines and talk to growers about when I'll want to be picking.

The Coppa pizza at Red Hills Market in Dundee, far more than decent

The errands are my favorite things. Even as an intern for others I always wanted to be the guy who got to go into town or check out the vines, stop by other wineries to see how things are going.

99W south of McMinnville on a glorious autumn day

I'm lazy, it's true, but I like to think it's a productive lazy. Maybe the best thing about making wine for myself is being able to do a little bit of everything, even indulging my lazy. So yeah, I'm the errand guy now too. And I might just take a bit longer road on the way back from town, if only to admire the view.


This harvest I realized a small dream, making my first Gamay Noir. The grape of Beaujolais (and Burgundy!) grows well in the Willamette Valley even if there aren't many producers working with it. Why not? I can't figure it out though perhaps the answer is right in front of me. Most people don't know what Gamay Noir is and just as many seem certain that Beaujolais is only about vapid nouveau wines each November.

Gamay Noir on the vine at Bjornson Vineyard

Nevertheless, I've wanted to make Gamay for years. It's a noble grape but has a reputation for not being so serious, perhaps a wild friend of the more buttoned down Pinot Noir. That's not entirely accurate - Gamay can be very serious. It's just not taken seriously all that much.

I remember working for a producer years ago that had a small amount of Gamay vines. I was so excited, asking questions about how the wine is made and where it ends up. The answers weren't so exciting. The producer sighed and said he didn't really think much of the Gamay. I think it was blended away as a small component in a basic Pinot Noir bottling. I was a little heartbroken, especially after fermenting the grapes that harvest. Such bright and peppery wine, I never forgot it and dreamed of making my own some day.

Gamay fermenting naturally w/ one punch down a day
That day has arrived, and so did 1.1 tons of Gamay noir a jus blanc (the full name) from baby vines at Bjornson Vineyard on Thursday, September 10. That's early for Gamay but young vines ripen early, which is one challenge with them compared to old vines that don't race to the finish.

How was the fruit? Like everything I had this year, the grape chemistry was incredibly good, surprisingly so given the hot summer. The Gamay looked and tasted great, even if some people might have thought it was a little early to pick. I like grapes like I like meat, medium rare. So brix was 21.7 and pH 3.24, pretty much perfect if you ask me.

A brilliant scarlet color to the new Gamay
Because this is my first Gamay, I treated it like I do my Pinot Noir. Destemmed, lightly crushed, then left to ferment naturally, the fermenter drained and pressed only after primary fermentation was done for a few days. I'll be honest, this wine ended up spending more time on the skins than I might have planned. After 25 days, I drained the fermenter and pressed the skins, filling three barrels a few days later after the new wine had some time to settle out a bit.

Hoping for something poetic, so my e.e. cummings inspired barrel tag

As with most red wines in the 2015 vintage, my Gamay is unusally dark in color despite it's fresh acidity and lowish alcohol. We'll see how the color changes over a year of aging in old French oak barrels. I plan to bottle at the end of next summer. Look for this wine next fall.

November 24, 2015

The drive

The questions this harvest were always about the drive and how I was moving my wine production from the city to the country.

How's the drive?
Do you miss making wine in Portland?
Do you live at the winery during harvest?

The answers, for the record, are fine, not really, no.

Looking east across the valley from Eola Hills Road

Yes, I live in NE Portland and after six years at winery facilities in the city of Portland, I now drive all the way to the Eola Hills between Dundee and Salem to make my wine.

So how was the drive? Marvelous, mostly.

I grew up in Los Angeles, maybe I'm just used to driving. The hour+ commute each way to my winery home at Grochau Cellars was often just the time I needed to clear my thoughts, listen to my muse, occasionally respond, and generally make sure the countryside and each harvest day and night passed marked.

Willamette River in September from the Wheatland Ferry
The route was mostly the same. Interstate 5 south to Exit 263, then west and a bit north to the Wheatland Ferry, the only car crossing between Newberg and Salem. From the west side of the Ferry, it's just a few minutes up the hill to the winery.

On late nights after the Ferry stopped running, I'd drive back through Dundee and Newberg to Portland. Too busy during the day, late at night the route is quiet and direct, and one September night anyway the stars bright over the Dundee Hills after midnight took my breath away.

A bouquet of fresh hop flowers found on the roadside one morning

Mostly it was a freeway drive without much traffic, then two lane roads through the hop yards of the Willamette Valley, the old school car ferry and my thoughts. And occasionally stopping on the side of the road to finish a conversation before losing cell service.

The sunsets this harvest were exceptional almost every day
I thought I'd spend more nights at the winery, just for convenience. I found I liked getting back home each night, and without proper camping gear (which is changing) I only spent one cold night on the crush pad, under the stars and more thoughts

More on that soon enough.

November 20, 2015

Red ferments, waiting, punchdowns, doing nothing

Last time I wrote about making white wines. Essentially, that means pressing the grapes right away and fermenting the juice on its own. This method keeps the white wines pale in color and free of astringency that the skins and other solids would give to the wine.

With red wines, you ferment the juice in contact with the grape skins, pulp, seeds, maybe even the stems depending on your preference. The point is to extract lots of things from the grape solids to provide color, flavor and texture to the red wine. Only after fermentation is done do we separate the new red wine from the grape solids.

A fermenter bin full of destemmed Pinot Noir grapes

I'm not sure how to describe my wine making methods other than to say I take a simple approach. I don't add yeast, nor do I add any yeast foods, texture enhancers, and whatever else you can find in the winery supply catalogs. I don't cook that way and I don't think the best wines are made with the intention of totally controlling the outcome.

This harvest, fruit quality was exceptional, meaning there was so little rot or other issues in the grapes that you knew right away on each harvest day that things were going to go well. Think of the nicest fish you've ever cooked - perfectly fresh, like a dream, so you know all you need to do is prepare it simply and the meal couldn't be better.

Making wine is no different. Not every lot of grapes may have the integrity for such a simple approach. Rainy years are particularly difficult as molds and other things can start growing in the grape clusters, potentially hurting the quality of the wine. In 2015, the story of the harvest for me was a consistency of fruit quality from every site I work with so that, as usual, nothing really had to be done.

Pigeage or foot treading the gapes for gentle extraction the old fashioned way.

What does that mean? Fruit is sorted and destemmed (in most cases) into well cleaned fermenter bins. The next day I will do one pump over, or remontage, where I pump the grape juice from the bottom of the vat and spray it gently over the surface to mix and aerate things, much as you are adding oxygen to bread dough in the kneading process. That oxygen feeds the yeast to promote a strong native fermentation.

Then I do nothing. For days.

Ok, I wait, and of course I check on things each day, take temperatures, smell, generally assess how things are going. But I don't punch down the grape skins, mixing things in the fermenter. Instead I'm waiting for fermentation on the surface to build to a point where carbon dioxide production from that activity is strong enough to really make you notice.
The view as I punch down a fermenter of Pinot Noir

Only then do I punch down the fermenter for the first time. In some harvests that can take up to 10 days of waiting. This year, fermentations took off after 5 or 6 days, most likely because even with our cooler than expected September weather, ambient temperatures were higher than you'd see in a normal year of harvesting in early October. Even slightly warmer temps means slightly faster starts to fermentation, one of the many little attributes of each vintage.

Before anyone worries - what, fast fermentations? That sounds bad! - let's not get ahead of ourselves. I'm saying that my natural fermentations run on their own schedules each year, and this year things started a bit more quickly than usual. However, the most significant difference in my red wine making this year compared to prior years is that fermentations lasted longer than usual.

As fermentation continues, I will punch down (mix) the fermenters only once a day, and then not even every day. Wine making school will tell you this will ruin a wine. Without enough mixing, vinegar bacteria or other issues will take hold. My experience is different, and I've found that punching down only a handful of times over the entire fermentation period allows the delicate texture of the wine to come together. Think of lace - work it too much and it tears. Treat it gently and you preserve a delicate, beautiful integrity that means everything.

Close up of the foamy goodness of native yeast fermentation of Pinot Noir.

Some years, even if fermentation takes 10 days to start, after another 10 days the wine is dry (finished fermenting) and the fermenter is ready to drain and press. But this year, even with quicker starts to fermentation, nothing fermented too fast and many of my fermenters took 24 and up to 28 days from harvest to be ready to drain and press.

The dark, already pretty clear color of free run Pinot Noir.
That extra contact time with the grape solids often gives a wine more savory, complex flavors and aromas beyond fresh fruit qualities. The potential downside of longer "skin contact" could be increased tannin, perhaps even bitterness, and perhaps losing too much freshness. It's a balancing act, but with warm summer and perfectly healthy fruit, I found that the added skin contact time for the new wines helped draw out a vinuos quality in favor of loads of fresh, dense fruit. Some of that is good, too much is not really wine but fruit juice.

By contrast, the lighter colored, murky press wine that needs settling.
As usual, when draining a fermenter and pressing the grape solids, I let the new wine settle for a couple of days before filling barrels. The goal is to allow a good bit of the suspended solids to settle out, so that there's some but not too much lees (sediment) in the barrels as the wines age.

November 05, 2015

Pressing white grapes

With red grapes, the basic process for making wine is fermenting the grape skins, pulp, seeds, maybe stems and of course the grape juice all together. Only when fermentation is done do you load the press with the grape solids and press out the wine.

Old vine 108 clone Chardonnay from Namaste Vineyard
With white grapes, things are easier and more difficult. Easier in that you typically press the grapes right away to get just the juice – no pulp or seeds or skins – and ferment the juice in tanks or barrels. There are no daily punch downs as with making red wine.

But it's harder to press unfermented fruit. Grapes are pulpy and don't want to give up their juice too easily. Grapes are also sticky and attract lots of bees, so loading the press is a little more dangerous if you don't want to get stung.

Loading Pinot Blanc into the press by hand, one shovel load at a time

This year I worked with Chardonnay from three different vineyards and Pinot Blanc from a single site. Having a small press at the new winery – something we will likely change in the years ahead – meant loading the press several times. By hand, one shovel full of grapes at a time for literally tons of fruit. Forget crossfit, this is body by harvest, good honest work that gives you time to think.

The beautiful inside of a well cleaned, several years old French oak barrel for white wine

As with my red wines, I like to let the freshly pressed white juice settle to a few days before filling barrels. This process allows the gross lees, or sediment, to settle out so the white juice is more pure for its fermentation. Fermentation in always native with my white and red wines, meaning no yeasts added, fermentation happening only with yeasts on the grapes and in the air. After fermentation, the wine stays on the sediment in the barrels – mostly yeast cells, what we call the fine lees – to age and gain richness.

Pulling a sample of fermenting Chardonnay from a barrel

This year the Pinot Blanc fermented dry – no sugar remaining – in just a few weeks, which was fairly quick. The Chardonnays have taken longer, with one barrel just about dry, a few others nearing the end of fermentation, and two barrels still with a few percent of sugar nearly two months after picking. Some producers worry about slow fermenting whites but I like the longer ferment, provided things continue to move.

The yeasty glow of fermenting white wine in barrel
While harvest is now done, the one bit of harvest work that continues is keeping my eye on those Chardonnay barrels, to chart their progress, taste as things go to make sure nothing funny is happening, and wait for fermentation to finish on its own. Sometimes it can take until the following spring, which is fine.

This sample of Chardonnay is nearing the end of fermentation

In life I think the longer the cure, the stronger the bond. I don't mind waiting, though I'll keep checking in to see how things progress. And because I love the perfume of new (and old) wine. 

October 30, 2015

First fruit

Freshly picked Pinot Noir vines at Armstrong Vineyard on Ribbon Ridge
Harvest 2015 began on Saturday morning, September 5, at our site on Ribbon Ridge, Armstrong Vineyard, with cool and dry weather more typical of late September when I'd normally expect to start picking grapes.

This cool end of season weather was key to the wine quality this year. Had we seen normal early September weather, in the 80s up to the '90s, things could have been grim. Grapes racing to ripeness, dehydrating and losing elegance and grace.

Instead, we had perfect picking conditions and fruit got to the winery nice and cold, something I never expected with a year this early.

Please tell me that's all there is!! ;-)
This year I upped production from Armstrong, but I definitely had to take a deep breath seeing 20 quarter ton bins of fruit loaded on the trailer. Five tons of fruit day one? That's almost more than I made in the entire vintage of 2010, admittedly only my second year when I worked with just two vineyards. Still.

Whole cluster Pinot Noir from Armstrong Vineyard

With more fruit this year, I experimented with a heavy proportion of whole clusters in one fermenter. That means sorting the fruit as usual, but bypassing the destemmer to allow the intact grape clusters into the fermenter. I typically destem the grapes, but I like the effect stems can have on wine texturally and aromatically. We'll see how this one turns out.

Happy guy in the driver's seat on the fork lift, for hours
Harvest day 1 turned out to be a pretty typical "fruit" day. Get up early, get out to the vineyard to oversee the pick, then get to the winery to get ready to process fruit before the grower trucks it over. Then hours of processing the fruit, with me on the fork lift driving as carefully as possible in some tight winery spaces. Then cleaning up, almost endlessly, and taking initial numbers of sugar, acid and temperature for each new fermenter.

This day we filled 5 fermenters, and once things were all done, around 10pm, I turned the lights off, locked the doors, drove home and thought about doing it all over again tomorrow with the first pick at Crowley Station.

A bit of interplanted Chardonnay in with the Crowley Station Vineyard Pinot Noir
So day 2 of harvest, down to Crowley Station early in the morning, loading a rental truck and driving the fruit myself up to the winery. This first pick at Crowley Station was the west block, a mix of clones plus a little Chardonnay that we co-fermented with the Pinot just for fun. Really just about 1% of the fruit was Chard, we'll see if we can pick out any uniqueness it may have added.

The rest of Crowley Station we held off picking for another week and a half. So this was a light fruit day, just 1.5 tons, but as you go through harvest you have the newest fruit to deal with but also all the prior fruit in various stages of fermentation. It starts to add up quickly.

Meanwhile there was planning for day 3, which would bring the first white grapes, Chardonnay from Methven in the Amity Hills. More on that and the rest of harvest next time...

October 25, 2015

Harvest 2015: Introduction

Eola Hills harvest sunset, looking to the Van Duzer gap in the Coast Range
I learned it again this year, after the earliest and hottest Willamette Valley summer in memory, the same lesson of every season, even the coldest, latest harvest on record a few years ago and every year since.

Yes, always. 

Somehow, against all seeming odds, the grape harvest always works out. I learn it, believe it, then apparently have to learn it again each year. 

I don't mean to invite a true agricultural disaster. Perhaps in some year to come the crop will truly fail. But would we not continue on regardless? Yes, future unconditional tense.

Things during the year aren't always so clear. All anyone could talk about this year was the heat, how we had no winter, how spring came earlier than ever and would we be harvesting raisins in August?

The truth is always something a little different.

I think certain events this year help explain the wines I have resting in the cellar after we indeed had the earlier harvest I've heard of in Oregon (maybe '92 was earlier?). 

I'm amazed that no lot of grapes came in with higher sugars than I'd like. None came in without the acidity I desire. And everything tasted ripe or frankly ripe enough. Think of medium rare meat, that's how I like my ripeness.

The summer of 2014 was hot and gave the earliest harvest I'd seen. I started picking on September 13 last year. Then fall hit hard and winter even came briefly with some sneaky cold nights in late November and December. We did have winter, though it was short.

Rains didn't translate into mountain snow, and when January arrived with March-like weather, local ski slopes were bare and growers were quick to prune in anticipation of a very early budbreak.

Budbreak in mid-March 2015 in my rows at Zenith Vineyard 
Sure enough the vines woke from their winter naps in mid-March, a full month earlier than normal. Then flowering, when the grapes set on the vine, happened a month early in May. Color change in the red grapes, or veraison, in July instead of August. 

Everything was happening early, but would the critical event happen, again any prediction? Would fall come early as well so we could pick cold fruit that ripened slowly at the end of the season?

Incredibly, that's what happened. Around August 28, it's like the summer switch flipped to fall. Sure we had some warm days in September, but only after unusually cool weather around Labor Day that set a fall tone for the rest of the season.

Harvest began a full eight days earlier than last year, on September 5 with approximately 5 tons of Pinot Noir from Armstrong Vineyard on Ribbon Ridge. 

How did all the fruit turn out? How did everything ferment? And how was it largely working on my own making 23 tons worth of wine, full time, no longer balancing a day job?

Stay tuned. I promise to continue, it's definitely worth it.

August 16, 2015

Provence, 1970 and Bordeaux

Earlier this summer I enjoyed the page-turning Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr. It's a lovely culinary read about many things, in part the changing culinary trends of the time that brought something of a sunset of a generation, an era.

Published two years ago, the book details the author's grandmother M.F.K. Fisher and her chef/author/media star colleagues including Julia Child, Richard Olney and James Beard. The group - a mix of friends, acquaintances and strangers - meet up in Provence in late 1970, cooking, drinking wine and generally digging into the essentials of life, pleasure, insecurity and the meaning of our lives, our work and love.

The turning point hinges on the culinary movement away from more fussy, classical preparations in the kitchen to the more simple techniques and focus on local, seasonal ingredients. Olney represents the new wave, and M.F. and Julia more the old school, even as Julia is revolutionizing food by bringing old school French cooking to the world via a widely viewed television program.

The old school recognizes things are changing, but they still want to do things their way. As M.F. puts it in a letter to Julia Child, "One reason we are friends is that we both understand the acceptance of NOW."

The book contains several recountings of elaborate meals and menus, with impeccable wines usually selected by Julia's enophile husband Paul. As with the times, most choices were French and Bordeaux at that. How the wine world has changed.

But reading the menus, I thought to open a wine of similar age to the 1962s and such they were enjoying. So the 2006 Ch. Olivier from Graves, a producer I first came upon very early in my wine interest with a highly reviewed new release at the time, the 1989.

I remember that '89 was pretty good older school Bordeaux red, but this 2006 was everything that's unfortunate about modern Bordeaux. Where the old school approach was redder, translucent and more delicate, the new school is maximum extraction, with dark colors, thick textures and dense flavors. At nine years old, this wine was all that but hollow in the middle and rough throughout, just overworked, like it's trying to hard to be something SPECIAL and isn't even charming. Which wine simply must be.

Of course in the book the wines are always lovely. Perhaps I'm too critical, Or perhaps not. The characters all had strong opinions and I'm sure they argued about the wines. I finished Provence, 1970 and exhaled, thinking what I would give for just one dinner with that group, just to be there. The book is as good as we'll get for now.

June 19, 2015

At last, it's time - full time

Nearly sixteen years after I first volunteered in a commercial winery, ten years after seriously committing myself to an apprenticeship in wine, and six years since I founded my winery, Vincent Wine Company, I am delighted to say that today, June 19, 2015, I am quitting my day job in higher education and entering the wine business full time.

It has been a long time coming, it's taken a lot of patience at times, but it is finally here. Dreams do come true.

Don't get me wrong, what I did today in resigning my position as Director of Professional Development at a local university was difficult for me. I came to my higher education career fifteen years ago, after several years in various editorial positions in book and periodical publishing.

I am passionate about helping people learn and grow, be it from classroom learning or simply reading on one's own. In this career, my work has been largely to identify what people need to know to help them in their professional lives, then to find the right people and work with them to create the experiences the audience needs.

I'll miss that work. But I won't miss it nearly as much as I'm looking forward to my future in wine. Let's not even get into university politics and bureaucracy. I will not miss that.

I've heard it again and again in my years in wine - don't quit your day job. And I didn't, I took that advice seriously. My one overarching goal, beyond making great wine, was to accomplish enough each year to continue my quest to make great wine. You know, sell the wine and you get to make more.

So far, so good. But there's only so far you can take things as a side project, no matter how large a side project it's become. And there's definitely stigma in making wine while still working outside of wine, as if you can't be that serious about the wine if you're not full time, and you certainly can't be too serious about your day job if you have this side passion.

My life has been about making these two worlds fit together. Sometimes it was painful to hear people tell me I must not like what I do for "work," or I must be cutting corners on the wine I make, simply because they couldn't accept the whole picture of my life.

But the truth is, that dichotomy exists and sometimes has been terribly difficult. I'm very happy to let it go.

Before you get worried and say, what if it doesn't work? It might not. But I'm six years in, things have gone well, even better than I could have expected (especially knowing what I know now). At this point, my best business option is to immerse myself more fully into wine. It's not a lark, it's not numbers on a page, it's a real business with a track record and, like a child, it demands more attention.

The good news is that I don't have to leave behind my passion for learning and reading. One opportunity I see in my wine business, of course beyond making the best wine I possibly can, is to create opportunities for people to learn and grow in their own wine knowledge. I'm not thinking of some kind of hospitality center that many wineries provide. Instead it's something more personal and intimate.

We'll see how all that shakes out, but for now it feels great to seize this dream fully, after a long wait, after a lot of difficult work.

It's finally here. I can't wait. And I know the work's only just begun.

May 03, 2015

Five years

My first official vintage. (photo courtesy of M. McCall)
Cue on of my favorite David Bowie songs.

Today is an important day for me, five years almost to the minute when an unexpected email came to me. It lead to the first order of Vincent Wine Company wine, a case of my 2009 Vincent Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills, my first vintage.

I have an uncanny mind for remembering dates and events. (I'm inversely terrible at remembering people's names or the plots of movies, don't ask why.) I often can't help but think what happened on a given day one year ago, 10 years ago.

It's even true of entire years, and wine plays into this when I think of 1982, the year I learned to surf, the year of great wines in Bordeaux and an El Nino winter in my native California that was great for the waves but lousy for the grapes. These connections in my personal history and matters of public record fascinate me.

It's funny that the one time recently when things totally slipped my mind was the 10 year anniversary of this site early this year. It just slid by unmarked at the exact moment.

That's not happening today. Perhaps I always knew that anyone could start a blog, which I did, and never doubting that it could happen and continue to happen if I just kept writing, maybe it all didn't make the ten year mark so significant.

But someone emailing me, totally out of the blue, that became an order for a case of my wine? That happening was always in doubt, never expected, and certainly nothing I could simply do myself or declare and make it be so as with this blog. That makes it so much more meaningful to me.

I love making wine. It's an indulgence though as I've written here previously it's also very necessary, it's what I do, even at the start of war or when my father called me with his terminal diagnosis. It's just who I am and how I've come to try to express how I feel about things.

I just can't keep making wine if no one wants in, so that email meant the start of something that continues to this day and I hope never goes away. Fire needs air, spring needs the winter, and wine making needs a person wanting in. Several in fact, but it had to begin with one.

That reality was and remains the scariest part of this whole winery business thing. What if no one still wanted in? How would I continue being able to do what I do, be who I think I am, at least this (major) part of me?

So, thank you. That email five years ago today, May 3, 2010, means everything to me. It brought this dream to life.

Though this business isn't without its quirks. As it turns out, that wine was never delivered, that order never finalized. I've learned to sell all your wine, you actually have to sell more than all your wine because things fall though or get delayed, orders get changed. It's tough sometimes.

But no matter, I still have a case of that wine in my little library, and it's still drinking lovely and should for several more years. There's no rush on this bottle if you still have one (nice to hear a great report recently on it from a CA customer).

Like good wine, it needs time. And to twist my mom's favorite Wizard of Id cartoon playing on the old Orson Wells line about selling no wine before its time, time's not up. I think it's only just beginning.

April 16, 2015

Shadows in the Vineyard, by Maximillian Potter

Sometimes the most unlikely catalyst serves to open doors of new understanding. So it is for me with the book Shadows in the Vineyard from writer Maximilian Potter.

I posted on Twitter a few weeks ago when I started the book, a little nervous seeing a first paragraph that reads so over the top and frankly sappy that I nearly put the whole thing down.

Somehow the book grew on me. Perhaps the subject matter is simply that interesting to me. I kept finding pieces of the narrative that connected with me. And Potter, even with his heavy prose, really seems to have captured, and been captured by, the profound magic of Burgundy. I believe in that.

The story itself makes for a fun read. A plot to poison the finest vineyard of the greatest domaine in Burgundy is discovered and ultimately foiled (spoiler alert, though not really).

Add to that a broad brush of French Revolution history as well as fascinating details of the monks a thousand years ago who cultivated the vineyards and lieux dits of the Cote d'Or, much as we know them today.

I found it interesting to learn that the scourge phylloxera were originally called “la nouvelle maladie de la vigne.” A new malady, to put it mildly.

I knew that the Benedictine monks who cultivated the Cote d'Or followed a particularly strict life, but didn't know their discipline was what St. Benedict termed "The Rule." I suppose we all must have rules.

It's understandable. Potter's hardly alone in revering M. de. Villaine, a legend, the general manager of one of wine's crown jewels and apparently quite a well mannered guy. What's not to like there? He's also proprietor with his wife Pamela of their own estate, Dom. A. et P. de Villaine in Bouzeron, producing of lovely, pure wines from the Côte Chalonnaise. I personally love these wines, and not only because I can still afford them.

Then there are various passages in the book that simply struck me well when I found them. On p. 85, a bit on Bouzeron had me reflecting on moving my own wine production out of Portland, perhaps allowing for a similar positive distance between work and home as that of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Vosne and home estate in Bouzeron.
Bouzeron’s simplicity was one of the things that had drawn Monsieur Aubert de Villaine to the village five decades earlier. Its simplicity and its distance from Vosne and the Domaine. Monsieur de Villaine believed it was important for him to have a life removed from the Domaine. The drive was sometimes a nuisance, but it provided both a real and a psychological buffer, enabling him to drive into and away from the world of the Domaine. Plus, Bouzeron had splendid if underrated vineyards of its own, wholly unlike those in Vosne-Romanee.
Then on the next page, Potter suggests something of de Villaine that I think about a lot in my own work with the terroir of the northern Willamette Valley.
In Bouzeron there were no expectations. He would be free to discover the terroir in his own way. There were no pressures other than those he chose to impose on himself.
The most lasting parts for me touch on the magic of Burgundy, the spiritual work of farming grapes and vinifying wine, particularly the Pinot Noir. This work is very difficult, stressful, not simply romantic by any stretch. But it is special, important work because of magic, in Burgundy and elsewhere.

Of Jean-Charles Cuvelier, a manager at the Domaine:
[H]e continued to believe in magic. That’s part of what he loved about the Domaine. In every vintage, in every bottle there was magic. There was hope. There was rebirth. The magic of the Domaine, the magic of the family he had there, is what enabled him to get through Annick’s long bout with cancer and then begin his life without her.
Quoting Francois Millet of Comte de Vogue, another top Burgundy producer, after the poisoning scheme at the Domaine was discovered:
Burgundy is a place that has been and must be free of such evil so that man can focus on the poetry of nature that God has given us, and we can focus on our responsibility to honor that.
And then quoting Pierre de Benoist, nephew of the Grand Monsieur and maker of A. et P. de Villaine wines in Bouzeron:
People say that wine is grapes in a glass, but I have a different view. The grapes are gone. They are no more. What’s left are the juices, the souls of the grapes, the ghosts of the grapes. These souls, these ghosts, these are what we drink; their spirit infuses our own.
These sentiments may seem overly romantic, but they are part of this life, even here in Oregon. There is a much deeper purpose in this work than commercial success.

Potter concludes with an image of a sunset in Vosne, in the heart of the Cote d'Or
It was the sort of light that left you with no choice but to have faith, to believe.
I'm struck how growing grapes and making wine almost require this sentiment. This work can be full of anxiety. A man wants some reassurance, some hope. He needs it. And I enjoyed reading that Potter gets that.

April 06, 2015

Actual Texas wine from Duchman Family Winery

I wrote again last week about Texas wine that's not really Texas wine.

So on my recent visit to the hill country around Austin, it was a pleasure to find some Texas producers that are loud and proud about working with 100% Texas grapes.

(To be clear, I'm fine if you want to work with out of state grapes. Oregonians do it all the time. You just need to be up front about it.)

One label I noticed on a visit to a pretty good grocery store was Duchman Family. They're clear about what's in the bottle, even if the Texas grapes mostly come from the High Plains AVA, 400 miles away in the Texas panhandle.

I didn't know that at the time, but I wanted real Texas wine and I was attracted to a producer featuring the likes of Trebbiano, Vermentino, and Sangiovese instead of inappropriate staples like Cabernet and Chardonnay.

Too bad this grocery didn't have their Aglianico, Montepulciano or Tempranillo, who knew Texas wines could be so adventurous with grapes that work in hot, arid climates. That's not to mention the slighly alkaline sandstones of the High Plains, which sound interesting compared to the acid soils of my Willamette Valley.

I selected the Vermentino (naturally) and the Sangiovese. Both were just under $15 a bottle, so very reasonable for wines made just down the road in Driftwood (incidentally the home of the excellent Salt Lick BBQ, a nice outlet of which you can find at the Austin airport).

How were the wines? Good, especially if you're in Texas looking for some local flavor.

The 2012 Vermentino Bingham Family Vineyard High Plains AVA seemed a bit more like sauvignon blanc in character, with a green herbal streak and melon aromas and flavors. The acidity appeared low, the wine having a plush texture and a sense of fruit sweetness despite being dry table white wine. Though this didn't have the golden qualities of my favorite Vermentinos, I did find this enjoyable to drink over a few days.

The 2012 Sangiovese Reddy Vineyard, also High Plains AVA fruit, had a nice ruby color. It also seemed a little vegetal, with chile pepper and red fruit aromas, some oak spice and soft flavors, the acidity more pronounced on the finish to tie things together nicely. A few of us finished this easily on one night.

On my next visit, I'll definitely look out for things like the other reds and the Trebbiano, and see what if anything they're growing in the striking hill country limestone.

March 26, 2015

Back in the Texas Hill Country

I'm back in the hill country outside Austin, TX, visiting in-laws with my wife and kids. It's been a few years since I was last here and I've been quickly reminded about something I blogged some years back that really annoys me and is worth revisiting.

Lots of "local" Texas wine isn't local wine at all, and it's really hard for consumers to know. If you're in Texas and want wine from Texas-grown grapes, look for the words "For sales in Texas only" on any local winery label, and then make sure you put that wine back on the shelf and keep looking.

"For sale in Texas only" on the label means that wine is not 100% from Texas grapes, if any Texas grapes were used at all.

Obvious, right?

It's true, the hot, often humid climate here is a tough environment to grow vinifera grapes (the mostly Eurpoean varieties we all know and mostly love - cabernet, pinot, chardonnay, etc).

It's also true that many states across our country not named California import some grapes or finished wine from my native golden state. It's just that many times they'll admit it, or at least not have some obscure designation that hides the truth.

I only learned this through my own experiences tasting "Texas" wines over the years. In-laws would proudly pour me "local" wine, but I couldn't believe the wines actually came from here. They simply didn't taste like it, and then the labels didn't say it either but they didn't say anything about where the grapes came from. Just the for sale in Texas only designation, which I researched and found the truth.

How disappointing. It's frankly shameful and, especially in the name of promoting Texas wines by helping local producers quietly fill out their production with non-local wine, it does such a disservice to Texas wine.

People thinking they're drinking the real thing, but really getting duped, that isn't any way to build an industry. I wish Texas would do better here.

Why? Because there is good Texas wine, from actual Texas grapes, grown in the incredibly lovely, rocky limestone soils all over this state that are worth trying.

I'll admit, I haven't tried too much I would recommend in the traditional sense (this is fabulous, you should search it out where ever you are!). And I haven't tried much of anything that I think was fermented on its own and bottled without filtering or other winery fuss. Please help me if I'm missing under the radar producers.

But there are some good, drinkable wines here that taste best to me in the local setting where they have a context that amplifies their uniqueness and makes them especially memorable.

In my Texas wine experience, that means I look for wines mostly from grapes suited to hotter or at least really sunny climates. Think of the grapes of southern France, Italy, even Corsica, rather than the our typical American favorites like the Cabernet of maritime Bordeaux or the Pinot and Chardonnay of cool Burgundy.

Just make sure you read the label carefully. Good producers will tell you they use Texas grapes. I notice some seem to push that, perhaps to fight back at the obfuscation. Good for them.

[edit - so just after posting this, we went out to dinner with a group of locals. One ordered a bottle of "local" Pinot Grigio for the table and got called out nicely by her friends for always supporting Texas wine. Of course, the back label said it's "American" white wine, meaning the grapes could have come from anywhere in the US. That's not exactly clear about the source but at least it begs a question if anyone is paying attention. Of course I didn't say anything, and what was likely cheap Pinot Gris from California was lauded as "Texas wine" and no one cared. And that's the lesson, no one really cares. And so it goes...]

February 18, 2015

New for 2015

Wouldn't you know it, the tenth anniversary of this very site passed two weeks ago unmarked. So it goes. Unlike other parts of my life, this site hasn't been too preoccupied with its milestones.

2015. It's still a relatively new year. What does it have in store? A lot, I expect.

It's been ten years of this site, ten years since my decision to take my apprenticeship in wine more seriously. Ten years of sort of documenting the way, from cryptic harvest reports when I was working for others to my own experiments in the garage that led to my own commercial winery starting in 2009.

Now I'm entering my seventh year as Vincent Wine Company and planning more than 1,000 cases of wine production this fall. That's a lot compared to the old garage days of 25 cases at a time.

Much has changed in ten years, and it seems fitting to make some more changes. Growing production is one, possibly adding more grape varieties is another, even possibly working on a new estate wine project with a grower friend is still another potential change in the air.

Among other things.

More on that soon enough.