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.