Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cool Reflections

Foggy mornings on Howell Mountain. There's something incredibly enchanting about this fog that appears on select winter days and summer's warmest mornings. I've grown up on this mountain but it is no less beautiful to witness this shroud of white covering the commotion on the valley floor.

Everything is all covered up in a white blanket, and the peaceful silence at our family estate is even more surreal. In this photo, the morning mist even covers our western view of Diamond Mountain in the Mayacamas Mountains Range, which climbs up to over 2500 feet directly across from us.

As a child, I used to walk down the hillside trying to get in the middle of the fog, but really it's not much different from being above it... you just get colder! But you warm up quickly with the steep climb back to the top of the vineyard.

My mother Delia, was a visionary and chose to plant our vine rows straight downhill in a European design versus the horizontal terracing method. The rows enjoy western exposure that is sun baked in the afternoon, giving us the mature and concentrated Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot for which we are known.

If my family has learned one thing in the past 25 years of farming on Howell Mountain, it's that our vineyard site truly excels in cooler vintages, like 1998 and 2000. Delia says those are the years where the human component of terroir - the decisions of the winemaker - is most important.

We're also very excited about our 2010s and 2011s! The 2010 vintage was featured this weekend at our local trade wine auction, Premiere Napa Valley. I was speaking with my friend and colleague Chris Howell of CAIN on Spring Mountain about the vintage who agreed, "You could not have a better vineyard site for a cooler vintage." Other sites in the Napa Valley fared very well too, which was proven by the excitement at our record-breaking Premiere event. I really enjoyed the 2010 wines I sampled at Premiere, and know that my contemporaries in Napa Valley will continue to produce stellar wines even if Mother Nature throws a little fog and summer rain at us.

Happy Leap Year everyone.


Janet Viader, sales & marketing at VIADER

Monday, February 13, 2012

Understanding the Malolactic Coma

January and February are traditionally considered to be the "slow season" at Clos Pegase, because that is when our production team stops to take a minute to catch their breath after the past Harvest.

That doesn't mean that the cellar is a ghost town. The action shifts from the crushpad in September, to the cellar in November through the beginning of the new year, and inevitably the focus lands in the lab in January and February.

While our winemaking team keeps an eye on the vineyards, glancing at the weather report and its lack of rain (the exact opposite of what we did in October of 2011 when we desperately wished for rain to stay away), they are keeping their other eye on the wines that we are getting ready to bottle, not to mention the wines from 2011 that are in barrel (gotta make sure everything is progressing in the right way, you know!)

In order to get a better idea of what type of things go on in the cellar in the "off-season" I headed in to chat with Winemaker, Richard Sowalsky, where he was full of production-world gems.

This time of year, Richard explained, malolactic fermentations are usually wrapping up in the cellar and the team has been keeping close watch to make sure the acid levels are at the desired levels, achieved via this process. What are the desirable levels? So glad you asked.

Before I tell you, I will admit. I'm a rookie at this production stuff (me: grapes get smashed, juice ferments to alcohol, bottle it up and enjoy. Simple. Now we know why science wasn't my strong suit.) So I wanted to know what this malolactic fermentation stuff was all about.

This fermentation, or more accurately, chemical conversion, is the process during which malic acid is converted to lactic acid. For everyone reading this who feared chemistry was a communications major like me, this is like converting the tart taste of apples to the less tart taste associated with sourdough bread. You introduce some "desirable bacteria" into the wine (or use bacteria naturally on the grape skins or in the winery) and they take care of the conversion, a process which naturally de-acidifies the wine. Without ML (as I call it, so I can sound like I know what I'm taking about after my crash course with the production team) many of the wines would taste sharp- great for wines known for crisp acidity like sauvignon blanc; not so great for cabernet sauvignon or merlot.

This conversion happens with almost all wines in our portfolio, with the exception of our Sauvignon Blanc, Vin Gris Rosé and The Portico. (Our SB is known for its crisp acidity so if we allowed malolactic fermentation to take place, that lovely acidity would be gone. Insert sad face here.)

But back to the science of this winemaking stuff. It was at this point in the conversation with Richard that he drew me a couple of molecules on a piece of paper, complete with carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This was in order to illustrate the ML conversion. I'm going to spare you this part, because it was here was I finally understood what he meant when he referred to this process as the "malolactic coma."

Basically, he went into a whole bunch of science-related topics about bacteria eating carbon chains and stabilizing the wine and I was furiously writing notes down, stopping him every couple of minutes to clarify what he'd just explained.

And I was still confused.

In order to save you from entering into the malolactic coma yourselves (you're welcome for taking one for the team), I'm going to just give your the jest of it, with some history mixed in for good measure:

Wine has three types of acids in it:

  • tartaric, which is pretty stable and acceptable in the wine
  • malic, which is unstable and can be less desirable because of the tart flavors it imparts (unless you're making sauvignon blanc, or another "crisp" varietal)
  • citric, though this is found in very minute amounts.

So, you have these types of acid in the wine and malolactic fermentation is the method that leaves the tartaric acid in tact but more importantly converts the malic acid into lactic acid. During ML, the citric acid also runs the risk of becoming diacetyl. Diacetyl is what causes the super buttery, nutty, oaky flavors in wine that overpower everything else. And if the wrong type of "desirable bacteria" is introduced, diacetyl could be an issue.

Enter the history part of this lesson.

Back in the day, in the Champagne region of France, they were making lovely sparkling wines, but diacetyl (read: buttery, oaky flavors) was overshadowing the delicate bubbles. Some smarty wine scientists then developed a good bacteria that could be used in the ML process that would not leave diacetyl behind as a bi-product and thus, a "desirable bacteria" was born. Then all the winemakers from the Champagne houses rejoiced.

But back to our story.

We choose to mimic the Champagne method of ML because it allows us to emphasize the vineyard fruit and the place from which our grapes come, rather than obscure the quality fruit. Since we age everything in oak barrels, we still have some of the hallmark qualities of varietals (toasty oak, vanilla, etc.) but can better balance those qualities with the fruit characteristics, giving our wines a sense of place while keeping it in balance.

So that, my friends, is the short version of malolactic fermentation, believe it or not.

Trust me, be very glad you didn't get the whole science version. I'm still recovering from the high school chemistry flashbacks induced by those molecule drawings...

-Colleen LeMasters
Clos Pegase Winery

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Barrels and Forklifts

The number one things I fear at the winery (besides ruining an entire vintage of wine) is the forklift.  Just thinking about climbing onto that that thing gives me nightmares.  Yes true, I know all I really need to do is take a class and practice, but its not really the operation that gives me anxiety, it is all the damage I could cause.  This fear was sort of realized during an episode of The Office when the warehouse crew wins the lottery and quits leaving the sales staff in charge of loading up the trucks.  Dwight, being the handy man he is climbs right onto a forklift and promptly ran it right into a wall. 
     You have to leave these things to the professionals and I am a total klutz.  Four broken arms, two broken toes and a few fingers have proven that without a doubt.  Never mind I achieved all of those from activities that most would consider safe. It is almost written in stone that I will cause damage to myself or something expensive.
   Wait... I think I've gone off subject, no one cares about my broken bones.  This was supposed to be about topping barrels, obviously I'm slightly off track.  Generally barrels need to be topped off about once a month.  Wine evaporates through the wood and so we must "top off" the wine so there isn't too much oxygen in contact with the wine, and today I was called up to help.  Usually the assistant winemaker, Jeff, handles everything, but my wine maker Joel is determined to get me more involved (he is obviously unaware of my past medical history).
     Thankfully I will not be the one manning the fork lift, mostly because our winery isn't the most forklift friendly place.  About ten years ago we finished renovating the two car garage into the present day winery.  The 2 arch shaped doors open in the middle (see picture... did you look? Okay back to the story).  The forklift barely clears the center of the doors, a huge opportunity to cause some real property damage. Moving the stacked barrels in and out of the winery is an art form, an art form that Jeff has nearly perfected... nearly. (We have only had to repair the damage a few times.)

Pulling Samples

  All morning Jeff unstacked and moved the barrels out onto the crush pad, as he added sulphur to a few barrels I pulled samples from others, don't I look like I'm having fun!  After pulling samples we tasted through the wines and then it was time to top them off.  We had one partial barrel, so I siphoned from that (my least favorite thing to do) into a bucket. I then dragged the bucket along with me filled a pitcher and from there into the barrels. It might sound really fun, but I assure you after about ten barrels it isn't all that exciting anymore. I do however love that I am exposed to wine making in this position.  It is actually my favorite thing about working here.  It is such a great learning experience to taste the wines through every stage if the process.  Joel Aiken, the wine maker, always makes sure to include me, even if it isn't the most glamorous job.

Rebecca, Chase Cellars.