Category Archives: Musings

Taking a Chance: One of the Best Decisions of my Life.

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Last week, I went to the one place on earth that I can honestly say I found my people. Most of my biographies mention my degree from Cornell which I am exceptionally proud of but what most of them fail to mention is that I would have never been at Cornell if it weren’t for my time in the Horticulture Department at Morrisville. In 2002, I transferred to SUNY Morrisville, now known as Morrisville State College (That’s State University of New York for the outside of New Yorkers). There are moments in one’s life that set the course for the rest of it. My decision to leave South Carolina when all of my friends were staying and travel to a place pretty much alone (my now husband was 45 minutes away) was daunting but it was one of the best decisions of my life.
In the amazing greenhouses, I learned to care for so many plants. I learned that in each tiny cell, there is the ability to create a whole new plant under the right conditions. I learned that I could make a hibiscus bloom three different colors. Most of all, I learned that there were people that were as passionate and excited about plants as I was and accepted me completely for the quirky, anxious, awful dresser, older than my years person that I was at 19. I had a one track mind, completely focused on roses. I wanted to grow pretty things. Flowers that would make people smile and bring color to a house or even a room. I had worked in a floral shop for my first year of college and the fun of floral design is something I have kept my toes in throughout my career. The teachers in the Horticulture Department encouraged me to look beyond that single species. What I found was grapevines, and that love affair has driven my entire career. They encouraged me to go to Cornell. They showed me that I could be more than I had imagined. They became my family and support structure. They cared.
Walking back into Spader Hall last week after being gone for 12 years I was struck at how little it had changed. The smell of soilless potting mix hit me as soon as I opened the door. The greenhouses still has the moist but sweet scent of humidity, damp earth, water on tile floors and the slightly metallic smell that makes up a greenhouse. My professors welcomed me back with open arms and we talked about what had transpired in the past years. I met a student which could have easily been me over a decade ago and I couldn’t help but wonder where life would take her after she was launched out into the world by the catapult of graduation.
I graduated top of my class in 2003 with a 3.99 GPA only kept from being perfect by a 1 credit hour microbiology lab in which I received an A-. No one has ever asked me about my grades and after working my tail off to achieve it I learned sometimes it is better to relax and enjoy life rather than strive for perfection.
Even now, whenever I walk through a vineyard, there are times when my mind is not on the fruit, but it is on my first love, the vines. Bright green leaves facing up to the sun. Tiny tendrils reaching for something to grasp. Shoots unfurling with miniature cloths covered in a fine coat of silken hairs. To me, they are incredible. The vines are the reason I do what I do and I would never have found that love if I hadn’t taken a chance so many years ago to find a place where people understood my passion.

What makes a Winemaker?

Occasionally, when I am asked what I do and I respond, “I’m a winemaker”, I still get asked what it is I do?  I always respond, a little perplexed, “I make wine.”  It seems to be so simple in my mind but perhaps it is not to everyone.  So when this month’s cover of Wine Enthusiast showed up in my inbox, I had to rethink my simplistic definition.

Is this a winemaker?

Now I know what I think the definition of a winemaker is but I’m very interested in hearing your opinions.  What is a winemaker?  Is it different depending on what part of the industry you are in?  What if you are not in the industry? What is that person’s definition of a winemaker?  Does it bring to mind the farmer type walking down foggy vineyard rows at dawn or does it bring to mind celebrities such as Kate Hudson, who graces the cover of Wine Enthusiast this month?  Do you have to actually be pulling hoses or can you be a consultant who drops in 3 days a year to check on things to be a winemaker?

In my opinion, a winemaker is the primary person making the day to day decisions about the winemaking process.  However, I could see how the person who owns a small winery would think of themselves as a winemaker even if they are not trained and working as one.

Please leave a comment to let me know what you think a winemaker is.  I can’t wait to see how you, my readers, define this.

 

My Top Five Winemaking Nightmares

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I recently read this post from wine searcher entitled “Every Winemaker’s Nightmare comes true.”  The “Nightmare” mentioned was that someone slipped into the winery at night and opened the taps on 4 tanks which emptied them down the drain.  Honestly, this is pretty far down on my “nightmare” list.  So that got me thinking, what IS on a winemaker’s nightmare list?

Someone getting hurt

This is my top one.  As a winemaker you rely on your vineyard and cellar team everyday.  While we try to keep everyone as safe as possible there are significant risks in our industry.  My biggest fear is CO2.  We generate a ton of it during fermentations.  It is invisible, heavy, and you don’t see it coming until it hits you.  Anyone who has had the breath knocked out of them from CO2 has a healthy respect for it.  Every time I see a picture somewhere of some person standing over an open top fermentor on a board punching down I cringe.  I cringe just thinking about it.  It’s so stupid and dangerous! Likewise for vineyard and winery equipment.  Tractors and forklifts, occasionally mixed with dimly lit vineyards and parking lots during harvest when everyone is working all the time do not make for ideal conditions.  High Vis colors and vests are a must!  Seriously, this is top of mind for me at all times.  You have to keep your crew safe!

Microbes and Fruit Flies

Brett, Acetobacter, and film yeasts.  Malolactic bacteria in a crisp white.  That weird ropy stuff which is totally disgusting.  The Fruit flies which carry all the nasty things I listed above around the winery.  Now I am not a germ-phobe.  These things exist and that is ok.  My fear lies in not knowing where they are.  If you have contamination (and unless you have a completely new winery that has never seen a grape, you do), knowing where it is located is the first line of defense.  My fear is that there are places of contamination that I don’t know about so each new find is a small victory.  If you know where it is, you can take action to control it.

People Who Don’t Know How to Open Sparkling Wine Bottles Safely

This loosely ties into the safety section above but when you add more than 6 atmospheres of pressure held together by glass and a potential projectile plus a cavalier attitude, things can go south quickly.  Maybe it is because in my days of sparkling winemaking, I had so many bottles blow out their corks rapidly once you loosened the cage.  Maybe it is because when you are bottling sparkling wine from a Charmat tank you occasional find a weak bottle and it explodes sending everyone into a “hit the deck” type reaction.  Magnums were particularly loud and tended to take out the bottles next to them as well leading to explosions in rapid succession.  Safety glasses are a must in that situation. Anyway, back to random people opening sparkling wine bottles.  Most of the time people assume you need to remove the cage from the bottle to open it.  Not so.  As soon as you loosen the cage, you just took the safety off and it should be treated with respect and care.  Always properly chill the wine before opening.  Gently unscrew the wire and loosen the cage with your other hand and preferably a napkin holding the top of the cage.  At that point, you begin to slowly twist the bottom of the bottle while holding the cork AND the cage together at the top.  The cork should slowly push out from the pressure behind it with a quiet “Piffffff” not a loud POP!  Please do not wave around an uncaged bottle with a cork and, for goodness sakes, do not point it at other people or breakable objects!

Cellar Mistakes

Your dream starts like this.  You’ve just completed a masterpiece blend.  You and your colleagues taste it and all agree that it is the best wine that you all have ever been involved in.  The excitement is palpable.  Maybe it’s received one of those super high pre-bottling range scores from a well known critic (95-98 anyone?).  Maybe it’s going to shoot sales into the stratosphere? Maybe it will sell out in 1 week all to your wine club?

Mabye….? Oh wait, your cellar comes to say they actually just blended a key component of your amazing, earth shattering blend, into another variety from a completely different blend, maybe even from a completely different appellation rendering both components next to useless.

Maybe you’ve gotten the blend together successfully but someone in your cellar has been storing the transfer hoses next to a cooling tower that has Bromine in it for sanitation and your entire blend gets contaminated by TBA (similar smell to TCA “cork” taint) on it’s way to the bottling line.

And you wake up and breathe a sigh of relief that it was only a nightmare.

Natural Disasters

Earthquake anyone? This is a double worry with people getting hurt and your winery falling apart all at the same time.  Losing wine? Lowest priority at that point.

Polar Vortex? If you are in New York, as I am now, the winter lows are dropping dangerously close to the bud kill point for your varieties.  This can lead to reduced crops at best and dead vines at worst some of which may not show up until the following summer due to damaged vascular systems which are no longer able to pull enough water to sustain healthy growth.

Hurricanes during harvest? Nothing is guaranteed to turn healthy grapes to mush faster than driving wind and 12 inches of rain over a 48 hour period. Trust me.

Not fun…

Vandalism

Oh yeah that. Occasionally ( and I do mean occasionally) once or twice a year the thought of vandalism crosses my mind but not until after all of the above things have been mentally chewed over multiple times.  Honestly, it’s just wine.  It can be replaced. That’s why you have insurance.  Of all of them, this is probably the easiest to deal with because it is the least likely to happen particularly if you take precautions such as proper security measures.  This is really not very high on my list at all and if I was writing this without the inspiration from the post linked above, I probably wouldn’t have even thought to include it.  Just goes to show how a great headline can grab your attention.