Category Archives: Winemaking

Anything having to do with wine production

Crowd Funding a Vineyard? Randall Grahm’s Next Idea

I’ve seen quite a few things put up for crowd funding.  Start ups, charitable causes, and travel have all made their way through the sourcing sites that have made this method of raising capital famous. I even have a friend who designs games through crowd funding.  I’ve always wondered, for obvious reasons, if this type of funding would work for establishing a vineyard or building a winery.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one pondering that.  Last week, on a day most suited to planting and sowing crops according to the Biodynamic planting calendar, Rhone Ranger and maverick winemaker Randall Grahm, announced he was trying just that on indiegogo.com.  I immediately reached out to Grahm to find out more about the project which sounded incredibly unique from the press release.  The idea is to establish a “living lab” on his 400 acre estate Popelouchum near San Juan Bautista on the Central Coast of CA.  The goal of the vineyard would be the breeding of 10,000 new grape varieties on site.  I caught up with Grahm late last week to get some more information on the project.

My first thought on a project this ambitious is how on earth do you decide which varieties get planted to be the parents of the 10,000 new varieties.  That, to my viticulturist’s eye, would be the most critical of choices which may decide the success or failure of such a project.  Grahm states they are “still working out the theoretical basis for the selection of ‘worthy parents’, but in the interim we’re looking at collecting data on which varieties (or clones thereof) seem to be particularly successful on our site – as far as vine health, flavor, drought tolerance, potential alcohol/acid balance and other criteria.”  He also mentioned working with Dr. Andy Walker of UC Davis to select from his recent breeding results some of which are 97% Vitis vinifera and may offer the best of all worlds from native disease resistance to European variety wine quality.  At the moment, it seems 100% natives (such as V. berlandiari) are being considered for rootstocks but not for further crossings with the chosen vinifera stocks.  Other scientists involved in the project are Dr. José Vouillamoz of Switzerland & Dr. Carole Meredith, a well known grape geneticist from UC Davis.

The initial report of the project mentioned that Grahm wanted donators to join him “on a journey of discovery to change the way we grow grapes, to change the way we think about vineyards, to perhaps discover an entirely new vinous expression.” I asked him what he envisioned those changes looking like.  His greatest wish is “complexity in wine arising from a lot of complexity in the genetic material constituting the vineyard itself.”  His “big leap of imagination is that perhaps a big set of maybe not so interesting grapes (in and of themselves) may yield a rather unique and special wine that is far more interesting and complex than a wine grown in the same field from a smaller set of “superior” varieties.”  This would be taking a selection massal theory to an entirely new level and then adding in dry-farming, biodynamics, and something called Bio-char, an activated carbon and compost mixture, to enhance the water holding capacity of the soils as well as the biological diversity of the microbial population in the soils.

Another aspect of the project that was interesting is a “major goal of the endeavor would be to establish a 501(c)3 status which would allow for crowd sharing with the community at large, the findings of the project over  the arc of a decade’s time.” I asked Grahm what did he hope to accomplish as a 501 c3 organization and what happens to the revenue from this project if he did succeed in finding a new grand cru site?  His answer was refreshingly frank and straightforward.

“Obviously, we hope to gain the sponsorship of some larger donors through the deductibility of the donation.  Since the entire intention of the project is to leave a legacy to California viticulture, the furnishing of the new germplasm as “open code,” as well as the sharing of research, as well as the extreme long-term nature of the project, makes this a natural for a 501c(3) organization.  While there will likely someday be some revenue from the sales of wine made from grapes grown on this site, it will certainly take many years to begin to recover the level of investment made.  At some point soon, we will work out a logical way to segregate the for-profit and not-for-profit aspects of the business.”

Finally, I wanted to get to the major question.  Why crowd funding?  Grahm had two main reasons for this; 1) He wanted to get the funding going to establish the site as a 501 c3 business and 2) to start building a community of like-minded people who would be “sincerely interested in this sort of project.  Not just wine-drinking connoisseurs, some of whom might be able to appreciate the audacity of the proposition, but others with a real interest in both sustainability.”  Don’t worry though.  Grahm is not expecting the crowd sourcing to foot the entire bill.  He says he has been and plans on continuing to contribute the “largest percentage of funds for this project” however he does anticipate that the percentage may shift if the non-profit status is granted.  To attract donations, Grahm has put together special packages for all of the donation levels ranging from signed posters, books, and gift baskets to having the new grape varieties named for you or your entire family!

At the time of writing his campaign was 12% funded with 25 days left to go.  At this point it seems off to a strong start!

Challenging Personalities: Exploring the Tough to Grow Varieties*

Over the years, multiple varieties have made the news for one reason or another.  Some, like Gewurztraminer, suffer from difficult to pronounce names.  Others suffer from identity challenges. Chardonnay anyone?  Still more are actually difficult to get to a bottle in once piece without the high involvement of the dedicated growers to make quality wine.  Here are a few of those challenging personalities and how much work needs to be done behind the scenes to create our favorite wines.

Zinfandel – The Indecisive One

Zinfandel has a tough issue.  Is it a rose or is it a serious red?  Is it going to be high alcohol or more moderate? Consumers are often not sure because, inherently, this variety is naturally indecisive. It tends to ripen extremely unevenly so you can have huge spans of ripeness within the same cluster.  This makes picking calls very tough since the Brix can vary so much from cluster to cluster.  Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Company says he has seen clusters with 21 Brix berries and 28 Brix berries. “Part of the trick of growing Zinfandel is that you have to be comfortable with lack of some uniformity.”

Zinfandel also has very tight clusters and thin skins which makes it prone to rot. Twain-Peterson sees issues with this as well.  “The biggest year to year issue I see is the potential for botrytis where the wing lies on top of the main cluster. It ripens a little behind and can be heavy, […] weighing down on the rest of the cluster.” This pressure on the thin skins can cause the berries to burst and introduce botrytis into the clusters. “We battle this by almost always dropping wings on vineyards with higher historical botrytis pressure.”

Pinot Noir – The Drama Queen                                                                         

Pinot Noir has always had a reputation for being tough to grow.  You can look at it wrong and it will rot.  It is prone to diseases, sunburn, berry splitting, and nutrient issues.  Making high quality Pinot Noir is a labor of love but those growers who have taken it on have found ways to make it work for them.  In upstate NY, with high humidity and cool growing conditions Pinot Noir can be especially challenging. Thirsty Owl Wine Company winemaker and vineyard manager, Shawn Kime states “Intense canopy management and a prudent spray program are needed throughout the season long to allow grapes to reach their full potential. Vine balance is also extremely important. This doesn’t just mean not over cropping, but also not under cropping. Under cropped vines have too much vegetative growth and can be more susceptible to berry splitting and late season rot.”

Carneros Grower, Jennifer Thomson of Thomson Vineyards states “genetically many Pinot Noir clones display thin skins, tight clusters and compact berry formation which is a haven for pests and makes Integrated Pest Management essential for growing high quality Pinot Noir.” Grape berry moth, Mealy bug, and a host of other pests love Pinot Noir for its nooks and crannies in which to hide.  She tries to achieve “a balance between location, clone and seasonal characteristics” in order to grow great Pinot Noir.

Petit Verdot – The Goth

Envision walking into a vineyard that is otherwise happy and healthy except for one block which looks yellow, stressed, and spindly. Chances are that block is Petit Verdot.  It has a high propensity for over-cropping and generally doesn’t make very high quality wine unless it looks stressed.  Robert Mondavi Winery Vineyard Manager, Matt Ashby, points to extreme crop thinning to maintain quality.  “It will regularly grow 4 clusters per shoot, and it is a low vigor variety [with] very light pruning weights, so it will be out of balance for high quality wine if it is not thinned aggressively.  For Mondavi this means 1 cluster per shoot.” Another grower who chose to remain anonymous says “It’s a grey variety.  It always looks a little depressed when you are growing it properly.”

Rhone Whites – The Clique

This group of varieties tend to run in packs, meaning they are grown in similar locations, and they all have their own quirks. Viognier is an irregular setting variety which tends to only develop flavors towards the high end of the Brix scale and dump acid like last week’s leftovers anywhere outside of the Northern Rhone.  When asked about the challenges of Viognier, Stuart Bewley of Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino, CA, replied “The variety is prone to get mildew so you have to be on top of your spray or dust program.” Then he said he would not classify Viognier as the most difficult to grow. According to Bewley, Rousanne is far more challenging to grow.  “It shatters at set, it gets both mildew and botrytis and it is very hard to ripen.  It always comes in after Viognier or Marsanne.  Even Picpoul is easier to grow.”  Marsanne tends to set a heavy crop leading Bewley to come back and thin. “We must go through the blocks and cut off 50% to 75% of the fruit to make great wines.  The great thing is that these varieties make wonderful wines if cropped at a low yield.”

There are so many varieties in the world, it would be impossible to name all the difficult ones at one time. Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, and the Rhone Whites tend to have the greatest reputation for being finicky but there will always be growers out there willing to deal with their challenging personalities.

* This article was originally written by me and published on Snooth.com however I also really wanted to share it with my readers that may not have had the chance to see it there. This version is the un-edited original sent to Snooth.com and does not contain any omissions or editing from their version.

My Top Five Winemaking Nightmares

(null)

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.