Monday, September 29, 2008

The Crimson Clover Pick

These won't be in any kind of logical order either. We left the house yesterday just after 7AM and returned just after 9PM. Day 2 of 8 that we will work all out. Today we have some clean up to do, logistics to coordinate and then up to Eaglepoint Ranch. Tomorrow morning our Syrah will be picked and we'll be headed back on a 5-6 hours drive to process it. Captions will be above the pictures:

Why is wine expensive? These trucks get 11-12 mpg when loaded with a ton of grapes. Stops at the gas station are frequent.

This is actually the finished must after processing at Big Basin. I was on the sorting table, Stef was watching for any final sorting issues going into bin.

"The Crew". I thought this picture looked a lot like a Rolling Stone cover for some weird band. From left to right; Our friend and volunteer Noelle, Stefania, Millie, Jerry.

The sun came up over the east mountains as we drove to the vineyard.

Truck, bins and tubs ready to get started.

The crew in the field as the sun starts to hit the vineyard. At this point we were about 1/2 done with the pick.

Stefania in the back of the truck with me sorting. We sort into the picking bins, then again into the 1/2 ton bins, then on a sorting table, and finally on a shacking table. Four sorts in all, and this is after going through the vineyard before harvest and removing problem grapes.

The team at work.

Joe at Big Basin gets a weight for us on a bin. We brought in just over 3200 pounds, or about 4 barrels.

Grapes ready to go to the sorting table.

I liked this view, it showed the mountains in the back. This is the Santa Clara Valley AVA, but you can see we're really up in the Santa Cruz Mountains here.

Close up of grapes in the bin. They were very impressive. Ripe flavors, good skins, a very good pick. We're looking forward to a long run in this vineyard.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

80/20 Rule

I've been thinking for some time of writing a series of Blogs on how our business plan evolved from planting 50 vines around the hot tub to making 1200 cases in just 8 years. I haven't really figured out how to put it together, since it's a long twisty series of events that have lead us here. I do know though that we're in the middle of an important transition this year.

In 2005 100% of the grapes we used were purchased grapes. We did use some grapes we had grown on our own, but that wine was made at home and not commercially.

In 2006 95% of the grapes we used were purchased and 5% were grown by us. In 2007 that changed again to 65% purchased and 35% grown by us.

This year we will 'flip' that number. 30% of our grapes will be purchased, 70% will be grown by us. Eventually I believe we will be at 80-90% grown by us, and 10-20% purchased.

New vineyards have been leased, new projects added, and older plantings are either being restored or coming on line. All these factor give us access to more grapes that we have controlled through out the growing season. That's really important, because I think we grow great fruit.

This year sees an important part of that transition continue. From 2005-2007 we used Cabernet Sauvignon from the Uvas Creek Vineyard, which we bought each year. This year a vineyard we've farmed, the Crimson Clover Vineyard, has come on line at 4 years old and is ready to be harvested this morning. Crimson Clover is near Uvas Creek, in the same AVA, and same band of soil, altitude and training. It is however, farmed by us and will replace Uvas Creek this year.

We're off in just 10 minutes to start picking grapes from Crimson Clover.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Random Pictures From the Day.

I'm sure any attempt to sort these out would just lead to more time in front of the computer than I want to spend. We got everything done pretty fast today and made it back by 3:30, well ahead of schedule. Stef is making empanadas right now for the crew tomorrow. We may get a trip in to the gym tonight, but more likely I'll make some pasta and we'll watch football.

First Picture for Neil in New York's daughter. Sophie in the winery. This will be her 4th harvest. The first she had to watch in a little pen as she was just a 8 week old puppy.

If you look real hard you can see Jerry removing netting. They started at 7am and finished about 2PM.

Every bottle of Stefania, has some Stefania labor behind it. Here she is loading 1/2 ton bins in the pick up truck.

I lost. I'm the one who had to jump in the bin this year.

The Nielsen's 17 year old vineyard dog. She just barely makes it outside to check on us and then settles in on the porch.

Stef said I looked like a hippie. We pulled about 200 pounds of Zinfandel from a little backyard vineyard down the street from Crimson Clover. If it turns out ok, it will make its way into the Haut Tubee blend. (That's a brand new $1200 Seguin Moreau barrel in the background)

More for Neil in New York. Wild Turkeys on the road.

And a young doe in a driveway.

Jerry and Estelle's son Axle. Mostly when he comes out with them he plays with the dogs. At Chaine d' Or he swims with Sophie in the pool. He also likes to catch quail and then keeps them as pets. Here he's looking for nests in the vines.

The Day'Ahead

We leave in 15 minutes to start the day. This morning was actually pretty leisurely. I was up at 6:20 and made coffee and brought in the paper. We've worked through the pot and the paper and Stef is getting ready to go now.

Our first stop will be at the Crimson Clover vineyard to drop off bags and boxes to store the bird netting. Jerry has been working there since 7AM. Next we will drive to Chaine d'Or, about 50 miles and load up the two pick up trucks. We're going to try and get everything in one load. Five 1/2 ton bins, and about 60 30lb picking bins. We'll bring those down to Crimson Clover.

Next we'll pick a few hundred pounds of Zinfandel down the street from the Crimson Clover vineyard that will go into the Haut Tubee blend. Than means getting it back to Chaine d'Or for processing. At some point around 3 PM we need to get back to San Jose to pick up a third rental truck for tomorrow.

If all goes well, we should be done by 5PM tonight, although a set back or two could push us back to 8PM.

So much of winemaking is logistics. Getting the right equipment, to the right place, at the right time.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Week Ahead.

Today will be an Office day for Stefania. I'll be at work, we gave Jerry the day off.

Tomorrow, we start going full speed, all out, non stop. We'll be moving bins to the Crimson Clover Vineyard and Jerry and his wife Estelle will be removing the bird netting. Stef and I will try and get all the bins moved in one block with two pick up trucks. We'll also help with the nets before heading off to pick up a third rental truck.

Sunday we pick. Probably about 1 1/2 tons. Normally I'd say 2+, but yields have been low this year. This vineyard is 4 years old, and next year yields will like be around 3 tons. We'll also be picking a little Zinfandel for the Haut Tubee blend.

It will be a busy day, shuttling the Cabernet to Big Basin, and processing it there, then the Zinfandel to Chaine d'Or.

Monday Jerry will clean out all the bins, and Stef and I will do more truck swapping. The rental will go back, and my Dad's truck will go back to him, and we will rent a long bed. Long bed trucks fit two 1/2 ton bins perfectly. Then we drive up to Eaglepoint Ranch. Our pick there is Tuesday, and we drive back to Big Basin. Hopefully things will go well and we should finish by 8PM.

Wednesday we'll sample the Woodruff Family Vineyard, and likely start picking for Pax Mahle on Thursday or Friday. If the numbers look good we'll pick for Hobo Wines on Saturday, and Storrs on Sunday. In all we should bring in 6-8 tons in that first rush. If we get through that I'll likely give everyone Monday the 6th off. I'll return to work, and everyone will rest for a day.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ring, Ring, Beep, Beep.

For our first three releases we had used an efax account to get orders. It worked, was portable, and easy to set up. Last release though I got a number of complaints that faxes did not get through. We also had a couple of bad days around March Madness, when there were huge delays. That combined with a price increase of the efax service made setting up our own machine in the home office.

It also fit with a general direction we've been heading in this summer anticipating Stefania working full time on winery tasks. We plan on bringing in a lot of shipping and doing that ourselves, and Stef has spent a few weeks getting all the accounting in order and taken that over. So, having the orders come in on a live fax machine in our office made sense.

Every morning for the last week our little alarm clock goes off. Ring, Ring, Beep, Beep. The fax machine has started for the day. Usually it's about 6:30, but one morning it was 5:30. Still we don't mind at all. "Woohoo", one more order and we get to keep making wine, is the attitude we have.

One more wave of letters to be released still next week. Stef just walked out the door with the box of them to seal up today. She'll be in the winery doing lab tests and getting mailers ready. Jerry will be hauling barrels to Big Basin, and I'll be at the day job today.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Visitors, Repairs, Offer Letters Update

Today was a fun winery day. We got to head up late afternoon to meet and greet customers from Vermont. Newlywed customers in fact, on the first day of their honeymoon!! Paul walked them thru the vineyard and did the entire winery tour and explanation of things in process. They asked a lot of great questions and had nice things to say about the barrel samples we pulled. I broke a glass as I was demonstrating the bruise line across the tops of my thighs this time of year from moving barrels and other equipment about the winery. Oops.

Before they got there, I had one minor repair to take care of before the next harvest. The wheelbarrow tire was flat. We bought a new one late yesterday afternoon and with some adjusting of parts to make it fit, voila, the wheelbarrow is better than new! Well, the tire is new anyway.

Last quick update before heading back to the Monday night game: the 2nd round of mailers were dropped off at the post office on Saturday. Local folks in California should see them today or tomorrow, the rest of them should arrive in your mailboxes by the end of this week.

If I missed any of the finer points from the day I'm sure Paul will fill in the blanks for me.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

More Harvest Pics.

From our Chardonnay harvest at Chaine d'Or yesterday.

Grapes coming in in the 30 pound picking bins. I prefer to have the crew sort on the vine and in the field rather than handling the grapes again on a sorting table. This crew did a great job as you can see.

There was a tiny bit (2%) of Botrytis, which should give a little peach and pit fruit note to the finished wine.

Grapes enter the press. Once the press is full, we run it on a gentle 2 hour cycle to press all the juice out and transfer it to a chilled tank to settle. This will separate the solids, or 'lees'.

For a few years at Chaine d'Or I had the job of lifting the bins into the crusher. This year though I 'drove'. Making sure that the crusher is working right, running the press and watching after the entire process.

The stems are shooting out of the end of the crusher and the juice and berries are dropping into the press.

We had one MOG emergency. That's 'Matter Other than Grapes". Here a water bottle had been left in a picking bin and gone through the crusher. The bottle shot out the end, here I am watching for the label. I found it and got it out of the must.

And at the end of the day? This is another reason why we had training camp this year. 20 oz bone in Rib Eyes on the grill at the end of a long day.

We'll be back at the winery today. Finishing clean up and getting the wine into the inside tanks to start fermentation. Once it starts going we'll transfer the juice into oak barrels to finish fermentation. We should use about 8 barrels total this year. Two new Claude Gillet barrels, two new Sequin Moreau barrels and 4 neutral french oak barrels.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

'Live' Harvest Update

This is the lower section of the Chardonnay. Amber is working hard harvesting in the background. We brought in just under tow tons of Chardonnay from just over an acre of vines. That's a low yield for the site. We expected yield to drop, we pruned more aggressively to reduce yields and dry farmed the site.

When you get a bottle of 'Stefania', Stefania actually made it! Here she is in the upper section harvesting grapes.

A vine after being picked.

Millie brings up grapes. We pick into 30 pound buckets here and go right into the crusher.

Kathy waving from the crush pad as we got started.

This was Jerry's first time as crew chief. He put a fantastic crew together (including his wife, brother and cousin). They picked clean, sorted grapes in the field, and worked very fast.

Weather was perfect for harvesting. Cool, in the 60's. Overcast and easy to work without heating up the grapes.

Stef's final lab readings where absolutely amazing. 25.5 BRIX, 3.4 pH and a TA of .72 We should be able to make a rich, powerful wine that will still be crisp and well balanced. I think Chardonnay growers all over the world would be jealous of those 'perfect' numbers.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Prep for Chardonnay

We left this morning at 8am to head to Chaine d'Or. Our goal for the day was to prep the crush pad and vineyard for tomorrows harvest. The first step was for Jerry and I to give everything another good cleaning and scrub down, then sterilize with citric acid.

This is Jerry inside the large tank.

Next up was the press. This is a fussy piece of equipment and hard to clean. Both Jerry and I have band-aids on now. It's Italian, and is as fussy as an Italian sports car. Hard to clean, prone to failures, and just generally high maintenance. It doesn't really help that all the buttons are in Italian. We did get it running and checked out though

White wine is a more complex process than red. Here you can see everything ready for hook up. The grapes will drop into the press and the juice will be pumped into the waiting tank. The tank is chilled to 50 degrees so the gross lees will fall out of the juice.

This is as hard and dangerous as it looks. This is one reason we don't like to use volunteers with the Chardonnay harvest. We have to use the forklift to get the crusher in the back of a pick up. It weighs about 900 pounds. Then we have to drive the truck to right over the press and balance everything there. My first job at Chaine d'Or was to be the 'truck and pump' guy. I stood in the bed of the truck dumping the grapes in the crusher, then when it would fill up, I'd pump the juice into the tank.

This is the view from the bottom. The tarp is to keep the stems out of the vat. It gets messy and is noisy. I'll keep everyone away from this area tomorrow.

While Jerry and I fussed with all the equipment, our lab mistress was hard at work getting readings from the Woodruff Family, Arastradero an Cabernet portion of Chaine d'Or vineyards.

Jerry is out now removing netting. I'll join him shortly. The sales rep from Sequin Moreau is dropping off the Chardonnay barrels in about 30 minutes. We'll take a short break for lunch, then finish the day removing secondary clusters from all the Chardonnay before the crew arrives tomorrow.

Count down.

Today I was back at the day job, getting caught up. I really have a great group of managers, they held down the fort just fine while I was off for a few days.

Stef spent the day getting the books in order. We're pretty excited, it looks like we will be cash flow positive in Q3 and Q4. That's huge for us. The first time in 4 years since we officially started. We showed a GAAP profit last year, and will show one this year, but most of that was inventory growth in barrel.

I spent 30 minutes talking with Bradley Brown at Big Basin. Just getting our timing squared away now that all my equipment has shown up there. Our relationship has worked out pretty well over the past two years. I'm using his extra space, just when he's not busy, so in the end his winery stays at full capacity for 10 weeks. That helps a lot if you don't have down time for employees. Just as his bins are starting to empty out and press off, my Cabernet comes in and he's able to keep the crew working.

We've also gotten to do a lot of comparison lots. We use the same grapes on a number of lots. I make some at Chaine d'Or and he makes some at Big Basin, and we get to compare slightly different methods and conditions.

I'm roasting a chicken right now, and sipping a little 2004 Copain Syrah Broken Leg Vineyard. This will probably be the last real down time for 4-5 days.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Opening Day

Last night at the gym was a little hard. After working hard for 4 of the last 5 days, we still shuttled off at 7PM to hit the gym. We hadn't been since Thursday, but had been getting plenty of work done in the winery.

I rode the bike hard for 30 minutes and my legs felt tired. The weight room was where the last few days activity really showed. My body was pretty warn out. Instead of our usual 90-120 minutes, we were in and out in 75 minutes.

I think It's time to officially declare training camp over after 4 weeks. The regular season has started. We'll still be hitting the gym on days we don't work at the winery, but I'll need to change the routine. Less time on hard rides on the bike and strength training with weights. More time on endurance on the treadmill and bike, with light weights to keep muscles in shape.

We also need to change up the diet a little starting tonight. The bumps, scraps and bruises start to get bad now. Stefania is prone to getting bruises, so we'll be eating more spinach, chard, broccoli and bison. Those are all high iron foods that should help with healing.

It's probably a surprise to most people how much effort we're putting into being physically ready for all this. It is necessary though. It's hard work, long days, lots of lifting, and demands you stay sharp. I think we're pretty well prepared.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Some Random Pictures and the Daily Update

The first stop this morning was at Chaine d' Or to pick up barrel racks. Jerry and I set off at 7:30. I checked in on the Haut Tubee, and it's started fermenting. The juice looks extra dark, and the cap needed to be punched down.

Next we were off up Highway 84, to Highway 35, then Highway 9 finally getting to Highway 236. These are all very twisty mountain roads, and it's about 45 minutes from Chaine d'Or to Big Basin Vineyards. We make about half of our wine at Big Basin. Today we started bringing over the barrels and racks we'll need there from Chaine d'Or. Big Basin had already started making some wine and the crew there was cleaning up when we arrived.

We stacked our racks right outside the winery entrance. Bradley Brown is the owner/winemaker and he built the winery out of redwood trees grown and harvested on the property. Upstairs is a yoga studio where his wife teaches. Bradley learned to make wine with John Alban, one of the original Syrah pioneers in California.

We then headed back into San Jose for an appointment with our CPA, a brief lunch, and then back up to the winery to sort out which barrels are going tomorrow to Big Basin. In all a typical harvest day in many ways, about 4 hours in the truck, 1 hour in a meeting, 3 hours moving heavy things and 5 minutes making wine.
The last picture is left over from Saturday. Our lab mistress, Stefania, working TA and pH tests in the little lab at Chaine d' Or.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Stef's Version of the Weekend

The winery weekend started on Friday. We spent the entire day cleaning. Everything. Top to bottom, every nook and cranny. Wiped, washed, disinfected, scrubbed, and cleaned. It was a long day, but worth every minute of elbow grease - the winery sparkled when we left.

Saturday started an hour earlier. At 7:30 Gerardo (Jerry) showed up and got started taking nets off the vines out front. Paul joined him while I printed new labels for the net bags. While they were harvesting and taking care of their work, I was in the winery office emptying out my desk in anticipation of the delivery of the new work station.

The new work station arrived, it was assembled, and off we went to the Ottigurr Vineyard to harvest. By 10a.m. we were loaded up and mobile to the winery with the first batch of grapes.

In years past this first lot would be crushed by foot, but Paul wanted to run everything thru the equipment and make sure we were set for the bigger lots that are due in soon. The clean up took longer than the actual processing time, but it's still good practice.

We sent Kathy and Millie back down the hill to Home Depot for two storage cabinets for the Dry Room and sandwiches. While they were gone, Paul and Jerry started racking the 07's and I did the lab work. I calculated pH and TA numbers for the estate chardonnay and mixed the sulfur solutions needed for racking.

I don't prefer working with sulfur, the fine powder gets in my hair, on my clothes and up my nose. Most annoying of all is the effect it has on my palate for the next day or so. Drinking wine is worthless after a day in the lab - everything tastes like "bottle shock" to me. For anyone that suffers from allergens or similar work dust, I recommend using a neti pot.

Around 1 the sandwiches showed up - and the five of us ate in mini shifts, half of a sandwich at a time while the wine was either on its way in to the tank or back into the barrel. All told I think we sat down for maybe 30 minutes the whole day. Three of us worked the entire day in the Wet Room, two of us spent the day in the Dry Room.

I was completely exhausted by the time we finished putting away the last clean bucket, moved into the new cabinets, and turned off the lights at 4:30.

Normally we'll play with Sophie or Jesse (the vineyard dogs) for a few minutes at a time, or take a break to water the garden (dying tomatoes, sad corn), or even just to rest and get some water in us and catch our breath. Not on Saturday. If we had stopped at all and interrupted the momentum of the tasks at hand the day would have lingered well past 11 hours, and when you're working with heavy equipment, fatigue is almost as dangerous as being drunk.

Thank goodness for football season. We worked all day long again on Sunday, but sitting at a desk printing, signing, folding, and stuffing envelopes isn't exactly strenuous work and can be done perched in front of the tv.

And those are my thoughts on the first weekend of harvest. Cheers.

Sunday Visits.

Sunday morning we got out and visited a couple vineyards that are getting close to harvest. I only took pictures at one though. After visiting the vineyards, we think both are still 10-14 days away from picking. The weather forecast calls for sunny moderate weather for the next few weeks so we're in no hurry now. In some ways it's reminding me of 2005. That year we had a wild ride through the spring and summer, then in mid September, we just went into a holding pattern of sunny, mild weather for weeks.

The challenge with 2005 though was fighting dilute grapes from all the spring rain and summer green growth. This year I think it will be controlling the tannins and intensity from the small concentrated crop. So the pattern is similar, but the grapes are very different.

This photo is of the Crimson Clover vineyard. You get a good sense of the hills that surround this vineyard site

The plants are 4 years old now, and we're expecting about 2 tons from this 1 1/8 acre site.

It takes a lot of work during the year to end up with plants that look this perfect.

The sugars are almost ready in these grapes, but the tannin and flavors are not just ripe yet, it will be a couple more weeks.

Here you can see the grapes we dropped earlier on the ground, returning their nutrients to the soil.