Katharine Hepburn supposedly said that without discipline there is no life. The older I get the more I understand this to be true.
Harvest time in the WineLife necessitates doing certain specific things over and over again in order to achieve a result. A lot of other career choices demand the same thing. You are a baker, and you have the right temperature and humidity in your bakery; you put the right amount of flour and yeast and water and salt in a bowl; you mix it up and put it in an oven set to 350 degrees (not 354); you bake for 12 minutes (not 13); you make great bread. You perform a set of tasks routinely in order to find certain truths. I do what I do when I do because I’m searching for truth too; and because the wine says so.
At this point in WineTime, we bring in fruit that has very specific flavors and textures, a balance of acid and tannin; we put 1.5 tons of crushed fruit in each box. After cold-soaking for 2-5 days, we start punching down the fermenting must. We punch down 3 times per day (to extract flavor, color, and tannin), and each time we punch down, we taste the boxes to make sure that fermentation is proceeding the way it is supposed to. Each time we taste, we write notes about what we are smelling and tasting because fermentation and maceration (even when the juice has become wine, contact with the skins will move the wine structurally, will add and polish tannins) is a continuum. You cannot know how the end product became the end product without going on and marking this daily journey with it; how can you know when to press the wine unless you know how little or big each daily iteration is?
Pressing is like picking. You get only once chance each year to do it. If you are pressing off just to get a fermentor empty then you care only a certain amount about what you are doing. You press when you HAVE TO press, when the wine says so.
After the press, the wine goes into certain, very specific barrels because those specific barrels give very specific qualities to the wine. And you are in barrel only as long as you NEED to be. Because the wine says so.
Is it any wonder that the earliest and best winemakers were from religious orders? They knew a little something about keeping their mouths shut and doing what they were told.
There’s a time to get cute, and a time to just do the work. I am trying to be the best and most truthful winemaker I can be; devotion to the routine helps me to be able to shepherd this magical process (at least as I comprehend it)…and hopefully make a wine that gives the wine lover that WOW we all search for.
Our Home Ranch Vineyard. Take a look at that beautiful dirt! Our estate vineyard was planted in 1996 on top of gravel from a now-extinct river that ran through the Livermore Valley Wine Country for centuries.
The resulting gravel is hundreds of feet deep in this spot. This rock drains exceptionally well, retains heat if it gets cold later in the season, and reflects light up under the canopy, aiding in the ripening of our clone 7 Cabernet Sauvignon. This clone represents 70-80% of all the Cab grown in California. It is also called the Concannon clone which traces its ancestry back to first-growth cuttings that were planted in Livermore in the 1870s.
The Steven Kent Winery makes a single-vineyard wine from this site, and the fruit is also used in a super-Tuscan style blend of Cabernet and Sangiovese called Vincere. At times, it will also be used for the Lineage | Livermore Valley blend.
We changed farming companies before the 2018 harvest, and one consequence of this move was the need for me to do my own fruit sampling.
Sampling is the process of taking berries or bunches of grapes randomly from a block of fruit in order to gauge the ripeness of those grapes. We will do this sampling as we get relatively close to harvest, say, a couple of weeks out. The first result serves as a baseline; all subsequent measures of brix, pH, and TA (for our purpose, total acidity) generally advance toward what ripeness would mean from a numbers standpoint.
For me, though, these numbers are only confirmatory. I’ll only pick fruit if the flavors and textures of the grape match my conception of ready-to-go.
Beyond the specific purpose of determining how far out harvest is, walking our
vineyards frequently keeps me in touch with potential issues in terms of health of the vines and keeps me close to the great beauty of a well-planted and well-maintained vineyard.
Over the course of the next 12 months, we’ll be whittling a redwood down to a finely-sharpened toothpick as Aidan Mirassou, my assistant winemaker, and I move through 85 barrels of 2017 Bordeaux varieties in 12 separate barrel groups to get to the perfect few that will become Lineage 2017.
There are many ways of tackling the complexity inherent in this task, but I want to be sure that in getting to our answer we don’t miss out on the joy and beauty of this most essential thing we do: ultimately, is this wine delicious and does it bring me joy?
As Aidan and I taste through the barrel groups we will be taking a lot of notes, talking a lot about our individual preferences and making a lot of mock blends. One of things that makes blending this way so interesting is that neither one of us tastes the same thing as the other. What may seem thin and lacking in varietal character to Aidan may be overly wooded and too viscous for me. So, in the journey to craft a wine of beauty and tension and complexity, Aidan and I must “battle” our own individual (and sometimes – idiosyncratic) biases to get to a point of agreement, perhaps…but – more importantly – to arrive at a point that most honestly serves the true nature of this particular wine.
When Lineage 2017 is released my profoundest hope is that the wine is not only spectacularly delicious but that it serves as a symbol for the way I want to make wine and live life. Hopefully, it prods and maybe even provokes a little. This wine should transform, if only to a tiny degree. And if we succeed, we will all see wine and winemaking a little bit differently… perhaps, even feel it a little more deeply.
From the proper pronunciation of Pinot Meunier to a workable and acceptable definition of balance, wine can be a really confounding thing…and that’s just for the folks who actually make it. So much of what we ultimately end up doing – from picking decision to press date to final blending is done by feel. I liken this time of year to spinning a ton of plates for as long as possible, running from one to the other to keep it in motion for just a little longer, and ultimately accepting that the “final” decision (the inevitable tumbling of the dish) is the right one.
The elements that I keep going back to, especially when thinking about what my final blends will bloom into, are balance and proportion, elegance and evolution.
From the first major decision: when to pick the grapes, to the point of putting the wine into bottle, I am thinking about how to make wines that are of a piece. I believe the best wines are the most beautiful and elegant wines. For me, elegance means proportionality and cohesion. It means that there are no winemaking flourishes that are made simply because I can.
Each wine I make must express the point that it is exactly what it is supposed to be – a reflection of a place and time and philosophy that gives room for the wine to BE the wine. While it is true that winemakers MAKE wine, I want to be deft in my decision making, striving to make sure that the choices I make are (first) those that – Hippocratically – do no harm and that are made in service of the most beautiful expression of each vineyard and variety I work with. Great wines are those that effortlessly display their complexity, potential for positive growth and – in the end – a living, beating heart.