A Great Walk…

hr row
Looking south down a row of Home Ranch Cabernet

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.

berries
Bunches of samples grapes

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.

juice samples
Juice from crushed grapes headed to the Lab

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.

Lineage 17: The Beginning

At the Blending Table

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.

Proportion and Balance; Elegance and Evolution

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.

spinningplatesEach 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.

The Morning Tool Chest

Morning tool chest

First thing, every morning (well, after a cup of coffee!) I take my collection of stuff to the fermenting bins to determine how far along the road to dryness each fermenter is. I draw some wine from under the cap of skins with the siphon (turkey-baster thingy), strain it through the strainer into a beaker. I then use the DMA (a density meter) that records the brix level and temperature of the wine. If we are close to dryness, I’ll bring a sample to the lab to get residual sugar levels that will tell me if that bin is, in fact, dry. This morning one of two Sangiovese bins was.

Of course, I am tasting the samples every day to experience how each wine tastes and feels as flavors and texture jump around a lot at this point in the process. With more than one bin of the same wine, I’ll make ad hoc blends to see how the bins work together, and how they may taste when all fermenters are dry.

Oh, Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Franc is…

  • The 17th most widely planted red grape variety in the world;
  • The 16th biggest red grape in terms of tons crushed in California in 2017;
  • The parent to Cabernet Sauvignon (with Sauvignon Blanc) and Merlot (with Madeleinecabernet franc grapes Noire des Charentes) and Carmenere (with Gros Cabernet);
  • And it accounted for more than $31 million worth of grapes sold in California in 2017.

Using these factoids to describe Cabernet Franc is -as someone said- like trying to reason your way to an orgasm. Cabernet Sauvignon is about structure and prestige; Pinot Noir about the intellect and matching outcome to a specific patch of dirt; Cabernet Franc, in its purest form, is all about sex.

From the silkiness of its texture, to the exoticism of its aromas; from the raciness of its acidity to its emotion-prodding “it-ness,” Cabernet Franc is terrifyingly and wonderfully naughty.

As with all great wines, Cabernet Franc is a product of where it is grown. The classic models – Bordeaux and the Loire – produce radically different wines, and not just because one is a blend and the other pure. Cabernet Franc – again, at its qualitative peak – has a relatively narrow range of temperature in which it has the capacity to produce a pure (again, that word!) expression of the varietal.

The grape seems to flourish in cooler temperatures, not Pinot cold, but certainly not Zinfandel hot. My vision of the making of the wine is the challenge of walking just on the right side of the pyrazine tracks. Unripe, and CF becomes a weedy, thin, acidic shell. Over-ripe, it lolls around lazily on your tongue, bereft of its floral perfume, the exotic notes of a next-day-fire on the beach, and the tantalizing and frankly, coquettish, arrow of acid that ties the best examples together. And like Sauvignon Blanc, its vinous bedmate, Cabernet Franc takes to new oak like a cat to water. All that toasty caramel, tobacco, and coffee obscure the earthy, fruity, sometimes funky, always mystifying eau de CF. I want to make sure that the fruit in our Ghielmetti Estate Vineyard hangs just long enough to synthesize green notes but not so long that it loses the varietally-correct herbal notes that help give it its absolute individuality.

Cab Franc - Loire Valley appellationsI made my first vintage of Cabernet Franc in 2005, but came to be obsessed with the grape’s potential in 2007 with the first vintage of Lineage | Livermore Valley. In addition to the 100% versions I make for my Steven Kent Winery brand, CF is an indispensable part of the blend of my flagship brand. A natural blending partner in Bordeaux, in my wine Cabernet Franc is the id…(hopefully) relentlessly and lubriciously driving flavors and aroma and structure forward to a very long conclusion.

The divinity of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir have been acknowledged already. The “next big red” sobriquet has been variously used on Syrah and Sangiovese in California. But there is reason to believe that it is Cabernet Franc that might be the next great red hope. Should this happen, there will be a great many mind-blowing wines out there to fall head over heels in love with. I can’t hardly wait!

Getting Your Hands Dirty…A Pressing Need

At the Press
Sergio Traverso

We are in the process of pressing off Semillon, our (real!) last white wine of the year. And as I taste free-run juice pouring into the press pan, I think back to a time a few vintages back when I saw Sergio Traverso, one of the legendary Livermore Valley winemakers, up on the catwalk above the 5000-gallon fermentors at the Wente small-lot winery. He was watching one of the guys pump over Syrah (taking the pumped juice from the bottom of the fermentor and spraying it over the top of the cap). I asked what he was doing, and he answered that some times you just need to see the fermentation process at another angle, to gauge progress by taking the lid off. The reference was to lifting the cover of a pot that you are cooking to gauge the food’s done-ness, and in that way, it was completely relevant to what I do on a daily basis.

Semillon Juice in Tank

It is difficult to contemplate the process of winemaking without the reality of getting your hands dirty. In fact, every sense comes into play when you are converting grapes into nectar. Right now, a pump is running, taking the pressed-off wine from the press pan to a tank, and as its frequency changes you realize that the press pan is nearly empty. As you turn the press to mix up the cap, you can tell by the thwack, thwack that the cap is still very wet. I spend part of each morning digging my hands into the cap of fermenting wine to feel the texture of the skins, and as I bring the cap to my nose, another sense is used to determine the “health” of those skins.

As each press fraction comes off the press, I lift the lid on my wine again to see how much more time is required until that dish is “cooked” to perfection. Growth may be an inevitable need in the marketplace that we are in, but I can guarantee that we will never be so big that we can’t lift the lid to make sure the wines we make are the best they can be.

What Makes a Wine Great

What makes a great wine, in my opinion, is a sense of inevitability. Great wines are or become what they are meant to be. They have a sense of cohesion and a sense of propriety and a sense of promise. They do not show all that they will be in every sip, instead, they show you balance now and a hint at their full glory. Great wines are always in the process of becoming…perhaps an apotheosis in the greatest of examples…but always on their way to fulfilling their true natures.

Balance is certainly a great part of it. A great wine by definition is one that on its best day is utterly whole. There isn’t anything more or less you’d ask of it. That wine has the right combination of weight and fruit and acid and tannin and length. All the corners have been sanded and you are left with a perfect sphere. Or to put it another way, like Michaelango’s David, all the excess rock was broken off until perfection was the only thing left. Unlike that statue, though, the state of wine perfection is unbearably transitory. And it is this quality, this briefness, this mutability, this only-of-the-momentness  that is the true glory of wine.

Really good wine gives a pleasure that is thrilling in its physical briefness, and very long in the memories that it creates. A great wine has the power to transfigure Time.