There are many factors that conspire to make California almost uniquely susceptible to fire. In the last several years, fires in Sonoma and Napa counties have severely affected the quality of the fruit coming off vineyards. The Livermore Valley has been lucky in that it isn’t surrounded by a lot of trees and inaccessible areas where fires start and thrive. 2020, in addition to being the year of COVID, racial unrest, and a damaged economy, has added nearby blazes to the menu.
The SCU Complex fire was started on August 16th by rare dry lightning strikes and has burned more than 360,000 acres as of this writing. It is one of the largest fires in California history sending plumes of noxious smoke that blanket much of the East Bay.
Smoke in the sky will diffuse UV radiation, sending less energy down to the leaves of plants, and lengthening the amount of time it takes to get fruit ripe. This occurred in 2017 and was one of the factors that contributed to overall quality. It is the smoke, though, that can cause irreversibly negative effects on grapes. There are a number of by-products of wood smoke that can be absorbed into grapes and cause acrid, intensely smoky flavors that ruin the vintage. The amount of smoke it takes to get to this point isn’t quantifiable, so we will end up doing some small ferments to see how much, if any, smoke taint is present in the wine.
Much of winemaking is about hope…hope for a good harvest, hope for few mistakes in the cellar, hope for Mother Nature’s cooperation. We are hoping that Hope will be enough to rescue 2020.
The senses are the winemaker’s greatest tools. The ability to smell and taste and remember what you’ve experienced from barrel to barrel are crucial in putting together consistent wines.
Outside influences, like Brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast that lives everywhere in the winery, can get in the way of the true expression of fruit and vineyard and the intent of the winemaker. Being clean in the cellar is the easiest way to keep Brett and other malign bugs at bay.
Between every barrel, we spray a 70% ethanol solution on the thief, that metal tube in the accompanying photo, that we use to steal a little wine out of each barrel.
We draw wine out into our glass, smell, taste, make notes, then sterilize the thief before it goes into the next barrel. Think of it as the prophylactic use of prophylactics…a condom for our Cabernet.
Lineage is our most complicated blend; it can comprise five different grapes (the classic Bordeaux varieties) and Cabernet Sauvignon from more than 10 blocks on six vineyards. Aidan, Beth, and I start each year with nearly 150 barrels of wine, and from these, we carve aspirants away until we are down to the very best.
The process starts in a macro way. We taste through barrels from each lot of wine (a lot is created from individual blocks of a variety from a specific site) first to determine if it has the requisite quality to potentially be part of
the blend. Once we have our lots chosen, we then taste through individual barrels from those lots blind to further refine quality. It is the last few barrels that are always the hardest to say No to.
With the 2018 Lineage, our winemaking team has reached a point where we are close to “finalizing” the percentages of each variety in the blend. Finalizing is a somewhat fraught term in that we reserve the right to change the blend up until the point the wine goes into the bottle. At this point, our confidence levels in the quality of the blend and its quality vis á vis previous vintages of Lineage is extremely high. The photo below shows what my butcher paper workspace looks like after a morning of tasting and making blends. We will use this blend base (number F’) and tweak small percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot until we know the blend is as good as it can be.
I’ve written in the past about the idea that making a blend is much like the Michelangelo idea of sculpture…you start with a hunk of rock and keep peeling away material until the statue reveals itself fully formed. Wines are like that too. We take away mostly, getting closer to that early conception of beauty until finally, the “perfect” wine is there in its glory. Blending is one of those unreversible decisions, like the picking date and the press date, each winemaker faces each year. Ultimately, you will find yourself out of time, where what goes in will stay in, and what you may have wanted to go in will be chalked up to a learning curve.
With all of thinking about blends and all of the mocks blends we make, the truth is that sometimes, as with the 2018 Lineage, it is the wine you leave out of your finest wine that elevates it from very good to superlative.