Monday, October 3, 2011

Winemaking 101: wineries vs. vineyards & sampling sugar levels

crushing wine grapes for the sugar tests
It’s that time again…
When Em came up with the idea of starting this blog, it was to write about each of our passions, Wine and Food (I know, I know, real original…), and to write and share our adventures in the East Bay. Theoretically we were each going to contribute.
But since then I’ve been on the receiving end of countless amazing meals (and I’ve done my best to wreck a couple here and there) but I haven’t done much contributing. With any luck, that’s about to change because HARVEST is upon us.  Upon entering the industry, I realized just how unclear the winemaking process could be. ButterDate would be a good a place as any to shed a little light on what I believe to be a very interesting process.
This post thus begins a series of winemaking posts throughout the 2011 Harvest.
At most social gatherings, I try to work into the conversation that I’m a winemaker. First off, this never seems to carry the gravitas that I think it will—I knew I should have gone out for stuntman instead! My ego aside, the most common question or assumption I encounter relates to the concept of winery versus vineyard. Many wineries do own their own vineyards.  And likewise, many vineyards make wine, but this isn’t always the case. Much like a chef who buys produce at farmer’s markets or works closely with trusted butchers, several winemakers do not own t buy grapes from vineyards they know, trust and love, year after year.
nets draped over vines to protect mature fruit from being eaten!
Commonly, the winery or winemaker will have long-term relationships with vineyard owners and growers making sure the grapes are farmed in precise methods. One great advantage of this is that a winemaker can then source grapes from several different vineyards in a multitude of different regions. As we approach Harvest however, this can keep said winemaker very busy running between Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino Counties.

In years/vintages past, it wouldn’t be uncommon to have already harvested (picked) the fruit, pressed the grapes and put the juice in barrel to become wine by now. But because 2011 has been such an unseasonably cool growing season, the ripeness of the grapes is far less developed than at the same point in years/vintages past.

Depending on the kind of wine you’re making and the style you’re going for, this can be a good thing or a bad thing.
We have a Grenache Vineyard—a traditionally late ripening grape—way up in Mendocino that sadly may never fully ripen.
With regards to our Pinot and Chard vineyards however, this year’s weather has been an absolute godsend. The grapes are maturing slowly and the flavors are developing gracefully while the sugars, which are most directly affected by the sun and heat, are staying low.
Because the sugar levels dictate the final alcohol level, the cold season equates to more flavorful wines with lower alcohol levels…at least there was one plus to those sunless 60-degree days that Em and I have been complaining about for the last 9 months.
Veraison (pronounced “ver” “ray” “shun” and in no way related to the phone company) is the term for the color-change that grapes undergo in late summer. This is an indicator that sugar levels are raising and acid levels are falling.
Pomard clone Pinot Nior
When to pick the fruit is among the most important and challenging calls a winemaker must make each harvest. Winemaking, at least in my book, is a constant pursuit of balance, and the pick date is perhaps the most important moment in dictating that balance.
Pick too early and the result may be a thin, watery wine that’s too high in acid and tastes more like ocean-spray cranberry juice and green-stewed vegetables than Pinot Noir.
Pick too late and the sugars go off the charts, the acids have dropped to nil, and the fruits (which were so pleasant a few days ago) are now prune, raisin-like flavors.
Ideally, the end of summer and beginning of autumn brings long, cool days that allow the grapes to hang on the vine until the flavors are just right.
In reality, unexpected heat-spikes and/or rains appear, wrecking havoc on the best-laid plans of mice and men.

Hence, it becomes important to get out to those vineyards regularly and sample the grapes. Last week, Em and I drove up to the Sonoma Coast and Russian River vineyards to sample the sugar levels on the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
El Diablo Vineyard
El Diablo is our Russian River vineyard. It’s a hotter region than the Sonoma Coast and we’re aiming to make a bigger wine out of it, something that highlights the rich and full-bodied flavors already coming from the vines.
Silver Eagle Vineyard
Silver Eagle Vineyard, in true Sonoma Coast is a cooler site. It is more mountainous and closer to the ocean. I am genuinely excited about Diablo, but Silver Eagle is truly a special place for me. From this site, we’re hoping to craft a wine that highlights more of the red-fruit and mineral flavors. The alcohol hopefully will be a bit lower and this should be more about elegance as opposed to power…maybe a Magnetic Fields vs. Metallica thing…
Robert Young clone Chardonnay grapes
We’re also going to see if we can’t make two Chardonnays from this Vineyard. The Wente Block is known for it’s rich flavors whereas the Robert Young clone is brighter and shows more minerality.
Sampling the fruit
The aim of sampling is to yield a true representation of the overall vineyard; there are a number of ways people aim to achieve a true representation. I most prefer walking one or two rows of the vineyard block I’m testing then every 10 steps or so, I’ll snip off a cluster, repeating as necessary until I reach the end of the row. 
Now that I’ve got my zip-lock bag full of grapes, it’s time to crush away. This can be both the most fun and messiest part of the day. Its important to make sure that all the grapes are crushed, especially because the most ripe berries can be practically falling apart while the least ripe are harder and more acidic. For some reason the bags always leak, and as I continue crushing the grapes, little trickles of grape juice seep out, and now we’re well on our way to a sticky mess!
Once the samples are all completely crushed, I use a refractometer to test the sugars. A refreactometer is a laboratory scale used to test density. In this case, we use a scale called Brix. The brix level is a measurement of the amount of sugar in the grapes. Hence a high level of brix, say 30 degrees, would mean there is 30 grams of sugar per 100 grams of juice!
As of now, the grapes taste great! The acids are all still a little high, and the sugars still need to come up. Here are the numbers,

El Diablo: 23.3 Brix
Silver Eagle, Pinot: 17.9
Silver Eagle Chardonnay: 15.6 and 13.8

Looks like things still have a while to go, but this gives a good staring point to begin monitoring.

Next up in the winemaking series…picking and crushing! 


  1. Wonderfully informative blog entry, Drew! Thanks for the low down. Looking forward to more!

  2. I love that Em is wearing Grenache colored toe nail polish.
    Oh.. and I already new all this. duh.