The art and science of making wine
I’ve been involved in winemaking at Kenwood Vineyards longer than I care to admit. And although my role has changed, the goal of making the best wine possible from the best grapes has not. My first job here was as a “cellar rat,” running presses at night during the crush of 1975. Now my role has moved to planning. My winemaking education consists of the experience I’ve gained on the job at Kenwood Vineyards.
The first thing I learned was that the conversion from grape juice to wine is a natural process. However, the quality of the finished wine is dependent on two main factors. The most important is the quality of the fruit. The second is the care and attention to detail in the handling of that fruit.
I take more than a passing interest in how things are developing in the vineyards, but my job at hand is in the winery. As the growers are wringing their hands over their vines, I’m preoccupied with the results of vintages past and the consequences of how the wine was handled.
We set a yearly agenda that culminates in a bottling schedule, as labels, glass and corks need considerable lead time to be on hand when the wine is ready. In fact, it is our job to have the wine ready to bottle when everything else is at hand. This becomes a series of deadlines that keeps this place jumping throughout the year.
The starting point is the question “how long does it take to make wine?” And the answer is different with every wine we make.
All wine begins in the fall when the grapes are harvested and the sugar is converted to alcohol via the yeast fermentation. Each variety then is cared for differently. The fastest wines from harvest to bottle are the whites that see no barrel age. These include Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris that can go to bottle at the first of the New Year. We style these wines to be “fruit forward,” meaning that the uncomplicated freshness and brightness of the fruit is showcased.
The plan for Chardonnay is the opposite. It gets half of a year in oak barrels and can be bottled in spring. But here the wine is both fermented and aged in barrels to accentuate the complexity that oak barrels can bring to wine.
All red wine sees time in barrels. Pinot Noir we like to pull out at about 10 months of aging. Merlot and Zinfandel average a year and a half. Cabernet Sauvignon we like to age at least two years in oak. So, if it is late August, it must be Pinot Noir occupying our attention.
The next question that needs an answer is “how much do we make?” Again it varies widely.
A wine like Sauvignon Blanc is an established success and can be tens of thousands of cases. Pinot Gris on the other hand is like a delicate flower that needs to be nurtured to survive. We can make a great new wine, but the sales team has the job of creating demand. And without demand, a great new wine can literally be left hanging on the vine.
The late summer bottling is Pinot Noir and we will make all we can, as long as it tastes delicious. We are limited to the amount we crushed during the 2010 vintage.
We use the Cuve method of winemaking, meaning that we keep each vineyard lot separate. This prevents any weak lots from being blended early or accidentally. In the case of the ’10 vintage Pinot Noir, and despite all the hand wringing due to the late rains and cool summer (much like 2011), the crop was consistently excellent.
So, as I write this, we are emptying Pinot Noir barrels into blending tanks and scheduling filtration to meet the bottling schedule. If we successfully meet all of the deadlines, the winery will be empty when the first grapes from the 2011 vintage arrive. Then the hand wringing will shift from the grape growers to the winemakers.