I see winemaking simply as the completion of the growing process and my winemaking approach is best explained as “traditional old world ”. I ferment all of the wines using native yeast and malolactic cultures. The red wines are hand punched down and we use an older manually controlled wine press. I do, however, enjoy a few modern conveniences such as temperature control for fermentation tanks and tools to help pinpoint harvest dates, such as detailed weather forecasting and the ability to test for sugar, acidity and pH.
The first step is choosing the harvest date. My goal is to harvest when the natural chemistry is in the proper range so the winemaking tools can stay in the toolbox once the grapes are in the cellar. Great consideration is also placed upon observations such as the leaf condition on the vines, grape skin texture, pulpiness inside the grapes, seed color, juice color and flavors on juice samples. I like to consider all these factors along with basic laboratory analysis we do in house. After twenty harvest seasons of working with many of the same vineyards, the farmer’s intuition usually takes over at this point and makes the decision almost a reflex. Fortunately, we are small enough and we have many of the same people harvesting grapes for many years, so we can pick when we want to. (Rather than harvesting when a third party vineyard manager has time.)
For white wines and Rosé, the process is fairly straight forward. We whole cluster press, then settle the juice over night and then go into barrels in morning. The natural yeast and malolactic bacteria take over and do the work for us. The wine stays in to barrel until it is ready for bottling. I like the barrel fermented effect on these wines because of the slight breathing of the wood, the surface contact of the lees and natural temperature control that the small barrels offer. On the Rosé and Viognier, I am not looking for any of the oak flavor so we make sure that they go into barrels that are at least five years old.
Red grapes are destemmed keeping as many whole berries as possible, using a late model destemmer known to be one of the most gentle on the market. The destemmer’s on-board sorting system is utilized to remove unwanted bits that might get through the destmmer. With the intention of keeping things as simple and gentle as possible, I custom built a stand that allows the grapes to be directly loaded into the destemmer and then passed by gravity to the fermentation tanks, completely eliminating the need for pumps, conveyers, or augers commonly used at this point. Typically 20-30% of the Pinot Noir is retained as whole cluster, which prolongs the fermentation and at adds a textural component to the wine.
Red wine fermentation may be the single most intriguing part of the winemaking process. Since red fermentation is mostly about extracting the desirable color and flavoring components from the grape skins, the final product is so affected by the winemakers’ touch at this point. The temperature of the grapes at harvest, temperature of fermentation, the type of tanks used, timing of punch downs and pump overs are the main factors. I have basic guidelines of the use of these procedures based on what I observed in Burgundy and what I have seen here, working with the same vineyards for many years, but the exact path is ever changing. Based on daily tasting, I decide how to proceed. So each vineyard gets specialized treatment on every vintage.
My goal during the barrel aging process is to further bring out vineyard character. While excessive new barrel use tends to cover up vineyard character, delicate use of barrels acts like salt and pepper when cooking, accenting the primary ingredient. I select barrels from coopers who make restrained styled barrels, I keep the percentage of new oak to only about 30%, and I precondition the barrels by soaking them with water overnight the day before we fill them. Fining is rarely performed, but when it is, we source the egg whites from our own free range poultry flock.
All bottling is done onsite with our own machine (of course using natural cork), so we can bottle when and how we want to. Labeling is done later, by hand. After bottling, the wines are allowed to develop in the bottle for at least 3 months but often 6 months or more before release. Customers are encouraged to further bottle age the wines, particularly the Pinot Noirs. While many California wines are designed to be at their peak upon release, I hold on to the old world notion that places a great deal of a wine’s merit on its age worthiness.