The Speed of Life at Alquimista Cellars
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Reflections on the Past Three Years in Sonoma County
As Christmas is now barely in the rear-view mirror and New Year’s Day coming up fast in Sonoma County, we have much loss on which to reflect, and much to be grateful for in the coming year. It is not a stretch to say that the defining events of 2017 and 2019 have been the disastrous fires in The North Bay, most of it inflicted upon Sonoma County. My co-winemaker/proprietor of Alquimista Cellars, Patrick Dillon, has written eloquently about first response and what we were all doing in the throes of the Tubbs fire in his “Alquimista Cellars, Earth, Wind, Fire and 500 Frittatas”.
As a summary, Patrick cooked (he’s also a chef as well as a Pulitzer-prize-winning writer) – his most recent book was a cookbook (Open Range) – for 500 people a day. Evacuation centers (including my family) and first-responders were recipients of his culinary skills from the CERES kitchen, a place where teenagers are normally trained in the culinary arts and then the meals are delivered to seriously-ill patients at their homes. After October 9th 2017, the kitchen was turned into a culinary command-center, feeding those displaced and those fighting the blazes. We were almost all volunteering in one way or another; my wife was a volunteer for almost a year at the Sonoma County 2-1-1 center.
You may have heard this saying before, and I always thought “isn’t that nice” in a polite sort-of-way when I heard it about other places, but after having lived it myself, we are “Sonoma Strong”. As Patrick chronicled, the best came out in almost everyone. Food from stores and restaurants, clothes, blankets, all kinds of goods that we all take for granted on a daily basis (hot water and electricity are SOO under-rated!) and volunteers, so many that the county had a hard time finding tasks for everyone who wanted to help. And the giving continues through this 2019 giving season.
And yes, now it is Christmas season. The last FEMA assistance center is open (once again, now 2019), and we are cleaning up. Here are some stats for our North Bay area alone:
- The death toll is 44 for the Tubbs fire alone. As with the Camp Fire in Paradise CA where twice as many people died in 2018, some missing may never be found.
- In the North Bay, over the two years of fires in the North Bay, $11.5 Billion in insurance claims have been registered. Compare with Katrina, at $41.1B (the worst disaster in US history), and the Oakland Hills fire (previous worst in CA history) at $1.3B.
- $9B of that is from Sonoma County, the hardest-hit of the fires.
- 5400 homes were destroyed and over 12,000 damaged, including 5+% of the Santa Rosa housing stock with another 5% damaged.
- Using native (“wild” yeast or uninoculated) fermentations.
- Push our yeast to their limits of heat tolerance with warmer fermentations.
- Go to barrel “sweet and dirty” – not finishing ferments comfortably in tanks and then settling out solids before going to barrel.
- Eschew yeast nutrients and fermentation aides, relying on the wines to form their own stress aromas for increased complexity rather than keeping them fat and happy.
So what is happening today outside of our little winery? Here are some more figures for Sonoma:
- November hotel occupancy rate remains in Santa Rosa at 85% due to fire victim housing, the highest it has been in the last 13 years in this 2-year period, since significant new hotel rooms were built.
- The long-term occupancy tax by the county has been waived and pricing of rent and/or hotel fees for fire victims is at 45% of seasonal rates.
- A new County office has been created: “Recovery and resilience” office is assisting the affected
- Sonoma County lost tens of millions in revenue shortfall due to the fire
- Volunteering is still at an all-time high with personal time and resources almost overwhelming some charitable organizations
Just about everyone in Sonoma County has either been directly affected by these disastrous fires or directly knows/works with people who have lost so much. But in this time, I no longer look at a dirty bathtub after the grandkids have bathed or a leaky roof or a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. Heck, we have HOT water, a roof over our heads, and cluttered cutlery and crockery means we have loved ones to feed and the means to do so. I will never, ever, complain about a stack of after-dinner wash-up again.
I’ve always said I’m the luckiest man I know. I have 6 beautiful children and now grandchildren, have raised them alongside my wife in the wineries and vineyards I lived in and tended, and get to do something I absolutely love doing on a daily basis: grow and make wine. This season reinforces those sentiments and I remain, yours truly, the luckiest man I could imagine.
So let’s all raise a glass to our continued good fortune, no matter what our current station may be, and look forward to a 2020 with the abundance of friends, family, and fulfillment - the “things” that really matter most to us all.
In Vino Veritas,
Greg La Follette, Alquimista Wines
Wine Region’s Spectacular Grape-Growing Season Provides Anticipation for a Stellar Vintage
With Mother Nature’s support, the 2019 growing season provided fantastic grape growing conditions.
“This has been a nearly ideal winegrowing season in Sonoma County,” says Sonoma County Vintners Executive Director Michael Haney. “There was just the right amount of heat early in the growing season to acclimate the grapes, mild temperatures continued throughout the season and offered superior flavor development.”
With this outstanding fruit, spring 2020 will be a perfect time to visit Sonoma County tasting rooms. Take in the vineyard views with fresh bud break and vibrant flowers cover crops in the vineyard rows. Enjoy exclusive experiences at wineries that offer barrel samples of 2019 wines and the opportunity to purchase the wine ahead of the bottling date. To learn more about Sonoma County wineries and to purchase wines directly from these wineries visit: SonomaWine.com or contact email@example.com.
A Wonderful Time to Visit!Join us for a special Russian River Valley Event, celebrating the resilience of the wine industry and Sonoma County after the devastating Kincade fire this past fall.
Half priced shipping on 12-bottle cases and a special winemaker curated exploration with verticals! Please email us to inquire about fees and learn more!
In this article originally published in GuildSomm.com. and written by Fred Swan, our own Greg La Follette is interviewed about his unique approach to bringing forth the 'terroir', or character of a wine that is driven by its environment.
"Greg LaFollette sometimes takes yet a different tack on exposing terroir. A prolific and influential winemaker and viticulturist, LaFollette has shaped wineries including La Crema, Hartford Court, and Flowers, and planted some of Russian River Valley’s top vineyards. He is now winemaker and partner at Alquimista Cellars. LaFollette will discern the signature characteristic of a plot and then, if warranted, use viticultural techniques, but minimalist winemaking, to emphasize that fingerprint."
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Getting to the Root of Terroir
Winemakers discuss how to best reveal site specificity
Terroir is a construct, a catch-all for the elements of a place that lead its wines to smell, taste, and feel a certain way. In some cases, the personality of a site’s wines is very consistent, allowing experts to identify it routinely in blind tastings. But the possibility of such distinctive character leads some to dogmatic judgments, insisting on a particular complexion for wines from a given vineyard and, sometimes, denigrating wines that deviate.
Humans crave a degree of consistency, but too much rigidity in wine appreciation puts analysis above exploration and appreciation. It oversimplifies, confining terroir in a small box. That also limits the depth of our understanding of a site.
It’s true some wines are made in a way that renders them simple or generic. Extreme ripeness, or under-ripeness, is an enemy to fruit complexity. Excessive oak conceals underlying signatures of variety and site. Certain commercial yeasts can create misleading flavors, allowing, for example, a Northern Hemisphere Sauvignon Blanc to resemble those from New Zealand.
But, even putting all these things aside—along with additives and aggressive winemaking techniques—there are many things that affect a wine’s character and result in legitimate variation between offerings from the same vineyard by different producers.
Some variables, such as vine age, clone, rootstock, slope, and depth of topsoil, may lie with specific blocks or rows a producer is allocated. Then, there are choices about trellising, timing and amount of irrigation, cover crop, tilling, and harvest date, which can vary based not just on stylistic preference, but also on micro-terroir and the character of the specific vines. All these options suggest that very specific judgments about what is, or is not, a correct representation of terroir are dubious.
Even given identical blocks, there can be a wide range of wholly legitimate site expressions. The decisions affecting the outcome start with pruning and finish with choice of a release date. Accepting, and even encouraging, this variety and trying the wines with an open mind delivers more insight into the terroir.
A USEFUL ANALOGY
Think of a vineyard as some other scene—a forest, perhaps. If you walk through the forest on a bright, summer day, you’ll experience one expression of its character. The light, colors, aromas, sounds, and feel of the air will be a certain way. You might find it peaceful or energizing.
But take the same walk on a moonless winter night, and your impression will be very different. The cold air bites at your skin. Colors are limited to shades of blue and black. The sounds and aromas are very different, too. In this case, the forest might make you feel lonely or fearful.
Those are two very different senses of exactly the same place, neither less valid than the other. Terroir—sense of place—is a human concept. It is only manifested through our individual senses and perspectives. Winemakers show us the way they see that terroir through their wines.
People often debate whether winemaking is craft or art. Craft connotes performance of a skilled profession to create an object, largely by hand. Art is the use of creativity and skill to create something valued primarily for its beauty or emotional resonance. Clearly, both apply to wine.
We can look at different wines from the same vineyard as we would representations of the same place by different painters or photographers—people who are at once artists and craftsmen. Any given landscape would easily be recognized, yet look very different, in works by van Gogh, Monet, and Seurat. Their different styles have stirred vehement debate among critics and enthusiasts alike as to which is better, more real, more evocative. But none of those works is inherently less valid than the others.
Photographers might represent a vineyard in hundreds of ways, selecting angles, lighting, time of day, camera, lens, filters, settings, retouching techniques, and output media. The appearance and moods created could be very different. Winemakers do the same. Viewers and tasters may disagree about which rendition is more pleasing, based on their own preferences and backgrounds. But if the wine is sound, distinctive, and reasonably transparent to site and vintage, there is no right or wrong.
LEARNING FROM DIVERGENT STYLES
Megan and Ryan Glaab of Ryme Cellars make two different Vermentino wines every year from Las Brisas Vineyard in Carneros. They label the wines “Hers” and “His.” Sometimes the Glaabs pick both lots of fruit on the same day. In 2017, they picked three weeks apart.
Megan pursues a fresh, bright style, similar to wines you might find on the Ligurian coast. She presses the grapes whole cluster and ferments only the juice. Her wine is bottled with minimal aging. Ryan’s approach is totally different and reflects his affinity for the minimally sulfured, skin-contact wines of producers such as Sardinia’s Tenute Dettori.
Skin contact in white wines, like stem inclusion in reds, is a subject of debate with respect to terroir. But, if skins for red wine grapes provide character most people consider essential to terroir, shouldn’t the skins of white wine grapes be at least acceptable?
“Many winemakers, including us, like to insist their job is to get out of the way and let the terroir speak for itself,” Megan Glaab says. “But that still happens through the lens of our own philosophies, aesthetics, and assumptions. The most basic decision we make once the grapes enter the cellar is whether to ferment the whole grape or the juice alone. That question is so fundamental, it doesn’t seem like a question at all. But the idea that either way better expresses terroir, based on the color of the skin of the grape, makes no logical sense. The joy of orange wine is that it can push against cultural assumptions and present the character of the variety and site through a different prism.”
Even with the same juice and far less divergent stylistic sensibilities, it’s extremely unlikely that two winemakers would wind up with precisely the same wine. In the 2010 New Zealand Riesling Challenge, 51 tons of Riesling harvested on a single day from the Waipara district were divided into 12 lots and shipped to as many winemakers. They were tasked with making a Riesling in any style they chose, but based at least 85% on that fruit.
Certain details about those wines—pH levels and the like—were never made public. But, from the information presented and from tasting the wines, it’s clear they were all unique. Alcohol percentages ranged from 8.5% to 12.8% and sugars from virtually dry to over 55 grams per liter. There were aromatic wines and subtle ones, floral and fruity, fresh and reductive.
General wine styles aside, there’s also divergence among winemakers on how best to expose terroir. Some do as little as possible, believing a minimalist approach allows site character to shine through. But even those producers may make slight changes in the regime, from one vineyard to the next, if the fruit seems to want that.
Others follow the same “recipe” for each vineyard, reasoning that, if the only variable is site, then terroir is revealed. Lagier-Meredith, in Napa Valley’s Mount Veeder AVA, uses this method to highlight differences between Syrah and Mondeuse Noir in varietal wines made from vines in adjacent rows. The one-size-fits-all approach can have downsides. For example, barrels that complement one clone of Pinot Noir may overwhelm another. But, with more robust grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, that is less of a concern.
Trevor Durling, General Manager and Senior Winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard, uses identical vinification as a learning tool, but not necessarily for wines to be released. “I feel that it is very important to understand the differences in terroir and where our grapes are grown across the Napa Valley,” he explains. “One way to better understand this is to run controlled trials in the winery, where I will harvest fruit at the same level of ripeness from different vineyard sites and treat them the same way during fermentation and barrel aging (same fermentation kinetics, tank sizes, and barrel selection, etc.). The only variation in the outcome of the wines, from a sensory and quality perspective, should be due to the terroir itself, rather than varying winemaking techniques. This quickly helps me understand what I can expect from each vineyard site. Once this is understood, I am much better equipped to adjust winemaking techniques accordingly to maximize the quality and hit the style target of each individual fermentation to produce the best wines possible.”
Greg LaFollette sometimes takes yet a different tack on exposing terroir. A prolific and influential winemaker and viticulturist, LaFollette has shaped wineries including La Crema, Hartford Court, and Flowers, and planted some of Russian River Valley’s top vineyards. He is now winemaker and partner at Alquimista Cellars. LaFollette will discern the signature characteristic of a plot and then, if warranted, use viticultural techniques, but minimalist winemaking, to emphasize that fingerprint.
“The more extreme the site, the more you need to partner with the land and really understand what it needs,” LaFollette says. “At the Manchester Ridge Vineyard, 2,200 feet up in the Mendocino Ridge AVA, it’s incredibly difficult to get the grapes ripe. There are unique floral notes to the terroir, but also savage and feral aspects which can dominate.”
“I use a carbohydrate repartitioning strategy in the vineyard, through selective leaf pulling and water deficits very early in the season, to steer the vines toward reproduction rather than vegetative growth. This also limits the number of clusters and the berries’ cellular division and expansion. The result is smaller berries with more concentration and greater phenolic ripeness at lower Brix.” That increases the ratio of floral to savory notes in the wine, while maintaining good acidity and moderate alcohol.
In the winery, you could say LaFollette further emphasizes the floral notes by doing nothing. Manchester Ridge’s challenging environment and low pH soil results in grape must with relatively little yeast assimilable nitrogen, or YAN. His non-supplemented, native fermentations are a slow progression of many yeasts, which become active and then die at different alcohol levels, each contributing their own personality, thus increasing complexity.
Those yeasts feed on the various forms of YAN, starting with the easiest to metabolize and ending with the most difficult. Phenylalanine is last. One byproduct of yeast’s phenylalanine consumption is 1-phenylethanol, which smells of rose petals. If LaFollette added yeast nutrients, such as diammonium phosphate, to compensate for the low YAN must of Manchester Ridge, the satiated yeasts might not get around to consuming phenylalanine and those floral notes would never be created. “Complexity is not an accident,” he says. “But this isn’t ‘safe’ winemaking, because things can go wrong with both native ferments and underfed yeasts.”
Ana Diogo-Draper, Director of Winemaking at Artesa Winery, changes her approach depending on whether she’s trying to represent the character of an AVA or a single vineyard, and depending on the attributes of each block within a vineyard. For example, she picks all Chardonnay based on pH. However, that pH varies by wine and its stylistic intent.
“For the Carneros blend, my goal is to showcase the incredible range of the AVA and its citrus profile with clean, crisp wine,” Diogo-Draper says. “So, we pick the fruit earlier to retain that brightness, and ferment in a combination of stainless steel and oak to enhance it in a way.”
“For our estate vineyard fruit,” she continues, “my goal is to showcase our unique terroir and clonal selection. For me, that’s achieved when fruit is picked at that clear inflection point in the pH/TA/Brix curve, and with low intervention winemaking and native fermentations. What I look for is an evident shift, in which the chemistry changes are harmonized with the flavor evolution. In sum, what I am experiencing in each block, flavor-wise.”
Diogo-Draper evaluates each block separately. “Within the vineyard, there are blocks that have a naturally lower pH than others, partly due to clonal differences but also row orientation. I am able to leave those grapes hanging longer, without sacrificing the brightness I am looking for; at the same time, we are able to produce grapes with a higher Brix as well as a distinctive fruit and textural profile.”
She also makes decisions on fermentation vessels, malolactic fermentation, bâtonnage, and aging block-by-block. “There are particular blocks that better display their fruit intensity and concentration when they do not go through secondary fermentation. I also taste our Chardonnay going through malolactic fermentations weekly, and decide then how it is affecting their structure, textural component, and fruit character. Malolactic fermentation and bâtonnage can be stopped at any given week if I feel they are overpowering the fruit. It’s the eternal quest for balance.”
WINE AS PHOTOGRAPH
There is no single way to best express the terroir of any vineyard. No wine is a concrete expression that tells the whole story. And, even if this were the ideal, it would impossible for multiple winemakers to reflect terroir in exactly the same way.
It’s better to think of wines as individual photographs, each capturing a vineyard at a moment in time from a specific perspective. One may resonate more with us than others, but we learn about the terroir by experiencing a variety of expressions from different people over multiple vintages.
– By Fred Swan
Originally published on GuildSomm.com. Used with permission from the publisher.
Now that harvest is winding down, it is once more time to reflect upon just why it is that we hose-draggers pursue our own version of heaven: the romance of winemaking.During harvest, there are numbers of activities and dress codes that sum up just how romantic winemaking really is:
- Cleaning out a pneumatic press at 4 AM. This entails getting inside of a very tiny space about 4’ off the ground, hose and scrub-brush in hand while crouched on your knees, getting completely soaked from grape skins and water showering you as you work to get the last pips and grape pulp out of the press. Dress is casual, usually involving rain gear with a hood.
- Getting to stay up all night to process fruit (see above) that you spent most of the previous night picking. Attire is casual but gum boots are mandatory.
- Punching down. This aerobic endeavor involves clambering up on top of an open-top fermentor and using your back along with any other muscles you can recruit to push all of the solid grape skins that have migrated to the top of the ferment (called the cap) back into the liquid portion. Attire and accessories: punch-down stick mandatory but shirts optional, especially after your cotton Tee is soaked with sweat after the first 3 tanks.
- Shoveling out fermentors. Involves jumping into a freshly-fermented tank of grape skins after the new wine has been drained off. “Easy” tanks have a man-hole at the front of the floor of the tank that facilitate removal of the pomace (drained grape skins); more advanced shoveling is found with dairy tanks, where every single shovel- or bucket-load - goes overhead and into the basket press. Clothing is optional if you are doing this activity solely with your S.O. at 2 AM while Jimmy’s “Foxy Lady” is blasting over the winery sound system. I could go on – showering off all the accumulated juice in your hair at 3 AM because your wife has accused you of sticking to the bedding the night before, during the 2 hours you were horizontal but you don’t remember because that was too long ago, that kind of thing – but I won’t. What I will tell you is that I DO love winemaking so very much precisely because it does have many challenges, both physical and mental. In what other profession can you and your fellow hose-hounds rise to the challenge of putting your backs into your work, Herculean in nature and, at the end of the day, say “Mates, we did it!” while toasting yourselves with the veritable fruit of your own labor in glass?
Actually, during harvest any toasting being done is usually with a good sudsy pint or two. After all, you are all day and most of the night working with wine, wearing wine, racking wine, picking pips out of your hair and naval at the end of the day – probably all you want is a good beer at that point, along with a warm meal, a hot shower and a comfy bed. The glass of Pinot comes later, when you remember the harvest and toast to the land that affords you the chance to translate its voice into liquid sunshine. At the end of harvest, the one thing we winemakers always wear is a grateful smile.
Vint with Humor,
The word “hero” is often used to describe exceptional people doing exceptional things under extraordinary conditions.
Have you ever known someone who is so constant, so unswerving in making this world a better place over the years that the governor should pin a medal on her or his vest?
Jim Pratt is a believer in just such heroes. In attending his harvest party last week, I noted that his event was focused on honoring these otherwise unsung heroes. Harvest heroes, in particular, namely the growers and workers of our vineyards. The event is a combination of family-taco-feasting/wine-tasting/harvest-celebrating/back-slapping, once-a-year conviviality that mixes and honors all class lines, income streams and skin colors to say “thank you” to those who toil with the soil to bring that bottle of prized artisanal wine to your dinner table or your very own special celebration.
Jim is one of the premier vineyard managers in West Sonoma County, known not just for his consistency of farming but for the long-term relationships he nurtures with his employees. Mostly Latinos, Jim not only pays his crew better than most, he values his folks in ways that go beyond denero. We began the party, held in mid-October when most of the grapes are picked but winemakers are still working until late punching down and pressing off the grapes that have now been harvested (I had to leave early to go back to the winery until late), with a toast to the growers.
Jim and Alquimista share a couple of different growers. There is Chuck Jones, grower of Hawk’s Roost Ranch Pinot noir. Chuck is the salt of the earth, having grown elementary school kids as an educator for almost 4 decades in addition to growing, along with Jim’s help, some of the finest Pinot on the planet. My wife and I having raised 6 kids of our own, we hold Chuck as not only a great grower but a pillar of the community who helps to shape our children. His day-in, day-out, year-after-year consistency and dedication to making our world a better place, one child at a time, should have his chest covered with a sheet of hardware worthy of a 4-star general. Chuck is one of my heroes, harvest or no.
I’d like to add in here another lifetime educator, John Bazzano. His and Phyllis’ Lorenzo Chardonnay vineyard is one of the oldest in the Russian River Valley and for some time now one of the more heralded. I have to add that Chuck and John would not be where they are without their wives, btw, and must be mentioned in the same breath. Though John does his own farming, I have to shout him out him here in this mostly Jim-centric missive as he is cut of the same cloth as Chuck – selflessly giving to the next generation(s) of our community for decades and decades, going about his work to make Sonoma County a better place without fanfare or ceremony. Perhaps this is the true definition of “Hero” – no thought to your own accolades but doing so much good for so many in such a quiet way.
So Jim first gave a huzzah and a toast to our growers. Next he highlighted his crew members, calling each and everyone forward to stand alongside of him for pictures AND the bonus checks. These peeps were the real stars of the evening, these unsung men and women who bend their backs to hard tasks, almost as Sisyphus bent his back endlessly with no cheese at the end of the tunnel, or up the hill, as it were. These folks never get the accolades deserved for their role in making the world a better place, one bottle at a time while they raise their families with a demonstrated strong work ethic that will also make our world a better place when their children grow up to be the shared future of our country. We clapped and whistled for Jesus, Mundo, Llordes, Victor and all of the guys and gals upon which we so heavily depend for the quality of our grapes. These folks bust their butts for us and do so with such a good heart that their ethos alone will make the wine better. There is no such thing as an unimportant task in winegrowing, and what they do in shaping the vines and carefully harvesting the fruit is critical to my winegrowing world.
Perhaps someone should pin a medal on Jim Pratt’s chest – thanks, Jim, for honoring these heroes of harvest and being the person you are. We wine lovers are enriched by and need you, the growers, the piscadores of our Sonoma County. Our own Harvest Heroes.
In Vino Veritas,
Greg La Follette
Fire on the mountain and ferments in the vats...
As everyone has heard by now, fires have once again struck in parts of Wine Country. Though much of Sonoma County is open for business, there is a large swath of the Russian River, Alexander and Dry Creek valleys that are under mandatory evacuation orders, including the two wineries where we make Alquimista wines, Owl Ridge Wine Services and Ektimo Winery. Both are in the Green Valley of Russian River Valley and are miles away from the fires, but history has taught us that, with high winds expected to kick back up in the next few hours, miles are not measures of safety. Already over 100 square miles have been consumed in the Kincaid Fire, so the authorities are exhibiting a wise abundance of caution.
For my household, the practicality of the situation is that we have had to relocate to a long-time family friend’s house. Incredibly generous, Tony has made all of his spare beds available, as well as the sturdy floor of his beautifully rebuilt heritage home in south Petaluma. Our intern boarders, being of good cheer and sturdy constitution, have taken up residence on said floors, sleeping on palates of blankets and pillows. With power shut off, we have actually made a grand time of it with bbqing on Tony’s gas grill and dining by candlelight with Alquimista wines accompanying the delicious fare of home-made chipoltle sauce from home-grown tomatoes smothering the pork tenderloin obtained from the rapidly-defrosting freezer. We toast the first-responders as we sit in safety and keep abreast of the fire front on our smart phones. Everyone owes so much to those brave women and men who are keeping so much destruction at bay in our communities and saving lives along the way.
But there is another practicality to the departure from our homes and wineries: the interns are having a few days off and I have had my first day of not being on the cellar floor since the beginning of September. Aside from spending some down-time with friends and family, this also means we are not monitoring the fermentations that are still bubbling away in the wineries. No punching down of caps that have formed in the tops of the vats, no assessing struggling fermentations and gently nudging them back onto the right track, no tasting of lees that are settling down in the bottoms of barrels.
Lees sampling, right now, is of primary concern. The yeast and all of the other solids that are suspended in the wine barrels are gently yielding to the call of gravity and settling in the bilges of all of the French oak barriques. This is a tricky time for those of us who practice the art of wild or uninoculated fermentations. Wild ferments are prone to objecting to the lack of nutrients they find in the wine at this stage of their little yeasty lives. Most ferments are A-OK as they settle into hibernation, preparing for months of elevage sur lies but there are some ferments that are looking for just a little more help as they transition from active fermentation to deep-space sleep. Temperature, motion (battonage), cross-inoculation of “hot” barrels and sometimes separating errant lees from the wine are but a few of the tools we shepherds of our single-celled flocks have at our disposal.
But not today. Not for the last few days. We now have to rely on Mother Nature to do its thing and conduct our vinous brethren to their appointed places. Until we can get back into our cellars and once again fully partner with our wines, we must live on faith. We already have that in our fire fighters and peace officers. We have that in each other to take care of each other as these difficult conditions arise. My world around me has taught me that my fellow human beings are rising to the occasion. But will our yeast? I’ll know in another day or two, when I can get back in the winery and assess another, more gentle power of nature than what we are seeing now on the crests of our hills.
In Vino Veritas,
Greg La Follette
The day began a little differently than most days of harvest do:We weighed out for tare the two ¾-ton fermentors and loaded them into the back of my bullet-riddled pickup truck, evacuated the air from the vessels with carbon dioxide snow, and strapped the lids down tight. Once again pointing the nose of said truck easterly, we headed up to one of the highest vineyards on Sonoma Mountain, the storied van der Kamp Vineyard for a first-light pick of whole-cluster, carbonic maceration Pinot Meunier.
A little background to this vineyard may be required for those who haven’t heard of the history and specialness of vdK, both the vineyard and the people who have in past times and those who do now live on this storied site. It has been the meeting ground for millennia of native American peoples and remains so to this day with a sweat lodge and gatherings still taking place. The current stewards of this spiritual site, vignerons Martin and son Ulysses van der Kamp and their family, have only been tending to this land for a fraction of its inhabitance, though the family now has 3 generations of history firmly rooted in the fertile volcanic soils of this ancient meeting place. It is hard to describe the history, the specialness of this home to those who so well honor the past while building a better future for not just the wine lovers of the world (the wine can be on your dinner table for many tomorrows to come), but for the world in general. You see, the van der Kamp Vineyard does not just grow grapes, it grows memories that can be carried forth by those whose lives are touched by the gentleness and profundity of this land and the people who inhabit it. Suffice it to say I will chronicle just one example of transformation. You will have to see this site for yourself to gather a more true picture of just how special this vineyard is.
My wife and I arrived at the vineyard while the sun was just a rumor in the eastern sky. The air smelled of pungent earth and ripe fruit, soon to be mingled with wafts of sweat of what would be our picking team: the van der Kamp family and their co-inhabitants and workers of the vineyard (now also 3 generations deep), my family and a few select friends of ours. One eager young lad, Jesus, joined us from Jessies Grove vineyard and winery in the Mokelumne River AVA. He was one of two toilers named Jesus, the other being one of the multiple-generation families who also live on the site and tend both the grapes and the gardens, animals and orchards that provide the inhabitants of this place with sustainable sustenance. The mosquitoes and other assorted flying insects were also there, fellow inhabitants of the land, rising up from the nearby spring seep to greet us. Mara and I sprayed on a repellant, happy to coexist with these inmates but not wanting to tempt them to our discomfort.
We all started picking in unison as first light allowed us to extinguish our headlamps. The sky gave off a spectacular show of majesty as it began to fill the sky, with pink and ochre colors spreading across the flanks of the old volcano crater. There was appreciative talk about how beautiful the sunrise was as we steadily clipped our way across the rows of perfectly-ripened Meunier grapes. Then Malia van der Kamp, youngest of the van der Kamp siblings (vineyard manager Ulysses being the oldest) and shoulderer of many 45-lb. lug boxes overhead to lift into the truck-bound fermentors (yes, she is macha), said to look at what was overhead – not just the first light of day, but a huge phalanx of dragonflies overhead, diving and careening across the woodsy-perfumed air just above us. As were we, they were also gatherers of the land, harvesting their crop of the afore-mentioned insects, displaying a simple act of nature and sustainability.
Dixie van der Kamp, matriarch of the family, was impressed not only by the sight of morning light glinting off the wings of the dragonflies before the light touched us, but by the symbolism of these acrobatic, beautiful creatures. She related that dragonflies represent transformation, and that this was a harbinger of a special thing to come: sunlight into grapes and grapes into wine. The speech of the land was literally in our hands as we placed the whole cluster gently into the vessels that would make the transformation complete. We picked, the dragonflies danced and glinted, and I, too was transformed. Another day of harvest, and I am a richer man for having been there, on the top of Sonoma Mountain, harvesting with the van der Kamp family and friends.
In Vino Veritas,
Greg La Follette
OK, it is harvest time for Alquimista Cellars.Life is pretty busy with early rising to either pick grapes, often in the middle of the night, or to commence the daily 7 AM punchdown routine. And then there are all the other things of harvest, such as processing fruit, pressing off fermentors (yes, the vessels that hold fermentations are fermentors with an “o” – a fermenter is a yeast), the endless job of sanitation (it is said that winemaking is 85% sanitation, i.e. boredom, 10% interesting challenges and 5% sheer terror) and managing wayward fermentations. We are all working a gazillion hours a day and getting little sleep. This is the time of year when a famous winemaker has said that everyone “goes into asshole mode”. Thank you for that quote, Michael S.
Well, there are some winery folk that seem to not be in that mode. I’m talking about the international interns, 3 of which populate our home right now. These hard-working young people come to California to do so much of the hard work in our wineries for very little pay and a lot of sweat expended. The interns living with us work for DeLoach, a scant 3 miles from our home and a winery with which I have a rich and lovely history. These guys, all in their mid-20s, work from 7 AM to 8, 9, or 10 PM (and sometimes later) and come home tired but upbeat. Early on during harvest, we would open multiple bottles of wine together (sometimes more than a dozen at a time) and discuss the merits and winemaking techniques of these bottles and the frequently unusual varietals within them. Right now we all get home and pretty much eat, sleep, rise, work, repeat. But we still open a bottle of wine or two to consume with the dinner provided by my wife Mara, and often more than a bottle or two of beer. Good beer. It is said that it takes a lot of beer to make good wine, and our home certainly lives that!
I cannot say enough about these guys. They provide Mara and myself with their youth and enthusiasm. They come from Bordeaux, Mendoza and Galicia but all have one mindset: learn all they can about the best winemaking techniques. We now have a household with several languages and traditions but with the binding love of wine. And Mara gets to cook her heart out with delicious dinners, excepting when she is in the winery with me punching down and processing fruit until late. On those evenings, we take advantage of the local pizzerias and Chinese take-out restaurants. No one complains as we all love pizza – I vowed that when I moved back into civilization from being out at Flowers on the coast for 6 years, I would have pizza at least once a week. So we try to make our interns lives a little more delicious.
We have Sunday night family dinner every week, excepting that there are Sundays when we are working until way too late. We try to keep this open, and on those nights I usually bbq and we have a bit of a celebration of life, and of family and friends. Our intern from last year and our adopted 3rd son, Jackson, comes over and somehow conjures up several interesting wines to go with the standard fare. Of course we bbq on French oak wine barrel wood.
Our interns are tired, as are we right now. But they don’t go into a-hole mode and always seem appreciative of our efforts to keep them fed (and the coffee carafe filled). They enrich our already rich lives and we are lucky to have them under our roof. Just another reason why I am the luckiest man I know.
I hope your lives are filled with good food, wine and conversation. Thank you for your love of wine and for support of hose-draggers such as me and our interns. Your love and interest in wine means that we get to do more of what we love to do, even when we are bone-tired and rise-eat-work-eat-sleep-repeat. It is quality eating, quality work, sound sleep and a lovely life. As long as harvest lasts only a few more weeks….
In Vino Veritas,
Greg La Follette
A Vineyard Full of Age and Youth
I always say that I’m the luckiest man I know. How lucky? Let me elucidate…
Yesterday morning at 3 AM I pointed the nose of my bullet-riddled pickup truck, loaded with 4 empty half-ton bins, towards the Mokolumne River AVA (American Viticultural Appellation) of west Lodi. The goal was to pick 1.5 tons from one of the oldest Zinfandel vineyards on the planet at Jessie’s Grove Winery’s “Royal Tee” Vineyard. Planted in 1888, the vineyard is, as were many vineyards planted in those days, a scattering of varietals other than Zin. There are also Carignane and Mission grapes as well as the almost-extinct table grapes Flame Tokay and Black Prince. Flame Tokay was so important to the Lodi region in days gone by that the local high school sports teams are still known as the “Flames”.
Arriving just before a ragged sunrise in this ancient vineyard, I was met by a team of sommeliers from Canada and around the US, eager to pick and sort grapes from these venerable vines. The juxtaposition of this mix of passionate, young wine professionals and these veteran vinous brethren gave me pause to reflect just how lucky I was to be in this vineyard, on this day, with this combination of young and old. As Alexandré Dumas once said two hundred years ago, a vineyard such as this “should be approached bare-headed and kneeling”. To be able to pick from this vineyard is an honor and a privilege not afforded to many. To do so with a crop of our future industry professionals was not lost to me as an opportunity to have my feet firmly in the soil of the past and my eyes on what will be tomorrow. I was once again smitten by my own profession, reviewing how fortunate of a life I have had and continue to live to this very day.
The enthusiasm of our somm picking team, mixed with the piscadores of the Jessie’s Grove vineyard and winery team, was palpable and infectious. The owner of the vineyard, Greg Burns, and the Lodi Winegrape Commission team of Dr. Stephanie Bolton, Randy Caparoso and Stuart Spencer were there to share in the moment. And so I carried away with me not only a couple of tons of fruit from some of the oldest vines on the planet and their shared dirt on my boots, I brought back to my winery a renewed vow to make the best wine I could from this day of toil that represents not only a year of growing or even a lifetime of vine growth but a new generation that appropriately has respect and awe for something very, very old. And I’m not just talking about me, kids!
So how lucky am I? How many people get to do what I just did? Now you can believe that, for many, many more reasons than this but today because of this, I am indeed the luckiest man I know.
Many thanks to Greg Burns of Jessie’s Grove, the Lodi Winegrape Commission, and to the sommeliers of the pick and to all of the somms out there who help bring the stories of wine to the tables of America.
With Much Gratitude,
Greg La Follette - Alquimista Cellars