Fire on the Mountain

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

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