Hey everyone! Allow me to introduce myself: my name is McKenna and I’m the Assistant Winemaker here at Andrew Murray Vineyards. I first joined the team way back in 2013 as an intern and after travelling between New Zealand, Australia and Napa, I found my way back to Santa Ynez Valley in 2016 and was hired on as our Oenologist. Over my last 2 years here, I have spent a few shifts working behind our tasting room bar. I really enjoy it because it’s a great opportunity to be able to chat with our customers about the wines and even answer some of their questions. One of the most common questions I’ve been asked is: when harvest is over, what do you do? This inspired me to start a winery blog, so we on the production side can share more insight on the everyday happenings behind the scenes.
As you all know, harvest is our busiest time of year. And frankly, it’s the most exciting as well. Harvest on average spans from the beginning of September to mid-November. During these months we are up before the sun, working hard until past dark and yet, still feel invigorated for the next day’s work. Working a wine harvest has a magical energy to anyone who has experienced it. Every day is different and dynamic. Some mornings begin out in the vineyard, sampling grapes to test sugar and acid levels. Some start with punch downs in the cellar, fueled by pop music and lots of coffee. Others are spent processing fruit on the crush pad or working up a sweat by digging out tanks full of red grapes. So, lets circle back to the original question: what exactly are we doing when this magical time of year ends? As the long days shorten and the weekend shifts get fewer, we have the new tricky job of “finessing” the wines we just made. We must take all these literal “fruits of our labor” and turn them into delicious finessed wines that we can be proud of.
November-January: The catch-up phase
Our next step is to get caught up on all the winery work that has to be put on hold during harvest. In the cellar, we dive right in to maintenance mode: fixing any equipment that may have given out on us during harvest and checking inventory that may have depleted over the months. We clean all our fermenters, hoses, presses and tanks ensuring everything is spotless and sparkling before it gets put to bed until next year. In the lab, we are monitoring malolactic fermentations (the in process in winemaking in which tart-tasting malic acid, naturally present in grape must, is converted to softer-tasting lactic acid) as well as running analysis on all of our wines that have been aging during the harvest period. This time frame is much slower than any other time of the year and we all are grateful for some much-needed decompression before we kick off our bottling season.
February-June: Bottling and Blending mode
Every month, we do QC (quality control) checks on all our aging wines. We pull samples of each individual lot of wine we have in barrel or tank, run analysis on them (alcohol, acid levels, sulfur levels etc.) as well as taste them to see how they are progressing. We also take notes on each of the wines, making observations on their overall flavor profile, structure and aromatics. These monthly taste tests are very useful to us when it comes time for the blending and bottling processes. In the lab during the months of February to June, we are in a steady cycle of blending and bottling. Pulling from the tasting notes we made during our monthly QC checks, we set up small bench trial “mock” blends of our finished wines. The idea is that by trying a blend small scale in the lab, you can try a range of different blends without having to treat all your wine. This allows you to accurately determine the specific lots that will have the optimal impact on your final wine, allowing you to move forward and perform this process on your whole batch. Once we determine what blend we like the best, we relay our blending plan to our cellar team. The next steps are: forklifting the appropriate barrels out, pumping the wine in barrel to a tank to make a blend and lastly, filtering the blend to remove any remaining lees or sediment. Once we have our finished blend, we are ready to put the wine in bottle! Over the next 4 months, we will repeat this process for at least 20-25 different wines between our E11even and Andrew Murray label.
June and August: Harvest Prep
After we have put our wines are in bottle, we now must shift our attention towards harvest again. Wow, time flies! We will forklift out all our fermenters out of storage and give them a good scrub. We test all our equipment to make sure its running smoothly and order all the supplies we need for harvest (cleaning chemicals, lab equipment etc.). During this time, it’s also important for us to be out in the vineyards, monitoring each one of our blocks and watching their progress. This gives us a better estimate of when we can expect the grapes will be ready to be picked. Soon enough, we will start the harvest season all over again!
I hope that I could give a better understanding of what goes on behind the scenes of Andrew Murray Vineyards year-round. Of course, this was a very basic overview and our schedule can change at a moment’s notice! However, that’s the best part of our job! Working with a product that is influenced by mother nature means that you can’t stick to a formula or recipe. It can be stressful but also allows you to think on your feet and requires you to be dynamic. I love communicating with our customers and would love to be able to answer any questions in our future winery blogs so please email me at: McKenna at AndrewMurrayVineyards.com if you want to know more!
Every vintage has its challenges. Some are cold, some are wet, some are plagued by high or low yields, some are early, some are late. Even “perfect vintages” come with their own challenges. Thankfully, I have been at it long enough to have seen lots of different scenarios. Then a vintage like 2015 comes along and challenges you like no other. Expectations and predictions literally went by the wayside this year.
This has truly been a year like no other. Most other winemakers that I have spoken with agree that this was a “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” kind of year. First of all, the vintage started earlier than anyone guessed. We were still in our bottling season when harvest started in August (many started picking in July). Yes, the drought contributed to the early harvest, but only indirectly. The three years of drought and poor weather during fruit set reduced the yields in the vineyard by as much as 50% in some blocks. These smaller crops of tiny berries ripened very quickly in the hot summer months. Our evenings were not as cold as normal either, which further contributed to the advanced maturity. September, the month in which we harvested most of the Rhône varieties off of the Curtis Estate, was painfully hot. Even night harvesting helped very little, as the nights in September were often in the mid-60’s and sometimes even in the 70’s. The cool snap of fall finally arrived in late September, but it did not last. We ended up nearly completing harvest before the end of September. As I type this letter, we have one more day of picking left, and the weather looks to be turning towards the mid 90’s again. In spite of yields being down, the pace of harvest was just frenetic this year. We essentially completed the entire harvest in just a bit over a month.
I am feeling more exhausted than I can remember. This harvest has taken me to the brink. I feel like I have been living here lately. At least this is an amazingly beautiful place and I get to work with some of the hardest working people in the wine business…they have truly become my Harvest Family.
Moi, Chino, Rudy and Ben in the vineyard, Miguel, Santiago, Victor and Spencer in the new cellar, and Greg up running point at the old cellar. In the end, in spite of my fears and pessimism over the 2015 vintage, the new wines are tasting really good, some of them even AMAZING, even at this early stage. Like every vintage before, this year taught me so much about winemaking and even a few new things about myself. Crazily enough, I am enjoying the craft of winemaking more than ever. I hope it shows in the quality of wines that we are growing and bottling for you. I am confident that we are currently releasing the best wines we have ever crafted. Thank you so very much for joining me on this wild ride!
When embarking on the exciting journey of exploring the pleasures of fine wine, it doesn’t take long before you encounter the standard tasting order in which wine is “supposed” to be drunk: look, swirl, sniff, sip (and spit). Over time, these steps have become gospel, repeated over and over in wine magazines, books, and websites.
To many people, this seems an overly complicated process. After all, we already know how to drink, so what’s with all of the extra steps? Is this legitimate, necessary stuff or just another example of snobbish bores trying to turn wine’s simple pleasures into a tiresome rite of passage?
The truth is that these steps aren’t necessary for drinking fine wine, but they are essential if you want to get the most pleasure possible out of a glass of vino. What’s often missing from these list of steps is why each one is important to wine appreciation. Here’s a deeper look at what’s behind each of the steps and how you can perform them without triggering the snob alarm to your friends.
Step One: Look
If you’re like most people, you only give a passing glance at the food and beverages that you consume. When it comes to wine, however, not taking the time to observe it in the glass is denying yourself one of the most underappreciated vinous pleasures. Fine wine often has a gorgeous color; you can encounter everything from light salmon to deep strawberry red, and that’s just for rosé wines!
A good look at a wine can also clue you into potential faults, such as premature aging (if the color seems excessively brown for a young wine), or other issues (if the wine seems excessively cloudy). Fortunately, these are relatively rare occurrences.
You needn’t make a spectacle of this step. It only requires finding a decent source of light, a relatively light background, and a few moments of your time. The colorful results are usually worth the modest hassle.
Step Two: Swirl
It’s been estimated that fine wines contain about 200 odorous compounds, making them one of the most complex beverages we ever imbibe. Those compounds are primarily volatile, meaning that they require air for us to be able to detect them. Swirling a wine in the glass exposes more of the wine’s surface area to oxygen, helping to release those complex aromas. This step is particularly important for young fine wines, which tend to develop slowly. Think of swirling as giving the flavors a gentle nudge to open up a bit.
Fortunately for fine-wine lovers, swirling a glass of wine carries little stigma now unless it’s performed with over-accentuated flourishes. This simple but essential step can be performed quickly, using a circular motion, and it does the wine a world of good. Just be sure that you don’t try it with a glass that’s been filled too high unless you plan on forking out for the dry cleaning bill of whoever is standing close to you when you try it!
Step Three: Sniff
In terms of wine appreciation, sniffing is the single most important step in the tasting process. Almost all the complexity that a wine delivers is aromatic, including most of its flavors (which we experience retro-nasally when the wine is in our mouths). There’s solid reasoning – both chemical and biological – behind this one, so if you’re going to focus on one step first, make it this one!
For most people, short, deep sniffs will work best. What you’re doing with these sniffs is trying to get as many of the wine’s aromatic compounds as you can to your epithelium, a dime-sized olfactory organ that’s capable of detecting a huge array of smells and is wired to the portions of your brain that are responsible for emotional responses and memory. In normal breathing, only 10 percent of the air we take in makes it to the epithelium, so focused sniffing is a must if you want to pick up all of the aromatic subtleties of a good wine.
Step Four: Sip (and Spit)
Of course, the ultimate point of enjoying wine is to drink it. However, there’s a bit more to wine appreciation than the pleasant feelings imparted by its alcohol content. A wine’s volatile compounds activate even more when exposed to the warmth in your mouth, releasing flavors and further aromas. Getting the wine in contact with your gums and tongue is the only way to experience its texture, from crisp and vibrant to silky, tannic, and hefty. Finally, a wine’s finish (how long its aspects linger after it’s been tasted) can only really be experienced after it’s been in your mouth. Sip as much wine as you need to fully appreciate it, but it’s best to avoid large gulps.
At this point, you’ll have to decide what to do with that sip. If you’ll be tasting many wines in a short period, such as at a large tasting, you’ll need to make use of the spit buckets (don’t fret too much about technique; experienced testers know that there’s no totally graceful way to do this). Remember that, even if you spit, you’ll still be absorbing some alcohol with each taste, so plan accordingly.
This great article and infographic is from fix.com and Joe Roberts (1winedude). Original article can be seen here.
The Firestone family, the proprietors of the Curtis Winery and the 200 acre estate upon which it sits, asked me in the spring of 2013 to take over the day to day operations of the Curtis Winery, all while shrinking the Curtis Wine production to a very limited and exclusive level. By now, we hope that you have heard something about this via the Curtis Website, through visits to Curtis or tastings at our Los Olivos Tasting Room, or in the last Cellar Crew Newsletter. It was mutual admiration that led the Curtis owners and management to choose Andrew Murray Vineyards (AMV) to take over the day to day operations at their beloved Estate. They admired our 20+ year history in Los Olivos and our consistent dedication to Rhone varieties. They respected our numerous 90+ reviews and our commitment to quality and the environment. They were further confident that we would handle such an important and historic transition as carefully and elegantly as possible. In turn, I admired EVERYTHING about the Firestone family. I admired the near lunacy that prompted Brooks Firestone to continue growing upon his father’s folly of planting the first vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, well over 40 years ago…and watched with great pride as Adam Firestone, a Marine, returned as a veteran of the Iraq war to become the 3rd generation of the Firestone family to grow grapes and craft wine. I was there when they first opened Curtis Winery to the public, as we had begun Andrew Murray Vineyards about 5 years earlier. I was so excited to see them focus on my beloved Rhone varieties. Each member of the Firestone family, from Adam to Andrew, has a deep love and passion for crafting wine and growing grapes on the Curtis Estate. They selected my wife and me and my small (but growing) team of tasting room/hospitality associates and cellar crew to gracefully transition away from the Curtis Wines and to replace them with AMV wines. I will be frank with you all. It has been no easy task, and we have not handled all situations as well as I would have liked. I have fallen on my face more than once since the transition began. But, I can also hold my head high, because I have been at Curtis each and every (yes every single day) day of this year so far. We have had much to learn and even more to prove. We are learning every day and leveraging our 20+ years in the wine business in order to provide to you all the best wines possible with the best customer service, in the best darn winery and location in Santa Barbara County. We have a long way to go before we can say mission accomplished. But, please know that we will work tirelessly to prove ourselves worthy of your time, attention, and business. We have enjoyed the opportunities to meet so many of you at the Curtis Winery and at the events that we have held this year in your honor. We have greatly appreciated the praise of our wines and we have taken heed of your concerns and suggestions. Please see our event page for more upcoming festivities.
I also want you to know that we embarked upon a significant re-model to the Curtis Winery hospitality center with only one goal in mind…to be able to better serve and interact with Wine Club Members. To that end, we started outside with the addition of a Members’ Terrace, under the shade of the native oaks. On the inside, we have carved out two distinct and private spaces where we can accommodate small group, sit down tastings for up to 12 people. We hope to be able to sit down with you and share a more in-depth experience centering on the wines that we are crafting off of the Curtis Estate. We have added a Member’s bar where we anticipate offering different and exclusive wines just to Members. We have added a wine on tap system so that you can purchase glasses, carafes, or even “growlers” of special and limited production wines. We have even added a low-seating lounge area where you can order flights of wines to enjoy away from the traditional bar setting. In short (too late, I know) we have designed several spaces and new “experiences” where members can interact with myself and our team in order to gain a deeper knowledge and appreciation for our wines. In turn, we will be lucky enough to get to know you better.
We look forward to your next visit to the new and improved Andrew Murray Vineyards.
Let me start this post off by sending out warm wishes of gratitude. I am so very thankful to you for tuning in and caring about Andrew Murray Vineyards. You all challenge and push me to always give 111% of myself. You all expect wonderful, unique expressions of Rhone varieties and blends. Yes, I love what I do each and every minute of my busy days. But, you all give me purpose and clarity. Suffice to say that I am humbled and grateful for your trust and support. While I have always sought acceptance, I have never adhered to normalcy. I have always followed my own path and beat to my own drum. I never did this to simply be rebellious or mischievous. I never set out to be different in the wine world. When I started (truly fresh out High School), I had a very limited knowledge of the world of wine. I simply loved Rhone varieties because of many family visits to this part of France. I loved Grenache and Syrah and Mourvedre, etc. I loved them alone and in blends. I loved them before I was 21 years old. I loved them before many US wine consumers and makers had ever heard of them. I loved them before anybody cared. When we started AMV, our limited focus on all things Rhone had nothing to do with marketing opportunities or creating a niche, boutique brand. Hell, we were not even trying to create a brand! Honestly, sometimes, Sometimes, I wish that I knew more when we started. At other times, I am glad that I simply learned as we went along. In the end, we kept our heads down and focused on the challenges of starting and running a small family business. You would never find me headlining a big tasting or auction or seminar. You never saw me beating my chest and proclaiming that I was doing anything cooler or hipper or better than anyone else. That was (and is) simply not my style. I have always preferred to go at it alone and a bit more quietly than the others. All that said, we managed to grow and evolve from the fledgling winery of a twenty-something into where we are today. We have been fortunate enough along the way to have been written up in many publications. We never sought the attention. Rather, we stumbled upon it, grateful for the bit of noise that we were generating.
AMV is firmly in the early years of middle age, informed by our 21+ years of winemaking. In order to stay relevant and forward seeking, we found ourselves once again sending our wines out for critical review after a very long hiatus. I never loved sending my wines out for review. We do not make our wines for critics. We craft our wines, rather, for you all and for ourselves and for the sheer joy of crafting and blending wine. Either way, we have found ourselves over the last couple of years in the good graces of bloggers, critics, and most importantly our legions of fans. Our wines have been selling at a record pace. You might hear or see me “bragging” about this score or that review. You might see me headlining a seminar at Boston Wine Expo in a couple of weeks. You might find me out there as we grow our distribution network (look for our wines soon in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, South Carolina, and…) I look forward to hanging out with you all as I move around the US a bit more. You will see that I am the same, humble, passionate and curious person that I have always been, even if I quote a score or a critic every once in a while. I thank you for joining me on this journey. I hope that you stay with us. We have a couple of new wines this year, including a Mourvedre that so many of you have asked for.
I just finished an interesting article on strong beers in the Wall Street Journal…all about imperial stouts weighing in at 9-11% alcohol. The craft beer industry is falling all over itself to bottle and can stronger and stronger beer, while the wine world (championed by born-again critics and winemakers alike) is busy apologizing for the rich, intense wines (often with higher alcohol levels) it used to bottle; now favoring lighter (color and flavor), higher acid wines! I remember when I was proud to have “graduated” out of light, plonky, fizzy beer with about 3.5% alcohol, to craft beers with flavor, color, and extract. Now, I am made to feel like I am wearing a coat of some rare exotic fur for crafting and consuming rich, full-flavored wines. I am sorry, for NOT being sorry! Some call it a natural progression, I call de-evolution!
This is the time of year when I begin to worry that perhaps I need to be medicated. I come off the heady, frenetic pace of harvest and crush, the hustle and bustle of the holidays, and run headlong into the mire of alcohol-related bureaucracy. Come January 1, my feet are trapped in the greedy goo of countless reports demanded from a juggernaut of government agencies. A dark cloud descends over my entire countenance. Instead of bottling volumes of wine, I’m bottling volumes of red tape.
Every state has a different permitting and licensing process. Reports must be filed, varying taxes must be paid, permits and licenses must be renewed. Exporters require their own special documents. Federal paperwork must be filled out and data must be collected. Accountants, lawyers, and licensing specialists must be engaged and paid to file and report on our behalf.
As a small winery, I’m the guy who also needs to source all of our glass, capsules, labels (with their concomitant bureaucracy), boxes, and closures. One could consider these activities equally mind-numbing, but at least they have a direct correlation to the end goal of producing our product, a bottle of wine.
Just as I don’t need to hear actors expounding on foreign policy, you probably don’t care to hear a winemaker talk politics. But I can’t help but start to feel pretty libertarian at this time of year. I realize we have some need for alcohol regulation, but honestly, this is ridiculous. Did you know that we cannot legally ship directly to customers in 12 of our 50 states? Much of state regulation still contains vestiges of prohibition laws and/or is designed to protect excise taxes and distributor rights. How does any of this benefit the consumer?
Customers, who have tried our wines elsewhere, frequently ask me why our wine is not available in their states. My answer is simple, either it’s not legal to ship direct-to-consumer in the state, or the cost to set-up licensing, permitting, etc. in their state is economically prohibitive. There’s a great website that addresses this topic: http://freethegrapes.org/. If you’re feeling like a 60’s activist today, you can use it to quickly let your legislators know that you’d like to see changes in these regulations.
Rant over…cloud already lifting….
People often ask me about the necessity of decanting, especially around the holidays. Everyone has a relative who is particular about his wine; you know, the one who cradles his bottle like he’s brought the Messiah himself and looks over your shoulder as you gingerly place it on the counter. He’s the one who took a couple of wine education classes after graduate school and is pretty sure that if he only had the time, he’d be the 181st person to hold the title of Master Sommelier.
Let me start by saying, I’m no pro in this department. All I can do is give you a little background, then share my personal thoughts about the subject – tell you what I do when I drink wine. Decanting originated as a means of clarifying wine – particularly older wine. It was meant to remove the sediment that can occur in wine over time. Modern wines that are intended to be imbibed within a few years generally will be sediment free due to modern filtration processes. Wines that are prepared with aging in mind, will eventually show sediment in the form of tartrates and pigmented tannins resulting from phenolic polymerization (red wines)1.
When you go to a fancy restaurant and order an expensive bottle of wine, there’s no option for requesting that it be decanted; the sommelier will do it as a matter of course. He (or she) will bring a candle to provide pure light through the bottle, and as he or she pours, the moment sediment becomes visible in the neck of the bottle, the pouring stops. Though there may be a meaningful percentage of your pricey wine left in the bottle, it is considered contaminated by the sediment and will not be poured.
Decanting is thought by some to have the added benefit of introducing oxygen into the wine. The act of pouring the wine from the bottle to the decanter aerates the wine. The big broad base of the decanter is designed to optimize surface area. In other words, it optimizes the volume of wine that comes in contact with the air. Why do we care about aerating the wine? Aerating is thought to develop the bouquet of the wine. The great French oenology professor, Emile Peynaud from the University of Bordeaux, felt the exact opposite: to aerate a bottle of wine is to lose the concentrated aromas – in effect to dilute the sensorial experience. Besides, one can always aerate the wine by swirling it in one’s glass.
So, do I decant my own wines? No, I don’t. Should I? Perhaps, but I drink wine in a manner that works for me. The screw top is such a reliable device that it only allows a very limited amount of oxygen into the bottle. This makes our wines age in a slow, controlled manner, with little opportunity for generating a flaw in the wine. In addition, our careful, minimalistic winemaking approach results in limited sediment. My issue with decanting is that it’s a fatal process. Once you’ve decanted an entire bottle of wine, you’d better be prepared to drink the whole thing – there’s no going back. A few new products have hit the market which allow you to decant a glass at a time. The Vinturi is one of them. Incidentally, for those of you who are less geeky than I am, Vinturi is a nice play on words…a merge of ‘vin’ for wine, and ‘Venturi’ which is a fluid dynamics/physics term. But again, after a long day in the winery, I’m not likely to fool with a gadget.
My advice is that if you have a wonderful bottle of aged wine, decant it to ensure that you eliminate the sediment. If you can truly taste a difference in newer wines due to the aeration, then aerate them. If you can’t, then don’t bother. If your brother-in-law wants you to decant his wine, indulge him. It’s the season for giving and you can save the arguing for something more interesting like politics or religion.
1 – As I was writing this, I did reference Jancis Robinson’s excellent tome, “The Oxford Companion to Wine”, and specifically her entries on ‘Decanting’ and ‘Sediment’.
Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the harvest of our Syrah from a couple of stellar vineyards: Three Creek Vineyard and McGinley Vineyard, both of the newly created Happy Canyon AVA of Santa Barbara. Grapes are typically picked in the middle of the night nowadays. This keeps the grapes cold, locking in their flavors and staving off the possibility of fermentation starting too early. In our case, this meant that crews from our fastidious vineyard manager, Coastal Vineyard Care, were ready to roll at 3:00 a.m.
It’s a bit disorienting to be awake this early in the first place, but as I approached the vineyard, the eerie sight before me only exacerbated my already unbalanced state. Lights hovered above the moonless vineyard like an alien spaceship searching for signs of life. I hopped out of my car, cursing myself for not bringing a flashlight. I picked my way up the sloping vineyard aided by the light of my cell phone. The soil in this area is good and gravelly lending to ideal drainage for grape cultivation. And ‘gravel’ is really a misnomer; if you’re not careful, you’ll trip face-first over gourd size stones.
As I neared the crew, I was struck by the frivolity of the wonderful souls picking what will become the product for which I care so much. There was singing, and hollering, and a sort of verbal whistling. The energy is contagious. When I opened by saying that I ‘participated’ in the harvest, I really should have said I ‘observed’ the harvest. These folks are professionals, and there is no room for Sunday pickers.
They were clad in half the layers I was wearing, despite temperatures dipping into the high 30’s. The grape vines rustled and plunged as the pickers expertly extracted the purple gems from the comfort of their yearlong homes. They move in teams of three, the rear picker eventually moving forward to become the front picker, in a rhythmic cycle until they reach the end of the row. The ‘bucket person’ constantly removes full buckets and replaces them with empty ones when a picker shouts, “Cubo!” The ‘leaf person’ hovers over the pallets removing any leaves, branches, or other foreign material, as the tractor and its four great overhead lights slowly motors just ahead of the pickers.
I’m a big fan of technology; I’d feel naked without my iPhone, iPad, and sophisticated bottling line –and I was an early adopter of screw caps for all our wines. But being in the vineyard, shuffling through the dirt, seeing our grapes hand-picked in the dark and cold by a proud, symphonic team, made me realize how few industries such as winemaking still exist in modern America. We actually get to observe and participate in the entire lifecycle of our product, from earth to bottle. And it’s still an industry where hand-picking and hand-crafting have meaning. Did I have to arise at ‘oh-dark-hundred’ to hustle out to the frigid vineyard? No. Would the grapes have been successfully picked with or without me? Yes. But had I stayed nestled in my warm bed, I would have missed that communion with the soil and people that collectively allow me to do my work.
With Thanksgiving only a few weeks away, I’m grateful for the wonderful people who, through their stewardship, are delivering beautiful fruit to our winery. I’m also grateful that I get to participate in such an ancient and timeless craft.
Mornings are cooler now in the Santa Ynez Valley; fog lies over the vineyards as dawn breaks, clearly indicating the onset of fall. Mother Nature withdraws her vaporous tendrils binding them up for the day to reveal crisp autumn mornings. Vines that have worked so hard all year to produce their fruit are showing signs of completing their cycle, their rich green leaves of summer are now dappled with amber. Most of the white fruit has been harvested in a mad dash to beat October’s first rains, and the thicker-skinned reds are drinking in their last weeks of sustenance before leaving the vine.
My workday starts and ends in the dark at this time of year. In fact, some days don’t end at all. Last week our little crew put in a 38-hour ‘day’ pressing Grenache Blanc and Roussanne ahead of the rain. We’re in a continuous cycle of punch down, crushing, pressing, testing, and bottling. We’re replacing gaskets, and wrangling with vendors to ensure that all equipment is up and running 24 hours a day. Each day I don the hat of mechanic, farmer, scientist, artist, winemaker, salesman, IT guy, and general manager. Weekends become a distant memory, as hazy as the foggy mornings. It’s times like these when I realize how fortunate I am to truly love what I do. If I didn’t, life would be unbearable.
I read Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech after he died last week. As absurd as it sounds, I was struck by a few parallels. The first was his comment that, “It wasn’t all romantic.” I think that many people have a romantic ideal wrapped around the notion of winemaking. And while some of it is true, there are some decidedly ‘unromantic’ aspects to it. Second, I too, was fortunate enough to stumble upon what I loved at an early age. I made my first wine in Australia at the age of 19 and have never looked back. And third, while he lost Apple for a while, I lost my estate vineyard and my winery in 2006. Like Jobs, I found the loss devastating, but it may have been the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m no longer shackled to my estate grapes. I’ve been able to search out grapes to specifically satisfy any flavor profile that I desire and establish a great new winery site. The resulting wines have been both personal and critical favorites.
Late at night, when I leave the winery exhausted from a day that is both physically and mentally taxing, I can’t help but think of those hardy pioneers who came out west to work the land. I go home to electricity, a hot shower, and a soft bed; they went home to lanterns, no bath unless it was Saturday, and a mattress stuffed with straw or perhaps feathers. Still, I suspect we share similar emotions of having completed a hard day’s work and knowing that our crops are in and hoping that we’ll be able to successfully take our product to market. My hands are stained from the grapes and split from the work, but when I look down at them, I know that, like Steve Jobs, I am quite possibly one of the luckiest guys on earth.