Showing posts with label Red Mountain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Red Mountain. Show all posts

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Winemaking, Halloween Edition


Truth be told, the whole year feels like a long stretched-out Halloween, with forest fires and pestilence being the marks of the 2020 vintage. Dozens of family-owned Napa wineries, among over a thousand structures in the valley, were decimated by the most recent Glass Fire. While Washington vineyards mostly escaped unscathed from the forest fires, the pandemic continues to loom over the state as hospitals brace for the fall surge of COVID-19.

It was early March when I placed my grape order. I decided to go with Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Tapteil Vineyard. The vineyard also supplies to Quilceda Creek Vintners, Long Shadows Vintners, and Cadence Winery. It seemed like it would be a slam dunk, and I was going with easy.

I mostly love Red Mountain Cab for its eagerness to please, both the palate and the wine makers. Also, the AVA is often ahead of the others in terms of Growing Degree Days (GDD), which usually indicates an earlier harvest.

WSU Growing Degree Day Chart

Like many things in 2020, nothing went quite as planned.

By late spring, Eastern Washington, the heart of the best vineyards in the state, became a COVID-19 hotbed, with possibly the highest rate of infection from Washington to California. Cultural and political factors strongly influenced the way the pandemic was managed. All that added to uncertainty in the vineyards and the health of their workers.

Then came Labor Day, when high winds blew through the State, downed power lines, and sparked 80 fires. Over 300,000 acres were torched. While not quite the catastrophic Glass Fire, the smoke pool in Washington was ubiquitous and air quality so bad that many were driven indoors. If the coronavirus pandemic was not enough concern to one's respiratory health, the smoke would seal the deal. 

Map of Labor Day fires

The fires and smoke were thankfully contained when harvest rolled around for the red wine grapes. But the Cab in our allocated lot just refused to ripen! In fact, our grapes appeared to go into reverse aging. Sugar (Brix) was decreasing, and acidity (TA) was rising. After a few false starts, we finally went with a different parcel where the grapes were ready to go. A harvest date was selected. 

The fall day arrived and did its round of sunshine, rain, and chill. At the crush site, the winemakers were appropriately masked as we weighed and distributed the grapes before running them through the crusher and de-stemmer. It had been a long wait for the grapes, and I was happy to take the must home.

Pitchforking grapes into totes

Weighing grapes
50 lbs of grapes in each tote

That was ten days ago, and my wine is now in the last stretch of alcoholic fermentation. It may be a time of pestilence, pumpkins, and potions outside, but for me, it is punchdown in my garage cellar.

Have a great time trick-or-treating with your best Halloween mask on and stay safe!

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Wining and Dining with Force Majeure

In my previous post, I fondly recalled visiting Three Walla Walla Wineries in a Day and promised to share the finale of the trip. So here it is - the Force Majeure winemaker dinner!

Force Majeure Vineyards, a premium Washington winery, was founded 15 years ago with 2004 as the year of its first vintage. In 2014, it elevated its game by hiring Todd Alexander from Napa cult winery, Bryant Family, to be its head winemaker.

In recent years, Force Majeure has been expanding its repertoire of wines from a single focus on Red Mountain AVA to now include the coveted Rocks District and soon the North Fork area of Walla Walla Valley. At the time of our Walla Walla trip, Todd and his wife, Carrie, had just moved to Milton-Freewater to work on the new Force Majeure winery. So when our friends who know Todd and Carrie offered to arrange for a winemaker dinner, we said, "Yes, please!!"

Beautiful Walla Walla Valley

Dinner was catered by The Q Woodfired Grill, owned by a husband-and-wife team. Emry and Sandy Kleck had spent many years working on catering events in the California wine country before moving to Walla Walla. Having experience working with winemakers, the Q Grill team carefully curated the menu in collaboration with Todd and Carrie to ensure the perfect pairing.

Beautiful table setting with a perfectly curated menu

Originally planned to be hosted at Force Majeure's new tasting room, construction delay shifted the location to the winemaker's own home. We arrived promptly at the property to be greeted with aromas from the grill that made our stomachs rumble with anticipation. Thankfully, a generous spread of hor d'oeuvres was already set up welcoming us.

We started to mingle, devouring oysters and flatbread while sipping Viognier. We then proceeded to the beautifully set dinner table and were soon delighted with flawlessly prepared courses paired with carefully selected wines.

Todd shared passionately about each wine tasted

Dining and wining with the winemaker in an intimate setting is always a special experience. We were able to ask all sorts of questions about the wines and winemaking techniques, while Todd was gracious in satisfying our every curiosity. Carrie and Sandy kept the flow of delectable courses, wines, sparkling water, and homemade sourdough going throughout the night.

Wine line-up

The wine line-up was impeccable. The Force Majeure wines included Viognier, two Syrahs (SJR Vineyard in the Rocks District and Red Mountain Estate Vineyard) as well as Cabernet Sauvignon. Also included was Todd's own label, Holocene, that is all about Oregon Pinot Noir. It was a such a treat to taste Todd's second vintage with dinner. We ended the night sipping dessert wine from our friends' cellar - a late harvest Zinfandel from Paso Robles boutique winery, Locatelli.

My Verdict: Where there is good wine, there is often good food. It is hardly surprising that many thriving wine countries attract as many chefs as they do winemakers. Wining and dining with the winemaker simply elevates the experience further. The winemaker and the chef, through their art and passion, collaborate to indulge the senses of those who are fortunate to be there. The Force Majeure winemaker dinner definitely rang true for me, and it is probably one of the best winemaker dinners I have had the pleasure to enjoy. So, thank you, Todd, Carrie, Emry, and Sandy. Below is a peek of the magical evening.

Dinner Menu

Dinner by Q Woodfired Grill
First Course
Oysters Rockefeller 
Prosciutto, Caramelized Onions and Manchego Flatbread 
2017 Force Majeure Viognier

Second Course 
Roasted Seasonal Vegetable Salad 
2016 Holocene Memorialis Pinot Noir

Third Course
Duck Breast with a Huckleberry Demi Glace and Seasonal Wild Mushrooms 
2016 Force Majeure SJR Vineyard Syrah

Fourth Course
Lamb Lollipop with Lentils 
2016 Force Majeure Red Mountain Estate Syrah

Fifth Course 
Wagyu Beef and Cacio e Pepe Pasta 
2016 Force Majeure Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Mighty Midnight Crushers

It was dark, but thankfully the rain had stopped. Over a dozen hobby winemakers were waiting in the cold for the grapes. This year, it was particularly late because of a shortage of pickers, and we were several hours behind schedule.

Around 8pm, the truck rolled into the processing site. We cheered! Let the crush begin.

The Crush

The gang got to work immediately, trying to make up for lost time. We unloaded the grapes and carefully allocated about 4,000 lbs of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc into 50-lb totes. Organizing the allotment of grapes was challenging as lighting was inadequate and patience ran thin.

Then we ran into our first glitch - 150 lbs of Cab Sauv were missing.

Stephanie shoveling grapes
Chaos ensued. Not being able to account for the missing Cab Sauv, we decided that we could make up for the difference if we each gave up 4% of our grapes. Crisis averted. No one was going home without grapes.

An hour later, 100 lbs of grapes were found in a dark corner. A few of us tasted the grapes - definitely Cab Franc. How? Too tired to solve the mystery, we decided to re-distribute the grapes to those who were previously "taxed" 4% of the Cab Sauv. All's well that ends well.

Next, the second glitch at around 10pm - power outage.

With both crusher-destemmers running simultaneously, we must have tripped the circuit. We were crushing at a storage facility and had no access to the circuit breaker during these late hours. Our options were not looking good, and they probably included fighting raccoons over the grapes.

Thankfully, one of the winemakers lived close enough and was able to drag out his generator. Within an hour, we were back in business, crushing and de-stemming with all our might. The team remained in good spirits and were grateful that we were able to overcome each challenge. By the time we were done with the crush and clean-up, it was close to midnight.

Now, let me introduce you to our little co-op: The Mighty Midnight Crushers

The Genesis

We started planning in February. Four new hobby winemakers decided to join me to make our 2017 vintage. With only one vintage under my belt, I am hardly experienced. But thankfully, we have resources in the form of books, classes, more experienced winemakers, and access to really good grapes in Washington. More importantly, we are a group with the best attitude and eagerness to work together.

Grapes on staked vines
A month later, we placed an order for Red Mountain Cab Sauv from Artz Vineyards.

The Grapes

The first vintage I made was Yakima Valley Syrah, a forgiving varietal that is lovely even without oak. The Syrah was transformed with minimal intervention into a tasty fruit-forward wine within a year.

Cab Sauv however is a very different variety. Known for its small berry size and thick skin, Cab Sauv is favored for its tannins, which will need to be softened with oak. So I bought the smallest new French oak barrel I could find.

By end of August, the vineyards started sending out reports on the grapes. Forecasted harvest dates for different grape varieties were provided with varying degrees of accuracy, starting with white grapes followed by black and finishing with Cab Sauv and Cab Franc. The forecasted date for our Cab Sauv then was September 21.

The following month, the vineyards started running sugar (Brix) and acidity (pH and TA) tests on grape samples to determine ripeness. Still it was impossible to predict and plan our lives around the harvest date. September came and left, and Mother Nature continued to keep us guessing.

The Harvest

Our harvest date was finally set on Oct 17. We had less than a week to get ready. Two of our Mighty Midnight Crushers, Frank and Cindie, volunteered to drive to the Red Mountain AVA to collect our grapes as well as those ordered by other hobby winemakers.

Red Mountain AVA
How long the harvest may take typically depends on the weather and the availability of the pickers. Although the weather was lovely, there was a shortage of migrant workers this year. The vineyards owner herself joined her four workers to pick about 4,000 lbs of grapes that day.

It was late in the afternoon when the grapes were finally loaded onto the truck. Frank and Cindie had already been at the vineyards since that morning. They were glad to be on their way back to Western Washington. It was getting dark, and the winds were picking up. With a heavy load behind them, the drive navigating through the pass would take over three hours. They knew that they would be welcomed by over a dozen grateful winemakers waiting for the grapes in the cold. It would be dark, but hopefully the rain would have stopped.