Showing posts with label cabernet sauvignon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cabernet sauvignon. Show all posts

Monday, January 31, 2022

No Jab? No Cab.

Yes, you heard it here first! I have officially released my 2020 Tapteil Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. But if you haven’t got the jab, you aren’t getting the cab. 

2020 Tapteil Vineyard Cab Sauv

2020 was the first, but unfortunately not the last, pandemic vintage. When I wrote my blog post on Pandemic Winemaking last August, harvest was impending even as the delta variant of the coronavirus raged on.

Since then, the rate of virus mutation has outpaced the speed to inject vaccines into people’s arms. There is a lot misinformation about natural immunity being more effective than vaccination. Such sentiments continue despite the rising COVID death rate among the unvaccinated, the general consensus of the medical community, and a robust history of inoculation that dates back to the 1790s.

Inoculation, as a phenomenon, is not just a human experience. In fact, virtually all commercially made and many homemade wine are inoculated and oftentimes twice if it is a red.

Inoculation in the Wine World

Yeast is what turns grape juice into wine. In winemaking, crushed or pressed grapes (known as must) are typically inoculated with a wine yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae or S. cerevisiae to kick start the alcoholic fermentation.

In the last few years, the “natural” wine fad has grown in popularity. The perception is that wine made with wild yeasts in the air is superior to the one made by inoculating cultured yeasts. After all, according to the argument, spontaneous fermentation of grapes was how wine was discovered in the “old days.”

Commercial S. cerevisiae 

I remembered taking a Wine History class where we had to taste a series of wines made in the “old ways.” They didn’t taste very good. In fact, Ancient Greeks mixed their wine with sea water in the ratio of four parts sea water to one part wine. In a similar fashion, the Romans diluted their wine for libation. That makes you wonder how the wine must taste back then.

If Inoculated Fermentation is Like Vaccination

S. cerevisiae is the commercially available yeast used in winemaking. The most conservative approach after harvest is to add sulfite to the must to kill off any wild yeasts and bacteria. After a couple of days when the sulfite is no longer active, the winemaker will then inoculate the must with S. cerevisiae. It is the most reliable yeast specie to complete alcoholic fermentation, which is important on two counts.

Acclimating yeast starter to must

First, virtually no sugar is left when alcoholic fermentation is complete. Sugar attracts microbial activities, which cause wine to turn into vinegar. The lack of sugar limits the potential for spoilage. Second, alcohol inhibits bacterial growth. Complete fermentation usually results in 12-14% alcohol content, which provides additional protection to the wine.

Although believed to have originated from grape skin, naturally occurring S. cerevisiae make up a minuscule fraction (0.00005% to 0.1%) of the fungal community in ripe grapes. Relying on ambient S. cerevisiae to kick off fermentation is unpredictable. So what about the other naturally occurring yeasts in the vineyard?

Then Spontaneous Fermentation is Like Natural Immunity

To count on naturally occurring yeasts in the vineyard for fermentation means that you are at the mercy of having a critical mass of the right yeast species to kick off a spontaneous fermentation. In the best case scenario, spontaneous fermentation takes off. Now you hope that whatever the wild yeast species involved in the fermentation do not give out undesirable aromas or off-flavors to the wine.

Ripening grapes

By far the biggest challenge with using naturally occurring yeasts is stuck fermentation. Most wild yeast species do not tolerate more than 6% alcohol content. This means that the yeasts die off before all the sugar is converted to alcohol. The end result is a high sugar and low alcohol wine that becomes a magnet for microbial activities and is prone to vinegarizing.

Theoretically, it is possible to start spontaneous fermentation with wild yeasts and then inoculate with S. cerevisiae to ensure the fermentation is complete to dryness (or no sugar). This requires a skilled winemaker and a well-established vineyard fungal community. In the best of both worlds, the wine gets its unique character from the wild yeasts and the longevity from the inoculated yeasts. But if you have to pick only one fermentation approach, inoculated fermentation is definitely the way to go.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Tapteil

My Verdict: For me, relying solely on spontaneous fermentation to make wine is like counting only on natural immunity (or immunity by infection) for protection during the pandemic. It may work, but it sure is chancy. I’d rather take the sure bet of an inoculated fermentation to make a good quality wine and vaccines to be my best defense during the pandemic.

My Tasting Notes: No Jab? No Cab has a fruit forward bouquet of tart cherry, fig, plum jam, and brined olive. On the palate, it is jammy with concentrated tart cherry and a slight cocoa aftertaste. The wine is full-bodied with high acidity and a tiny explosion of very fine tannins. The finish lingers and is tart at the back of the mouth.

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!

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Screaming Eagle? Screaming Deal?

I was looking over the wine list at my favorite local Italian restaurant when the owner's selection caught my eye.
2011 Screaming Eagle $3,900

Credited as the trailblazer for Napa cult wineries, Screaming Eagle was founded by Jean Phillips, a former realtor with a knack for good soil. In 1986, she bought a 57-acre vineyard in Oakville. While Phillips sold most of her grapes to nearby Napa wineries, she kept an acre of Cabernet Sauvignon for her personal winemaking.

Screaming Eagle, the most expensive Napa wine

A few years later, Phillips decided to go into commercial winemaking and hired Heidi Barrett to be her winemaker. Barrett is a second-generation Napa winemaker and wife of Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena fame. At that time, she was already a rising star with a couple of Robert Parker 100-points from a consulting gig with Dalla Valle.

In 1995, Phillips released the first vintage of Screaming Eagle. The 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon was a hit, scoring 99 points from Robert Parker. Both ladies became an overnight phenomenon.

The winery is not open to public
With continued accolades and production kept low at around 500 cases per vintage, the demand for the celebrated wine sky-rocketed. A mailing list was quickly established, and only members of the list were able to purchase the wine directly from the winery. The members-only price started at $75 per bottle, which was high at that time. It then increased to $125 a bottle, making Screaming Eagle the most expensive wine in the Valley.

By the time Phillips sold the winery to Stan Kroenke and Charles Bank in 2006, the members-only price was $300 a bottle. Today, the wait to get on the Screaming Eagle mailing list is rumored to be a few decades long. If you are patient enough to get on the mailing list, you get to purchase Screaming Eagle at $850 a bottle, a screaming deal since the aftermarket price averages three to four times that. And the restaurant price... you do the math!

Personally, I have not tasted Screaming Eagle. At that price, it will be a very special day if I do. My friends, who were fortunate enough to have it, definitely thought highly of it.

So what you would consider to be a screaming deal for Screaming Eagle? I have my number. What is yours?

Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Wine Geek's Experiment with Oak

Last summer, I wrote My Wine is Too Oaky, a post on oak and its influence on wine. Much of what I knew about the interaction of oak and wine was theoretical. Then I got to experiment with oak when making my 2017 vintage. I had purchased the wildly popular Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Artz Vineyards. Cabernet Sauvignon and other more tannic grape varietals make austere wine on their own so they benefit greatly from the softening effect of oak. But how does that really work?

Oak & Oxygen

Wine develops differently in an oak barrel versus a glass container. Oak barrels are porous and release a small amount of oxygen to the wine. The gradual release of oxygen, known as micro-oxygenation, takes the edge off of grape tannins, giving the wine a softening effect. Oak barrels also have their own tannins that further protect the wine from oxidation and reduction. Additionally, many winemakers favor oak for the phenols that impart flavors, such as vanilla, cocoa, and spice, to the wine. Glass carboys offer none of these benefits.

Wine in barrel and carboys
I got a 7.5-gallon tight-grained medium-toast new French oak barrel from Radoux Cooperage. There is a slight challenge with an unused small oak barrel. The newness and a larger oak surface area to volume of wine translates to a higher concentration of phenols in the wine. The amount of flavor imparted can easily overpower the juice, like an over-salted dish. Fortunately, a few friends had joined me in making that vintage so we had plenty of juice among us, about three times the volume of the barrel. The idea was that we would rotate the juice in and out of the barrel till we reached the taste profile we wanted.

Round Robin

After our crushed grapes and juice (known as must) had completed the alcoholic or primary fermentation, it became wine. The wine was pressed and then transferred into glass carboys for malolactic or secondary fermentation. During this process, the tart malic acid found in grapes was converted to softer-tasting lactic acid with the help of lactic acid bacteria.

In the early stage of malolactic fermentation, the wine was moved from one container to another at certain intervals to get rid of sediments. The process is known as racking. The discarded sediments, known as the lees, are primarily made up of dead yeasts and grape debris.

About three weeks into malolactic fermentation and during the third rack, we moved a third of our wine into the new barrel for the first time. The remaining two-third returned to glass carboys. We monitored the wines monthly; topping up, testing, and tasting. The wines remained in their respective receptacles for another two months before they all completed malolactic fermentation. We were pleased that all the wines did well even as different taste profiles gradually developed.

Racking wine from carboys into the barrel
When we were satisfied with the taste of the first batch of oaked wine, we racked it out of the barrel into the carboys. In its place, we pumped in a fresh batch of un-oaked wine. Thus, the round robin continued until all the wine had cycled through the barrel for one to two months.

Taste Test

The fun part of the experiment is the sample tasting! We tasted both oaked and unoaked samples over time. We took notes and observed the evolution of the wine, our ability constantly tested with a bit of voluntary intoxication.

After over five months of tasting during the round robin, the taste profiles of the different samples confirmed our theory:
  • The sample with little to no oak was bright with high acidity. The tannins remained coarse, and the wine ranged between low to medium-bodied.
  • The sample with at least two months of oak contact had more concentrated cherry, vanilla, cocoa flavors with medium acidity. The tannins were distinctly smooth and velvety, and the body was medium to full.

Tasting wine samples
My Verdict: By the time we were ready to bottle, all the wine had cycled through the barrel. We did a final taste test to ensure that there were no surprises. Thankfully, there were none. We blended the wine together and were delighted with the end result. At the time of this blog post, the wine has been aging for a month in the bottle. For a first vintage with oak, I pronounce it an overwhelming success. I look forward to tasting it after another five months of bottle aging. Stay tuned!


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.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Caymus Napa Valley Cab - In Memory of Nancy

I lost a special friend to breast cancer a couple of weeks ago. It was a long and brave fight that lasted years, but Nancy is finally resting. 

Anyone who had met Nancy would tell you that she didn't look like a cancer patient. A giveaway might be a high-fashion scarf she used to cover her chemo-induced follicular disruption. Oftentimes, she would wear a really cute blonde bob with the brightest smile and a gorgeous outfit. Her eyes were always full of life, and she would be genuinely interested in your life like she was living vicariously through a healthier body. 

Nancy loved wine, and I enjoyed having drinks with her. We traded tips on how to avoid bad wines in a restaurant or a pub and dreamed about our favorite wines. I got to learn that Nancy loved a good Napa cab. (Who doesn't?) A few years ago, she gave me a bottle of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon for my birthday. She told me that was one of her favorite wines. It was amazing!! 

This month's post is in honor of Nancy. I managed to procure a bottle of 2013 Caymus Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which was quite a feat in a city that is saturated with good Washington wines. With determination and a somewhat forced disregard for the price tag, I picked the last bottle off the store shelf. We planned to celebrate Nancy that night with some Caymus cab and the Swinery's boeuf bourguignon and fresh fettuccine. 

Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon

Day One
First, I'd like to give a nod to the label. So elegant and beautiful! The wine was deep purple indicating youthfulness. It was fruit forward, silky smooth, full-bodied with perfect acidity. The finish was long and had a fig undertone, that was delicious. Needless to say, it was a match made in heaven for the boeuf bourguignon and fettuccine.

Day Two*
The fruit flavors deepened, and the wine showed even more structure. It was opulent!

Day Three*
Hello, leather! My friends know how much I love leather in my wine. The fruit flavors were more concentrated in the background. A touch more jammy. Still full-bodied with a lasting finish.

My Verdict: If I could only choose one word to describe the wine, it would be "opulent." I am so glad that Nancy shared this wine with me, and I can see why it was one of her favorites. Like Nancy, the Caymus cab is elegant, complex, yet approachable. You can enjoy it with food or alone. My wish for Nancy is that in heaven, God gave her a beautiful room in His mansion right next to the wine cellar. Cheers, Nancy! 

Price: $60-$90 depending on the wine store. (You can get it cheap at Trader Joe's, but I will not recommend it. That will be a different post for a different day.)

* I use the Sharper Image vacuum wine saver to keep the wine fresh after the bottle is opened.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Kim Brady of Brady Cellars - From Technology to Oenology

Washington winemakers come in all shapes and sizes! Some come from generations of winemakers like Christophe Baron of Cayuse, some hail from Napa Valley like Todd Alexander of Force Majeuer, and then there are those who have taken a leap of faith from technology to oenology like Microsoft vet Marty Taucher of Avennia. I happen to know a few folks from this last category, and they vary in their levels of success.

The truth is that being a successful winemaker is no small feat. The Washington wine industry is highly competitive and has over 800 wineries. One of my favorite Washington wines comes from technologist-turned-oenologist Kim Brady of Brady Cellars.

Our neighbor invited us to Kim's release party a few years ago. Having tasted novice attempts by other technologist-turned-oenologist friends in the past, I was skeptical. But I was surprised and very much delighted by Kim's first commercial release. His 2010 Cab was delicious during the tasting. Over time, it has aged so nicely that I persuaded him later to sell me one of his remaining six bottles, which I still have in my cellar.

Thankfully, Kim did not turn out to be a one-hit wonder! The vintages that followed the initial commercial release continued to showcase his talents in winemaking. His line-up has expanded to include dry Provence-style Rosés, beautiful Bordeaux blends (called 'Symphony'), amazingly complex Merlot, and my latest favorite, Grenache.

Kim credits his achievements to experienced winemakers (such as Tim and Kelly Hightower of Hightower Cellars and others), who have advised and guided him even before his first commercial release. He even had a chance encounter with Mike Grgich (famed winemaker of the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the Paris wine tasting) and ended up helping at the Grgich Wine Estates for a day.

Last weekend was Brady's 2016 Spring Release Party, hosted at the lovely Wingle Residence in West Seattle. (The Wingles are wine club members.) Like prior parties, Tyler Palagi of Radiator Whiskey whipped out all kinds of carnivores' delights, such as charcuterie, brisket with horseradish cream, and pork belly, all of which paired wonderfully with Brady's wines. The line of tasters kept Caroline, the winemaker's wife, busy pouring. Another successful release party indeed!

Left to right: Tyler Palagi, Caroline and Kim Brady
My Verdict: While it is not easy to succeed as a winemaker in this very competitive market, I am certainly glad that this technologist has made the transition to winemaking. I don't say that to just anybody. Here's a nod and a toast, and I look forward to more vintages. Cheers!

Price: $18 (Rosé), $30-40 (Red)