(Another) Year in the Vineyard: A Wine Blog by Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe/WineMaker

WineMaker Magazine

“Another Year in the Vineyard”: A Wine Blog

Week One: March 11-18, 2010

And So it Begins…

Gaius and the sheep

 Welcome back to the 2010 version of the ‘Year in the Vineyard’ Wine Blog.  I am your host, Wes Hagen, slave to the vine, herder of the yeast, vineyard manager and winemaker for Clos Pepe Vineyards in the beautiful Santa Rita Hills AVA in Northern Santa Barbara County, California.

This will be my lucky 13th Vintage at Clos Pepe (producing a crop), and our 15th year producing fruit here at the Clos.  It will be the 11th vintage for the Clos Pepe Estate wines and the third vintage for our new label, Axis Mundi.  But Axis will get minimal play here on the blog, as I buy the fruit for that label.  Which makes it very, very easy.  And easy is boring in a blog.

Here’s a quick recap for those who are just joining us.  (Welcome!  The rule around here is that you have to get a glass of wine while you peruse this blog.  If you are at work, put it in a coffee cup.)

  • Clos Pepe is a 40 acre property with 29 acres of grapevines.  We grow 25 acres of pinot noir and 4 acres of pinot noir.  There’s also 5-6 acres of Tuscan varietal olive trees for oil production, but I won’t go into olive production very often. 
  • As vineyard manager and winemaker I try to balance my efforts between viticulture and cellar work, but tend to focus most of my time on the growing of the grape.  I spend a few hours a week in the winery, but most of my time is spent on the vines, communicating with customers and wine lovers, and promoting Clos Pepe as a vineyard and the Estate wines as a brand.
  • I strongly believe the more consumers understand wine, the more confident they become in purchasing and enjoying wine. 
  • The purpose of this blog is to educate and liberate wine drinkers from unwieldy conventions of an uptight and antiquated American wine culture that has burdened consumers with useless rules, complications and affectation.  I believe wine is a beverage that can liberate us from our increasingly isolated and busy lives, and bring us together at table for the last meaningful ritual left in US society:  the ritual of eating slow food and drinking good wine with our friends, family, and even strangers that will become friends through the magic of wine and table.  Understanding wine gives us the advantage of choosing and drinking wines that suit our own palates and increasingly trusting our own palates instead of those that assume they know what we like to drink.
  • Each week I try to publish this blog on Thursday before the sun goes down.  That means you can check it out Friday morning when you get to work, imagining with glee the wines you plan to open over the weekend (consider it a pep talk for your weekend sipping adventures), or you can read it over the weekend to relax and learn, or save it until Monday when you need a little pick-me-up for the long week ahead. 
  • The Blog is always posted first at winemakermag.com (front page will always have the most current installment), and I always send out updates within the hour of posting on my Twitter account: @weshagen , and you can get the link from my FaceBook (add Wes Hagen as a friend), or have the link emailed to you by becoming a fan of the ‘Year in the Vineyard’ Wine Blog (FaceBook as well).

So much for the particulars and the review.  Budbreak is all about the new and the delicate, the awakening of a new vintage’s potential.  It’s like having your first kid every March.  As those tender, green buds unfold to show the tiny clusters, the growing tip, the delicate first leaves covered in cold dew, the realization hits you.  There’s a million clusters emerging at Clos Pepe this week, and I’m responsible for every one of them until they are delivered to our 10 producers, or, in the case of our Estate production are picked, crushed, fermented, pressed, barreled, aged, racked, tanked, filtered, bottled and sold.  It’s a feeling of renewal and terror, like a surfer that looks over his shoulder and sees a tsunami wave coming.  It’s too late to paddle over or get to shore.  The vintage is that wave, our crew and equipment is the surfboard, and my job is to carve that wave from edge to edge, lip to barrel, and arrive at shore with the experience of something special.

There’s not a whole lot of jobs that combine agriculture, craft, hospitality, travel, sales, social networking, writing, drinking and 12,000 years of tradition.  This is one of the oldest professions.  (A favorite quote on that subject came from Reagan, who said something like, ‘Politics is the world’s second oldest profession, but is almost indistinguishable from the first.’)  

Each wine I grow and make represents three years of my professional life: a year to grow it, a year to make and age it, and a year to sell it.  One bad wine means years wasted.  Wine is both an immensely important thing in my life, and also just a beverage.  I take it very seriously, but in the end I know that it’s just a liquid in a glass at a table.  You can geek out on it, you can just drink it, you can even christen a boat with it or pour a few drops out in memories of your homies.  My job focuses on making sure that what ends up in the bottle is worthy of both stern evaluation and ecstatic consumption.  I want both the critic and the hedonist to be equally happy.


But back to budbreak.   Those unfolding buds drive my imagination.  I start thinking about spray schedules, frost protection, irrigation and fertilization needs.  I’m seeing two clusters on most opening buds, so it looks like the crop will at least start with the potential of 2-3 tons per acre in pinot noir.  Of course a devastating frost (like in 2008), blight, mildew, insects, and one of 100 other factors could ruin our year, but it’s my job to protect the vineyard from such threats.

The frost season runs until mid-May, and our frost alarm is calling me most nights to turn our gas-powered fans on when the temperature at the bottom of the vineyard hits 37 degrees.  The helicopter blades in a green-metal housing blow cold air off the bottom of the vineyard floor 300 feet into the sky, so warmer air can replace it.  It’s an anxious time, not quite as anxious as last year, but it still keeps me from sleeping soundly for the next few months.

In the next week I have 4 tours/tastings scheduled, I’m going to the winery today to get all our barrels topped, ozonated and the cellar cleaned up.  I will also be racking our 2009 Axis Mundi Syrah very soon, and I’ll be shipping wines around the country next Monday when this little heat wave is over.  The vineyard has seen low 80’s over the last three days, which is really waking up the dormant vines.

Pushing buds

The last subject for the week is late pruning, and what a difference it made this year for prolonging dormancy in the most frost-prone sections of the vineyard.  We held off pruning until early March for the lower sections of the vineyard, pruning them after the tips of the canes began to go through budbreak.  This slows the vine down and causes it to focus on healing the pruning wounds and slowly pressurizing the buds that are retained at pruning, which means we get an extra 10-14 days of dormancy on the bottom of the vineyard.  The timing needs to be perfect, and it’s easier to do in a small vineyard like Clos Pepe.  So we are seeing the first-pruned vines on the vineyard showing evolved budbreak and emerging leaves and clusters, and the last-pruned vines just starting to push—looking more thorn-like than green and leafy.  I suspect we will continue to engage in this practice of late pruning, as the tighter buds have a greater chance of surviving a frost event than an open, green, leafy shoot.

Upcoming Clos Pepe events:

March 27th: 1-3 PM.  Wes pours Clos Pepe and Axis Mundi at the El Rancho Market in Santa Ynez.

April 4th:  My big debut.  3500 words on Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir in the LA Times Magazine.  Watch circulation to increase due to my Mom buying out all copies.

April 18th: 11 am – 3 pm:  Clos Pepe Vintner’s Festival Open House.  Come by Sunday for sips, nibbles, barrel tasting, and the chance to take home some of our best wines ever!  1273 West Laurel Avenue, Lompoc CA.

April 24th:  Winemaker Dinner with Wes Hagen and Clos Pepe at Buona Tavola Restaurant in San Luis Obispo.  A great Saturday night wine pairing.  The menu is looking spectacular, and we will be doing some innovative and surprising matches.  The food will be great and the wines should match splendidly.  I’ll wax quasi-poetically about pinot noir, chardonnay and how food, wine and friends are a perfect combination.