(Another) Year in the Vineyard, Week #11 with Wes Hagen, Clos Pepe


Year in the Vineyard Wine Blog, Week #11

By Wes Hagen, VM/WM Clos Pepe

May 20-27, 2010

(Don’t forget to scroll over the pics for commentary)

Flags over Clos Pepe in late Spring winds. (aachoo)

My trip to Stevenson, Washington was great.  I thoroughly enjoyed all the home winemakers I met, especially those with the guts and lack of sanity it takes to grow their own fruit in their backyards.  Without your support, I wouldn’t have such a great job here at WineMaker Magazine, and I wouldn’t have received a free admission to the WineMaker Conference and a cushy room at the spectacular Skamania Lodge.  Although I was a bit disappointed that there was no Ska music (remember the Specials, the Untouchables or HepCat?), the views were gorgeous.  While most folks were a bit put off by the rain, I love the rain (living in such a dry area), and was stoked to get a week off from the dry winds and the horrible Spring allergies we’re all dealing with here in Santa Barbara County right now.

The Friday night tasting at the Conference was a highlight for me.  Not only did I taste some delicious homemade wines (a blended, skin-macerated white blend from Arizona was my favorite surprise), I was also afforded the chance to sample some Columbia Gorge wines that were delicious, balanced, verve-y, and delicious.  I have to admit I should have visited this region earlier in my wine geekitude…if not in person than in a glass.  The ladies at Phelps Creek took special care of me, and all of their wines showed beautifully—the pinots and the Riesling were standouts in my mouth.

Saturday was a travel day, and the ride in was infinitely more relaxing than the trip up from LAX.  Not only is the Portland airport virtually hassle-free, but the takeoff  through the inclement weather was much easier than the lading the previous Wednesday, which was 20 minutes of severe turbulence that left me woozy for most of the evening.  I got back to the Clos (and more importantly, to the loving arms of wife, Chanda) on Saturday evening, brought home a feast of the Mexican cuisine that I missed on my short jaunt up to the Pacific Northwest.  Chanda assuaged her ennui with Twilight movies on the couch and noted that the house stayed perfectly ordered and tidy without my presence.  She said it was too quiet without the tapping of my keyboard and me ‘stomping’ about.  Answering her next question, I didn’t see any vampires or werewolves in Washington, but I was hundreds of miles away from Forks, where the Twilight stories are set.  Not even a Sasquatch.  What a ripoff!


Sunday I was right back in the swing of Clos Pepe hospitality.  I welcomed a large group of tasters, gave them the geology and vineyard walk, tasted some wines, and sold some cases.  Good day.  Monday was a long, busy day.  Meetings in the vineyard with the crew and Ken Brown of ‘Byron’ fame, walking through his sections and discussing shoot thinning and canopy management in spur trained vines.  Because we are transitioning the vineyard from cane pruning to spur pruning, there are some new lessons to be learned, and Ken Brown knows more about Santa Barbara pinot noir than any other winemaker.  Well, it would be fun to see Ken and Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat) go mano a mano on Pinot Noir Jeopardy, but that’s a short story for another day.  Ken and I spent about an hour shoot thinning about a dozen vines and talking about spacing, positioning, sun exposure, wind penetration and all the other geeky shit that gets me all fired up.  He took me to school.  He is very particular about his canopy management and requires some extra care in his contracted sections of Pommard 4 Clone of Clos Pepe Pinot.  He also makes some of the most consistently expressive Clos Pepe wines of any of our producers.  We work with only the best, and I love all of our producers’ wines, but if a Pinot-loving alien (or equally alien Burgundian vigneron) descended from outer space (aka Nuits St. George) and said I could only pour one vertical of Clos Pepe pinot noir, I would choose Ken Brown Wines Clos Pepe from 2000-2009 to strut this vineyard’s stuff. (Cue Parliament-Funkadelic  music and Ursula Andress coming out of the surf in Dr. No.)  Nothing wrong with a little funk, and a classical hottie in her prime with Euro sensibility and structure.  Now what was I writing about?  Oh yeah, shoot thinning with Ken Brown.  I think that last paragraph would qualify me, sight unseen by a doctor, for a prescription of Adderall.

sheep week 11

 So know I know what a perfected canopy looks like in spur pruned/trained pinot noir.  The idea is to take out any double shoots emerging from a single bud, to remove laterals, and to thin out congested areas so each and every cluster has its own, open niche space.  Proper canopy management encourages enough sun to expose the fruit and improve flavor, but not enough to get sunburned;  open enough to allow the breezes to keep the interior of the fruit zone dry which will keep mildew and rot from having an environment conducive to growth.


before shoot pos



So after learning these lessons from Ken, I taught them to Cesar (vineyard foreman) and Tony Mendez (our new intern).  Tony and Cesar each managed and thinned 20 vines, then I came back and helped them fine tune, and then they were set loose upon the rest of the long row.  Then Ken came back and we all checked the rows together, and convinced we were on the right path, set them and the rest of the crew on a training hour, and then off to thin the rest of his ten rows.

before shoot pos

Besides some shipping, customer communication and some errand running for the vineyard, I also spent a few hours in the winery this week.  I got my reports back from the lab, and was very pleased with the ‘numbers’ as they exist right now.  All wines are bone dry and around 14%-14.3% alcohol, which is right on target for where I was guiding them.  Malic acid levels are all at levels where the wines could be safely bottled, but they will spend another three months in barrel before final blending and bottling.  The tiny amounts of malic acid left in the wines show that the wines have completed ‘malolactic fermentation’, which is actually a misleading term, as it is not a fermentation, per se, but a bacterial decarboxylation of L-malic acid in the wine to lactic acid, with the liberation of carbon dioxide.  (Don’t feel bad, I had to look that up.)  It basically makes white wines a little creamier and seamless, and almost all reds are too perky and young-tasting before ML is completed.  Most whites and almost all reds (except for Nouveau Beaujolais) undergo this bacterial decarb…this ML process.

after shoot pos

The nice thing about the completion of ML is that we can sulfite the wines to protect them against spoilage.  So if we get the wines through ML in a beautiful, sound state, we can toss in some S02 (in the form of potassium metabi-sulfite), to keep the wines fresh and protected against spoilage microbes that can make the wine taste bad. 

So Tony and I drove to Santa Maria to a specific winery supply store that has the exact kind of S02 that I like to use (the expensive German kind), but we were a bit disappointed that the guy in line in front of us bought all the boxes that we were hoping to purchase.  So they promised a nearby store had what we wanted and would ship it via UPS to us overnight no cost.  Freed from a few hours of winery work, Tony and I drove (instead of back to the winery) to a Chinese restaurant recommended earlier by Ken Brown (what, you think winemakers only talk about shoots and cluster counts?) and had a fabulous lunch and discussion of our heart-breaking first loves that both slept with all of our friends.  We both agreed that this is an important trial for a young man, and we both managed to get out of the relationship without being dumb enough to marry the slu…ermmm…impetuous young ladies, and now we knew clearly what kind of woman we did want.  I already found her, and Tony is considering whether he has or not.


futuramagirlhot librarian

So that’s it!  I did another great tour today for a couple from Chicago, and have tours and tastings throughout the weekend, as well as a pouring at the Santa Barbara Polo Grounds that is being attended by a number of NFL quarterbacks and their wives.  I suspect they’ll be drinking a lot, which will make us feel great, as the grounds pays for every bottle past the first we pour.

Here’s to a great weekend everywhere this blog is read, and remember to drink at least a few bottles of pinot noir.  Pink, sparkling or red—it’s the greatest wine in the world.