(Another) Year in the Vineyard with Wes Hagen, Clos Pepe
Week #25: August 27th – September 2nd, 2010
“September Morn: We Picked Until the Night Became a Brand New Day”
Damn! September crept up on us on cat feet! Suddenly, all in one week, we have bottled our entire 2009 production (last Friday), and picked our first pinot noir for sparkling wine (yesterday, Wednesday, September 1st). The vineyard has enjoyed a few days (2 to be specific) of summer weather…not neatrly as hot as the last small heat spike, but just enough to get the vines pumping out some sugar in a balanced and methodical fashion. When the temperatures rise above 90 degrees, the pinot noir fruit rapidly loses water and the sugars rise quickly without a development of flavor. But at 85 degrees, the vines are working at maximum photosynthetic potential and ripening both the phenols and increasing sugar. So this last two days of mid to high 80 degree temperatures has been a perfect ‘ripeness bump’ here at Clos Pepe.
But, as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk a moment about bottling!
Bottling is one of the most stressful days of the year. We take our entire year’s work, put it in a tank, and then it goes in a million dollar truck at one end and comes out the other end as finished, bottled, labeled wine that (magically) has become a salable, packaged product. It’s odd, but the wine hardly seems real until it’s safely inside a beautiful, clean bottle with a fresh, white label on it. It’s a huge transformation. So I met the truck at the winery (by myself) just before 6 am last Friday. We couldn’t have hoped for a better late-August day for bottling in Lompoc. The cold fog stuck in the sky until almost noon, and the temperature never went over 70 degrees. Yes, that’s right. Sixty-eight degrees at the end of August. Love it! Bottling in a heat wave isn’t that big of a deal—it happens in Napa and in warmer areas all the time, but I’m very sensitive about my wine being in contact with any warm climate, so these kind of days take a huge amount of stress from the operation. After opening up the winery to the cold, foggy morning, we got the truck hooked up to clean water and power, and then the entire bottling truck was sterilized with steam. By 7 am we were setting up pumps, cleaning hoses, organizing pallets of glass, corks, capsules, labels and screwcaps (for the Axis Mundi Syrah), so we could efficiently organize all 5 lots that we were bottling. The order was as follows: 2009 Chardonnay ‘Barrel Fermented’, 2009 Chardonnay ‘Hommage to Chablis’, 2009 Pinot Noir ‘Vigneron Select’, 2009 Pinot Noir, 2009 Axis Mundi Syrah, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard.
As you remember from last week, the wines had all been racked, blended, and lightly filtered into stainless steel tanks (with nitrogen gas bubbled through them and a layer of nitrogen gas on top of the wines to protect them. Once the rest of the crew arrived and we were all hooked up to the first tank, wine was brought into the truck, but we usually fill a five gallon bucket with the first wine, taste it, and if it is dilute at all, it is discarded. When the wine is perfect and pure, it is allowed to follow into the filling bowl. The glass is dumped, it is put into a large ferris-wheel like device that cleans the gas with nitrogen gas, and then the clean and gas-filled bottle (no oxygen allowed!) is filled to an exact level so there is about a ¼” of headspace between the wine and cork, and then a cork is inserted. At this point the crew (us) puts a capsule on each bottle by hand (feeling very close to Laverne and Shirley on the beer production line), and then the capsule spinner spins the capsule tight over the bottle neck. Then the bottle goes through a labeler where the label is applied and checked for height and accuracy by a system of cameras and lasers. The perfection of this bottling line is quite remarkable—we’ve used the same company (BottleMeister) for ten years, and we love how Arnold and Paul take such care with our wines. After each bottle is visually inspected once more by a human, it is packed into case boxes, taped, and sent down a slide to where it has a label stuck to it and it’s stacked carefully and tightly on pallets—14 cases per layer, 4 layers per pallet for 56 cases per pallet. The pallet is wrapped tightly in plastic (a dizzying job!) and then the pallets are rushed back inside the cool, temperature-controlled winery. My initial conversation with Paul at 6 am led us to believe we would finish the bottling by 6 pm and be on the road around 7 pm. With a short lunch and the most perfect setup and organization that we’ve pulled off (remember how I said last week that we kicked major ass?), we finished the last bottle on the line at 3:30 pm. The crew hung out and cleaned tanks and hand-bottled a few extra cases from what was left in the last tank, and we were home by 5:30 with about 1800 cases finished and stacked and perfect. An awesome conclusion to a long and tiring week.
After an awesome wedding on Sunday night (congratz Jeremy and Michelle Ball!), way too much vodka and the coffin nail (aka a cigar), I was a bit woozy and achey Monday morning, but I was out with the crew by 7 am and working with Adrien on field testing pinot noir. I was very curious how the little heat wave the previous week had influenced ripeness, and was hoping the sugar wouldn’t have spiked too high. We tested the fields that Monday, August 30th and saw that most of the pinot noir throughout the Clos was right at 20 degrees brix, which I thought was a perfect level for that moment in the year.
As a reminder, degrees brix is roughly equivalent to the percentage of sugar in the weight of the berry, and most pinot noir is picked for sparkling wine at around 20 brix, and for red wine at about 23-26 degrees brix: earlier for a more restrained wine (better with food and aging), later for more concentration (and perhaps higher scores). Seeing twenty brix, I immediately called Norm Yost at Flying Goat and told him we were ready to make some sparkling wine, and we were expecting a bit of heat on Wednesday. So we decided to pull the trigger on the sparkling wine program early, early Wednesday morning, and to get the fruit out of the field before the heat started ripening the fruit further along than we wanted it. On Tuesday evening we removed the bird netting from the rows we were planning to pick, and the crew arrived just after 5:30 am on Wednesday, September 1st to start the picking.
Because the pick was small (only 1.5 tons maximum), we had a small picking entourage: just about 10 people, including some stalwart volunteers from Lompoc (including a retired Vice-Commander of Vandenberg Air Force Base and his lovely wife, some of the interns from the winery, Adrien Gautherin (but of course!), Steve Pepe, Chanda and the regular Clos Pepe crew.
We picked from 6:00 am until 9:00 am—a slow pick for only 1.3 tons, but the fruit was double sorted (pickers sort and then the fruit is sorted by two people watching the bins on the trailer). We delivered the fruit right on time (9:30 am) to Norm Yost at Flying Goat before Lompoc heated up too much. The fruit was around 55 degrees and the day had warmed into the low 70’s. The fruit was put immediately into a cold room (see video) and was processed some time later. For sparkling pinot noir the fruit is put whole-cluster into the press and pressed gently (only to about 1 bar of pressure), so only the lightest, purest juice is extracted. The fruit starts clear at the beginning of the press process and becomes increasingly pink as the skins leak their phenols and anthocyanins into the juice as the pressure increases. This juice will then be settled and fermented in a tank, and eventually bottled, a sweetener added, so it referments in the bottle and produces, as Don Ho would say: ‘tiny bubbles’. The process will take about 2 years, and yield around 800-1000 bottles of Clos Pepe Brut Rose.
Other than the bottling and the picking, we’ve been delivering wine, doing vineyard observations and some dropping of fruit that hasn’t completely darkened, we’ve had meetings with clients, producers, hosted a wedding, and also seen our chickens lay their first eggs! Chanda got rammed in the head by Henley, our sometimes-asshole southdown ram and sustained a fairly serious head injury, but she’s getting better each day. Next we have a little down time as we wait for the pinot noir to ripen, and I’m planning a few trips for Adrien while we wait, including a trip to check out a club or two in Los Angeles and a shopping trip in Beverly Hills. He seems excited. Today I took him to San Luis Obispo on a delivery and also to Santa Ynez—he got to see a lot of vineyards and I hope he gets a good picture of what the Central Coast has to offer to a viticulturist. I love this part of the world and I like to show it off.
Have a great Labor Day weekend everyone! Drink lots of pinot noir, but don’t drive after you do!