(Another) Year in the Vineyard Wine Blog, Week #29 by Wes Hagen, Clos Pepe

(Another) Year in the Vineyard

Week #29: 9/25-9/30, 2010

From Mellow to Manic in a Single Heat Wave

And Why English Majors Make Bad Electricians

As you might have guessed, the blogs during harvest will be short and sweet.  The Hemingway novel of the Vineyard Blog scene.  It is currently 2:40 on Wednesday morning, and until I wrote that last sentence, I actually thought it was Thursday.  Fortunately, I have the correct crew, tractor and bins assembling outside my window in the Wente Chardonnay section to get going on the correct pick, Estate Chardonnay, Tyler Winery Chardonnay and some Pommard pinot noir for Tyler as well.

If all goes well, we’ll be in the winery around 7 am this morning to begin setup for two press loads of Chardonnay fruit, which will be whole cluster pressed into around 8-10 barrels for barrel fermentation.  (Sipping strong coffee.)  The rough plan in my head is to try to get some video of Chardonnay harvest this morning, upload it today, and then get the blog up tomorrow in between picking, crushing, punch downs and the other 150 things I have to do between now and then.

Now it’s 1:24 in the afternoon after a fun, but slightly frustrating day in the winery.  I wasn’t going to air my frustrations in the Blog, but after showering and considering it, I feel that this blog is meant to give an accurate portrayal of the wine industry, and as such I should come clean.

There are two major pieces of production equipment in the winery and two major-minor machines.  The two major are the crusher/destemmer and the pneumatic press.  The two minor-majors (in my world) are the pump and the ozone machine.  Ozonated water is a miracle of modern winemaking.  It allows us to cut in half the amount of chemicals we uise to clean.  Start up the ozone machine, spray down a surface, and it’s basically sterile.  No chemicals needed.  The pump moves liquid from one place to another, which seems like about 80% of winemaking (the other 20% being split between paperwork, chemistry and cleaning up).  But the crusher and the press are absolute necessities for a functioning winery.  Red grapes cannot be made into wine without running through the crusher destemmer (and then pressed about two weeks later, and white grapes and red grapes must be pressed to get the juice or the wine.

I had a technician come down two weeks ago and do periodic maintenance on both our crusher and our press.  He said they both looked brand new, and I had to give props to last years’ interns:  Liam and Jackson (Jackson cleaned them last, so he gets the lion’s share of respect).  So with all points lubed, electronics checked, I was confident that both pieces of equipment would be trouble free throughout the anticipated harvest season.  Both broke down on the first f’in day of use.

The crusher stopped as a result of a heated engine—and blew a fuse basically.  We still had 4000 lb. of Pinot Noir to process, and half a dozen interns in the winery buzzing with activity one moment, and sitting useless the next.  I call my favorite electrician, Joe DeBolt (805-736-6071), thinking ‘what chance in hell do I have for an electrician to answer his business phone at 8 am on a Sunday?’  But he did answer.  And he was in the winery within 15 minutes of the initial breakdown.  He looked at the guts of the machine and determined that one of the electronic solenoid-type thingies was defective, loose and was causing one of the motors to overheat.  Now understand that this is an unusual part on a random Italian piece of specialty equipment.  I was about to ask how many weeks it would take to get one from Italy, when he smiled wryly and said.  “I think I have one of these at my house.”  I was flabbergasted.  Five minutes later he was back with the part, and less than an hour after the stoppage we were crushing and destemming again happily.  Nothing is ever that easy during harvest.  And that’s why Joe’s number is there if you are ever near Lompoc and need a God of an electrician.  Like Zeus, seriously.

And then today…our first day of pressing Chardonnay.  So we spent an hour getting the press all jazzed and shiny for its first use, packed it lovingly with 1800 lb. of Chardonnay, and fired it up and started filling barrels half full for barrel fermentation.  We were filling barrel number 5 when the press stopped.  Another red light saying a motor had overheated.  WTF?  I calmly called Joe DeBolt again, thinking he would come save me again.  No good.  Others needed his skills..I should have known.  So we took the panel off the press, reset the thermal indicator, all with the aid and skill of Adrien Gautherin, Intern #1, and then we squeezed the last bit of juice from the pressload.  Thinking that we wouldn’t be able to do another full pressload without the same problem, and unable to summon Zeus down from Olympus, we spent the next hour plus cleaning and sterilizing the press.  The other ton of fruit was placed in the cold room at Flying Goat (thanks Norm!), and we’ll press off the juice tomorrow if the planets align and Zeus gives the go ahead.  Or that’s what I thought!

Returning to the Clos, I was finally able to reach Joe on the phone and set up an appointment early tomorrow morning before we start pressing.  We chatted to do a little troubleshooting, and he asked me if I had been twist-locking my press and crusher into the receiver on the wall.  ‘Twist-locking?’ I asked.  ‘Ya—when you plug those in, you have to twist them in to lock them and get good contact,’  Joe said, showing none of the wrath that Olympians with thunderbolts often display.  ‘Well, that would probably explain our problems this year…’ I admitted.  ‘And why English Majors are vastly undertrained for winemaking.’  He’s still going to come to double check the system, but I learned a very valuable piece of information.  I can scan a poem in trochaic quatrameter, but when it comes to electrical shit, I’m as useless as a caesura at the end of a couplet.

Oh well, other than that we’ve been harvesting almost every morning starting at 3 am and trying to stay alive in a nasty heat wave.  The fruit went from two weeks until ready to ready to make wine almost instantly, and we hope this cooling trend will continue.  We’ve applied tons of water to all vines and hope the berries absorb a little water and plump up.  I’ll have to add a little water to the ripest lots this year—something I hate to do, but my first job is to make delicious wine, and making a 18% alcohol pinot noir just doesn’t sound all that appetizing.  Beware, though!  The Clos is going to make some seriously big, dark, rich wine this year!

THURSDAY UPDATE:  We pressed off the rest of the Chardonnay today,  Thursday morning, and I’ve just returned from the winery after a long morning and afternoon of winemaking.  Feeling good, sleep last night recharged me, and this beautiful 77 degrees outside with a cool breeze is a dream of epic proportions.

PROPS:  Special thanks this week to all the crazy Clos Pepe interns for waking up at 3 am to pick so many days in a row, and to Josh McCourt for his calming influence on my freaky nature.  Josh shot most of the video this week too!