(Another) Year in the Vineyard Wine Blog, Week 30 by Wes Hagen: Clos Pepe

(Another) Year in the Vineyard

Week #30: October 1-8, 2010

Zen and the Challenging Vintage

Harvest is an excellent metaphor for life.  Like any difficult cycle in our lives, harvest usually begins with a period of build up and trepidation:  ‘is it going to happen?’ , ‘when’s it going to happen?’, ‘how’s it going to happen?’  We sit in bed and watch the clock turn, our minds cluttered with potential outcomes and the hazy progression of tasks and how we’d like to see the future realized.  We look for hints, prophecy, augur in the skies, the news, on our computers, with our neighbors.  Which of them will jump first and begin picking fruit?  Who’s going to pull the trigger too soon, and who’s going to pull the trigger too late?

We worry, we plan, we watch the forecast, we deliberate over a cocktail.  Then the first few days when harvest begins we’re a bit uptight—like players in the first few plays of the Superbowl.  We lose a little more sleep, especially if the weather turns hot and the fruit is ripening quickly:  the hill we have to climb suddenly looks steeper and unexpected barriers appear.  Interestingly enough, and I seem to forget this almost every year, the work is both the cause of and the solution to all of our problems.  Work hard enough and the sleep is easy.  Work hard enough and the hill is shorter every day.  I don’t know if this vineyard is in some way magical, or it is true of all winemaking, but it seems that the fruit I pick wants to make good wine, and if I am conscious and crafty in my approach, I have never been disappointed.


Would I have preferred to bring in moderately ripe fruit and not highly ripe fruit that had to be modified and nudged back a little in the winery?  Of course.  This is the first time in 11 years of winemaking for Clos Pepe Estate that we’ll have to add a bit of water back to the must to facilitate fermentations and keep alcohol levels in check.  My normal rule is to adjust nothing—to let the wine represent the vintage and the time and place of picking.  Fortunately the long, cool Summer and Fall gave us all the hang time we needed, so when the heat hit and the sugars rose rapidly, we already had enough phenolic ripeness to make very tasty and balanced wines.  And of course the Santa Rita Hills acidity wouldn’t be dominated, even by a record-breaking heat spell.  And then it got cool–very nice and cool, which helped us pick the vineyard quickly and without further advancement of sugar levels.  And now it started to rain–weird weather persists!  We adjust, put on a raincoat and get out there and keep working.  Unless it comes down too hard, as it did for a few hours last night while we were picking.

We had a few chefs from the Pomona Sheraton visit this week—friends that Steve and I have made as wine judges for the last few decades at the LA International Wine Competition.  They are interested in wine and wine production and came up to pick and help make wine yesterday.  They also fixed us an amazing dinner Monday night: prime Wagyu tenderloin, sea bass, seared foie gras and an Epoisses so ripe, even I had my doubts.  Delicious!  After picking all morning yesterday, I took the intern crew and the chefs to the winery where we processed about 5500 lb. of Pinot Noir through our crusher-destemmer, and attended to another dozen tasks around the winery.  I took the time to taste them through the wines that we have made thus far in 2010:  stainless and barrel fermented Chardonnay that had gone dry and a few tastes of pinot noir from the fermenter that’s almost ready to press. 

Sometimes it takes sharing your craft with other craftspeople to get a really objective view of what’s going on.  The Chardonnay was close to perfect—fabulous fruit and body, a bit richer than previous vintages, but with fabulous acidity and the bracing tropical flavors that appear between the end of primary fermentation and the end of malolactic fermentation.  The pinot was balanced and rich and persistently fruity, with a blackberry, spicy flavor that was still singing in my mouth five minutes later.  I’ve been so busy harvesting fruit and making sure the wines were all well cared for, that I hadn’t stopped and had a few intimate moments with the wine.  Three or four sips of good, young wine bring the vintage into perspective—and as my wise wife suggested: shows us that all that worry was unnecessary.  This vineyard just wants to make delicious wine.

This morning got a little woolly, as we were two hours into our pick when a drizzle became real rain.  We worked through the rain for over an hour, until we were all soaked and chilled to the bone…but the rows we started were all picked clean, and Roessler Cellars will get their fruit today.  We had to postpone the second part of the pick, which I hope won’t throw too much of the picking calendar off.  So now I’m showered and dry again, ready to leave in 5 minutes to Lompoc to meet the interns for breakfast and rack the dry Chardonnay off of the gross sediment (lees), fill barrels to the top with Chardonnay, and inoculate them for malolactic fermentation.  We should be done with winemaking by 11:00 am at the latest, which will make an 8 hour day from our start time at 3 am.  Then back to the office for me for some paperwork, emails, planning the next days’ picks, dinner with Steve and Cathy at 5 pm, the interns will punch down at 7 pm, and then we’ll all be here again at 3 am to start picking, hopefully a drier pick this time around.  Tomorrow we start pressing pinot noir to barrel—always an exciting time.

Thanks go out this week to my entire, kick-ass intern crew:  Tony, Jen, Joe and Adrien.  Josh McCourt sadly left us to return to his life in San Diego, but only after he stayed an extra three days at my urging.  I took his place on the picking bins today and did my best to take up the slack left in his absence.  Thanks for a great week and a half Josh!  Good timing on your week of harvest—you saw most of it happen!  Thanks also to Dave Gaertig, an old friend of mine who answered the clarion call and picked a few 3 am picks with us to help out.  You rock and you know it!

By this time next week I’m hoping to report that the vineyard is picked clean and we are eating ‘Mar y Tiera’ tacos with our crew celebrating.  Of course I will still have a lot of work to complete in the winery before we’re barreled down and drinking tequila with abandon…but the end of the 2:17 alarm clock (picking days) will revolutionize my life and my attitude.  We’re having a lot of fun this year, and I expect the wines to be as stellar as the few I tasted yesterday.

We’re also having an Open House in Lompoc this Sunday, October 10th  for the Harvest Celebration Weekend, at the Clos Pepe Winery:  1273 West Laurel Avenue, Lompoc.  Blog readers taste free!  Come see the fermenters bubbling, taste our first 2010 babies, taste all of our great 2009’s, and we will offer all of our current releases and some library wines for tasting and sale.  Come join us this Sunday!  Or come and join us for our Saturday pick if you want to feel the ‘romance’: send me an email if you’re local and seriously willing to pick: [email protected] .  Cheers!