(Another) Year in the Vineyard Wine Blog, Weeks 15 and 16 by Wes Hagen

(Another) Year in the Vineyard:  The Two Week Edition: 

Week 15 and 16:  June 18 – July 1, 2010

San Fran, Big Sur, and Back to the Ranch!

 canopy weeks 15 and 16

The vintage is proceeding to plan, and the early Summer is slipping away.  After Spring and frost patrol, after the crew has been at work long enough to be on autopilot and the shoot positioning, leaf pulling and irrigation is all in order, Chanda and I usually disappear North for a week to San Francisco, for Pinot Days. I’m writing this week’s (and last week’s) blog in the quiet, rustic confines of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, one of our favorite places in the world.  The fire is crackling, outside the fog stumbles and swirls through the trunks of ancient redwoods, and the air seems to be thick with oxygen and a mellow nonchalance that reflects the artistic and deliberate slow pace that defines Big Sur.  Even the words seem to appear slower on my screen, the tapping of the keyboard  more deliberate in the knowledge that Henry Miller or Allen Ginsberg could well have written by this same fireplace.  A half drunk (or half full?) bottle of Champagne is within arm’s reach, and I think Miller and Ginsberg would be disappointed if I didn’t try to grease the old frontal lobe with bubbles  to get the old blog rolling.  (Actually, Miller would have called me crazy for not being naked and sweaty, and Ginsberg would likely be tripping and beating a drum in the woods.)  My beautiful wife Chanda, so kind and statuesque, just filled my glass with the salmon colored, fizzy fluid of life.  Miller and Ginsberg be damned.  Life is good and the words are coming out of me.  /sip.  /think/  /sip  Even though the vineyard is over a hundred miles away, I can close my eyes and see every acre, the rolling hills, the growing tips slowing, the clusters closing, leaves soaking up sun and producing the sugar in the berries that will become the yeast sustenance that makes fermenters bubble and will eventually make people happy at tables filled with sumptuous vittles and friends.

big sur 1


Last week I was able to get into the vineyard with the crew for a decent amount of time, observing the progression of the canopy management fine tuning and where the vines are in their yearly cycle of growth and maturation.  We’re seeing the leaves start to thicken a bit, the base of shoots starting to harden into slightly woody canes, the bunches are maturing slowly as the vines change gear from pushing shoots and vegetative growth to the process of maturing the crop.  The year has been defined by cool, windy weather.  With only a few days above 80 degrees since March, with most days being in the high 60’s and low 70’s, the ripening is likely a few weeks behind most vintages.  There’s been plenty of sun for the vines to soak up, but the strong winds will often shut the vines down as they close their stomata pores to avoid losing too much water vapor in the gales.  So that slows down the ripening as well.  But the heat will arrive and the color and the sugar will come..pinot noir is such an earlier ripener that we have never had the problem of achieving full ripeness at Clos Pepe–so the slow progression and accumulation of sugar and flavor is a blessing, really.  Of course it may mean a late harvest, October instead of September, but we move and adjust to the rhythm of the vintage, not the other way around.

clusters 15 16


The crew is busy with what will likely be the final full pass through the vineyard.  They are doing another positioning run and removing lateral shoots and pulling most leaves from the morning (sun) side of the canopy.  This way the cool morning sunshine can penetrate the canopy and shine brightly (but not hot) on the berries, which will improve their color and flavor in this cool climate growing environment.  That much sun in a hot-climate region could burn the fruit and make for pale wines–but in the Santa Rita Hills we can be fairly aggressive with our leaf pulling because we so rarely go over 80 degrees, and the cluster temperature is often cooled by prevailing coastal breezes. /sip  So once the crew is finished with this pass through the vineyard, we will go back to a smaller crew, just our permanent three guys (Cesar, Felipe and Miguel), with Tony Mendez working with me in the winery and the field most days as an intern/cellar rat, and we will take some time to preen the baby vines/replants in the field, assess irrigation needs for the last few months of the vintage, continue counting clusters and estimating crop yields in each of our producers’ fields, double checking all of our tanks and materials for bottling in August and also getting ready for some upcoming events, wine dinners and the arrival of our 2010 intern, Adrien Gautherin from the famous 8th generation winemaking family in Chablis, France.  He thinks he’s coming here to make Santa Rita Hills pinot noir, but I am secretly ready to exploit his genetic and extra-genetic proclivities and knowledge for making profound low-oak and oak-free Chardonnays.  /sip  (The next bottle of bubbles has been put on ice, and let me tell you, this does not suck in any way.)



 Chanda’s mom, Diana, is back at the ranch taking care of 19 sheep, four dogs and six chickens.  It’s a blessing so Chanda can really relax knowing all the critters are safe.  Of course Oliver the wonderhound is here with us,snuggled up with Chanda on her chair near the fire, dreaming peacefully as the cool, foggy afternoon slips by quickly.  Our three days in San Francisco passed swiftly by as I did a Trade Tasting on Friday,  Seminars on Saturday and a huge Grand Tasting (3000+ people) on Sunday.  Pinot Days is a great event if you can ever make it.  It currently travels to three cities:  Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.  The San Fran Pinot Days is by far the largest and oldest, and is extraordinarily well managed by some of my favorite people in the business:  Steve and Lisa Rigisich.  Besides getting to pour my wine for hundreds upon hundreds of pinotphiles, wine fans and their friends, I was also very lucky, in an alphabetic sense, to be pouring next to the booth of Claypool Cellars, the new wine project of Primus and Oysterhead bassist par excellence: Les Claypool.  So I got to hang and pour with Les, which was an awesome and unexpected pleasure for me.  The greatest aspect of meeting one of my musical heroes was that it was in my sphere of influence.  If I was just one more adoring fan backstage, toadying for a word with him, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable wasting his time.  But he pulled into the tasting at the same time as us, and opened the conversation:  “I guess we’re neighbors.”  I put my hand out to welcome him.  “I’m Les,” he said.  “I know,” I replied.  “I’ve been a primate since the ‘Frizzle Fry’ days.  Tried your wines on Friday and that’s some fine juice, m’friend.”  Of course I pulled a few douchey moves:  asking for a posed picture with bottles in hand, begging for a branded corkscrew and getting him to trade me a signed bottle.  It was a bit surprising when he asked me to sign the bottle of Clos Pepe for him, so I wrote: “Hope this bottle sucks as bad as Primus, you snap-dad'” and signed it.  It was a moment.  And I have the pic to prove it!  He liked the way I handled my table and told me he was jealous of my pouring ‘schtick’.  < > Another moment.  Then the big one, when he busted out a card, wrote his tour manager’s personal number on it, and invited me (plus one) to come to the Santa Barbara Bowl Primus show and come backstage and hang with the other lucky and sucky bastards. (For the Primus neophytes, they won’t come out for an encore unless the crowd chants ‘You Suck!’ really, really loudly.)   Exciting stuff!  I was stoked enough that the hour of stop-and go traffic between Fort Mason and the 280 South onramp was quite tolerable, and knowing we were headed towards Big Sur kept our heads fresh, our eyes on the road, and the atmosphere jovial.  Les also fell in love with Oliver and spent a long time chatting with Chanda about dogs and such.  He recently rescued an Australian Kelpie (just like our dog Max), and that kept Les and the Mrs. talking between moments when adoring fans were jostling for a taste of Claypool’s tasty pinot juice (‘Fancy booze for semi-fancy Folks’) and asking for autographs and pictures.

slanted door

Oh yeah, and I poured pinot for about a thousand people and gave them the rigamarole about Clos Pepe, our philosophy, our farming, the Santa Rita Hills and our stylistic preference for making wines more elegant than concentrated.  Either those that like the richer, denser style of pinot noir are very hesitant to identify themselves at these tastings, or I’m finding the vast majority of serious pinot noir fans appreciate and celebrate the Clos Pepe style.  I also brought wines going back to 2005, so the complexity of a lighter-style in its maturity may have been a big part of the positive feedback I received. 

Here’s my secrets of the table-tasting (revised from last time I published something similar):

  • Always keep a few people waiting for wine.  Make eye contact with those waiting to let them know it won’t be long before their first pour, but manage the crowd by giving those in front your full attention and passion, and when they have their first pour, invite those behind to step forward and get their first wine to keep the line moving, but a line/crowd still forming to show that you have the goods.
  • Keep something pink and cold at the table for those that are experiencing palate overload.  When you see a taster step up with purple teeth and an overwhelmed look on their face, offer a sip of bubbles or chilled rose’ to freshen their palate.  Especially at a tasting where red wine (like Pinot Days) is predominant, a sip of crisp rose’ can be like a drink of cold water in the desert.
  • Passion and craft are as important as flavor and quality.  People judge winemakers/pourers just like teachers/professors on the first day of school.  I would suggest that a taster judges the pourer within the first five seconds of the tasting experience.  Are they friendly?  Knowledgeable?  Approachable?  Passionate?  Annoyed?  Tired?  Completely full of shit?  Drunk?  When a new taster reaches the front of the line, I make strong eye contact, smile and welcome them.  I may say something like:  “Hello.  Welcome.  I have five pinot noirs on the table from Clos Pepe, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County.  The focus is on elegance over concentration.  I have the 2008 and the 2007, fruity and young, and the 2006 and 2005, a bit more mature and earthy.  I would taste them young to old to watch the baby fat fall off and the elegance emerge, but if you only have time for one, I can help you choose something to your liking.”
  • Then, as I pour each wine I might characterize the vintage and the character of the wine in a very simple and short sentence.  I also try to mix up the descriptors into two or three snippets so those in line don’t have to hear the exact same phrases ad nauseum.  ‘Here’s the 2008, just a baby.  Wonderfully aromatic, but still quite light and ephemeral in the mouth.’.  ‘Here’s the 2008, quite heady in the nose, but a bit shut down still from bottling.’  ‘The ’08 pinot…just a baby, needs a bit of time in the cellar.’  You get the idea.
  • If you’re not passionate about the wines you’re pouring, get a new job.  Unless you’re really, really hot in a short, tight skirt, the brand is not benefitting.  I limit myself to mid-thigh miniskirts, personally.

big sur 2

Well, that’s about as much detail as I can muster in describing the last few weeks at the vineyard and on the road/vacation.  We’ve hiked and taken photo journeys in the mornings and hibernated in the afternoons and nights after great dinners here at the inn and up at Nepenthe.  The punt bottle is empty, and so is my glass, but the second bottle of Champs is glistening, beading and cold–calling like a strumpet to a gentleman cruising the streets in a convertible Jaguar.  I’m easily seduced by the call of a cold bottle of bubbles, and as I see that Chanda is also sporting an empty stem, it would be less than chivalrous for me not to pop the back-up and enjoy this last evening of epicurean sensualism.  Another log on the fire and we should be set for hours.  Cheers all, and may I suggest a stay at Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn the next time you feel confined by the stresses of life, love and work.  Ask for the Lower Creek Room, start a fire and bring plenty of bubbles.  The ice comes free.  Cheers!