First Wines

Sorry we haven’t posted in a while. We’ve been very busy with pruning, new construction, harvests from our small leased vineyard, and making, finally, our…first…wines. Let’s tell you about this wondrous experience.

With irreplaceable help from family, especially wife/best friend Maureen and oldest son Stephen, the support of friends, timely assistance from the owners of our small leased vineyard, the Malicks, and sage advice from our consulting winemaker, Sebastien Marquet, and his team, we harvested grapes, transported them, and made six new wines for the first time in our interim winery (our barn). Our whites: a fermentation blend of Viognier and Petit Manseng; and a Viognier varietal. Our reds: varietals of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot; and a barrel blend of all three. We plan to make another red blend when the varietal reds finish barrel aging. Seems simple enough, but it wasn’t. Here’s a sample.

In late September 2016, we harvested and field sorted (through Mark Malick’s crew) and began processing about 2.5 tons of Viognier and Petit Manseng. The fruit was beautiful.

Our first step was transferring the harvested and sorted fruit from yellow containers, called “lugs” (because you lug fruit in them) into our crusher/destemmer. This machine removes the berries from the stems and then splits the berries to expose the pulp and pits (seeds). This process is labor intensive. Each lug holds about 25-30 pounds of fruit. Each has to be lifted from the pallet on which they are transported to the winery and emptied into the crusher/destemmer. We had 200 lugs to empty and clean and 2.5 tons of white grape fruit to destem and crush. We also had to clean the crusher/destemmer frequently.  Winemaking generally is all about cleaning and sanitizing equipment, hands, tools, floors and so on.  It’s food after all.

photo of white wine grapes in lugs

photo of grape processing

The next step involved transferring destemmed and crushed fruit into our small pneumatic press, which our marketing consultant and Sebastien’s wife, Isabelle Truchon, describes as “cute.” (It is very small but works well for us.) This transfer was relatively easy. The crusher/destemmer has an integrated pump which permitted us to pump crushed/destemmed berries directly into our press through food grade hoses. The press contains a bladder and when activated the bladder fills with air and compresses the fruit. Juice from the compressed fruit falls into a tray below the press. Our press holds about 1 ton of destemmed/crushed fruit. Each press cycle takes almost 2 hours. After a cycle has completed, the press and tray must be emptied and cleaned thoroughly. We expected to complete processing in the early evening; that didn’t happen as described below.

photo of wine pressphoto of grapes in wine press

To avoid spoilage and premature fermentation, we added very minute amounts of sulfur dioxide (SO2) to pressed juice (50 parts per million per ton). This is important. Grape skins contain natural yeasts and other microorganisms which can act on the juice and produce off flavors and odors in finished wine. Adding SO2 helps avoid this problem and is very common in commercial wine making.

photo of wineryphoto of winery

After the juice began to collect in the press tray, we transferred it into our stainless steel jacketed fermentation tanks. Unlike red wines, white wines are typically fermented without skins or seeds which contain tannin and color. We wanted our white wines to be very light in color, to express their fruits and natural acidity, and to be very refreshing, especially on warm summer nights. Accordingly, no fermentation with seeds or skins in the fermentation tanks. We transferred (mostly) juice only into the tanks for fermentation. Ultimately, our white blend and varietal white would occupy two of these tanks.

The transfer should have been easy using our pump and food grade hoses. The pump, tested and cleaned frequently before actual use in winemaking, however, failed. So we had to bail juice from the tray to the tanks using 5 gallon buckets. That took awhile. Fortunately, Mark Malick one of the owners of our leased vineyard, had a small emergency pump that he lent us so we eventually pumped a small portion of juice into our fermentation tanks. I ordered a new pump (and a backup) from our suppliers to avoid this problem in the future. The things they don’t teach you in class you learn the hard way.  Instead of finishing processing of the white grapes in early evening, we finished about 2 AM the following day.  Cleaning and sanitizing equipment and the barn was completed about 4 AM.  Fortunately, winemaking for red grapes was much easier.  All equipment functioned properly.

photo of backup pump

After we transferred the white juice into the fermentation tanks, we connected our chiller to the cooling jackets on the tanks. Our chiller is essentially a large portable 3 ton air conditioner and heater on wheels. It sends cold (or warm) fluid into external dimpled cooling “jackets” wrapped around the outside of our tanks. The fluid, a 35% mix of food grade propylene glycol and water, never comes into contact with juice or wine which is inside the fermentation tanks. Chilling the juice is necessary for at least three purposes: it aids in clarification of the juice allowing the grape pulp, seeds, and skins and expired yeast (all referred to as lees) to settle to the fermentation tank bottom where they will be removed from the juice or wine through a process called racking; it helps prevent premature fermentation or spoilage by wild yeast and other microorganisms present in the air and on grape skins; and it helps control temperature of the juice or wine in fermentation. All of these are important, but the last is critical. If the temperature gets to high or too cold during fermentation, the yeast which are added to start fermentation may expire before fermentation is completed. The result will be higher residual sugar in the wine. If you are trying to make a sweet desert wine, this is fine. But we weren’t. We were making a dry wine and wanted our yeast to ferment the juice to dryness.

Unfortunate things can and do happen in winemaking and in nature. And they did here. Our chiller, also tested and cleaned frequently before first use, failed, three times. Temperatures in the barn were high in late summer and early fall. Temperatures in the tanks were too. To avoid early fermentation by wild yeasts, we had to add our own yeast earlier than we would have liked and get our chiller supplier to fix the chiller. Ultimately, our supplier fixed the chiller (it had three separate leaks inside the chiller tubing which carries chiller fluid to the cooling or heating elements in the chiller). Unfortunately, fermentation, without cooling, proceeded rapidly at higher than optimal temperatures, stopped early, and left us with “off-dry” white wines, that is, wines that were slightly sweet. Our options: restart fermentation; or bottle sweeter desert wines. We chose the former which is the riskier option, adding yeast with greater temperature tolerances and nutrients for the yeast. To our great relief, the restarted fermentation worked and we have very nice, fruit forward, dry white wines. Amen.

The process for red wine making is somewhat different. Briefly, grapes are harvested, sorted and processed through the crusher/destemmer similar to the white wine process above; however, red grapes are fermented with skins and seeds to add color and tannins to the wine. In addition, after fermentation has completed, reds grape skins and seeds are transferred from fermentation tanks/bins to the press for pressing and the pressed wine that runs from these grapes is added back into the red wine for added flavor, color, and complexity.

Harvest in the vineyard for red grapes is different too.  Unlike our white grapes which were harvested in one day in late September, our red grapes were harvested over several weeks from early (Merlot), through mid (Petit Verdot) to late October (Cabernet Sauvignon). Fruit was again beautiful although Brix (a sugar scale) was not optimal for the Cabernet Sauvignon.  This could have been due to rainfall prior to harvest which dilutes sugar in the grapes, lack of sunshine late in the growing season, and vine shut down late in the growing season. Mother Nature gives and Mother Nature takes.

photo of red wine grapes in lugsphoto of red winemaking

Sugar content in grapes is important because yeast consume sugar in fermentation and produce alcohol.  Alcohol adds mouth feel and body to wine.  Too much alcohol, the wine overpowers.  Too little, the wine is “thin.”  To help achieve better alcohol levels, we “chapitalized”, that is, added some sugar during fermentation.   In the end, viola, we produced 4 very nice reds which are aging in new French oak barrels.

We are now preparing for bottling.  Our graphic artist, Chris McDowell, has helped us design, we think, some very simple and beautiful labels for our wines.  Mock ups of our labels follow.

photo of wine labelphoto of wine label

We will shortly submit our labels for approval by state and federal regulators.  After they are approved, and our wines have completed aging in tank and barrel, we will filter our wines (so they are crystal clear) and bottle them.

As noted above, we also did some construction this year.  We added a tractor shed to provide more room for winemaking in our barn.  We also began pruning our vines for training of trunks to our trellis system.  We are using a simple trellis method, VSP (vertical shoot positioning), where a single trunk supports two lateral branches (cordons), which sprout vertical shoots held in place by upper wires in the trellis system.  We plan to use cane pruning in our vineyard (rather than spur pruning) which will renew wood each year from which shoots, leaf canopy and grapes will grow and mature.

photo of new vineyardphoto of new vineyard

photo of tractor shed

photo of tractor shed

We were blessed with resources, family and friends to help make this dream a reality.

photo of stone gate posts

aerial vineyard photoaerial photo of vineyard landgraphic of vineyard blocks

photo of vineyard at sunset

We’ve made our first wines, which so far, are turning out pretty well despite equipment failures and rookie winemaker mistakes.  With a little luck, by our next post we should have bottled wine and be preparing for our opening.  Lot’s to do til then.  Cheers!