Bruliam Wine Blog
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Nothing about bottling day is hard, but everything about bottling day is difficult. Glass bottles, metal foils, corks, and labels are handled separately, each procured from unique vendors. You can have your labels printed at any time, but they are illegal to use until approved by the government. If your approval paperwork is misfiled or delayed, you might end up ordering labels before they are actually approved. This is a potentially costly gamble. On the other hand, biting your nails and awaiting approval first may necessitate a “rush order” to the printer, with no guarantee you’ll have your completed labels in time. Bottling unlabeled glass, called “shiners,” can be equally costly.
At Bruliam, we use a spreadsheet to calculate our wine volumes. It’s really a guess. You have a wine barrel of fixed volume (228L), and you guestimate your losses. There’s evaporation from the top of the barrel, called headspace. There’s also a volume lost to lees. It’s a by-product of my winemaking style, known as “sur lies” aging. It means I keep the wine with the original yeast, holding onto the ghosts of harvest past until the very end. The skeletons of dead yeast settle to the bottom of the barrel, sponging up some volume of wine with them. You’ll also lose volume to filtration, although it’s far less now since we switched to cross flow from pads. The delta between the volume of wine we think we have versus what we actually bottle means we always order too much or too little product. I’m now the proud owner of giant trivet made of “2013” embossed corks, leftover from my rose. I forgot to have the corks rehydrated and resealed in time to reuse them for the 2013 pinots. It’s now a trivet of regret, since Brian miscalculated our current cork order, and we ended up 500 short.
As I write this on the night before bottling, I think I’ve got it under control – that is until there’s a new, unforeseen implosion tomorrow at the bottling line. Since last Friday, we have mitigated the cork shortage disaster and solved one glass problem with another. We’d originally anticipated a bottling line change, where we’d have to swap out the majority glass mold for a measly 26 cases of another. (Apparently the glass mold we’ve been using for years has been discontinued). On the bright side, we don’t have to stop the bottling line anymore. Everyone is relieved. On the flip side, the 26 cases of fallback glass, my “calculation-cushion” if you will, doesn’t exist. The warehouse forgot to delete that line item from inventory back in 2011. Whoops. If I’m lucky, I will sneak by with just enough glass, exactly on the money. But Brian has suggested I take an Excel class at community college this spring.
The best news is that our new Torrey Hill label was approved two weeks ago, some 10 days after we placed the order with the printer. And the wine is delightful. In fact all of the 2013’s are tasting great. I am very proud of the vintage. But I don’t want to get all sappy and quixotic about my wood-fermented 2013 Soberanes pinot when you’re all about to get the 2012. Get ready for the 2012 release and drink to bottling day 2013. Before we blink, we’ll be onto the 2014 harvest.
Update 8/20/2014 – so far so good. The 2013 Torrey Hill is in bottle. Now on to the next ones:
He looked around, bewildered. The artful place settings, the intimate adjoining tables, and the clever use of scientific beakers for water jugs looked both HGTV perfect and composed with ease. He picked at a bit of deer Bolognese, a textured nibble floating the gloriously hued heirloom gazpacho; it reflected the color of my summer rose. He chewed. He sipped appreciatively. Dazzled, he queried, “How did you get here?” “Here” meaning Sparrow Bar + Cookshop in Houston. “Here” meaning Bruliam Wines paired alongside a James Beard nominated Chef, a Top Chef Masters Chef, and a pro at the top of her game. “Here” meaning the utter impossibility of my presence, an honor more befitting a 100-point Wine Spectator darling. I was a flea freeloading on a Kennel Club champion.
“Oh, I stalked Chef,” I tossed out nonchalantly.
“Really, she did.” I hadn’t seen Chef come up behind me. She tossed an arm over my shoulder and smiled. At least she wasn’t mad anymore. Or freaked out.
Like a recovering alcoholic, I’d cycled through waves of emotion – naive exuberance, hopeful daydreaming, angst, shame, and finally grateful acceptance. The road from New York Times centerfold to summer in Houston had been unexpected and ultimately delightful.
Chef Monica Pope is a sprite, a small-framed woman with a hip, pixie haircut and soft, Southern drawl. Imagine Gordon Ramsey screaming “You stupid donkey!” in Hell’s Kitchen. Chef Monica is not that kind of celebrity chef. And I’m lucky for it, or I’d never have pulled off this coup of a wine dinner. But you all want to hear the about the centerfold bit, don’t you? It’s not as sexy as you think. It’s the New York Times.
Many, many months ago, Brian shared with me a NYT photo-op titled “Houston is Tasty.” It featured all kinds of Houston chefs, from Tex-Mex to barbeque to pastry. But Chef Monica caught my eye, and I started Googling. I checked out her menu (inventive and delicious) and her bio (amazing). Her food ethos exactly reflected the sort of joint where I’d envisioned my wines. Well, at least in my unbiased opinion. Next step: make contact. The contact us button on her public website links to “email@example.com.” By default, I guessed her personal e-mail must be “Chef@sparrowhouston.com” or “Chefmonica@sparrowhouston.com” or “Chefpope@sparrowhouston.com.” So I e-mailed every possible permutation. Sometimes being borderline OCD is an asset. When she responded, out of pity, or kindness, or both, I pleaded my case. I begged her to meet me at my distributor’s portfolio tasting. And when she agreed, I baked her cookies to bribe and woo her affections. In between, I’d sent 100′s of e-mails and personal notes. After swearing not to contact her family or come within 100 feet her of her personal residence, we were square. Now that we’re BFF’s, she can look back and feel flattered, not frightened.
I will spare you the bulk of the food porn. But truly, the menu was wild, unexpected, and absolutely scrumptious. She paired the Sangiacomo vineyard pinot with the most beautiful composed salad of avocado and sweet, yellow watermelon to lift the wine’s red fruit character and acidity. Wow! Surprise!
Next came the Torrey Hill alongside lamb lollipops with a berry reduction and a surreptitious hit of heat. Wow!
She completed the meal by pairing the Gaps Crown with gulf shrimp floating in coconut, Asian 5 spice curry. To my palate, the 2012 Gaps has more grip than the 2011, and her creamy broth rounded out any edges. Wow! Every pairing showcased unexpected nuances and flavors, making my wines sing. My heart was swelling, and I beamed with pride. Even better, we raised money to support Recipe 4 Success Foundation, a local, Houston charity.
If you are having food envy, don’t despair just yet. I am honored to host another wine dinner in Houston this fall. Please consider joining me at Brennan’s in November. It will be a joyful and delicious way to celebrate the end of another successful harvest.
He didn’t smile, not even a forced, limpid half bow. We’ve been teasing each other since 10th grade, with 25 years of hurling groan-worthy quips, sparking and not-so-sparkling wit between us. But for whatever reason, “Baby Killer” crossed the line. Within the context of crossed lines, this barb landed somewhere between your kid sneaking forbidden screen time and the “Global Red Line” for gassing your own people. The epithet “Baby Killer” inched closer to the latter. Except that I was trying to be funny.
It all started when one of our children shrieked, “Mommy, get the dog. Hold back Dexter. Keep him inside.” Surreptitiously, I peeked out the window. I could race to the bathroom, feigning GI emergency or pretend I was on vacation in Hawaii, crashing ocean waves drowning out her impeding meltdown. No dice. My daughter was crying those big snotty, web sobs and dragging the dog by the collar. “He’ll eat them,” she choked. In an unprecedented fit of spring-cleaning, Brian had dislodged a bird’s nest, actually a pair of them. When he poked out the nests with the broom handle, he’d unwittingly disrupted a flock of babies. The naked, hapless fledglings were writhing on the concrete, dog-nip for our terrier mutt, Dexter. Besides fetch, taking down birds, lizards, and rodents was his raison d’etre. To let the dog loose would be too gruesome. Besides, the trauma of the fall had already effected most of the damage. Hazmat cleanup was the final step. Double-bagged, the whole mess landed in our garbage can. The kids were too distressed to save the nest for their science teacher. Plus she recycles zip-lock bags and tinfoil remnants. The dead bird thing would damage our family reputation as caring, global citizens poised to contribute to our local, county, state, and cosmic communities. Bird killers, especially baby bird killers, fall outside our school’s community code.
So for days I tormented Brian, whispering “baby killer” under my breath. He just looked grim. “Come on,” I urged. “We live in the country. These things happen. Remember when the barn cat died in the gulley? It’s the Circle of Life, like Lion King. Hakuna Matata.” Just to clarify, we are the kind of people who bought a 4H pig named “Honey Bear” for our personal bacon larder. We hear the mewing of our neighbor’s baby lambs and then retrieve one in white butcher paper 6 months later. We are not squeamish. We enjoy bone marrow, sweetbreads, and non-organic blueberries. Occasionally we watch Fox News.
Then one day, the nests were back. I’m like, “Hey dumb birds, re-tweet this: #Darwin.” So I asked Brian to whack them down. But he was chicken. He didn’t want to kill any more itty-bitty, adorable, just-born chickadees. Before you cast stones of judgment and unleash your fury of indignation, behold my reasoning. Those buggers set up camp on our outdoor speakers. Our speakers are mounted underneath the roofline, where the eaves overhang the house. This configuration creates a perfect, snuggly, protected triangle between the top of the speaker, the eaves, and the wall. It’s heaven for dumb birds. It also exactly where we’ve set our outdoor table. Essentially we eat al fresco beneath a rainstorm of bird crap. Bird excrement slides down the sides of our speakers and stains the shell with brown-white glop. Did I mention it’s where we eat?
Today I took it upon myself to detox the feathered tenement. I grabbed a rake and gently nudged the corner of the first nest with the butt end. A bird swooped out, high tailing it to the safety of an adjacent, leafy tree. It was just the sort of place a bird might want to make her nest. Great. The inhabitants can fly, ergo they can re-make their nest in the aforementioned tree. I inverted the rake and pulled out the nest with the claw hand. Two blue eggs, tiny as a hummingbird’s, hit the concrete, their sticky contents pooling in the sunshine. A newly-hatched bird fell and died on contact. Another hit the concrete and skittered/flew aside, towards the dog. There was no commotion from the adjacent nest. I gave it a tiny poke. An avalanche of dried bird poop blew onto the table. And then a third fledgling toppled out. The shifting motion rocked the nest backwards, behind the speaker. It was lodged against the wall, impossible to extricate. My own medicine was bitter. I tried to be stoic.
I texted Brian. His response was no surprise.
You know the feeling – throbbing heart, clammy hands, and insurmountable angst. You know can’t finish on time. You just can’t get it done. You can’t get a grip. Just when your belly gets all twisty, you bolt into consciousness and feel your steamy pillow and sweat-soaked pajamas. The alarm clock blinks 2:37 am. It’s a classic stress dream. Whether you’re back in college, unprepared for that mid term exam, lecturing from a podium in your birthday suit, or racing against the clock to finish some absurd project, the outcome is the same: a crappy night of sleep and an ever crappier day ahead.
For me, the real start to harvest is the annual harvest stress dream, which happens on cue the second week of August. So imagine my surprise when my night’s sleep and subsequent day were ruined by a springtime harvest nightmare. It’s only because merry grape growers in every trade magazine predict an “unprecedented third year bumper crop” that I can dissect my neuroses with good humor.
My dream began like any other day of harvest, in May. But everything quickly unraveled, like an upside-down fun house reflection of actual harvest. The first sign of mortification was finding myself staring down bins of cabernet sauvignon. I know nothing about making cabernet, and my subconscious concurred. “I don’t even know what yeast to use!” protested unconscious self. Help was at hand, in the form of an old high school classmate*, who knows a lot about making wine. I’ve heard he’s an amateur collector. He recommended “572,” in an especially venomous bite of mockery. Of course there’s no yeast named “527,” but I did buy M83 for my 2013 rose. It was an impetuous, impulse buy; I’d been dazzled by its fancy Bandol pedigree. Since then, every time I pitch the rose to trade I forget the name of the yeast. “And this year I used this cool, new rose yeast from Provence, called…eh, you know from Bandol, France. Um, right.”
En route to buy 572, a random cellar rat told me not to bother. He’d already inoculated the cabernet for me, without asking. Except it wasn’t supposed to get yeast for another 48 hours. I was exasperated and totally freaking out. “And you can’t make it here,” he bellowed after me. Apparently, I had to switch facilities to make cabernet. I’d be commuting to Napa. Fade to black. Subconscious self materialized at the Napa winery. A Rastafarian with dreadlock presided over operations. He had a lot of ideas about making cabernet. He probably detected the word “poser” reflected on my forehead. I felt unglued. Around the time he was searching Pandora for the “right” harvest tune, I escaped to wakefulness. In that fuzzy twilight between dream and wakefulness, I tried to tease out some meaning. Will James kick me out of MacPhail if I insist on those labor-intensive puncheon fermentations? What was the name of that rose yeast? Do my 2012 pinots stink? Do Rastafarians drink cabernet?
The good news is that my imminent reality is all rainbows and daffodils. The weather has been mild, and fruit set looks strong. We’ve secured all of our amazing fruit sources for 2014, from pinot to zin. And I am looking forward to bottling the 2013 home ranch as “Torrey Hill.” If you’re interested in the high school back-story, please read on for full disclosure.
*In a fit of spring-cleaning, my mom resurrected my senior year high school yearbook. She returned it to me this Mother’s Day weekend, to remind me of my spent youth. Moms are thoughtful like that. Flipping though the old photos obviously informed my dreams. This photo gem was nestled among other snapshots of 1980’s fashion. I thought I looked awesome.
When does a wine evolve from prized to precious? I mean precious like a rare, flawless diamond, precious like a commodity or an investment. I recently toured a friend’s fantastic personal cellar, which included bottles of La Tache and Domaine Romanee Conti. His cellar is fully digitized and integrated with Cellar Tracker software, which allows him to monitor current auction prices with a single keystroke. It’s pretty fabulous. Although admittedly gauche, I was compelled to ask whether he’d bought the DRC for personal consumption or as an investment. The answer was both. He’d bought a three pack- two were conscious investments and that final bottle was allocated for an as-of-yet-unknown occasion. But now that the aforementioned bottle is worth upwards of $11,000, it’s become an investment. His “Precious” is slated for auction.
Even the most sought-after Sonoma wines are a far cry for the high stakes world of the Napa cult cabs. And one alights to a stratospheric echelon when trolling for Burgundies. But where do you draw the line between sumptuous drinking and pretentious hoarding? Does any occasion justify quaffing an $11,000 bottle of wine? I can barely justify a $28 dollar sushi roll, where I’m tallying the cost of $4.50 per bite.
John Brechter and Dorothy Gaiter (formerly of the Wall Street Journal) spearheaded “Open that Bottle Night,” a national event encouraging wine novices and cork dorks alike to finally crack open that singular bottle. It’s a forthright concept. How many of us stockpile bottles for special experiences that never evolve? You hold the wine so long that it fails to celebrate an epoch deliciously. Nothing tastes sadder than popping the cork on a prized bottle only to discover that it’s past it’s prime, like fat Elvis or Rocky VII. On the other hand, it’s probably more excruciating to consign that same bottle to the auction block, after years of anticipating its first, exquisite sip. The ephemeral, fleeting Beatrice haunting your dreams but beyond your grasp, “Precious” is reduced to a “sold” icon in your software database.
Brian and I recently shared a pretty fantastic bottle to celebrate work success, his birthday, and a night without the kids. (It was a Grand Cru Echezeaux, not DRC, in case you were curious. And I know you were). My palate memory of Grand Cru Echezeaux is rich and extensive, premised on my having tasted exactly one other bottle in my lifetime. That single taste imprint has evolved into my Ariadne, a memory thread heralding the ultimate fulfillment of ideal mouth feel and opulent finish. I recall that wine being sublime in its finesse and soft, full, mouth-coating beauty. It was unprecedented in my quixotic recollection. Compare this passionate prose with the reality of our recent bottle. It was indeed supple in its finish and quite lovely, with darker fruit than expected and soft, integrated tannins. But truth be told, it failed to live up to my expectation of “Echezeaux” as a concept, a flawless, consummate paradigm. My glorious memory of that original taste had recalibrated the bar, heaving towards unrealistic expectation.
If I lived in the world of $11,000 wine, I imagine I’d face down that perilous battle regularly. Do you crumple before temptation and drink it? Will it taste like the chinkling, twinkle of gold coins or a waterfall of bullion? What if it only tastes like copper pennies? Or it’s corked? Do you just “open that bottle” with like Chinese takeout, simply to foil the karmic energies?
Brian and I have been lucky enough to attend events where we’ve witnessed “investment” wines offered at auction. But we’ve never been able to stomach such a splurge or the exercise the rigorous devotion to hold wine as an investment. We’d much rather drink it, with our friends.
And therein lies the wine investment paradox for me. I’d rather share those unique bottles and enrich the experience. Let the wine develop an afterlife of its own. Who cares if the memory transcends the wine itself? That’s what sticks. The memory is really the most delicious part.
For those of you looking to make some new wine memories, we hope you’ll join us at Cucina Urbana in San Diego on Saturday May 10th from 1pm-3pm for our Spring Release party. Tickets are available online by clicking here.