Bruliam Wine Blog
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“Don’t be too much of a pain in the ass this year,” Brian warned. “You may not be invited back.” And with his words evaporated my big dreams of randomized controlled trials, divvying my one and two ton lots into various, complicated treatment arms, each with unique yeasts and protocols. In the end, the 2013 harvest was all about fun work, playing with new yeasts and wooden tanks and an old favorite. Yes 2013 marked the third consecutive application of the fermentation toy I’m remiss to dis, the legendary “submerged cap device.”
The term “device” is literal. It’s a MacGyver sort of rig, crafted from a custom cut slab of food grade plastic. I drilled full-thickness holes so CO2 can evaporate out the top. Once fermentation really gets going, I hoist the heavy square into the top of my bin and shove it down with all my might. It won’t budge. Then I ask a couple of the guys for help. It takes muscle, grit, a pair of inverted grape picking bins, a 2 x 4 plank, and a set of heavy-duty ratchet straps to get everything in place. The theory is my “submerged cap device” holds the grape skins beneath the juice all the time, thereby increasing color and extraction more thoroughly and gently than with manual punch downs. In fact, you don’t ever punch down the cap since the device prevents it from floating up to the top. One surmises this method culls more color and more tannin from the skins, thereby enhancing the depth of the finished wine.
I’m proud of my ingenuity. Submerged caps were common in Rhone wines, except their “submerged cap device” was a stainless steel screen built into a stainless steel tank. But my way works too. I like to share my genius with others.
“Why don’t you just punch down your bin more often,” questioned Party Pooper #1. “Won’t that do the same thing?” Too obvious, duh.
“Why don’t you buy Gore-Tex waders and walk around inside the bin?” offered Practical Guy #2. OMG! Too messy.
“Why don’t you use the submerged cap device that I paid for in 2009?” needled Bruliam CFO Brian Overstreet.
I first implemented The Device for the 2010 Soberanes Vineyard pinot. noir. The wine got a good score; obviously it works. I reached for it again in 2011. I insisted we remove it once a day for a manual punch down and then re-rig it back in place. I was not very popular. That year I actually divided the fruit between a submerged cap treatment arm and a traditional floating cap with punch downs. Hard data supported my claims. The submerged cap paid dividends. You can see I increased my color (anthocyanins) by about 30%. Not too shabby for a thin-skinned pinot.
In 2012, I popped it in my Sangiacomo Vineyard pinot noir. I fermented one clone with a traditional floating cap and my Pommard clone submerged. The floating cap bin stuck. It wrecked my neat data, and I cursed the Gods of Stuck Fermentations. I should’ve gone with the Gore Tex waders.
This brings me to my current ex-harvest, 2013. Ebullient, I pulled out The Device for my Rockpile zin. Since zin is another thin-skinned and lesser pigmented grape, I figured what the heck. I assured the winery team it was a great idea. I boasted how I ramped up my anthocyanin (color) and tannins (body) in ‘11. I was the wine making visionary, an epitome of precocity. All I needed was The Device, bins, a 2 x 4 plank, ratchet straps, a leap and prayer and a couple of brawny arms. No problem! Except James had to climb into the bin barefoot and walk around on The Device to submerge the cap. And the ratchet straps wouldn’t lock properly. And I forgot the 2 x 4 plank at home. And we needed 4 bins, not 2. But surely the reward of super rich pigmentation, depth of flavor, enhanced round tannins, and an exceptional finish would outweigh the upfront distress. Plus, I’d have hard data to back my claims.
Sometimes science comes up and bites you in the ass. Does anyone know a statistician who can fudge one standard deviation for those total anthocyanins?
I am grateful for my job, good health, and my family. I’m grateful no fermentations stuck this harvest season. I am grateful to watch sunrise over vineyards and call Sonoma County my home. I’m grateful I can still run 10 miles, since patience, mindfulness, and calm do not come easily to me. And I am grateful when my kids afford me time to ice my knees when I’m done.
“You think this is just another day in your life. It’s not just another day. It’s the one day that is given to you. Today…And the only appropriate response is gratefulness.”
-Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast from this Ted talk (link - start at the 4:10 mark)
May your holidays include an abundance of great food, good humor, and finer wine.
Bruliam Wines is big of heart but small in scope. But even we, “the smallest winery you’ve never heard of,” grow incrementally. When you start with a single barrel of wine, you expand by log scale. Now into my 6th harvest, my winemaking operation remains about as low tech as in ‘08. I simply don’t purchase enough tonnage to use the big, shiny, temperature-controlled, stainless steel tanks. I’m more of a plastic Macrobin kind-of-girl. Rather than rely on a cooling jacket coursing with food grade glycol, I prefer cool my berries by hand, doling out dry ice pellets with a plastic scooper. OK, “prefer” is a strong verb. I pretend to thrive on the stress of uncontrolled temperature swings but secretly yearn to join the big boys in a tank. When my bins get really cooking, I push down the heaving amalgamation of grape skins and seeds with a metal stick and my own strength. Often it works. Other times the intern leans back on one of the icy-cool tanks and settles in to watch me struggle. I vowed this year would be different.
It all started with a minor shift in our grape contract. Rather than purchase by weight (one ton or two tons of fruit), we contracted by vineyard space. Laughably, we have 5 whole Bruliam rows in one block and 10 shorter rows in another. It averages 1/3 acre per block. But given this year’s audacious fruit set and exuberant clusters, our predicted yield exploded from 2 to 4 tons. The winery tanks hold 6 tons, so even with a bumper crop, I’m still too lean for a tank. But there’s another option – a wooden tank. A winemaking buddy got one in 2011 and loved it so much he bought another in 2012. I was covetous. And they hold about 4 tons – just my size.
Breathlessly, I delivered the news to Bruliam CFO Brian Overstreet. “Guess what?! We are getting 4 tons of Gaps Crown pinot. I’ll need more new barrels, AND I get to use the wooden tank!” Brian processed “more new barrels” and stopped. Then his neurons imploded. His axons fired furiously, converting Euros to dollars at the day’s exchange rate. Ching! Ching! Ching! Smoke oozed from his ears. And then it was over. Recovered from sticker shock, he re-processed the data. I again explained I was finally getting to play with a tank, a wooden one. It would be awesome. He looked at me and said, “You mean you get to wear big boy pants?”
On the big day, the Gaps Crown truck arrived with my fruit – 3.1 tons. My heart broke, and my lower lip quivered for a split second. Darn it; I’d already imagined the blog post about my big 4 tons. It was back to the Macrobins. Grower Mark Pisoni sensed my sorrow and offered me 4.1 tons of Soberanes pinot. “Are you sure you can handle 4 tons, Kerith? Now take good care of this fruit!” As if that wouldn’t stress me out. Then three different and fabulously talented vintners each warned me to watch the temperature. Wooden vessels can get really hot, and there’s no glycol jacket. As if that didn’t stress me out more.
So I rose to the occasion, literally. Three times a day I climbed up the big ladder and onto an 8 foot 2×12 plank bisecting the tank. And I punched down the cap with the trusty metal stick and my big-ass guns. Fermentation finished without a hitch. You can see my sweet curves below.
And here’s me in action doing punch downs:
“The Lord will smite you…with bewilderment of heart” and soggy underpants. And though my heart is humble, my knickers are drenched. While I am grateful for this Bruliam gig, I am tested daily by my own stupidity. If there is a cord, I will trip over it. If there is tank fitting, I will bump into it. And if there is a hose, I will be doused. By now, my predilection for self -ablution is legendary. Woe is the Sonoma winemaker who is not privy to my 2009 antics, when I sprayed myself in the face with the hose nozzle- twice. The intern dangling from the wine press laughed so hard he nearly lost his grip and tumbled to the concrete below. Even today, my wet streak retains its splash.
I’m still tiptoeing on eggshells at our new facility. I’m quick to clean up messes and establish myself as a team player. When I can help, I’m on it. In fact, I jumped at the chance to hose down a sticky, half-ton grape -picking bin. When we sort fruit, we’re in a rhythm, like we’re dancing. The forklift driver dumps the fruit through the hopper, and when the bin is empty, someone rushes to hose it down, so he can swap it out for a full one. One day last week we’d finished sorting, and the forklift driver was transporting the last bin of the morning. He’d rotated the bin, requiring a hose down from a different spigot. I was idling nearby and eager to weasel my way into his heart. So I shoved the intern out of the way and snatched the hose first, ready to spray & wash on his command. Only the hose wasn’t attached to the spray nozzle. The nozzle was resting on top of the spigot. “Quick-connects,” I thought. “I know how to do this. The parts just snap together.” If this were a scary movie, the audience would be screaming “Nooooooooo! Don’t travel alone down the dark path to the zombie filled Forest of Doom.” But I did.
I grabbed the hose with my left hand and the nozzle with my right. But I’m not strong enough to loosen the connection with one hand. So I put the hose between my legs. I will repeat this, so you can re-imagine the action shot in slow motion. I put the hose between my legs so I could use both hands to snap the nozzle in place. I turned on the hot water and felt it coursing through the full length of the 100 foot hose. And then the nozzle flew off like a rocket as a geyser of hot water leaked down my jeans and shot up my shirt. “You have to hear it click first,” explained the forklift driver, helpfully. He couldn’t stifle his laughter.
I was humiliated. I’d doused my crotch. And it was only my second week. I laughed it off and uncuffed my jeans, as a small river trickled into my squishy socks. They offered me lunch as consolation. I was too proud to drive home and change into dry clothes. For three hours I slogged around town in sopping clothes. I dropped juice samples at the lab and left a trail of wet footprint on their linoleum. I wiped down my bin, dripping more water inside than I mopped out. And I topped my new fruit with dry ice, which sizzled on contact with my damp heaviness. Minutes before lunch, the forklift driver looked me up and down. I was a bedraggled mess of unkempt hair and dank duds. “Are you still wet?” he wondered aloud, stupefied. I’d never been so happy to slink home and change into a bulky wool sweater. At least my fermentation curve looks pretty good.
Torrey Hill Fermentation Curve 2013