We Need To Talk

Is there any phrase in the modern English language that provokes more immediate fear and dread than, "We need to talk"?  We've all been on the receiving end of one of these proclamations.  For most of us, it was relationship-related.  But I've heard it used by doctors, mechanics, and even UPS drivers to start conversations.  Heck, I've used it more than a few times at work.  What follows next is inevitably bad news and even sometimes leads to the worst phrase of all, "it's not you, it's me".  Fortunately, that's reserved for relationship conversations.  Bosses, doctors, mechanics, and UPS drivers are too full of themselves to ever admit that they're somehow responsible or wrong. So, you can imagine our moment of gut-wrenching terror when Kerith and I arrived at CrushPad on Tuesday afternoon, prepared for a fun-filled afternoon of wine drinking and pressing our Anderson Valley pinot noir only to be accosted with, "we need to talk."  Really, the first thing our winemaker said to us as we straddled the arch of the doorway was, "Hi guys, we need to talk."

Wait, I thought, our grapes are breaking up with us?  How is that possible?  We treated them so nicely during crush and fermentation!  What a bunch of ingrates (ingrapes?).  They don't deserve us.  Or, maybe we courted them too aggressively?  Maybe they felt smothered by our babying?  We were just trying to show them how much we loved them.  How can we possibly make this up to them?  We need them.  How can we possibly go on without them?

You can see that I'm clearly unwell.

What was so important that it warranted a "we need to talk" greeting?  You may recall that this summer there were hundreds of wild fires in Northern California.  One of the fears (other than the vineyards actually burning down) was that the smoke in the air would contaminate the grapes with what's commonly known as "smoke taint".  A little bit of smoke in the nose and taste of wine can be a really good thing.  Too much of a really good thing?  Well, that usually isn't so good.  Bottom line - we definitely detected hints of smoke in our newly fermented wine.  You can read an article about this problem by clicking here.

What does this mean?  Well, we called a little bit of a winemaking audible.  We had planned to use one third new oak on our Annahala pinot and press at least through a couple of fractions to extract some tannins.  Instead, we decided to go with neutral oak for now.  You see, the same compound that imparts the undesirable smoke flavor in our wine is the same as the one found on the inside of new toasted oak barrels.  Our hope is by reducing the toast exposure, we'll at least not make the wine any smokier.  If the smoke abates during aging, we can always rack the wine to a newer barrel.  Next, we decided to just barrel the free run juice (unpressed) so as to not expose our wine to any more of the grape skins that carry the smoke compound.  This may prove to be an unplanned boon, as the free run is generally regarded as the "best" of the wine.  And other than the smoke element, the wine had great mouth feel and red fruity elements, just as we'd hoped.  So we're cautiously optimistic that we'll come through this just fine.

What's next?  We still have to go through secondary fermentation and a few months of barrel aging to see where we really stand.  At this point, only time will tell if we're going to end up with a wine that tastes like liquid smoke.  With luck our wine will have no or limited smoke accents - ideally, more of a unique characteristic than a distraction.

And worse case?  We'll tackle that in future posts.  Let's just hope that this doesn't become a "it's not you, it's me" scenario.