September 29, 2009

Harvest, the latest from here

I admit it. I was freaked out about the approaching cold front yesterday. The satellite loop looked more like December than late September, with a juicy looking swirl and lots of potential rain with the front and behind it with lots of unstable air. The only problem? The good forecasters said the front wasn't really much, though the instability in its wake might lead to heavy downpours more common to spring than fall here in the Willamette Valley. Well, it didn't rain much overnight and even this afternoon was a let down to the weather geeks who pine for heavy rain, snow, frost, or whatever.

Where does that leave us grape freaks? In a pretty decent spot, actually. The rest of this week should give on and off showers without much accumulation. The biggest thing to my mind are the cool temperatures in the forecast, which should help keep most rot at bay. In 2007 we saw lots of harvest rain, but it was cold rain and rot wasn't a big deal. Right now we're looking at just a bit of rain and cool temps, then...then a nice drying period with temps warming back into the low 70s. Just perfect for ripening grapes. Dehydration is an issue out there, meaning sugars might end up on the higher side of normal around here. But at this point, I want hang time to help flavors develop. Acidities look pretty strong, so I'm not worried about losing too much there. All in all, things should be shaping up pretty nicely.

The plan at this point is to pick one site early/mid next week, then my other site later that week or who knows when. I was thinking the first fruit was coming in this Thursday, but now the rest of the week looks pretty open. So...

Tonight, with pizza and salad and some neighbor friends, the 2005 Produttori di Barbaresco Langhe Nebbiolo. I've been critical of this bottling in the past, but this 2005 is gorgeous. Light and fragrant as always, but with better tannin than usual. Pretty cherry and licorice flavors, juicy acidity and just the right amount of fine tannin. This is terrific little nebbiolo.

For something totally different, a neighbor friend last night brought over a NV Vitis Ridge Late Harvest Syrah from Washington's Wahluke Slope that I presume is fortified. It's 18.5% and sweet, and delicious. Smells like blueberry or boysenberry pie, with some meaty syrah notes. Tastes sweet and round, with a bit too much prominent oak but otherwise really nicely made and tasty dessert wine from a low profile local producer. Thanks Virginia.

September 26, 2009

Oregon harvest update

I spent the day visiting a couple vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, sampling at one after some discussion about whether we had a good read on just where the grapes are ripeness-wise, then stopped by August Cellars outside of Newberg to check in on some friends bringing in fruit today, all before processing samples at the winery in Portland for sugar and ph levels. So...

What a gorgeous early fall day. Down I-5 to the Wheatland Ferry, always a pleasant way to cross the Willamette River to get to the heart of the Eola Hills. I first went to the Zenith Vineyard where I'm getting some Pommard clone off some younger vines. This lower site and younger block is nicely late ripening this year, which should allow for good flavor development without sugars being too high. Acids are running high this year, relatively, so that's good if you're planning to push off harvesting for a while yet.

Then north to the Walnut Hill area of the Amity Hills to check on the steep vineyard I'm getting most of my pinot from this year. I brought big ziplock bags and clippers to cut clusters from all over the vineyard for sugar and acid samples by each of the four Dijon clones planted here: 114, 115, 667 and 777. The numbers are all in the 23.5 to 24 range with ph from 3.27 to 3.40, all perfect if the flavors were more developed. The grower was suggesting we pick now, but we want to wait for another week. There's more moderate temps in the forecast, even some rain. I've learned to not rush things with pinot. The rain isn't expected to be a deluge. The grapes need more time to develop better flavors. I wouldn't be surprised to see in a week that the sugars haven't changed at all, with the ph up a bit, and the flavors that much better. That's the idea anyway.

By mid afternoon I was in Lafayette and hungry, so where better to go than Martha's for some tacos. Delicious. Then up through Newberg to August Cellars. The fruit coming in was all pinot, with one vineyard showing similar sugars and acids a few days ago to what I got from the Walnut Hill site today. But that vineyard had 9 grams of acid per liter. Looks like acids are high this year, giving me even more reason to allow for better flavor development in what I'm getting. Another producer had some grapes from a typically early site. Sugars were just above 26 brix, pretty high. But ph was in the low 3.2 range. Again, high acid that suggests we have some leeway to get less ripe vineyards further along without losing too much naturally acidity. 2006 this vintage is not, when I commonly saw fruit at 26 brix but 3.7 to 3.9 ph. Frankly, the numbers this year are weird, but perhaps weird good. We'll see.

All this means I'm not pulling in fruit until the end of this coming week, at the earliest. Which is fine by me. I'm not quite ready mentally for the harvest, and I definitely don't want to pick too soon. Another week sounds great right about now.

September 23, 2009

Pinot is getting ripe

A friend pulled samples today from a series of vineyards around the northern Willamette Valley, including the two where I'm getting fruit. I stopped by the winery to help process them, meaning hand crush the clusters from each site and block in ziplock bags, using the juice to analyze ph, brix and aromas and flavors.

You can immediately tell the relative ripeness of a sample by how much the juice colors up. The riper the grapes, the easier the pigments from the grape skins leech into the juice. Then you can test the ph with meter and the sugar content with a refractometer. Then you can smell and taste the juice to see what you think. When I first started tasting juice samples, I wasn't so clear on what I was looking for. Now I see more how to evaluate the intensity of fruit ripeness, the green qualities of less ripe fruit and the sense of acid balance in the very sweet (even when less than "ripe") juice.

So how are things looking? Given these samples, sugars are broadly in the 22 to 23 range in most sites, even with older vines that generally take longer to ripen than younger vines. Colors are variable, but that's not a big issue. Flavors, in general, aren't "there." Meaning, they still have stem or leaf characters that need to ripen out. I'm not looking for jammy, superripe fruit that drives the wine critics to spasm. But clearly these grapes need more time on the vine. Acids are generally in the 3.25-3.35ph range, so that's good. We'll see a rise in sugars and ph, how much is anyone's guess. First fruit looks to come in next week. One of my sites is around 22 brix and 3.3ph and likely won't be in for two weeks.

How's the weather forecast? Great for the next week, then cooling and maybe a little rain a week from now, then who knows. I like to look at weather forecast models. Here's a basic 10-day loop that is pretty easy to interpret. Orange and red is warm, green and blue is cold and this time of year that usually means wet. Keep an eye on this and you'll have an inside track on what we're basically dealing with. Stay tuned.

September 21, 2009

Harvest getting closer

The pinot noir harvest is getting close here in the northern Willamette Valley. Already, other varieties are coming in from southern Oregon and eastern Washington. The pinot typically waits until the last week of September and the first few weeks of October, depending on the site and vine age.

Reports from vineyards where I'm getting fruit suggest that grapes are one to two weeks away, perhaps a bit more. We had unseasonably warm and windy weather today with an even hotter day tomorrow before a nice cool down for the rest of the week. Too much heat right now puts lots of pressure on the fruit because of sugar accumulation and fruit dehydration. Despite the intense summer heat, sugars are generally still low to moderate with flavors still developing. Weather in the 70s and low 80s with cool nights would be great, and that's what's apparently on tap after tomorrow.

I spent last night at the winery working a couple of press loads of a friend's sauvignon blanc from the Rogue Valley. Great looking fruit, lovely smells in the press, and nicely ripe but tart juice. It felt great to get a little dirty and sweaty filling the press, washing bins and generally pushing things around to get the work done. I even got some time on the fork lift, on which I'm a total novice. It was lots of fun, though I didn't stay past midnight. Wimped out; needed to get to my "real" job this morning.

More soon including the latest on vineyard conditions and the evolving weather forecast.

September 18, 2009

Meo Camuzet Clos St. Philibert Blanc

Here's a quick note tonight to say that I tried the 2006 Meo Camuzet Haut Cotes de Nuits Blanc tonight from the Clos St. Philibert vineyard. This high elevation site is technically in the Cote d'Or commune of Flagey-Echezeaux but classified as merely Haut Cotes de Nuits. It's planted to chardonnay and apparently was renewed as vineyard land only in the early 1990s. Read more about the story from the Burgundy Report. Check out the rocks in those pictures. Dang.

Do you like white Burgundy? Do you have $40 to spare? If so, check this wine out. It's imported by Kermit Lynch and is pure finesse in the glass. It's fragrant chardonnay full of mineral and barrel aromas with beautiful balance and nice length. If this had an Oregon label, I think two things would be happening, at least: I'd be freaking out about the quality, and it wouldn't be available because people would have snapped it up already. Since it's white Burgundy, people don't seem to know much about it so you might just find it on the shelf of a good wine shop. Check it out. This is ridiculously good and, while not cheap, a great value.

September 16, 2009

The latest on my first harvest

Lots to report on the approaching harvest, my first producing wine commercially. Number one, I signed the custom crush contract just this evening, toasted with some delicious Heater-Allen Pils from Rick Allen down in McMinnville. And I wrote a check for the first payment toward my custom crush fee, based on the 3.5 tons of pinot noir I expect to harvest in a couple of weeks.

Number two, despite the light rain this evening and the humid conditions that worry me just a bit, we're looking at a return to warm and dry weather for at least the coming week. We still need it, with a large but healthy crop hanging out there. Typically the pinot havest locally starts in the last week in September. I expect that will be true this year for the earliest sites. I'm not expecting fruit until the first week in October, and I can't wait.

So, number three, tomorrow night a friend and fellow client Anne is bringing in her first fruit of the season - the first for the whole Portland Wine Project - tomorrow night. I want to swing by just to get my hands dirty, or see others get their hands and the sorting line dirty. Only that will make the impending harvest so real. No rest for the wicked - Sunday night should see the first white grapes from southern Oregon for Grochau Cellars. Then harvest will really be on.

Meanwhile, I'm finalizing the last business details before harvest and looking to make a run down to Davison's in McMinnville for harvest supplies. I don't need much, but it must be done.

With the cooler temps and mist today, we ordered in Thai food and finished a nice little Vouvray, the 2004 Champalou Cuvee des Fondraux. Nothing super special, but it's a perfect match for spicy food and just lovely Vouvray. Lightly sweet and honied, minerally and salty with nice fruit to balance, I have a special fondness for this producer though more out of the great value it provides when you find the wines on special. There's no more of the 2004, but I look forward to a couple bottles of 2005 waiting in the cellar for similar evenings.

September 12, 2009

1998 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Mountain

1998 was an El Nino vintage in California, meaning cooler and wetter than normal. We think it's always sunny and pleasant in my home state, but it's not so. Some years, particularly El Nino years including 1988 and 1983, are particularly challenging to grape growers and winemakers.

Yet 1998 is not a washout vintage. Far from it, even though the weather reports and winemaker nerves at the time suggested things might not turn out well.

In my experience, 1998 is an overlooked vintage in California, broadly speaking. As such, one can find terrifically priced wines from this year at auction. I've enjoyed wines like the '98 Rochioli Zinfandel at bargain prices. So too with the 1998 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Mountain. The year doesn't come with high scores from critics or buzz from bloggers and such. The only praise I've heard is from Graperadio, where the vintage was discussed in an episode with Russell Bevan of Bevan Cellars. Compared to the hyped 1997s, which may not have aged as promised, they say that 1998 is an undiscovered gem. I agree.

This Laurel Glen wine is still dark ruby in color, with a rich plum, ash and pencil shaving aroma, nicely integrated and balanced. The flavors are similarly rich, though nothing like the hyper-ripe cabernet so popular these days. There's ripe but firm tannin here, giving a chewy, mountain cabernet profile I expect from Laurel Glen. The flavors are maturing but still fresh and primary enough to unwind for a few more years. If you like younger, fleshy cabernet, this may not be for you. If you enjoy earthy flavors and chewy texture, you'll love this wine, especially since you can find it pretty cheap. I'm glad to have another bottle and will look out for more.

September 11, 2009

Grochau Cellars pre-harvest release this Sunday

Not to be all nostalgic, but this is the 300th post in the 4+ years of this site. At the beginning I never thought how long I'd be doing this blog. It's all right though. Here's to at least 300 more.

So, this Sunday, September 13, I'll be down at the Portland Wine Project for Grochau Cellars' pre-harvest release party. It's all afternoon, five measly bucks at the door, taste John Grochau's new sryah, tempranillo, sauvignon blanc, and who knows what else. The address is NW 30th and Industrial in NW Portland, right across the street from Pyramid Brewing's Taproom.

The Portland Wine Project is where I'll be making my first commercial wine this fall. I think this facility is going to be the catalyst for an urban wine boom(let) here in Portland. This town's full of breweries and more and more distilleries. I want to be part of making urban wine a big deal here in town. Grochau and partners Boedecker Cellars are already making that happen. Come down and check it out. Hope to see you. Just show up.

September 09, 2009

Maison Ilan blog from Burgundy

I twittered about this yesterday but wanted to give this a little more attention. Are any of you following Ray Walker's story? I think I wrote about him previously. The short version -- wine geek gets the winemaking bug (sounds familiar), gets any work he can manage in local California wineries to gain experience (yep), decides to launch his own wine label (uh huh), ditches that plan to go to France and make pinot noir from the grail, the Cote d'Or of Burgundy (definitely not like what I'm doing).

How do you even think of doing that, much less wake up the next morning and still think it's a good idea? Who knows, but Ray is already way ahead of his plans to made some regional and village level Burg for starters. Turns out he's sourced grapes from a 1er cru site in Morey-St.-Denis and two grand cru in Gevrey, including Le Chambertin.That's nothing less than stunning.

So, while I'm humbly launching my own pinot label here in Oregon, living the dream as some people might put it, I am among the many following Ray's progess via the web. Check out his Maison Ilan blog and follow along as well. Great pictures, an honest assessment of the culture shock of going out on a limb in a difficult business as an outsider in a foreign county, and the simple joy of seeing what happens. Keep it up Ray.

September 08, 2009

Great write up from Storyteller Wine in Portland

I'm a big fan of Storyteller Wine Company here in Portland. We have a number of great wine shops, but this relative newcomer is among the best. The store itself isn't the typical retail establishment with a ton of wine on the shop floor. Rather, there are several carefully selected wines, lots of great tastings and a particular focus on direct sales to customers all around the country.

Head Storyteller Michael Alberty writes a great email newsletter that goes out at least once a week, always with one or more great finds. Definitely get on his list if for no other reason than to read his perspective on all things wine, music, food and sport related. Chelsea supporters might even get an extra bottle in their orders.

Imagine my surprise when the latest newsletter included a bunch of information about...me and the wine I've been making in the garage and soon will make at the Portland Wine Project. I'm new enough in all this to get REALLY excited about this kind of feedback. Check it out, and don't miss Michael's latest bargain -- 2007 Arterberry-Maresh Pinot Noir Dundee Hills. I've been really impressed by what Jim Arterberry-Maresh is making. No doubt I'm buying some.

September 07, 2009

Garage tasting wrap up

Thanks to the dozens of friends, neighbors and blog readers who came by the garage yesterday for our second garage wine tasting. I think the foul weather kept even more people from coming by, which might have been just as well since the garage isn't that big. At two different times I found myself struggling to hear people over the noise of so many conversations. I suppose that's one measure of success. I only had about 30 wine galsses and, while I had to wash a bunch of them to keep up with the crowd, it's probably good I didn't have to do even more washing.

So how were the wines? First, they showed well for what they are. My 2007 pinot noir is earthy and light, and not a crowd favorite. Some people loved it, or said as much. Others politely thanked me but you could tell it wasn't their favorite. The 2008, from a late harvest with absolutely perfect fall weather, was a huge hit. It's more ripe with good acidity and an emerging perfume that makes for a rich but delicate impression. There's also some tannin that should age out nicely. 2008 in the northern Willamette Valley is a stellar vintage, and even my humble homebrew shows that.

I learn so much by pouring my wine at events like this. People are polite, but it's great experience to see people phyically ingest wines I've made and see how they respond. You can't take the highs without the lows, and it's clear the 2006 (very ripe wine) and 2008 (more balanced and intriguing to my palate) are hits. 2007...that's a different story. That wine is good. Someone brought another local pinot, a non-vintage blend, that's mostly from 2007 and it seemed rife with volatile acidity. It's $20 at your local store, but I'm happier with my wine. Someone else brought his own 2007 wine, and it's way above what I made in quality. I'm happy for that producer and hope to follow his emerging success.

Meanwhile, we opened a variety of other wines to keep glasses full and things interesting. I opened a NV Henriot Rose Champagne that was a big hit. Lovely red fruit and chalk flavors. I wish I'd bought a case when this was dumped at a local retailer. Another very generous attendee brought a NV Vouette et Sorbee Extra Brut Champagne Blanc d'Argile. What a stunning, dry, chalky and minerally Champagne. I see why this producer is a wine geek darling. Wow.

For whites, I opened a sentimental wine, the 2008 Evesham Wood Gruner Veltliner. This is the famed local pinot noir producer's first varietal "gruve," from vines on the estate Les Puit Sec vineyard in the Eola Hills. It's sentimental because my first day working the 2005 harvest at this producer saw the first fruit off then three-year-old vines. I remember distinctly holding a cluster fresh off the vine that smelled like the signature white pepper so typical to this grape, a star in Austria where I studied in college. Only in 2008 was there enough fruit for Evesham Wood to bottle separately. This is terrific gruner, with a nice crisp aroma and clean flavor. There's a whiff of white pepper and green character that the grape's name suggests. What a lovely, unique local wine.

Other white wines included a 2007 Gunther Steinmetz Riesling Devon Brauneberger Juffer Spatlese that's higher in alcohol than most Moself riesling at 11.5%. There's a green/yellow color, peach and then strongly mineral flavors and lovely balance between the residual sugar and crisp malic acidity. And the 2007 Ch. des Lascaux Coteaux du Languedoc Blanc, a Rhone grape blend from southern France. This is a little glue scented but otherwise nice, round and fairly rich wine from a reliable producer.

Then the red wines. First, a 2004 Tardy Nuits St. Georges Les Boudots that I opened that went pretty quick. One taster tried it, didn't like it, then tried my 2007 pinot again and said something like, "wow, I like this better now." Too funny. The Tardy is perfumed but tannic in the mouth. Not sure where this one is going. I really enjoyed the 2000 Chateau La Roque Cupa Numismae Pic St. Loup, a syrah and mourvedre blend from another reliable southern France producer. This is in a great place, mature and bottle sweet, with funky mourvedre and a lovely, resolved texture. Finally, I was very impressed with the 2004 HdV Syrah Carneros, the California collaboration between Larry Hyde's venerable vineyard and his brother in law Aubert de Villaine of DRC in Burgundy. This was meaty and rich without any candy fruit or other fluff. I'm glad I have another bottle to enjoy over a leisurely dinner sometime.

All in all, I had a great time and it looked like others did too. I hope to do another tasting like this next spring once the 2008 is bottled. By then, I'll be transitioned out of home winemaking and focusing on my commercial project. A swansong to homebrewing seems fitting. I can't wait.

September 05, 2009

Garage tasting is here

We spent some of the afternoon getting the garage ready for Sunday's wine tasting. Clearning out all the junk we usually store out there. Sweeping the floor and wiping off the old barrels we use for tables for these events. We have some cheese and meats and what not to snack on. I'll go to the market in the morning for fresh bread and anything else that looks good. We have lots of glasses but no doubt even more people coming, so we'll be washing to keep up with the crowd. Everything should and will go well. I just can't help but be a little nervous.

I suppose athletes are right when they say that if you don't have some butterflies before a game, something's wrong. You can believe in yourself all you want. Still it's a challenge to put yourself out there for others to see and critique. Wine making isn't performance art, yet there comes a time when you need to open the door and let people see what you've been doing. It's an act of letting go, and something that's a lot easier for me to do than think about. Still, I can't wait for tomorrow.

September 02, 2009

Crop loads

I've been writing about how crop set here in the northern Willamette Valley this year was huge. It's a good thing given the summer heat we've experienced. The challenge now is that, if you're buying grapes by the acre, you might end up with more grapes than you planned. Do you have fermenter space? Barrels? I'm pretty set on what I'm getting, but I see other producers grappling with crop estimates and harvest plans. Will this be a repeat of 2007, when some vineyards came in heavier than expected?

September 01, 2009

September, and launching my new wine project

It's September, and my first harvest making wine commercially is nearly here. It's an exciting time.

I've written here and over on Wine Berserkers to announce the launch of my wine project Vincent Cellars. This fall we'll be crushing 3.5 tons of pinot noir from the Zenith and Domaine Coteau vineyards, both in the Eola-Amity AVA. My wine is being made at the Portland Wine Project in downtown Portland, home to Grochau Cellars and Boedecker Cellars and a few small projects like mine.

Right now, it's the calm before the storm. I still have several things to do, but most are administrative. Finalizing the custom crush contract, licensing, insurance, setting up a business bank account. Nothing too severe. I have already lined up grapes, barrels, racks, fermenters and everything else I need to make the wine. Soon, the grapes come in and all hell breaks loose. This year I'm not making much wine as commercial producers go, though I'm sure I'll pay way too much attention to what I'm doing. Beyond this fall, things will get more and more complex as I try to sell the wine to happy customers and figure out ways to build a business. This is the easy part.

The grape crop is in great shape all over the Willamette Valley. If anything, there's been a bit too much summer heat. Growers measure heat in "degree days," or the cumulative peak temperature each day of the growing season over 50 or 55 degrees. Here's a cool app to track things in lots of major growing regions. You can even compare years. Right now in the northern Willamette Valley we're tracking with hotter years, but the crop is big and that spreads out a vine's energy. September could still be cool. I'm feeling really good about the potential quality this year. Stay tuned. I'm planning to write lots about the harvest as it unfolds.