Sep 012014
 
Read Part 3 of our Starting a Family Winery Series
“I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies.” (Prissy from Gone With the Wind)

And that’s how it felt when we arrived at 5:15 AM to bring in our first grapes. All that I had learned in preparation for that moment seemed to evaporate in the excitement. Much like how all the hours spent in birthing classes twenty-five years earlier were reduced in the heat of the moment to “Breathe, Honey…You can do this.”

The early morning of August 27th was crisp and clear. The sun had not yet risen and the fog was yet to flow from the coast when we arrived. Dry Creek Valley was very dark. Above the vineyard, the star-filled sky twinkled in anticipation. On the hillside across the road, crews were hand-picking grapes though all I could see was their tiny headlamps sparking amongst the trees like fireflies on a summer’s eve. A tractor droned in a distant part of the vineyard bringing in fruit for another winery who was picking ahead of us. Donna and I waited patiently until I received a text from Janice, the vineyard owner that read, “walk towards the tractor sounds” and so we did.

The First Grapes ArriveAmongst the vines we found Janice and Brian Schmidt of Tzabaco Rancho Vineyards along with Kay, Brian’s sister. Brian was perched on the blue tractor pulling a trailer with three ½ ton bins for the handpicked grapes. On the trailer’s running boards stood Janice and Kay, pulling out leaves and bad clusters, tossing them to the side. The crew of Mexican vineyard workers moved quietly and efficiently slicing clusters of Sauvignon Blanc grapes off the vines, placing them in smaller bins called lugs until the bin weighed about 40 lbs. Then they would scurry to the trailer; dump the lug and run back to pick more. Each worker is paid by the lug, so they move very quickly.

The First Grapes ArriveThe crew picked our 2300 pounds of grapes in just 30 minutes. The rows that I had been babysitting and checking religiously were soon bare. While my days are now busy in the winery, I miss the vineyard. We had selected two rows for our Sauvignon Blanc and will make about 50 cases of wine. I chose this vineyard for a couple of reasons. First, I know and respect the Schmidts as both growers and people. The family has owned and farmed the property since 1856. Check out their wonderful red wines at Estate 1856. Second, I could take a mix of the common Clone 1 and the less common Musque clone that will give the finished wine a more plush mouth-feel.

Conch keeping a watchful eye

Conch keeping a watchful eye

Once at the winery (Healdsburg Custom Crush) we met up with winery partner Brian Kobler who also serves as our consulting winemaker. By then Conch, who had the day off from his position at Kosta Browne Winery, joined Donna and me for our first crush. Conch made the decision to de-stem the grapes before pressing as to not introduce any green or herbaceous flavors to the wine that might come from the stems. We think this makes for better and cleaner flavors. Once crushed; we checked our sugars, acids and the like and found the fruit had slightly less sugar than we expected, but well within normal ranges. So we have adjusted our winemaking style to create a crisper and slightly lower alcohol wine. This Sauvignon Blanc will prove to be perfectly refreshing on a warm summer afternoon.

Champagne ToastThe sweet juice from the press was pumped into our chilled fermentation tank where it will slowly and gently transition to wine over the next few weeks. Keeping with tradition, we gathered around the tank and offered a Champagne toast to the Roman wine god, Bacchus and to ourselves for a safe and successful harvest. There is no turning back now. As we left the vineyard a few hours earlier, Brian Schmidt said, “Remember no two days during harvest are ever the same.” The next day I would learn the exactly what he meant.

As smoothly as the first day of harvest went, day two was a scramble of challenges. Earlier in the week there was some confusion at the Viognier vineyard and some of the fruit we expected to pick was picked by another so we had to choose other rows for our wines. We arrived at the vineyard at 6:15 in the morning only to be followed in the gate by a film crew who was filming in another part of the vineyard. While normally this would not be a problem, it meant that when we had problems with our pick, the vineyard owners were not available to help and guide.

Viognier Grapes

Viognier Grapes

During our first pick, we had a crew of 8 pickers and others, this time we just had two. It wasn’t a problem because they both were congenial and willing to help me solve the problems that would soon be made apparent. Actually a bigger crew would have added to the difficulties.

As we were aware from our sample testing, this vineyard was ripening rather unevenly between the rows. I found this a bit peculiar because the ground is flat, soils are similar and all rows are oriented in the same direction. The crew started picking in an area I had not tested so I joined them with my trusty refractometer to test sugar levels. To my surprise, the grapes tested closer to 21-22 Brix rather than the 24 I was shooting for. At these sugar levels we could not make the wine we wanted to make, so I stopped the crew. I had been told that I could pick whatever grapes I wanted so I charged up and down rows testing grapes with the refractometer and marking what areas had grapes ripe enough to create the Viognier style we wanted.

The grapes ended up coming from partial sections of rows, one side of rows and any other vines I could find with just the right grapes. It made for a long and very stressful morning in the vineyard. But once at the winery, the crush went smoothly and the juice tasted wonderful as it went into the fermentor.

Adding Yeast - No Turning Back Now!

Adding Yeast – No Turning Back Now!

To make as great a Viognier as possible, Conch and I enlisted the help of our young friend a fifth generation winemaker Ryan Kunde of DRNK Wines. Ryan has been very generous with his time and advice on what needs to happen to make this Viognier a great wine. We followed most of his advice and our beautiful Viognier is fermenting away. We will return the favor over the next few weeks by helping out at DRNK during busy times.

So while I may not be ready to be “birthin’ babies” on my own, with the help of Brian, Conch and Ryan I am learning quickly and now finding myself quite comfortable around the winery. My understanding of the realities of winemaking is growing exponentially.

With that I am off to the winery to check on our fermentations by measuring temperatures (we are cold fermenting at 58 degrees) and Brix or sugar levels. The sugars will drop each day as the yeast converts the sugars to alcohol, heat and carbon dioxide. We will try to keep this process on a slow and even keel, dropping Brix by 1 to 1.5 each day…. And yes… So far the reality is exceeding the dream!

Aug 202014
 
Read Part 2 of our Starting a Family Winery Series

It has been a very long time since I was an expectant father…23 years to be exact. But I feel like one again as I wait for our first grapes to hit the level of ripeness we are waiting patiently to see. The weather in Sonoma this week has been almost fall-like with even a bit of rain this morning. Cool days and cooler nights may be good for slow ripening grapes; but to me it feels more like Donna’s Braxton-Hicks contractions during her last few weeks of pregnancy…is he/she coming?!…is he/she coming?!…No honey, not yet.

Awaiting Our First Harvest

Checking Pinot Noir Sugars

Winemakers often say, their most nerve racking decision is the time to pick, especially the first time they have the responsibility for that decision. An emotion I now fully grasp. Once the crews have moved through the vineyard with their lightning fast shears, the vintage is set and the wine will be what it will be. Should I have picked sooner…or later?…too late now, to second guess. Our premise of hand-made, terroir-driven wines will mean minimal manipulation allowing the vineyard and vintage to speak for themselves. Every decision, for good or bad, will make it into the bottle. We hope you will enjoy and appreciate the bottled art we will create. The last week has been a busy one as we prepare for our first harvest and much like a first-time father I am, no doubt, overly zealous. During the week, I have visited all three of our vineyards, looking at grape clusters and testing sugars with my new refractometer. Looking through the eyepiece is something akin to looking into the future. For those who may read this and are experienced in the vineyard, I know it sounds silly..aah it’s all new to me. I spoke to a few winemaker friends, getting more advice. We discussed picking sugars, seed ripeness, grape acidity, fermentation temperatures, yeast strains and more. Once again, I have to comment on how open and helpful everyone has been. The most common response I’ve gotten from winemakers when I ask my first question is a laugh, followed by “I wondered when the winemaking bug would bite you.”

Awaiting Our First Harvest

Viognier Cluster

We also took our first bucket samples, delivering the juice to the lab for official readings of Brix (sugar), PH and acidity. This is done by going up and down the rows with an orange Home Depot bucket and a clipper taking cluster samples from both sides. Clusters must come from both sides of the row because of the different sun orientation and thus ripening speeds. Once in the bucket, Donna and I used a potato masher to crush the grapes and produce juice, getting the sticky goodness all over our hands and lower arms. Juice from wine grapes in much sweeter and richer than table grapes or grape juice you find at the grocery. It tastes deliciously decadent. The juice then goes into a lab bottle, is dropped off and we get emailed results in just a few hours. Based on the lab reports, I am proud to say that thanks to our great growers, everything should come into balance at picking time. The Viognier (Mounts Vineyard) and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (Tzabaco Rancho Vineyards), both from the Dry Creek Valley are duking it out to be the first across the finish line. As of yesterday, my bet is on the Sauvignon Blanc, by a nose. If the forecast for future sunny days holds true, they both may come in middle to late next week. Our Pinot Noir looks more like the first week of September. That said, a heat spike is forecasted at the end of the month that may speed everything up. One thing I have learned in Sonoma is that everyone talks about long range weather forecasts even though they have proven fairly unreliable.

Awaiting Our First Harvest

Tailgate Grape Lab

In addition, we delivered our barrels and other odds and ends to the facility where we will be making our wines, Healdsburg Custom Crush. A custom crush facility is a winery designed for folks like us who are making fairly small lots. That way we do not have to invest in expensive winery equipment before our production level can support the associated capital investment. Special thanks to our friends at Blanchard Family Wines for making the introductions. One of the most difficult part of this process was finding a name that works for all involved, including our Colorado neighbors, friends and partners in this venture, Jeff and Kathleen Thompson. Trademark infringement is a big deal in the liquor industry and so very many names are taken. Both our last names were not even in consideration, because Beery is too close to Beer and is also a drunken beer drinking term. The liquor label czars would not allow Beery because you might confuse our wine with beer…really. Old Thompson is an American whiskey, so that’s out. We bandied around any number of names, some fell flat to our ears. Others we all liked were abandoned after our name research determined a likely challenger from another wine, beer or spirit manufacturer. We hoped to have something that was meaningful to each of us instead of a cool word. What did we land on, you ask? Drumroll please…. J. Cage Cellars. The initial and name are important to our families and ancestry…and we thought it sounded good. Last but not least, our California license was approved. We still await Federal approval. So much like I did 25 years ago, awaiting the birth of our first (now our winemaker), I’m sitting on the couch staring off just waiting for the water to break. Once Donna’s water broke in March of 1989, my life changed for the better. I expect nothing less this time around!

Other Related Posts:

Starting A Family Winery – Living the Wine Stained Dream
Aug 132014
 
Have you ever dreamed of starting a family winery? Follow us as we embark on our wine-stained adventure.

When dreaming big dreams, have you wondered if the reality of living the dream would live up to the expectations of the dreamer. I am about to find out and it is a little scary. My father loved small WWII vintage aircraft. Much as he wanted to pilot, he remained always a passenger, until the day he passed in a mid-air collision of two of his beloved planes.

After the funeral I wondered aloud why my dad had never taken flying lessons so he could experience flight from the pilot’s seat. My mother responded by saying she thought it was because he was afraid the reality of being a pilot could never live up to his dream of being a pilot. He didn’t want to face that possible disappointment after a lifetime of anticipation. I don’t think my father was alone in that fear.

I’ve had a dream for much of my life that took a passenger seat to running a business, raising a family and other less engaging hobbies. My dream started in 1983 on a rainy November afternoon when my wife, Donna, I and two friends pulled into the parking lot of the then fledgling Caymus Vineyards in Napa Valley.

Roger & Charlie Wagner - circa 1983

Roger & Charlie Wagner – circa 1983

We were met by the senior co-founder, Charlie Wagner. It was apparent on that wet chilly day that Mr. Wagner really didn’t want to do a tasting for us. But instead of just sending us on our way, he challenged my group of aspiring wine enthusiasts to tour his post-harvest leafless vineyard in the cold mud and muck. We gladly took him up on the challenge even though I knew my loafers would never recover from the assault by vineyard mud.

What was supposed to be a quick tour and tasting turned into a four-hour lesson on the art, science and agriculture of winemaking. I was hooked. Still today in my office hangs a photo of a smiling Charlie Wagner in his paid shirt and me in my tweed jacket and soiled loafers, after enjoying Caymus Cabernet around the Wagner family dining room in their small farm-house that now serves as winery offices.

We left Napa and Sonoma a few days later. I, like many before and after, said to myself, if I had it to do all over again, I want to make wine and live the wine country experience. I want to be part of that century’s old tradition of making wine and putting smiles on friendly faces. I think back now and wonder what stopped me. I was only 26, married but no children, it would have been easy. But I had my young buck MBA blinders on, charging forth into the business world.

My passion for wine never faded although it took a back seat to soccer games, volleyball games, ski races and golf tournaments as our children moved through their school age years in Colorado. It seems however that my love of wine took root in them as well, albeit in different ways. Our daughter, Whitney, has gone the hospitality route and is a tour guide at the renowned Jordan Winery while our son, Conch, received his degree in viticulture and enology (winemaking). Conch spent his summer refining his Pinot palate by visiting Russian River wineries and educating Pinot enthusiasts in the C. Donatiello Tasting Room on the Healdsburg square. As of this writing is learning the fine art of Pinot Noir winemaking and production at Kosta Browne Winery.

So I’ve given you the entire back story to see how we arrived at this day when I, and we as a family, take a small step to living that dream that Charlie Wagner unknowingly sparked 31 years earlier. Together our family along with friends from Colorado will make wine in 2014 in Healdsburg, CA. I’m not totally starting over, at least not yet as I still have a business to run in Colorado. Thanks to internet technology I now operate from a little desk in a bedroom we are renting from our daughter and her boyfriend instead of my corner office. The small 1906 restored bungalow may get pretty tight with four adults and two dogs. Hopefully we won’t overstay our welcome.

Roger in vineyardWe put this plan in motion just a couple of months ago and it has been a bit daunting. Just the federal and state liquor licensing to make, not even sell, commercial wine has been overwhelming but I think we are on the home stretch now. Our wine-stained dream hit the road to reality on the morning of our 35th anniversary in June when I received our first grape contract, Pinot Noir from Nunes Vineyard in Russian River Valley. That was soon followed by contracts for Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier from two vineyards in Dry Creek Valley. No turning back…we were committed. Donna’s sister was surprised by the anniversary present of grapes but we explained that Pinot Noir grapes for the 35th anniversary is the traditional gift, at least in our world.

Beyond all the legal and license BS, there was still much to be done since I will be hands-on in the winery and away from the office for six to eight weeks during harvest, when most of the winemaking is done. First, I had to take stock of my overweight desk-jockey body and get ready for the rigors of harvest. In addition, I needed the buy-in of my staff so I could follow my dream while they toiled away. Promises of much wine helped. While I like to think I know a thing or two about wine, winemaking is another subject entirely. To supplement my lack of education I’ve enrolled in online viticulture and enology classes from Washington State University. Go Cougars…

Roger and Conch in vineyardConch, Donna and I also had to develop our working relationship. He as the winemaker, keeping in mind his first responsibility is to his employer, with Donna and me as his cellar rats. To call this a juxtaposition of our relationship is an understatement. Do we have it all worked out? I don’t know, only time will tell if we get over all the bumps in the road. Family working relationships can be a perilous maze.

So we are here in Sonoma getting ready for our first harvest or virgin vintage, as I like to call it. I’m in the vineyards every few days checking ripeness and fruit quality, like I know what I am doing. I’m calling winemaker friends and bugging them with basic questions and to be honest, they all have been so helpful. The collegiality of winemakers is very rewarding.

If you have ever dreamed of the wine life or wondered if the realty of following your dreams could live up to the expectations…then follow along on our wine-stained adventure and we can find out together. Am I scared… yeah and it feels good!

Aug 122014
 

A few weeks ago a fellow blogger suggested we stop by and meet 5th generation winemaker, Ryan Kunde of DRNK Wines at his little winery, hidden off a dirt road in the Pinot Noir centric Russian River Valley. The wines were fantastic and the one on one tasting with Ryan in his winery cave is not to be missed. Read More Here. This is a young man with a famous wine surname who is about to make a big name for himself. Meet Ryan Kunde…

DRNK Wine

Ryan Kunde

Continue reading »

Jul 282014
 

Denver and Colorado Wineauxs…. Here’s a great chance to drink some great boutique California Wines while supporting two great causes…Don’t miss it!

Blanchard Family Wines and Distant Cellars Wine Release PartyBlanchard Family Wines and Distant Cellars, two of my favorite California wineries with Colorado ties, are hosting their first ever joint wine release party here in Denver. These two family-owned wineries, both located in Northern California, have owners that live and serve here in Colorado.

James Blanchard, from Blanchard Family Wines, serves as an Air Force helicopter pilot while running half of his family winery, while Drew Gaiser from Distant Cellars serves as a local Colorado Firefighter while running the Colorado arm of his family winery.

Blanchard Family Wines and Distant Cellars Wine Release PartyJames and Drew will be hosting a wine release event at the University of Denver’s Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality on August 21st from 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm. Both wineries have significant charitable arms and in addition to pouring several of their top selections, will be pouring wines that support great causes and new release wines never before shared..

Blanchard Family Wines will be pouring Jessi’s Red to benefit the Jessica Redfield Scholarship Foundation, in memory of Jessica Redfield, who was killed in the Aurora theater shootings. Distant Cellars will be pouring their Tribute Red Blend, a wine dedicated to raising funds for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

The wine tasting will be accompanied with amazing small bites from Executive Chef Michel Wahaltere of Dorchester Social Eatery and delectable tastes from Izzybelle Chocolates. Grab a glass of wine and visit exhibits from local artists Christopher Owen Nelson and Todd Perkins.

Tickets are only $15 and include a commemorative logo glass. Registration can be completed at the following link: https://boutiquewinetasting.eventbrite.com/. Wine Club members from either winery can get two free tickets by contacting their respective winery for a discount code.

Jun 302014
 

Are you searching for a personal winery experience? The old days when you met in a casual setting with the owner and/or winemaker can still be found. You just have to get off the beaten path, but not all that far. There are plenty of small boutique producers who more than willing to share their passion and wine in a small and sometimes very personal setting. This is also an opportunity to add some interesting hand-crafted wines to your collection since most are only available online or locally in Sonoma County. Here’s a few off the beaten path wineries in Sonoma we love for both the wine and personalities. Stay tuned to this list as we will add to it when we discover more fantastic and novel experiences.

Russian River Valley – Near Healdsburg, CA
Best Boutique Winery Experiences - Sonoma County

John and Diane Bucher

Bucher Vineyards John and Diane Bucher have a 38 acre sustainable vineyard of premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The vineyard sits next to their 360 acre organic dairy farm. While most of their grapes are sold to outstanding wineries like C. Donatiello and Willams Selyem, they hold back some of their favorite blocks of grapes to make Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and a Pinot Rose’ under the Bucher label. Expect to meet the Buchers at their home with expansive views of the Russian River Valley. You will sit with John and Diane on their patio as you sample their wines; learn about the vineyards and dairy farm. John and Diane enjoy taking their guests on a tour of the vineyards and explain their meticulous planting and clone selection concepts. This experience is like stepping back to those early hands-on days of the Sonoma wine pioneers. Appointment Required Continue reading »

Jun 132014
 

Father’s Day Wine Pairing – This article originally appeared on the award winning site; Tasty Chomps from Orlando, FL. I was honored to contribute my personal suggestions for wine pairings.

Tasty Chomps' Orlando

Father’s Day is soon approaching. If you haven’t picked out something special for good ol’ dad, don’t sweat it – we have a few recommendations to make this Father’s Day extra special. For those of you who were triumphant in braving the busy shops and malls to find that perfect gift, we’d like to remind you that no gift is perfect without wine. If you got him chocolate – get him wine! If you’re taking him out to dinner – get him wine! Is he receiving a beautiful white dress shirt? Again, get that man some wine, STAT.

After surveying a total of 81 dads across the nation and figuring out what they really want for Father’s Day, Roger Beery of Bacchus & Beery and I discussed which wines pair exquisitely with these suggestions. Continue reading »

Apr 022014
 

Last October we attended a wonderful event, Pinot on the River, on the town square in Healdsburg. It is a Pinot Noir lover’s dream, featuring over 100 of Sonoma’s best Pinot producers. As you’d expect, we tasted some amazing wine and met some outstanding winemakers.

Bucher Vineyard

John and Diane Bucher

As the afternoon crowd dwindles towards the end of the event, the buzz begins from those in the know. Some of the loudest buzz was around Bucher Vineyard, a 38 acre vineyard in the Russian River Valley, not far from Healdsburg. Single vineyard designated Bucher Vineyard Pinot Noirs have been created by some of the most renown Sonoma vintners, including Williams Selyem, Siduri Wines, Papapietro Perry, Arista, HoldredgeC. Donatiello Winery, and Thralls Family Cellars.

While I was familiar with the vineyard name and the wines made by other producers, the buzz was actually about the wines under the new Bucher Vineyard label. So we had to check them out. I must say they were indeed buzz-worthy. Just a day later we spent a few relaxing hours with John and Diane Bucher at their home on their 360 acre ranch which includes the vineyard and a 700 head organic dairy farm. Continue reading »

Mar 262014
 

“…Good company, good wine, good welcome, can make good people.” William Shakespeare, Henry VIII – 1613

“All good things must come to an end.” Geoffrey Chaucer – 1374

My emotions are today ranging from melancholy to near sadness. The Buddhist in me is reminded that attachment only causes pain. But for all my human failings, I find myself attached to what was and feeling some modicum of pain.

Tonight we will be attending a celebration of sorts, or maybe more like a wake. For tonight marks the closing of the place we thought of as our second living room, our other home and extended family, CRU Wine Bar in Park Meadows. Our Cheers Bar, if you will. Before you roll your eyes and judge, I encourage you to read on about this wonderful little wine bar that lost its lease because the mall property owner preferred to move in a high volume chain steak house. What once was interesting is now becoming another cookie-cutter experience. CRU is not the first victim as leases have come up for renewal. No doubt the little wine bar could never generate the rental revenue of the newer high volume tenants…but not all food and wine options need to cater to manic disengaged crowds when there is space for the large and intimate alike. Continue reading »

Mar 122014
 

Cartograph wines

Cartograph’s Alan Baker and Serena Lourie

Winemaker interview with Alan Baker of Cartograph Wines – We at Bacchus and Beery, are always on the lookout for stories of people who left successful careers (not millionaire investors) to start over in the wine industry. When asking around northern Sonoma, the name Alan Baker of Cartograph Wines came up over and over again. Alan walked away from career in Public Broadcasting with few prospects, a little wine knowledge and a lot of wine passion. We have now had the pleasure of getting to know Alan and his partner (in life and wine), Serena Lourie . Together they have recently opened a lovely new tasting room right off the square in Healdsburg. Being hands-on owners and winemakers, you are more likely than not, to be greeted by Alan, Serena or both, when you stop by for a visit and a glass of wine.

B&B Wine Blog: Who do you see when you look in the mirror?

Alan Baker Picking grapesAB: A guy who has more tasks on his list than he has time to complete them. I think the days are long gone when a winemaker could just focus on making great wine. If the world doesn’t know about your wines, it won’t matter how good they are. So I’m almost always in the tasting room, online, or on the road interacting with our customers. Continue reading »