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.
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.”
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.
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!
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