Personal Stories – Wine

Oct 082014
 
Read Part 5 of our Starting a Family Winery Series

 

IMG_2276It was the last few days of our harvest and crush. The Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier that Donna and I had watched over so closely during the last weeks of ripening were fully fermented and safely tucked into their barrels, resting until they are ready to share. Our Pinot Noir from Nunes Vineyard in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County was nearly finished and ready for press. I, for the first time during this experience, was feeling down and a bit sad. But it took a winemaker friend to describe the emotion accurately.

The last two weeks had been filled with work in the winery. Both Donna and I found we were missing our time in the vineyard. Early morning, in the solitude of vines, grapes and sunshine, sometimes hidden by a thin layer of coastal fog was a time we learned to cherish. We would walk amongst the rows taking grape samples, checking for quality, sugar levels and overall ripeness. Different areas of the vineyard and different clones of the same grape variety mature at different rates, making choices challenging. We strived to get our first picks as close to perfect as possible, in order to create the hand-crafted wines we had been imagining for our own, J. Cage Cellars. Continue reading »

Sep 212014
 
Read Part 4 of our Starting a Family Winery Series

Much to my naive surprise, learning to be a winemaker and seeking winemaking advice has turned out to be much like my first days of fatherhood and  seeking child rearing advice. Even the most artful winemakers hold deeply seeded conflicting opinions. As my friend Kurt Beitler of Bohème Wines told me, “Roger…What do you get when two winemakers are in a room together?…Four opinions.”

Learning to be a Winemaker I recall from my early days as a father asking different parents I respected about child rearing philosophies and techniques. As I found with winemaking, there was an inconsistency of heartfelt answers. Let the child bond by sleeping in bed with you. The child should learn independence by sleeping in another room. Let the child set their own schedule. If your child sets their own schedule, you’ll have an undisciplined child and you’ll get no rest…It’s all enough to leave your head spinning like the child, Regan, in the 1973 film The Exorcist.

Even though I had spent quite a bit of time reading about the art of winemaking, when the time came for decision making, I relied on a core group of respected winemaker friends who were happy to offer solid advice. I had assumed incorrectly, that since they produced wines in a similar style, their techniques would be nearly the same and I would have a simple plan to follow. I could not have been more wrong. Not only are many of their opinions deeply held, I was told that if I followed another’s advice…it could end badly. Like Regan…my head was and is still, though to a much lesser extent, spinning. Continue reading »

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. Continue reading »

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.” Continue reading »

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. Continue reading »