Read Part 3 of our Starting J. Cage Cellars – 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 for our new family winery, J. Cage Cellars. 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.
Amongst 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 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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!