Winter Work

Eddie moving the 2009 Tannat to barrelsIt's the dead of winter here in Sonoma, which usually means overcast with temperatures in the 40's to 50's Fahrenheit -- which it is today (with a tip of the chapeau to my friends in the Northeast, frolicking in another 18" of new snow). We have had a relatively wet season so far; not yet enough to fill the State's reservoirs, but enough that 2010 won't be a "drought year."

It's the slowest time of the year for us. We are moving a few lots at the winery. The crew has started pruning and cover crop management at the Estate vineyard. And I am putting 2009 behind me and planning for 2010. In fact, thinking about 2010 has me awake early this morning, when I really wish I was hibernating like a bear.

Planning 2010: Getting the vineyard in shape. Working hard to get contracts early to sell excess fruit, mostly Syrah -- until the market for these spectacular wines improves, we grow more than we want to bottle. Moving the winery -- just across the parking lot, but there is much to do. Bottling 2007 Rhône wines, 2008 Pinot and 2009 Rosé. SELLING more wine -- much more.

And there's the five-million-dollar question: are we going to be able to sell enough wine this year to stay afloat? A couple weeks ago in his blog Steve Heimhoff asked the questions: Who's Making Money? Who Isn't? Like so many others who are pouring their souls into making high-quality artisanal wines, frankly in 2009 Westwood was among the "isn'ts." In 2010 we need to put more resources into marketing -- money and time -- and the economy needs to improve or all my planning will be for naught and I will need to be doing some planning of a different sort.

And then there is my own personal two-million-dollar question: am I going to have the strength to make 2010 work for us? I have a PET scan coming up in a couple of weeks that is going to go a long way toward answering that one.

OK maybe it's the gloomy weather affecting my outlook. On the brightside, we have some bee-yoo-tee-ful wines coming on the market just now, such as the brooding 2005 Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir and the sprightly 2006 redFOUR. I have wines from three of the best vintages in memory in barrel. Our Estate vineyard continues to surprise and impress as it matures. And I have wonderful family, friends and business partners.

All in all, life is good.
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Blog Changes Coming

Yep, I have to find another way to publish this little project. Google is about to pull Blogger's support for ftp, which is how I've been maintaining this blog. A couple years back I attempted to migrate the template and content to Wordpress, but it did not go well and I lost interest in bird-dogging it to get it to work. Maybe the migration tools are better now. Maybe I need to try something else. Anyone out there want to trade some wine for help in migrating this blog to another platform?
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Our Grapes And Climate Change

Last December Pinotblogger (Josh Hermsmeyer) put up a post titled: "Climate Change and Wine Growing: One Farmer’s Opinion" that caught my interest enough to comment on it. I have been thinking about the exchange since then.

So here is another farmer's opinion, and why I ultimately don't lose much sleep over what any governmental agencies adopt as policy toward climate change.

It seems to me that one would have to be willfully ingorant not to see that the climate is changing, and getting hotter. Regardless of short term and local low temperatures, in the broader scheme glaciers and the ice caps are melting at a rate unprecedented in geologic history. And weather events are becoming more extreme.

Whether these changes have an anthropogenic component may or may not be proven, but the coincidence is striking. Whether or not we as a society or as a species can do anything to alter the rate of climate change, much less reverse its trajectory, remains to be seen. I'm not optimistic. I don't believe the will is there.

So what's one farmer to do? In a word, hedge. I have done what I can to hedge aganst the risks of climate change. First, I chose a very cool site for our vineyard. Not the coolest, but cool enough that we can produce very high quality Pinot Noir at low yields. Cool enough that every year we are usually the last vineyard to harvest Pinot in the Sonoma Valley appellation. Cool enough that the final ripening of our Rhône grapes is dictated by the shortening day length rather than heat summation.

Second, we are fortunate that our vineyard is sited at the confluence of two marine mesoclimates, poised between the Sonoma Valley adjacent to San Pablo Bay, and the Santa Rosa Plain opposite the Russian River gap. Every day as the air heats up and rises over Kenwood, air is pulled up-valley from the Bay (cooling Carneros) and off the cold waters of the Pacific through the gap, over a temperature inversion in the Plain and directly to our site. The hotter it gets in Kenwood, the windier and cooler it gets at our vineyard.

Third, we have a great water source -- a highly-productive well, drilled so deep that it is drawing from an aquifer that is likely to recharge for centuries. If the world heats up and our evapotranspiration requirement goes up, we should still be able to farm.

Finally, we have are successfully farming both early- and late-ripening varieties for high quality. If it gets warmer we bud over the Pinot Noir to Mourvedre and Grenache. If all the science is actually wrong, and it gets colder we will bud all the Rhône varieties to Pinot Noir. Either way, we win.

As a citizen I believe there may be good reasons to make burning carbon more expensive well before it becomes more expensive due to scarcity. As a parent I would like my children to live in a world more benign than the one I grew up in; a world of rising sea level and harsher weather does not seem more benign, so if there is even a chance that this change could be delayed or averted, the conservative in me wants to grab that chance. But as a farmer on our vineyard? I think I and at least several generations after me are covered.
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Catching Up - Vintage 2009

It has been since May that I posted. I had a half-dozen posts in draft when I sat down to re-acquaint myself with this blog today, and I realized that I just was not going to ever finish most of them. Today I polished and published a couple of them, dated from their original conceptions in June.

So if you are interested in the reason for the hiatus, and maybe want to hear how our 2009 vintage turned out, read on…

Back in May I woke up one morning with a large lump on my neck. It took a while to determine that it was not viral or bacterial, and it was late August before it was diagnosed as cancer. Turned out that the primary tumor was in my right tonsil. After surgery, chemoradiation treatment started in October and was complete toward the end of November. I'm recovering, and my treatment team feels there is a good prognosis.

It's hard to think how this could have happened at a more ridiculous time. I owe a debt of gratitude to my family, friends, and the winemaking teams at Enkidu and Anaba who helped me get through the difficult 2009 harvest. Thanks, guys.

The 2009 vintage did not start out being difficult -- in fact it started out perfect. The growing season started late and it looked like it was going to be a serious drought year, until welcome rains in May bailed us out. We had very even flowering and set in all our varieties. Temperatures throughout the season were moderate, with no excessive or extended heat spells. In these ways I was reminded of the 1998 growing season. By this September I was happy to be looking at the most even and balanced crop I have seen at our Annadel Estate vineyard since it went into production in 2005.

We picked a small amount of Pinot off the young vines (clones 943 & 777) on September 19th, and the balance of the old-vine Pinot (clones 115 & 667) on October 7th and 8th. Pinot yields were a perfect 2.5 tons/acre, and the berries were generally uniformly small and multi-seeded -- very little of the "hens & chicks" we have seen in recent years, and a consequence of good weather during set. The picking date was later than the previous record by three days -- a testimony to the relative cool temperatures this season.

Then we got over 3" of rain on October 13th and another 0.5"+ on October 19th. The weather did not get dry, breezy and warm after the storms as we hoped. Our Syrah was not affected when we took it off on October 28th. We ended up with a small amount of rot in our Tannat, Mourvedre and Counoise, but this was easy to pick around on October 27th, November 2nd and November 6th, respectively. Our Grenache looked as bad as any fruit I have ever seen in California when we picked it on November 4th. This was the latest we have ever picked the Annadel Estate, by four days.

As harvests go, this only ranks as the third most difficult in my experience. We got a lot more rain in 1989, and the end of the 2000 vintage was the most logistically challenging I have ever faced. By comparison to these two, 2009 was a piece of cake.

This year I continued to inoculate late, pushing inoculation back farther than I have in any vintage to date, and using less yeast. Because of the cool temperatures and ample moisture, Brix levels were generally lower than average and I was able to complete the Syrah and Mourvedre lots without inoculating at all. The cool vintage also meant that natural acidity levels were higher than average, requiring less correction.

The Pinots and Syrah are stellar wines. The Tannat was a surprise -- as inky-dark as usual but with very restrained tannins for a change! I don't exactly know what to make of it just yet, but I like it so far. The Mourvedre came in less dark and more spicy than in recent years -- I'm very excited to see how it works in the redFOUR blend. The Counoise is a revelation, with lovely white pepper spice and more fruit than we have seen from it so far. I was concerned that the Grenache was going to be a disaster, but I have dealt with Botrytis in Grenache before, brought my skill set to bear, and think I have pulled a rabbit out of the hat. We'll see.

The grape commodity market was very tight due to the continued weak economy. We sold very little fruit this vintage, meaning I have more fruit for Westwood this year. These wines won't come to market until 2013; we're hopeful that the luxury market has rebounded by then because we are going to have a lot of great wine to sell!
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The "Truth" About Unfined & Unfiltered

Nearly two years ago I posted on the causes of a hot finish, and on headaches and sulfites. Back then, I promised a third installment of "Boring Crap You Never Wanted To Know In This Much Detail" -- "Unfined & Unfiltered: Philosophy Meets Reality"

Well, since I am gearing up for bottling I'm thinking about the topic (as I do every year). This is not the same post I would have done two years ago, but a promise is a promise, so here goes…

It seems like it has been a while since the question of whether unfined and unfiltered wines are "better" than their more processed cousins was the topic du jour in the wine mediaspace. Maybe the topic has been talked to death. Maybe writers and marketers alike have decided there is no "there" there. Maybe consumers have read all there is to read, and tasted enough wines to have made up their own minds.

Nah.

Google "unfined unfiltered wine" and most of the media references returned are from 2006, way back when I was first thinking of writing this post. But the subject has not gone away -- my old buddy Clark Smith recently posted on the subject in his GrapeCrafter blog. Clark gives a possible explanation for the proliferation of these claims in his bit: these days "…no sane winemaker seeks to educate the outside world on interventionist practices." (Emphasis mine.)

Marketers clearly have not let go of the concept -- it looks to me like 80% of the search returns on "unfined unfiltered" are descriptions of specific wines (full disclosure: our wines are probably in there somewhere-- we don't fine or filter as a rule, though rules are made to be broken as I elaborate below). As an example of how "unfined and unfiltered" are used in marketing, the good folks at North Berkeley Imports put it this way: "Many… wines are often bottled unfined and unfiltered (in French, non-filtré). …Our experience has shown that unfined/unfiltered wines will often taste fresher, with more purity of fruit, than wines that have gone through this process. We also believe that this natural sediment helps to nourish wine over time, which can help it age gracefully while in your cellar. …In short, however, we seek first and foremost natural wines, which is why you'll find many unfined and unfiltered wines in our portfolio."

Notice how the word "natural" appears a number of times, creating the subtext that fining and filtering a wine is somehow "un-natural." There are surely lots of people out there who believe this, and more -- people who have come up with some ideological and demagogic construction of wine "purity" -- and called it "non-interventionist."

Well, I've got to say, y'all are entitled to your own opinion. But let me remind y'all of a little aphorism I picked up in Texas during my misspent youth: "opinions are like a**holes; everybody's got one, and they all stink to someone." In my "Hands-On Winemaking" post from last year I took a pretty good swing at this ridiculous "non-interventionist" construct. All I'm posting about today is fining and filtering wines -- or not.

Some quick definitions: "fining" is the addition to the wine of a tiny amount of some substance -- usually a protein such as that found in gelatin, egg whites, or milk -- that binds with something in the wine the winemaker finds objectionable and then falls to the bottom of the tank or barrel, allowing the clear wine to be racked off the fining lees. "Filtration" is the process of passing the wine under pressure through some medium, in order to directly remove something undesirable to the winemaker. Both of these processes can be employed to improve clarity. Fining (and some types of filtration) can modify the wine's tannin structure. Filtration can be used to completely remove yeast and bacteria, ensuring that a properly-filtered wine won't re-ferment in the bottle. Specific types of filtration can remove alcohol or volatile acidity. And oh yeah, there's more -- lots more.

Fining and filtration are tools that the experienced wine craftsman can use judiciously to correct minor flaws in a wine, to make a wine "better." A non-interventionist demagogue may argue that employing any of these tools invariably makes a wine worse, but I believe this point of view would be demolished in a blind tasting of certain wines by a broad cross section of knowledgeable wine consumers. Simply, some slightly flawed wines are improved by fining and/or filtration.

Now I can hear some passive-aggressive "critics" -- with no money tied up in grapes and barrels -- saying "so don't make flawed wines." To this I say "bite me." You try this, genius. It ain't as easy as I make it look.

Don't get me wrong-- fining and filtration do have tradeoffs. Years ago I did research for a moderately-large producer of white wines. Standard procedure was to finish the wines with Bentonite, with or without a little bit of casein, and to sterile-filter the wines into the bottle (especially when the malolactic fermentation was incomplete). I did years of aging trials on malo-complete wines where I would split the lot and rack half straight to bottle, and finish the other half as we would in the commercial production. The wines were aged side-by-side and tasted at 1 year, 2 years, and 3 years by a group of trained professionals.

First let me say there was never unanimity, and often only a moderate amount of consistency among the preferences of the tasters. This suggests foremost that the differences between the wines were small. Second, all the unfined/unfiltered wines threw more or less sediment over time, and a few threw increasing amounts of sediment. Third, in most of the wines it was generally agreed that by year 3 the unfined/unfiltered wines retained slightly more fruit, and had slightly lighter color (which was quantifiable in the spectrophotometer)-- emphasis on the "slightly" for both.

As a result the decision was taken that certain 100% malolactic lots that might actually see long aging in the marketplace could be bottled without filtration. It was decided that there was too much commercial risk involved to bottle the large-volume production wines without fining and filtration, especially since only a vanishingly small fraction of these bottles would see more than 3 years of age before being consumed. And of course wines that were not 100% ML could not be bottled unfiltered, as re-growth of the bacteria in the bottle could produce haze at unacceptable levels, produce "off" aromas, and yield enough CO2 to render the wine fizzy - potentially to the point that pressure inside the bottle could push corks, and perhaps even break the bottle. This involved excessive commercial risk, including liability issues.

At Westwood I don't make any whites, and all my reds have no residual sugar, are 100% ML-complete, and are aged long enough in barrels that they should be stable to microbial activity and precipitation. Except in an experimental setting, I take special care in the fermenter to assure that the wines' tannins have the structure I want to see in the finished wine. I don't fine or filter Westwood wines because I don't have to. And rule number one in my winemaking philosophy is "never do anything to the wine you don't have to."

That said, if I think a wine is too cloudy I will filter it. If a wine plates positive for Brettanomyces I will sterile-filter it -- I don't like Brett in the bottle. And if a wine is slightly flawed but in my opinion good enough in every other dimension, I will correct that flaw rather than lose a ton of money trying to sell the wine into a saturated bulk market.

If that's a deal-breaker for you, so be it -- it's a free country and I respect your choice. But don't criticize me for my choices, or I will call you on your BS.
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Your Taste, My Taste

The perennial question of objectivity in wine evaluation has been rehashed lately in the trade media. While the main focus has been calls for "objectivity," in the sense of "freedom from undue commercial influence" (a standard to which wine writers apparently must adhere, while our political leaders -- among others -- are given a pass) the discussion has occasionally digressed into the subjectivity of tasting, bias, and shopworn criticism of the 100-point tasting scale.

When I have put in my two cents it has been to assert that I am in the camp of "all tasting is subjective and hedonic." This was on my mind this morning as I woke up, thinking of an old winemaking acquaintance for whom this certainly must be true.

This guy (I'll call him Chet) was the winemaker at a place I worked early in my career. I knew Chet before we worked together, and had tasted wines with him on several occasions. After I started working for him we were involved in much more intensive blending tastings. We never agreed.

To my taste, the wines Chet preferred were fruity and flabby with hints of salad dressing in the finish. Years later we were at a casual dinner with winemakers around the table; one guy popped a very respectable bottle of Chardonnay made in the classic California style. Nine winemakers at the table were saying more or less complimentary things about the wine. Apparently unable to contain himself, Chet popped out with "too much f***ing oak!" The rest of us sort of stared at our plates for a second, reacting as though drunken Uncle Diddles had just told a really off-color joke at the family reunion.

I was embarrassed for Chet. More than disagreeing with him, in my youthful arrogance I actively thought he was full of crap, and I simply could not take him seriously any longer. We didn't speak to each other for years. Eventually I evolved, and came to realize that he was right -- within his worldview at least.

I came to realize and accept that Chet's career aspiration was to make the perfect mass-market wine. He was working from a different archetype than I was, a different ur-form. Chet's archetype came in a jug, or a box. He could understand and in his own context appreciate great wines, but those were not the wines he wanted to make. And these days I would say good on him -- the wines he wanted to make are the wines most Americans seem to want to drink, if sales volume is any indication.

What I was thinking of as I woke today was "what is my own archetype?" Certainly I have one -- one wine that has influenced all the wines I have produced over the years. Certainly it is not a Parker archetype. "Cocktail" wines leave me cold, and I have no experience making what would constitute a "good" one -- nor do I aspire to. Surprisingly, I found that my archetype is not a Pinot, though I love making Pinot, and probably drink more Pinot and red Burgundy of a certain style than anything else. Likewise my archetype is not a great Rhone, though I do love wines of Cote Rotie, Cornas, Gigondas and Vacqueyras.

No, I go back to my early teens for a wine I had with a family dinner. This was in Houston in the late 60’s or early 70’s. My dad took the family to a little Basque restaurant in a nearby mall, for my first taste of paella. Back in the day in Houston, you weren’t likely to find a Basque wine on the list even at a Basque restaurant, much less a decent Spanish wine, and very few French wines for that matter. But you could find decent Italian wines. Dad ordered a Valpolicella, probably the first one I ever tasted -- surely the first one that I recall tasting.

The recollection of that wine is still with me. I remember aromas of dried cherries and citrus peel, briar and marzipan. The wine was full in the mouth, but not flabby, with good body and acid, and enough tannin to grab at my youthfully sensitive palate. And I recall that the combination with the saffron in the paella was more than the sum of its parts. This was maybe my first experience of a great food wine.

So, yeah, this is where my brain goes when I seek to make sense of a wine I’m putting together. I’m looking for complexity in the nose, with a balance of fruit and woodsy elements, and a structure in the mouth that balances acid and tannin -- my rhetorical square. And overall I’m looking for food-friendliness. All in all, that’s an archetype I can be satisfied with -- a 100-point wine.

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More On Lighter Wine Bottles

Lighter bottles -- it's becoming my mantra. I made the decision to stop bottling in extra-heavy glass a year ago. Others have been picking up on the topic, and now it seems the request for lighter products is being addressed by the glass manufacturers. This morning I saw this article from the May issue of Wines & Vines: "How Light Can You Get?" by Suzane Gannon.

The article highlights how some of the major wine bottle producers (Saint Gobain, Saverglass, Demptos and Owens-Illinois) have recently released lower-weight, lower-cost products into the US market. Owens has been the low-weight leader, for the last nine years producing a 750mL bottle weighing just 298 grams (not sold in the US) -- Saint Gobain has matched this with their newly-released "Revolution" bottle. Compare this to the 850 gram "prestige" bottle I have switched away from, or the ones I have switched to, that weigh 485 and 535 grams.

Putting these weights in perspective, moving from the prestige glass has meant that I'm shipping cases that weigh 37 lb. each instead of a whopping 50 lb. A switch to the lightest available glass would save nearly another 5 lb. per case. This also brings up the reality of wine shipping: there is only so low one can go. Wine is mostly water and it isn't particularly light, at about 20 lb. per case. It is significant though that we have moved from the packaging weighing more than the product, to it being less than half of the shipping weight.

I have to see some of these ultra-light bottles in the flesh (as it were) before I consider using any of them -- they may be too butt-ugly for me to want to present my carefully hand-crafted babies in them. But it is exciting that manufacturers are moving in this direction.
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Time On My Hands

I'm in Houston staying at my dad's place. Our quarterly partners' meeting is behind us and I have a big private tasting of our wines to do tonight -- should be fun. Got the wines and order forms ready to go, my little presentation prepped in my head, clothes ready and I'm even already checked in for my flights back to SFO tomorrow.

It's funny how I get before these big public events -- not anxious or nervous, but surly and depressed. It's like I'm gathering my energy for the show I'm going to put on. Meh.

So I'm ready early and I've had time on my hands. Time to Twitter, time to Facebook (is that a verb?), time to read other blogs, and time to write this. So it's time to summarize a few tidbits:

Tina Martin is working with us now to manage Westwood marketing. She's had plenty of experience (Cline, Flowers, Keller Estate, Hanzell) and has hit the ground running in spite of the economy. She is a real professional and I enjoy working with her.

Speaking of hitting the ground running -- after a lot of work Tina has managed to get Lisa Valentine (Canopy Wine Group -- when they get their website up) to rep Westwood here in Northern California. She and her people have had samples for less than 24 hours and we already have two new placements. Yea!

I met Guy Stout (MW) and local wine writer Dale Robertson over the last couple of days. When we get our wine distribution up and running here in Texas (again) it can't hurt that these guys might recognize the brand after this introduction.

On the agenda at the partners' meeting: discussion of final approval by the members to plant eight acres at the Annadel Estate. So resolved. Glad we didn't wait until next year, but I'm a bit under the gun to find the clones I'm looking for as dormant vines.

Speaking of the vineyard: we have had a couple of inches of rain recently and it has been mild, still and humid -- perfect weather for a case of spring Botrytis to affect the vines. We have stayed on top of of the spore load through our very timely seasonal and dormant spray program over the years, but I'm still anxious. That's farming. Jean-Marie is waiting for a break in the weather to make a spray.

The dry winter allowed us to move the power generator on site early this year. This meant that we had frost control available if necessary. We have had three frost incidents since pruning, but the dew points were high, and the temperatures only stayed below freezing for a couple of hours at most each time.

Though the events weren't severe, the vineyard guys turned on the new frost control for the first time -- we are using an extremely low-volume overhead spray system. It seemed to work: we observed ice formation on the vines (a good thing -- ice is an insulator). Seriously, we might have escaped damage without it. I think the guys turned it on just to have something to do.

OK -- showtime! Time to dress and load the car.
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Stainless Steel Wine Packaging

Yesterday a friend who is working on a new restaurant project wrote to ask what I thought of serving house wine out of a barrel. In Italy I've had some pretty tasty house wines that were served out of some sort of cask. Almost invariably these wines were simple, food-friendly and fresh. I enjoyed them, and have more than once wondered why most of the cheap house wines dispensed here in the US mostly, well, suck by comparison.

Part of the reason may be historical, and some is surely driven by what large producers think are the expectations of the "average" wine drinker. But the average palate is changing. And new wine packaging is gaining acceptance (I'm hardly the first person to post about this). And some of this new packaging could, I believe, finally make European-model house wine a reality.

I believe that the quality of most bulk boxed wine-like beverages produced in the US, um… "could be better" -- perhaps these wines have have more than a little grape concentrate incorporated both before fermentation and before bottling -- not really a recipe for quality. I believe many American consumers would welcome something unadorned, crisp, fresh, alive and with moderate alcohol, but the long distances wine has to be transported in the US seems to have selected for the evolution of cheaper, commodified, more processed wine-like beverages.

The improving quality of wine-in-a-box has been promoted ad nauseam -- I hope it's actually happening. I think it would be cool to have a bag-in-box of something relatively inexpensive, reliable and actually fun to drink at home. Some day I may even try one of the new offerings -- but only because I like the idea of "relatively inexpensive, reliable and actually fun to drink" -- NOT because the packaging is "greener."

Our colleague Tyler Colman wrote in the New York Times last year about wine-in-a-box, arguing for the desirability of this packaging based on its lighter weight. In this column he cites that 5.2 pounds of carbon dioxide is emitted in the transport of a bottle of wine from Napa to NYC (20% greater than the 4.4 pounds he cites in the recent National Geographic piece I just posted about -- I wish this guy would pick a figure and stick with it!) and notes that transporting the same volume of WIB emits "about half" that amount. OK -- 2.6 pounds of CO2 per 750mL is still a lot. The fact is that liquids are heavy, and every commercial liquid sometimes has to be transported by truck. I think the focus on the ecological cost of transport alone is a canard, and if the upstream eco-costs of manufacture and the downstream eco-costs of disposal/recycling were properly accounted for, glass probably still looks pretty good compared to bag-in-box.

I'm no expert in Life Cycle Assessment, but I'm pretty sure that bag-in-box and similar alternatives: Tetra-packs, "juice boxes", etc. do have significant manufacturing costs and limited disposal/recycling options. This is definitely not the case for stainless steel packaging, which has nearly unlimited reusability. Recently some unusual new options for delivering wine in stainless are being offered.

I'm interested in the model being pursued by the Natural Process Alliance: make clean, fresh whites, pack them in re-usable stainless steel bottles (see below) and deliver them to customers located within so many miles of the production cellar -- like milk used to be delivered.

dude, I snagged this image off your website, hope you think this is fair use
The NPA whites are made with minimal intervention. This means they are very much "alive" but have a more limited shelf-life -- also sort of like milk. I have not tasted them, but look forward to doing so. Friends have told me the Pinot Gris is tasty.

But for some, including my friend involved in the new restaurant project, the good old Cornelius keg may be the best answer for packaging and delivering Euro-style house wine.

5 gallon and 2.5 gallon Cornelius kegs
These kegs are instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever slung soda in a bar or restaurant, and also to many homebrewers. There's millions of these kegs in circulation, and a mature infrastructure for their supply, cleaning, transport and use.

It's hardly like I am coming early to this party -- Eric Asimov drops some pretty well-known names in his Times column from 4/7/09, including Brewer-Clifton, Melville, Stephen Ross and Flowers. To be sure, I need to talk with some of the winemakers involved, and the restaurateurs who are serving from kegs as well -- I would be surprised to find that the systems are perfectly trouble-free, and want to know the caveats.

I also need to model the costs for wine produced specifically to go into kegs. Compared to our bottled wines destined for aging I envision different farming, yields, picking dates, winemaking inputs, and latency in fermenter, tank and barrel -- and minimal warehouse costs. There will be capital costs for kegs and equipment to clean and fill them. Keg storage, labor, marketing, order fulfillment and customer service costs will be different and have different timings than for cased/bottled product. Ultimately I want to know that I can supply a satisfying consumer experience at a reasonable price.

So yeah, I'm interested, on a number of levels: the challenge of growing and making the wine is stimulating, the potential to develop a revenue stream that is less cyclical and has lower COGS than that from bottled vintage wine is attractive from a business standpoint, and the very idea of a light fresh house red in reusable packaging appeals to my wordview. We'll see, OK?
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National Geographic Slams CA Wine - Eco Unfriendly

Yesterday's mail brought our May 2009 copy of National Geographic. I was surprised to see the Environment page devoted to a wine topic; surpised and a bit dismayed. It seems that our colleague Tyler Colman (Dr. Vino) has had an abstract of his study of the carbon footprint of wine transport published in NGM -- kudos!

However, the ominous title "The Toll of Wine" is accompanied by a large and very misleading graphic, with disproportionately HUGE arrows representing the carbon footprint of shipping wine from Napa to NYC, relative to wine from other parts of the globe.

National Geographic's site does not have a link to the article, and I'm not going to risk the ire of their legal department by reproducing the graphic (by NG staff artist Mariel Furlong) here. But Tyler Colman has it in his blog and I encourage the reader to pull it up to see what I'm talking about. Below I show a graphic of the same data, free of hyperbole: click for larger image
The top graph shows the carbon footprint data for a bottle of wine transported between the indicated origins and destinations. The relatively large footprint for moving a bottle of wine from Napa to NYC assumes routing via truck, presumably warehouse-to-warehouse via the shortest route. The relatively smaller footprints for moving wine from overseas destinations reflect the greater efficiency of sea transport. Again, I assume these footprints are calculated dock-to-dock: nowehere in Tyler Colman's postings or in his original paper is it explicated that "last mile" carbon is included in these summations. I am going to guess that "last mile" carbon consumption has been left out of the calculus -- if so, between these routes the differences are artificially larger than they would be if the costs of getting the wine to the final destination are included.

I'm interested in the indicated difference between the carbon costs of shipping Napa wine to NYC and French wine to LA -- it makes no sense that the former should be greater than the latter. Tyler Colman has responded to questions about this discrepancy from commenters on his blog by noting that he and his co-author "used a port in Texas … (so) there were fewer miles driven." No explanation was given of the reasoning behind picking a port closer to LA, rather than the East Coast ports where most Bordeaux is actually landed. The data presented in Table 1 of Colman's original paper are distinctly at odds with the figures presented in the NGM article -- the transport footprint presented for France to San Francisco is 22% greater than that for Napa to NYC; the Australia to NYC footprint presented there is 52% greater.

The bottom graph adds some much-needed context to the picture: I have included the proportional carbon footprint -- a whopping 22.9 pounds of CO2 -- for trucking a bundle of just 25 National Geographic magazines from NYC to Napa. Yes, I have included this as a slam against NGM for publishing a misleading graphic, depicting some questionable numbers, on paper, in a magazine with international distribution. I won't go so far as to call out NGM as a sanctimonious, hypocritical, greenwashed old-media irrelevancy for doing so. I won't.

At least my agenda is explicit. I object to the portrayal of California wine as somehow less eco-friendly than wine produced elsewhere, simply according to the criterion of the cost of transport to consumers in NYC -- especially if the numbers are suspect. I am left to wonder what Tyler Colman's explicit agenda is.

I'm not looking for a fight. I am deeply committed to reducing my personal and business carbon footprints. I take into consideration who is making stuff, how it's made, and where it comes from in all my purchasing decisions. I posted a year ago about moving to lighter packaging for our products. Like others in the wine business, we are actively encouraging our direct-sales customers to choose alternatives to air shipping. I don't sell a lot of wine on the East Coast yet, but as more rail options for small shipments become available, we will use them. I am personally disinclined to ship by sea, as I believe the ecological costs of ocean transport are greater than the oversimplified considerations of carbon cost alone.

Nevertheless, I'm reading RED, WHITE AND “GREEN”: THE COST OF CARBON IN THE GLOBAL WINE TRADE by Tyler Colman and Pablo Päster very closely, both as a practitioner trained in a "hard" science and as a concerned citizen. I find the authors' model for calculating carbon emissions unsubstantiated, and many of their assumptions and assertions ranging from "questionable" to "susceptible to outright refutation." There is also an implicit but unsubtle negative bias expressed toward high-end wine from California. In my opinion this paper lacks enough scientific rigor to have any merit with respect to moving public policy, much less public opinion.
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Red Vermouth

No, I will not be making sweet red vermouth at Westwood. But I have been thinking a lot about red vermouth lately. You see, I aspire to cultivate an understanding of classic cocktails. I like 'em. Some folks say "it takes a lot of beer to make a little wine" and this is undeniably true, but my favorite beer is the one I had five minutes ago. Ask me about my favorite cocktail and you will get a definitive answer.

This came up recently because a friend on Facebook asked me one of those "five favorite things" questions (note I'm not big on these 5Q things BTW) – "what are your favorite five beers?" Seriously, I couldn't answer.

Years ago, when I was working towards a doctorate at UC Davis, I frequented a bar called Mansion Cellars. The owner had stolen a march on Spike's in San Luis Obispo, by promoting turnover in his bottle beer case by doing an "Around The World In 80 Beers" contest for regulars. I was one of the few who went around the world five times. A couple of things you discover after trying 380 different beers: one is IDIC, the other is its rhetorical opposite – "beer is beer." I could tell you five beers I don't like a helluva lot easier than five I like. Same thing with wines – so sue me.

Cocktails are another matter. They matter. They have seriously different profiles. Just like I don't care for most Zinfandels (sorry! friends who make it!) there are a bunch of cocktails I won't drink. But I absolutely can tell you my five favorites – and I am particular about how I want these made:

Negroni: measure each vodka (is vodka), Campari and red vermouth, shaken, served up in a bucket with a twist of orange zest.
Sazerac: muddled sugar (or simple) in a chilled bucket, rinse with absinthe (pref, St. George), 3-4 rocks, several dashes Peychaud's bitters, a measure of Michter's rye whiskey, stir, serve with twist of orange or lemon zest.
Manhattan: for me, again, Michter's rye (though Maker's Mark bourbon is also nice), red vermouth, Angostura bitters, shaken, in a bucket, and garnished with a maraschino cherry – make it special with a light rinse of Gran Marnier in the glass and a spash of maraschino liqueur in the shaker.
Martini: so many ways! for me always stirred, and served with a couple of olives (no other garnish appreciated), sometimes ultra dry, sometimes with a splash of dry vermouth, and sometimes "dirty."
Margarita: my preference is always blanco (never reposado or anejo), never blended, never salt, always a double with a single measure of sweet & sour. Touch up with Gran Marnier or Cointreau.

Yeah, I know – picky. The bartender hates me.

So back to red vermouth: at least two of my favorites above need this wine to be complete. And the character of the cocktail is deeply dependent on the quality of the vermouth. I've found that there are some brands of red vermouth that should never be used in a cocktail – IMO they are barely suitable for cooking.

I'm looking for the "best" red vermouth: yeah it all starts out as a neutral white wine with 14% sugar, and fortified to 18% alcohol, colored with caramel, and infused with some huge number of herbs and spices. So, what's the bomb?

What vermouth does all the stuff that a guy needs who is in pursuit of bitter complexity? I been working with Cinzano, but it's boring. I'm not into Lillet or Cynar. So what's the good stuff - Punt e Mes? Vya? I'm going to try both. Bartenders and hedonists – what other brands should I be looking for?
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2009 Is A Drought Year

It rained yesterday, bringing my recorded rainfall total to just over 20 inches for the season. This is about 2/3 of average, and I don't expect that we will get too much more this growing season. Part of me hopes we don't, as late-season rainfall makes farming our grapes that much messier.

I remember back in the day that hearing "drought year" was a good thing for the wine afficionado. Do people still feel this way? I don't, not so much.

Our wines in 2009 may be marginally better than they might have been if we had recieved normal or above-average rainfall. I expect that with less water in the deep soil profile we will have to spend less time on canopy management this year. That will free up that much more manpower to allow me to fine-tune crop loads, berry sizes and leaf cover.
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Don't Antagonize The "Talent"

My friends in the entertainment industry tell me they do their best to avoid ticking off the performers, because they realize that without the talent they have nothing to sell. It would be so refreshing if everybody in our industry took on a similar outlook. Sadly, it is not to be.

I've been internalizing my reaction to an unpleasant experience earlier this week with a wine buyer. This is not particularly common; most of the time these interactions are cordial, respectful, polite, and even friendly. Even when there is no interest in our wines.

But sometimes people are having a bad day. Or maybe they are just constantly puffed up with an unearned sense of entitlement and self-importance. I've posted before on the ugly side of the the gatekeeper mentality. Some guys just don't get that we are in this together, we need each other, and we should respect each other for what we do.

It is a fact that there is a lot of wine chasing a limited amount of shelf space. The vast majority of this wine is, um… OK to drink. The vast majority of the places that sell wine are, um… somehwat committed to doing it. I truly feel bad for the folks in marginal venues who have to taste through so much dreck, and at the same time have to answer to a tight bottom line.

But c'mon folks, please remember that I'm the guy taking earth, air, fire and water and turning them into (sometimes sublime) salable product. Not just anybody can do that well. Treat me nice and I will treat you nice. We need each other.
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Pruning Complete At The Estate

close up of double-Guyot pruning in the Pinot 943I just got back from the vineyard, where the crew had finised pruning. The shot above is a close-up of the head region of the young Pinot Noir clone 943 vines. You can see that the buds are pushing a little bit.

This year we pruned the vineyard a month earlier than last year. I have less fear of frost than I did in 2008. Also, we were seeing about as much push at the tops of the canes as we did at the end of April last year. It was simply time to get it done.

single vine showing double-Guyot pruning in the Pinot 943This pic shows one of the Pinot 943 vines. We are pruning to two canes and two renewal spurs (double-Guyot pruning). All the vines in the eastern lower 2/3rds of the vineyard will be trained this way, on 6' x 4' spacing. I am hoping that this training and the tight spacing will give us better options for crop level and exposure control, at the expense of a somewhat more unruly canopy compared to the cordon-trained vines.

The established western half of the vineyard is trained to double cordon. I have posted before (in fact, every year I think) about how most of the pruners just don't get what a 2-bud spur is (see pics in the post linked above). So when I was out yesterday it was no surprise to see a bunch of 3- and 4-bud spurs spread throughout the older vines. Fortunately I didn't have to call Jean-Marie on it – the assistant foreman and another guy were already moving through to trim the long spurs. It is non-trivial to prune correctly to double-Guyot as we will be in the new blocks, but at least we won't have this second round of corrective work to do every year.

And speaking of new blocks:
single vine showing double-Guyot pruning in the Pinot 943…here's a shot of the eight acres we are hoping to plant this year. The ground is all ready to go. We just need to get the surveyor out to mark the corners. Then the crew will come in with the planting chains and the plastic knives to mark the vine locations. Next we will bring in the guy with the special tractor implement to vibrate the end-posts into the ground, and the guys will then pound the pencil rods (for the vines) and the T-bars (for the trellis). Next, we string out the fruit wire, tension it to the end posts and clip it to the pencil rods and T-bars. After the fruit wire is in place we can run the drip tubing and place the emitters. Finally, only after we have water ready to go, we can put some vines in the ground – with milk cartons around them to keep the rabbits from nibbling the new growth. I look at the picture above and I can already see the completed project in my mind's eye. One fervently hopes…
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Sonoma Film Fest Weekend

The Sonoma International Film Festival has once again rolled into town for the weekend. It looks to be a bit low-key compared to previous years. I don't see any exotic cars around the Plaza this time, for example.

Our friend Chris Sawyer is the Consulting Sommelier. But as usual, I'm not doing anything to support the Festival. Why?

Well, because it is a bit of a pointless exercise for us. The Festival attendees are here to watch films and rub elbows with glitterati and each other. They like to do this with a glass of wine in their hand, but it has never seemed to matter which wine it is.

Yesterday I was chatting with a server who works in the local hospitality industry. He had worked a reception for a large party of Festival Patrons the night before, and was unsparing in his criticism of some of them. "They seem to think that badge around their neck entitles them to everything – for free. And they don't tip."

I think the Film Festivals are cool. If I had the time, I would love to attend. From my perspective it is great of Sonoma to lend its bucolic charm to the event, and overall I think the town is happy that the Festivals grace us with their presence. But so far as our business is concerned, I feel like the benefit is asymmetrical.

So here's the deal. As soon as someone associated with one of the film gigs gets Westwood a product placement in a picture that is distributed outside of the Festival circuit, I will supply LOTS of free wine. Wth a smile on my face.
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To Tweet? Or NOT To Tweet?

Recently several otherwise rational people in the wine industry, people I respect, have asked me "Are you on twitter?" I am inclined to reply as Steven Colbert did when Meredith Viera asked him on the Today Show: "Do you twitter, do you tweet?" Well, in truth, like Steven Colbert "I have twatted." Oh my gosh.

But. Seriously. You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding.

First, note what times I post to this blog: usually before 7am or after 8pm. In between I have my hands full – frequently full of crackberry sending texts and emails and taking phone calls. I don't think it makes me a Luddite to draw the line at adding more to the bitstream-in/out pile.

Second, why? What's in it for me? Tweeting will not make my life richer or my business more profitable. I try to organize my day around high quality, information dense communication with as few people as possible. Deliberately engaging in chatty noise with more people is my personal idea of hell.

Third, be honest with yourself – you KNOW that if your Congressional representatives are doing it a) it's a waste of time and b) as a phenomenon it has jumped the shark.

Fourth, didn't your mother ever ask you: "Well if all your friends jumped off the cliff, would you do it too?" Didn't this sink in?

That said, if Twitter actually ends up being something more than the Hula Hoop™ of 2009 I will inform you of my capitulation in 140 characters or less.
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Wine's "Mammoth" Water Footprint?

I have been simmering a couple of weeks over the headline "Wine's Mammoth Water Footprint: 120 Liters To Make One Glass?" (Lewis Perdue's Wine Industry Insight March 6th, 2009). In the context of the current ongoing drought here in California, I suggest that characterization of water use by the wine industy as "mammoth" is well, um... unhelpful. The engaged reader should ask: is the characterization even accurate? "Mammoth" by what standard? Compared to what?

Or was this just a sensationalist headline – a bit of journalistic bombast? Valid question I think, since the article cited in the WII piece ("Thirsty Work," Economist.com Feb. 25th, 2009) used no such value-laden qualifiers, only going so far as to state "Consumers… might be surprised to learn…" Enquiring minds want to know.

I give Mr. Perdue credit that in his article, under the sub-head "Site Short On Substantiation" he asks "Do any readers have an idea if this is accurate?" and gets some answers.

From my own experience: the Permit Resources Management Divisions in both Napa and Sonoma Counties use a figure of 16 gal water per case as a baseline winery production water footprint. A number of years ago a friend who was water manager for Fetzer figured through simple conservation measures they had reduced this to under 8 gallons/case. A recent article in Wine Business Monthly ("Water Use In The Winery" by Paul Franson, Dec. 15th, 2008) cited that Fetzer has further reduced their water footprint to 5 gal/case, while more agressively conservative producers are using as little as 3.6 gal/case. SO, for wine production the range of water use is something like 0.2-2.0 liters per glass. Where do the other 118 liters per glass come from?

Um… growing the grapes. Again, from my own experience at our Estate vineyard: since the vines went into production in 2005 we have applied no water for frost control and approximately 60,000 gallons of irrigation per acre annually. Our average yield has been just under 3 tons/acre, and very conservatively our press yield is something like 165 gallons of new wine per ton of grapes crushed. So our water use during the growing season is about 120 gallons per gallon of new wine, or 15 liters per glass. Hmmm… at Westwood we are using something less than 17 liters of water to make a glass of wine, not 120 liters. Where's the discrepancy?

This 120 liter figure cited in the WII and Economist articles comes from data compiled by MacArthur "genius grant" recipient Dr. Peter H. Gleick and his staff at the Pacific Institute, their work also diseminated through the Water Footprint Network. Digging into some of the online information Gleick and co-workers have compiled, I found the following general statement:
These kinds of data are fraught with problems and uncertainties, and users should be extremely careful about using them for other than the most simple comparisons. When we can, we like to use ranges to try to bracket many of the uncertainties, but other sources rarely mention uncertainties or provide ranges of estimates. For example, the Water Footprint reports that 15,500 kg of water are required to produce beef, but work from the Pacific Institute reports a range of 15,000 to over 70,000 depending on diet, climate, the amount of product from each cow, and other variables. Similarly, the Water Footprint reports single estimates for the production of a range of vegetable and feed crops, but actual water requirements will vary dramatically with climate, soils, irrigation methods, and crop genetics.
Equally, if not more complicated, is evaluating the water required to produce manufactured items. For example, the water required to produce a liter of a soft drink may be as low as 2 to 4 liters per liter of product. But vast quantities of water are also consumed to produce the feedstocks, such as sugar or corn syrup, used in the same product. There are no consistent rules for where to draw the "supply chain" boundaries in such estimates, making it critical that users understand the assumptions that go into these values. This table, for example, lists 125 liters of water to make a kilogram of sheet paper, but it seems likely that this is the value for producing paper alone, and excludes the water required to grow the tree itself. Similarly, fewer than ten liters of water are required to process milk, but as many as 1,000 liters may be required if the water to produce the cow itself is included [all emphasis mine - JMK].
Wow – now that's a caveat, one entirely missing from the downstream discussions. And one that can more than cover the range of 17 to 120 liters of water per glass of wine.

From another article ("Water Use In The Vineyard: The West" in the same issue of WBM cited above) I find that our rate of water use at the Estate is at the low end of the reported range – consistent with the cool climate and abundant ground water present at our site. From the high end of the data presented by Mark Greenspan in the article I calculate vineyard water usage of 110 liters per glass – within striking distance of Gleick's 120 liters. OK.

But it is important to look at all the data Dr. Gleick's group presents. Grapes are among the least thirsty crops, comparable to other tree fruits but way less thirsty than water hogs such as cotton, rice and corn. And all these crops use way, way less water than livestock.

None of this even touches what I consider to be the more important factors in the water use discussion: the environmental costs. Runoff, pollution, erosion, costs of wastewater treatment, deferred costs of environmental degradation and mitigation. By all of these measures, grape growing – as most of us practice it here in the North Coast – has an extraordinarily small footprint.
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Thanks Chris Sawyer

Last night I showed off the Westwood wines as a "celebrity bartender" with Eddie at Carneros Bistro at The Lodge in Sonoma. We were invited by sommelier Chris Sawyer – google the guy – he gets around.

Sometimes these events could go better – where's the love, people? – but happy to say the gig at Carneros Bistro last night was the anything but business as usual. I wish they all went this well! The venue was laid-back and well prepared, the staff were helpful and friendly, and the event was well-attended – both by hotel and restaurant guests, as well as many of Chris's devoted local fans.

The wines were well-received and we met some great people – I've already had follow-up sales today and a Wine Club signup (always a nice way to kick off the work day). Perhaps the best thing about the event was getting to know Chris Sawyer better. I just met the guy for the first time a couple of weeks ago, but I feel like I have found a fellow traveller.
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Beware The Ides

It may be the Ides of March today – Caesar, and others, beware – but yesterday was the much less ominous pi day (3.14) and I celebrated with the kids at exactly 4:33:05. We couldn't get more precise. That's right, we're a bunch of nerds chez Kelly.

I'm working the Tasting Salon solo today. My Salon manager, Eddie, is feeling wary of the Ides – he's seriously under the weather. And speaking of weather…

…we're getting an unexpected bit of it today. My trusty NOAA forecast has been a bit off the mark over the last couple of days. The local clammy winds of yesterday were not forecast, and last night the prediction of "a slight chance of light precipitation" became a 100% chance. Today's weather is sure to dampen the enthusiasm of potential visitors.

I'm waiting around to deliver some cases of Westwood's 2007 4-Part Rosé for transport to the cityhouse restaurant, opening tomorrow at the Parc55 Hotel on Union Square. Which means "look for a couple of announcements soon about new marketing and representation at Westwood." More to come soon.
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Pinot - Finesse and Scores Mutually Exclusive

Today my designer, David Wishart of freshbait, sent me link to yesterday's "The Pour" column by Eric Asimov in the NY Times, with the question: "Where do you stand on this?"

Where do I stand on the question of "should Pinot be about finesse and balance, or about overripe and syrupy?" My very abbreviated reply was this comment on Eric's blog. Duh.

Following a few links around the topic, I came across a fun post in Josh Hermsmeyer's outstanding Pinotblogger from yesterday, which has a great video by Tina Caputo and Daedalus Howell. I've embedded the video below the fullpost link. Watch it if you have 26 minutes – it's fun, and on the money.



This video expresses perfectly my objections to chasing after scores. Personally I don't drink high-scoring wines, unless it's out of politeness when someone offers one to me. I don't find "cocktail" wines enjoyable – I'd rather have a real cocktail, thank you, preferably a 1:1:1 vodka Negroni, or a Michter's, absinthe and Peychaud's Sazerac. And whatever, I can't afford most of the high-scorers anyway.

But look, I believe that some of the most influential wine rankers have become victims of their own success. They have created a special market for these overripe, manipulated monsters: the "investment-grade" wines. The rankers can't back out now – some people have real money tied up in these high-scoring prizes.

But this conjures an image in my head of cellars around the world filled with these "zombie" wines: trade them, prop up their value – but never, ever open them.
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