Yesterday we filled fifteen oak barrels with Belli Chardonnay juice, which we had started fermenting and then cooled way down. As soon as that was done, we moved the barrels inside our warehouse, which is held at a constant 55 degrees F. We like to keep the barrel fermentations from getting too warm, because the style of Chardonnay we are trying to make benefits from a long, cool fermentation; the longer contact between the juice and the yeast cells will give the finished wine more body, and the slower evolution of carbon dioxide out of the juice leaves more of the volatile aromatics in the final product, which will give the wine a more intense nose.

Once the barrels were inside, we sealed them with a special device called a fermentation bung.

Modern fermentation bungs are generally made out of silicone, but we have these neat old-school ones made from redwood and aluminum tubing. The idea with these is that as carbon dioxide is produced by the fermentation it must travel through the aluminum tube and into the cup of water. By observing how quickly gas is bubbling out into the cup, you can get a quick idea of how fast the fermentation inside is going.

The barrels themselves come from a variety of different coopers. Subtle differences in the way the coopers source, age, and toast the oak gives each one a slightly different character. Over the years we’ve developed a portfolio of coopers whose barrels suit the style of Chardonnay we’re trying to make, primarily St. Jacques, Louis Latour, and Claude Gillet.

It is a little known fact that our winemaster Richard Arrowood was the first to import Claude Gillet barrels to the United States, back in the mid-eighties when he was the head winemaker for Chateau St. Jean.
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After crushing the Monte Rosso Zinfandel on Wednesday, we turned the thermostat on the tank down to 55 degrees F. This is a practice known as cold soaking. The reason that we cold soak Zinfandel (we generally do not do this to our other reds) is because of the shriveling that is so characterisitc of the variety.

Shriveled grapes are slightly dehydrated, meaning that they have a higher sugar content than grapes which are not shriveled. As the crushed grapes soak in the juice, the shriveled grapes will slowly release their sugar, making the juice sweeter over the several days following crushing. We like to let the sugar content of Zinfandel juice stabilize before we start the fermentation, since it may effect certain processing decisions down the line (e.g., if it is high, we might choose a more alcohol tolerant yeast).

One thing to bear in mind with cold soaking is the amount of energy it requires. When the ambient temperature around the tank is in the high 80’s, it can actually be difficult to hold a four ton mass of grapes at 55 F. This is one of the reasons that we only cold soak when it is absolutely necessary to the quality of the product.
Once we had finally determined what the sugar content of the must was, we turned the thermostat on the tank up to 80 degrees F and let the grapes start to warm up. Once the contents reached 60 degrees F (around 2:00 this afternoon), we made up a yeast culture and pitched it in. This time we decided to inoculate with V1116, also known as K1. This is a strong fermenting yeast with a clean, relatively neutral aroma. It is what is known as a ‘killer’ yeast, meaning that it produces compounds called ‘killer factors’ that inhibit the growth of other yeasts to help ensure a good, clean ferment.
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Our preffered practice with Chardonnay is to start the fermentation in a tank before putting the juice down to barrels, this is a way of promoting an even fermentation across the lot (having one or two lagging barrels in a lot is a hassle). We inoculated the first lot of Belli Chardonnay (the one from blocks 3 and 5) with Prisse de Mousse yeast back on Monday. Yesterday, we found that the fermentation had started, although it was going very slowly because we were holding the juice at a modest 55 degrees F.

As soon as we saw the juice bubbling in the tank, we turned the thermostat on the tank down to 40 degrees F. We did this so that we could put the Chardonnay juice down to barrel without excessive foaming; the harder the juice is fermenting when you put it to barrel, the more foam it will produce and the harder it will be to tell when the barrel is filled to the level you want.

This is about what the juice in a barrel should look like when the barrel has just been filled. A wine barrel holds about 60 gallons when it is completely full. To ferment juice, we fill them to between 50 and 53 gallons. This leaves plenty of room for the foam that the fermentation will produce, preventing the barrel from overflowing.

The process of filling the barrels with fermenting juice is very simple. We connect a pump to the tank, and from there run a hose to a tool called a ‘wand’. The juice runs through the wand into the barrel, while whomever is doing the filling watches the juice level through the bung with a flashlight.

This wand has a 'sight-glass' on it, that allows you to visually inspect the material as it passes through. The black item sitting next to the wand is the speed control for the pump, it is very useful because it allows you to slow down when the barrel is almost full to the level you want, letting you dial in the fill exactly.

 The eight hundred gallons of Chardonnay ended up going down to fifteen french oak barrels, nine of which were new, and six of which had been used in previous vintages. Later this week, we’ll cover our barrel selections for the Chardonnay in more detail.

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Today we brought in the final load of the Belli Chardonnay. It looked pretty clean and tasted great. We got just under two tons, meaning that for the year we got just about exactly seven tons of Chardonnay total.

Block 4 is on the right hand side of this picture, straight across from block 5, which we picked one week ago today.

Block 4 is planted to Dijon clone, which as you may recall has a sort of classic Chardonnay profile, with good minerality and strong fruit components. Another characteristic of this clone is its’ tightly packed clusters, which had us worried since it rained a few days ago. Tight clusters can get water trapped inside, which can lead to botrytis rot. In this case we didn’t really develop much of a problem, and at any rate we have access to a very reliable picking crew that can sort the fruit and remove any rot as the clusters come off the vine, so the grapes reached us in fine condition.

This is what a botrytis infected cluster looks like. Even with the field sorting, it’s normal to have a couple of clusters like this in a load of Chardonnay, but we were able to pull most of them out by hand as we loaded the press. While large amounts of botrytis can cause all kinds of problems in the wine, very small amounts are actually known to produce a delicate apricot aroma in the finished product.
Sugars were a little lower than we’d expected on this lot, but the flavor we were looking for was still there. Based on what we’re tasting in it now, we’re expecting this component to give a nice mineral backbone with plenty of apple and pear flavors to the final Chardonnay blend.
Be sure to come back Thursday to check out how we do our barrel work!
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We decided to take a last minute look at the China Bowl Cabernet Sauvignon today, and after some deliberation we decided to push the first pick back to Saturday, instead of picking tomorrow as we had originally planned. The sugars haven’t come up quite like we expected (probably due to the cool weather we had over the weekend), and the flavors could use a little more time to develop as well. This may give you an idea how chaotic harvest can be; many decisions end up being changed at the last second, after having been made at the penultimate second. It all depends on the weather (which can turn on a dime) and the biology of the vines. Fortunately, it looks like we’re in for a nice hot spell over the next few days, so the Cab should be where we need it by the weekend. Flexibility is the name of the game, even for a small winery like us!

One of the nicest things about harvest is getting to taste the juice samples we bring in from the field, sweeter and more flavorful than anything you could buy in the store.
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Today we finally started in on our 2011 reds. This is a very late year because of the cool spring and summer. Usually we harvest this Zin about two weeks earlier than we did this year.

The fruit got to the winery around 11:30 this morning.

We were a little worried the fruit might have gotten hot because it got warm out earlier than we’d expected, but it fortunately turned out to not really be a problem.

The fruit was very clean, and it was tasting really nice. Cosmetically, this is some of the nicest fruit we’ve gotten from Monte Rosso. There was no sign of the rot we’d been worried about from the rain on Sunday, and there was just the right amount of shrivel.


The only drawback today was that we only got around four tons of fruit out of the field, which means we won’t be able to make quite as much of this wine as we would have liked. Sadly, unpredictable yields are just the name of the game with old vine Zinfandel sometimes.

Crushing red grapes is a pretty different process than crushing whites. It starts off the same, with the grapes being dumped into the hopper. Instead of going to the press, however, the hopper moves the grapes to a machine called a destemmer.

As one might guess, the destemmer removes the stems from the clusters. The stems are deposited into a receiving bin.

When stems are still green like this, you need to exclude them from the fermentation. Failing to do so will result in unpleasant vegetal flavors.

Our destemmer is a very nice piece of equipment. We can actually dial in its’ speed so that all of the good fruit comes off, while any hard raisins stay on the stems and don’t make it into the wine.

While a little bit of shrivel is alright in Zinfandel, hard raisins can give an unpleasant pruney character to the wine.


Meanwhile the grapes move on towards the must pump, which pumps them into the tank where they will be fermented.

Our must pump is pretty gentle on the fruit, by the time the tank is filled it looks sort of like a giant bowl of blueberries. You want to avoid tearing the skins up during processing, as this can release very bitter and astringent phenolic compounds into the wine.

It may sound like a lot of steps, but our setup is very efficient, and processing the fruit does not take long at all. In fact, cleaning up is really the time consuming part! Be sure to check back tomorrow, we’ll be getting in the last of the Belli Chardonnay.

To visit the Amapola Creek Winery main site, please click here.

Meet China Bowl!

September 27, 2011

     Exciting times, it looks like we’re about to start in on crushing the grapes for our flagship Cabernet Sauvignon! Since this is far and away the variety we make the most of, we will likely be picking it for quite some time from our various estate sites.  The grapes for our first Cab pick on Thursday will come from the China Bowl block.

 China Bowl is our “largest” (a hair under 6 acres), and most complicated, vineyard. It sits towards the foot of the property, maybe an eighth of a mile down from the winery, and is planted entirely to Cabernet Sauvignon. It gets its name from the big pile of stones that have been dry-stacked into a rough wall along the northwestern edge of the vineyard.

The stones were put in place back when the land was being prepared for planting. The field was tilled and all of the large stones that were likely to interfere with the vines’ roots were pulled up and set aside. Originally the resulting pile earned this block the name ‘Great Wall of China’, and over time, because of the bowl shape of the land, it evolved into ‘China Bowl’.

This picture was taken from the middle of the vineyard, you can still see the rock wall in the distance towards the left hand side.

As you can see from this picture, the terrain within this block is pretty varied. Not only are there myriad slopes and flats, there are several different soil types to take into consideration while farming. Since different sections of this block can wind up needing different treatments, we’ve actually ended up putting in a number of separate irrigation systems to keep everything happy. We also generally do not pick all of the fruit from this block at once, this Thursday we’re only planning to take about five or six tons from the ripest areas.

It’s a tricky site, but the quality of the fruit does not disappoint; the complex terrain ends up delivering a wine with equally complex characteristics.

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It rained a little bit yesterday afternoon here in Sonoma Valley. That’s a potential threat when you are having a very late harvest like we are this year. It only seemed like enough rain to get the roads wet, but when you’re this close to picking it can make a difference.

The main thing we worry about in a situation like this is botrytis, or bunch rot. This is sort of a fuzzy gray mold that infects the cluster and renders the grapes unusable, if the grapes stay wet for too long then you risk encouraging it to bloom.

The field looked pretty clean though, the vines dried off as soon as the sun hit them and there’s no sign of rot.

One thing that we did notice this time was an increase in ‘shrivel’. Shrivel is when the grapes are just starting to turn into raisins. This is really typical of Zin when it’s getting to the point that it needs to get picked.

A tiny bit of shrivel can really elevate the profile of Zinfandel. Zin tends to ripen unevenly, meaning that you'll have a wide spread of maturity in the fruit when it comes in. The less mature berries will give you nice acidity and the sort of brambleberry character that Zin is known for, but a little bit of shrivel is nice because it fills out the spectrum, adding in the richer fruit flavors usually described as preserves or berry pie. It's important not to get too much though, or these characters will be overpowering. In a bag of thirty or so clusters we had two or three that looked like this one, which is just about right.

So, it looks like we’re still on to pick the Zin tomorrow. Fortunately it looks like the rain didn’t hurt us, and we managed to get just a small amount of shrivel in, which should help us achieve the profile we like.

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After whole-cluster pressing the Belli Chardonnay last week, we put the juice in a tank and chilled it down to about 40 degrees F in a process known as ‘cold settling’. This allows whatever grape solids (pulp) that made it out of the press with the juice to sink to the bottom of the tank. Once they’ve had a few days to collect in the tank bottom, we pump the clean juice off of the solids into another tank in a process known as ‘racking’. The solids are then disposed of.

Then we turned the thermostat up on the tank to let the juice come up to about 55 degrees F, and that brings us to today; now that the juice has come up to temperature, we are ready to inoculate it with yeast and start the fermentation.

For Chardonnay, we like to use Lallemands’ EC 1118, also known as Prisse de Mousse.

Some wineries use what are called 'native fermentations' instead of inoculating with prepared yeast cultures. This is a perfectly valid technique, but it can sometimes be unreliable, giving a fermentation with off aromas, or sometimes refusing to finish out. Since we are so small, we have to get it right the first time, so we manage our risk in the cellar by using yeast cultures to inoculate. This particular yeast, Prisse de Mousse, lends a pleasant fruity aroma to the wine, and it is a strong fermentor that reliably consumes all of the sugar in the juice.

Inoculation is a simple but fun process. To inoculate, we take a couple of gallons of juice from the tank, and add just enough hot water to bring the juice up to around 100 degrees F. Then we dump in the freeze dried yeast into the heated juice and mix it. The yeast activates almost immediately. After about ten minutes, the carbon dioxide they are producing as they ferment will have formed a kind of dome in the bucket.

Funnily enough, the rising cap of the dome of yeast looks a little like rising bread dough.

Once the yeast are good and active, we pour them out into the waiting tank of juice. It will take a few days for the yeast to really kick off the fermentation in the tank, until then we’ll just hold it steady at 55 degrees F and wait.

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Cluster thinning

September 23, 2011

We’re in a bit of a lull as we wait for our next load of grapes to ripen up, so we’re taking advantage by doing some last minute vineyard work on the Estate Petite Verdot. This year saw late rains in spring, so we decided not to thin our clusters out until late in the game. The risk was that rain during flowering may have caused ‘shattering’, meaning that the flowers fail to form into mature grapes. In that case, thinning while the clusters are too young may result in too little crop. Waiting until all of the clusters were set and starting to mature allowed us to see how much fruit we actually had in the field (plenty, it turns out, our Petite Verdot is generally a very productive block), which in turn allows us now to properly thin the fruit and crop the vines at the optimal level.

Thinned clusters are left in the vineyard row to compost back down into the soil.

It is always a little heartbreaking to see fruit on the ground, but when you’re making the finest wines possible it is vital to make sure the vines are in balance. If there is too much fruit, the fruit will not ripen completely. Too little fruit, and the resulting wine will have green, vegetal characters. As Richard is fond of saying, it’s better to have 80% that’s perfect than 120% that’s mediocre.

Here’s what a well maintained, properly cropped Petite Verdot vine looks like! Note how the leaves have been thinned out around the fruit; this allows in light, which helps the fruit mature and reduces vegetal characters, and it also allows air to flow through the canopy, which helps control mildew and fungus without resorting to the use of chemical fungicides. Also note how the fruit that is left is allowed to hang with plenty of space between clusters, this is another technique for letting air and light reach the fruit.

To visit the Amapola Creek Winery main website, please click here.