Archives: Winemaking 101
Harvest: Sunlit vines, sweeping vistas and artisans working around the clock picking and crushing grapes. Blending the final cuvée: the master Winemaker contemplates a sparkling array of nectar-filled glasses, carefully selecting the perfect blend. All highly Instagramable, all part of winery marketing campaigns and part of the public’s notion of how wine comes to be. What doesn’t get the “likes” and “shares” not because it’s not important but because it’s usually not talked about as much? Bottling.
I’m thinking about bottling a lot these days for a couple of reasons. One, I’m in the thick of the pre-Harvest bottling season where we package up our “early to bottle” wines (read: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir lots which need less than a year of aging) before the grapes start flying and two, I’m breaking in a new state-of-the-art custom bottling facility in Napa, Infinity Bottling. Being the first bottling client across the line isn’t without its challenges but it’s been truly exciting to watch all that shiny stainless steel come over from Italy, be assembled and breathed into life by an expert team of handlers. Disclosure: the President and GM, Jessica Tuteur, used to by our Operations Manager at Plata Wine Partners before she decided to open her own bottling facility and I’ve worked with most of her QC (Quality Control) and technical team at other wineries over the years.
See what I did there? In the preceding paragraph I threw out some technospeak, industrial-sounding terms and a couple of acronyms. Not exactly the stuff winery marketing campaigns are made of. Aside from Jordan Winery’s brilliant bottling line “Despacito” parody video, bottling is hardly glamorous enough to merit major content dollars.
That’s a pity because of the important part bottling plays in everyone’s final experience of that wine. Perhaps because I’ve spent an intensive last two weeks in a “Laverne & Shirley”-esque world of boxes, bottles and conveyor belts watching hundreds of bottles fly past my eyes, I’ve had a lot of time to think about bottling’s role in the winemaking and, eventually, in the wine-enjoying process.
Why is bottling so important?
-It’s the last time for the winemaker to touch the wine, to really get it right or get it horribly wrong.
–If you’re not bottling with the right crew at the right facility, it *can* go horribly wrong. From poor sanitation to a wrinkled label to a slightly out-of-round batch of bottles from the glass company, there are a million places a bottling run can go (literally) pear-shaped in an instant.
-It can be as tough, if not tougher, than Harvest. At Harvest there’s sometimes a rogueish devil-may-care attitude that prevails because of the chaos and time crush of the moment. In contrast, bottling is about a measured precision and about each machine, each packaging component (bottle, cork, capsule, label, box) working in concert within millimeters of spec. Throw in multiple packaging changes, different wine types and tight to-market timelines and you can get an idea of the pressure and stakes involved. Try to align all the moving parts of Harvest and sometimes, with a lick and a promise, you’ll get away with one less pumpover among hundreds or a few imperfect clusters making their way into a 5-ton fermentor. Fail to align all the moving parts at bottling and you’re courting disaster.
-It’s the winemaker’s last chance to say goodbye and Godspeed before launching their creation out into the world. One of my favorite parts about being a winemaker is the thought of my wines making someone’s day brighter or dinner better. Bottling may not be the most glamorous or photogenic part of the winemaking process but it’s a rite every wine must go through and one that is full of potential potholes and pitfalls. Getting it right is stressful and most winemakers cite bottling as their least favorite part of the whole process. It’s not always fun, it’s often maddening and bottling correctly certainly isn’t something we win big accolades from customers or critics for. Bottling is perhaps the most important but also most under the radar part of the winemaking process. So here’s to bottling (or kegging, or canning, these days). It’s a necessary step of the process and one that deserves a little bit more love, attention and kudos from the rest of the wider world.
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners, a luxury and ultra-premium custom wine company based in Napa, responsible for such brands as Garnet Vineyards, Picket Fence Vineyards, and Verada Wines among many others. Up until the brands were recently sold to Vintage Wine Estates, Plata was responsible for Layer Cake and Cherry Pie wines. @alisoncrowewine firstname.lastname@example.org.
So I’m about to go to my first kegger. As a winemaker, I mean. Scratch that- I mean as a winemaker putting their own wine into a keg, Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir to be exact!
I love the concept: cost-effective, eco-friendly and flavor-saving. But of course, as a winemaker, I had a lot of questions about exactly how the process works. Would I have to prep the wine differently? Where there any unique risks or quality control points I’d have to worry about that would be different than a normal bottling run? How would the kegs actually get to the restaurants, how would they be dispensed and then what happens to the empty kegs?
Luckily I knew I could count on my friend Jordan Kivelstadt, Founder and CEO of Free Flow Wines, for a little elucidation.
I used to share my “garage winery” space in Sonoma for Garnet Vineyards with Jordon, Rob and their team back when they were a little start-up just a few years ago. In a short time, they outgrew the space and since then have expanded into a new facility in south Napa by the infamous “Crusher Man” statue by the intersection of Hwy 29 and 121.
Yesterday I met up with Jordan, Rob, Heather and the gang for a little tour of Free Flow Wines’ new keg-straveganza. From a winemaking point of view, here’s how it works:
At my winery, I fill up a 525 gallon (that’s around 220 cases of wine) stainless steel “porta-tank” with tasty bottle-ready 2012 Garnet Vineyards Monterey Pinot Noir and forklift it onto a flatbed. Flatbed truck then trucks on over to Free Flow Wines’ facility just over the county line, and Rob and his crew position it near their custom-built “kegging line” and hooking up a sanitary hose fitting to the tank.
Evidently, they had this thing custom built by a German beer-kegging specialist (but we won’t hold that against them- the beer part, not the German part!). Each stainless steel keg that will be filled (one porta-tank will fill around 100 5.16 gallon kegs) automatically goes through a three-step cleaning and sanitizing process which heats the metal up hot enough to kill any bad yeast or bacteria that might be hanging around. What’s cool (literally) is that each keg then gets zapped back to room temp by a custom-made cooling collar….because I don’t want cooked wine (and neither do you). Then the kegs are filled under inert nitrogen counter-pressure (to exclude oxygen), are labeled with a custom paper collar and marked with a “born on” date and time sticker (for batch QC and tracking purposes). The filled kegs then get stacked on a pallet and forklifted into Free Flow’s bonded warehouse, waiting for a distributor to request one for a restaurant or other outlet (love the three-tier system, eh?).
Free Flow then ships it to the distributor and I invoice the distributor for the wine. At that point, Garnet Vineyards no longer has to worry about the keg because Free Flow works with an independent contractor partner for rounding up all the kegs around the country, separating them from the beer kegs (I don’t want any Lagunitas in my wine, than you very much) and herding them back into the barn at Free Flow in Napa, where they await being cleaned, sanitized and re-filled.
Note that the pool of Free Flow kegs is communal, i.e. that my wine may be going into a keg that once held somebody else’s wine….at first I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but then I was walked step by step through their cleaning, sanitizing and monitoring process. I won’t bore you with the ATP swabs, luminometers, batch testing and German engineering details, but I got talked down off my ledge once I understood that nothing from anyone else’s wine was ever going to touch my wine. Awesome!
How is kegging wine different from the normal wine bottling process? From a QC point of view, I’m pretty excited that they can completely steam-sanitize the line, and it’s a smaller, simpler line with fewer moving parts and hence, fewer possible entrance points for airborne contaminants. Additionally, in a 5.16 gallon keg there is actually a really low oxygen-to-wine ratio (far less than in a 750 ml bottle) and so therefore wine in a keg will have less chance of oxidation than a standard format. Since there is no cork (Garnet does twist-off anyway), there is no chance of cork-taint spoilage from that source. The wine will be put into the keg “enjoyment ready” i.e. not needing any further aging, which is one point of difference I see with traditional “bottled” wine. However, since the average American consumes a wine within 72 hours of purchase and everyone buying a $11 glass of Garnet at a restaurant expects it to be from the current release that would be in the marketplace anyway, this is a non-issue.
I can clearly see the benefit of kegged wine from a winemaking quality point of view but how does it perform in a restaurant? I’ve heard that servers and bar-backs love it because they’re not opening bottles all the time (or throwing half-empty bottles out). I gotta believe that the customers like it because they know they’re getting a “fresh” glass every time and not something that’s been open for a week (yuk!). Inert gas (a combo of nitrogen and carbon dioxide) pushes the wine out, preventing any oxygen from reaching the wine which means that it gets into your glass in the same shape that I intended it to.
However, the one weak point I can see is “end user education”. Though a wine’s high acid and alcohol content (relative to beer and soda) means it will actually perform better than those drinks in a keg-hose-dispenser set up behind the bar, some of the quality of the experience will depend on how clean (or not!) the establishment keeps the set-up. Because wine can oxidize into vinegar and some other less-than-tasty aromas, restaurants, cruise ships and establishments serving kegged wine will need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions in keg line maintenance. To that end, Free Flow has launched a website called trywineontap.com. There, all involved parties can learn what best practices are, how to get wine-specific (no beer!) parts and how to make it work its best. I think sales reps will also have to learn some new tricks but hey, we all have to go with the flow, right? And you can believe me, I will still be doing some spot checking on the road! All in all, I am super-excited to give Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir from a keg a whirl!!!
So…… grab yourself a red solo cup, stay tuned for roll-out (we’re still finishing making the custom tap handle so it’ll be a couple of months) and be sure you RSVP to the invite for my first Garnet Vineyards kegger!
Interested in carrying Garnet wines in a keg? Adventurous retailers, email me here: email@example.com and come on down to my kegger!
Alison Crowe is the winemaker at www.garnetvineyards.com and can also be followed @GarnetVineyards as well as www.facebook.com/garnetvineyards
Some of you know that in addition to being a winemaker, I also dabble in writing on the side. I published The Winemaker’s Answer Book in 2007, pen the occasional piece for trade magazines and in 1998 helped found WineMaker Magazine, the first “for home winemakers” magazine, as the “Wine Wizard” Q&A columnist. Readers from all over the nation write to me with their fermentation foibles and crushing conundrums and I do my best to help them troubleshoot their wine making difficulties, sort of like the Dear Abby of Wine. It’s a fun gig that keeps me grounded and serves to remind me of the joy of discovery, creation and creativity. Usually the questions are in the realm of, “Dear Wine Wizard, the pH of my Vidal Blanc came in at 2.75 post-pressing, what do I do now?” Occasionally there are questions that cross-pollinate into the world of the consumer and bring up an issue that is appropriate to a wider audience. This is one of them.
Dear Wine Wiz,
I recently had a friend post an article on Facebook about how “natural” wines don’t get you drunk like regular wine and even don’t cause hangovers (“The No Hangover Wine” by Jordan Salcito from the news/opinion website The Daily Beast). Is this true?
Los Gatos, CA
I just read the article you refer to, which seems to claim that “natural wine” (an ill- defined term which in the article seems to mean “minimal sulfites added except at bottling” or “wine made from grapes, yeast and little else”-which, as an aside, defines almost all wine) doesn’t cause hangovers. The definition of “natural wine” (and the merits- or demerits as the case may be) is fodder for further articles because of the confusion (and lack of scientific, objective facts) surrounding the issue. But in our remaining column space, let me get down to the proverbial brass tacks and answer your question- is it possible that there are wines out there (however they are defined) that because they lack certain components or weren’t “manipulated” (again, no good definition) don’t affect you as much as others and don’t cause hangovers? Note that these are table wines with “normal” alcohol levels, i.e. generally over 12.5% alcohol and not specifically low-alcohol wines.
I forwarded the article to Dr. Linda Bisson at the Department of Viticulture & Enology at UC Davis. She replied: “I looked at this article and have to say I think it is irresponsible to suggest that you can drink as much “natural” wine as you want and never get a hangover – the real hangovers are based completely on level of ethanol consumed, innate metabolic rates and dehydration of tissues – it has nothing to do with other components in the beverage.”
I have to admit I agree with Dr. Bisson. Even if a wine has less sulfur dioxide (or less tannin, less oak….but wait, what are barrels made out of?), it still contains plenty of alcohol, which is what causes intoxication, dehydration and hangovers. I would hate for someone to read the Daily Beast article and get the impression that just by choosing certain brands over others they could blissfully ignore the fact that ethyl alcohol, whether lab-distilled so it contains no compounds other than carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (is that “pure” enough for you?) or delivered in an aqueous solution of Domain Jean-Louis Chave (one of the “natural wines” cited in the article), will still get you drunk, plastered, blistered, pissed, blotto or whatever you choose to call it. It’s like suggesting that because you drive a Volvo (a vehicle marketed as one of the “safest” on the road) you can blithely tear up the road at 90 miles an hour on a rainy night while texting your BFF. Heaven forbid you also attempt to do so after having had a few glasses of so-called “natural” wine.
That is the end of my Wine Wizard response, and before everyone starts talking about all those suspicious sulfites and other “added ingredients” in wines that really cause the hangovers and wine headaches, I want to write that we will tackle the “red wine headache” and “natural wines” in another blog post. As the comment by “winethinker” in Mr. Salcito’s comment chain states, “The facts do get in the way of a good story”. Sorry Mr. Salcito, the real story is as follows: Sulfites are not the culprit of “wine malaise”, there is less than 0.1% of the population with a true “sulfite allergy” and these people lack the digestive enzyme sulfite dehydrogenase and also know to stay away from things like beer, dried fruits, cheese, deli meats and a host of other foods, all of which can contain sulfur dioxide. There is also no such thing as a sulfur-dioxide free wine because yeast naturally produce 10 ppm or more sulfur dioxide as part of the fermentation process. Indeed our own bodies are awash with sulfites. Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, a colleague of Dr. Bisson, explains, “Most studies of sulfites overlook the fact that we produce almost a gram of sulfites in our cells every day. Thus a few milligrams from a glass of wine, etc, is hardly going to overload our natural systems for breaking down the sulfite.” White wines actually tend to be fermented and bottled with more sulfites than red wines.
Dr. Bisson believes that biogenic amines are largely the culprit and states, “Histamines are the main cause of headaches in people susceptible to such headaches, not SO2.” Ironically, biogenic amines and histamines are much more likely to be elevated in wines that are not inoculated and which have inadequate sulfur dioxide, two hallmarks of many self-proclaimed “natural wines”. Dr. Waterhouse also posits that, “It is possible that the flavonoids (epicatechin) in red wine can cause vasorelaxation, and blood vessel relaxation is surely related to headaches.”
Hmmm- possibly one more reason to avoid over-oaked, over-extracted overly-tannic red wines. On that note, time to go pop open a bottle of Pinot Noir…..
Read Tom Wark’s brilliant response to “The No Hangover Wine” article here: “Natural Wine Cures Cancer!”
Check out the Wine Wizard and all the rest of my fabulous wine-writing colleagues at WineMaker Magazine: www.winemakermag.com
Copyright Alison Crowe
This last week there was a major internet flap when mom and blogger Claire Gross posted a blog on Babble.com that she bathed her three-month-old son Charlie maybe once every week or so. “Yep, total confession time,” Claire writes. ” I really don’t bathe my baby.” This blog post prompted an online firestorm of negativity wherein parents around the globe heaped on criticism upon criticism, accusing her of neglecting her child at worst and losing valuable maternal bonding time at best. In further media interviews after the story went viral Ms. Gross has revealed her pediatrician advised her that her second child’s delicate skin was drying out too much due to daily bathing so she scaled it down a notch and found a happy balance that worked for them.
So yes, total confession time. I really don’t wash my grapes. And well, neither does any winemaker I know or have worked with in the decade and a half I’ve been making wine. This sometimes comes as a surprise to a public accustomed to salad spinners, special vegetable-washing soap and double and triple-washed and cellophane-bagged spinach in the supermarket. On numerous occasions giving winery tours, I’ll grab a handful of grapes from the picking bins as my group of visitors watches the grapes poised over the destemmer. I’ll pop a delicious Pinot Noir berry in my mouth and offer the cluster around, only to hear, “Oh…..don’t you wash them first?”
Nope. We don’t.
Nowhere in my winemaking education, formal or on-the-job, across the state of California and over two continents, was I shown that washing grapes before fermentation was necessary.
The reality is that “No human pathogen can survive in wine,” as one of my favorite UC Davis professors, Dr. Linda Bisson used to tell us in the first-year winemaking class. Because of the high acidity (low pH) and high alcohol levels in a typical wine, no bacteria or virus that could infect a person (like a cold or flu bug, or even worse) can survive in that environment. This is part of the reason why, for the ancient Romans, Greeks and many other societies, wine was used to help treat wounds and was considered a medicine. Even though wine microbes like Lactobacilli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae are happy in that kind of harsh environment, bugs that live in the human body are not.
Winemakers also know what was sprayed (or in most cases, not sprayed, as grapes are a low-input crop compared to others) in the vineyard during the growing year. In fact, residual fungicides or other chemicals disrupt a healthy fermentation, which is why winegrape growers are more limited than other fruit and vegetable growers in what they may use in a vineyard and why we ask our growers (or do it ourselves, if we are the grower) to provide meticulous records of anything applied.
Are there sometimes mites, dust and bugs from the vineyard? Sure. Once I even spent an hour rescuing a dozen little green frogs from a bin of grapes as they went across the sorting table (no idea how they got there, must have been hanging out on the vine for some reason). But most importantly, there are also valuable indigenous yeast and bacteria cells that can help contribute to a healthy and more interesting fermentation and eventually, wine. From Bordeaux to Burgundy, Modesto to Mendocino, grapes get picked, come into the winery, get crushed and become wine, without a grape-washing step involved*.
I really never gave it much thought before, but I suppose we could add grape-washing to our litany of winemaking steps. Some might welcome it as a way to make squeaky-clean wine that they could market as “Triple Washed!” Some would no doubt decry it as yet one more unnatural and non-traditional winemaking “intervention”. It would undoubtedly be a waste of precious water and depending on residual levels, might dilute the wine. Every day we are learning more and more about the microbial world within and around us and its valuable contribution to our health and well-being. Why wash off microbes that might be beneficial in fermentation, or at least benign? The dust that comes in on the grapes settles down to the bottom of the fermenter and gets racked off and left behind anyway.
To side with Claire Gross, I really don’t bathe my baby much either (Bryce is now almost eight months old). He has dry skin and as per his pediatrician we find a once-a-week dunk works just fine for us, thanks very much. So here’s to the great unwashed! Winemaking, like parenting, is an ancient, and yes sometimes dirty, art.
*If someone does wash their grapes first, contact me! I’d be curious to do a follow-up blog post!
Alison loves answering questions about the weird in wine and published the WineMaker’s Answer Book in 2007. Interact with us at Garnetvineyards.com @GarnetVineyards and on Facebook!
Winemaking 101: How to Properly Un-Bung a Barrel
Worried you won’t know the proper protocol next time someone invites you barrel tasting? Applying for your first harvest job in the cellar and want to exhibit perfectly turned barrel-care etiquette? Don’t know your bung-hole from your wine thief? I’m here to help. Here’s how to expertly broach a barrel. Simplicity, swiftness (in the case of harvest intern barrel sampling work orders) and cleanliness (always!) are the rules of the game.
First step: Gently rock the bung back and forth to dislodge. Don’t just pull straight up. Especially if there’s a vacuum, which is a good thing when the wine is aging, this will take a couple of tries.
Pull it out and place it wet end up on the barrel- very important!. This keeps the portion that touches the wine clean. The tops of barrels can be amazingly dusty and dirty.
Insert your barrel thief (yes, it really is called that!) into the bunghole (yes, it’s really called that too) with your finger out. This way the wine floats up into the barrel thief’s tube for sampling.
Put your finger over the barrel thief to create a vacuum and trap a sample of wine.
Take it over to your glass and release your finger, letting the wine flow into your glass.
Take an appreciative swirl and sniff! Spit into a bucket or the drain (If you are a cellar intern, be sure that bottles are labeled appropriately, that you’ve siphoned out the requisite volume, and that caps are replaced tightly on the samples. If you are a winery visitor, be sure your hip flask is unlabeled, you’ve siphoned out the requisite volume and the cap is replaced tightly before putting said flask into your hip pocket…….)
Replace the bung in the barrel and give it a good twist.
Now bang it with your fist so the bung is tight in there- a good seal is imperative for good aging! Sometimes barrels can off-gas slightly during aging (carbon dioxide is often naturally produced during the process) so we don’t want any bungs popping off! Once bunged up again tightly, hose off any wine drops that have dripped onto the top of the barrel.
Thanks for taking our un-bunging tutorial. May your glasses always be full, your pours generous and your bungs easy to remove!
photo credit: Barbara Ignatowski, Garnet Vineyards Assistant Winemaker