Notes from Neil
This collection of Migration Winemaker Neil Bernardi's 'Notes' is almost as close as you can get to experiencing the 2013 Sonoma County Wine Harvest! (You know, without actually participating yourself...) We hope you enjoy!
Too picky? Or not to picky?
Thanks to Jerry for the following guest blog entry. Also, many thanks for all the hard work Mike, Rich, and Mike, we couldn’t have done it without you!
How do we know when to Harvest all these grapes?
Flavor is one of the things we look at, but sugar, acid, and pH also play an important role to help us determine the optimum time to harvest. So all during harvest we have a small crew running around from vineyard to vineyard grabbing grape “sugar” samples.
We are fortunate to have The-Best-Sugar-Sampling Crew in the area. Let’s call them “RED” – “Retired-Extremely-Dedicated”. These guys are retired, but they enjoy coming back every year to sample and experience the controlled-chaos of harvest. It is a pleasure of having these dedicated, and conscience guys on my Harvest Team – the four of us have a combined total of 20 years working together.
(“Mr. Sweet fingers”)
Rich just finished his 10th year with me. I think he wishes harvest could be year-round, but I would differ on that opinion! He is a Healdsburg native who grew up running around in the vineyards and orchards in Dry Creek and Alexander Valley (I think he knows almost everyone in town). He may love walking the vineyards more than sports and cooking?
(“Mr. outdoor adventure”)
Mike has been sampling up here in Sonoma County for the past 7 years. He actually lives in Las Vegas (previously in So. Cal) but moves up here for 2 months every year to work the harvest and enjoy all the great aspects of Northern Cal. He always has some amazing stories of his travels – Bears, Foxes, Snakes, Coyotes, etc.
Mike S. is a retired Southern Cal guy who has been sampling for over 10 years (his 3rd with me). Harvest is his chance to slow down and catch his breath. The rest of the year he is either driving his car on the Race Track, exercising, snow skiing, or golfing. Our next Team-building exercise may have to be driving high performance cars under Mike’s watchful eye….
I hope to be as active and energetic as these guys when I retire! These guys are Troopers!
Sonoma County Grower Relations Manager
Last Day at Ridgeline
Today was the last harvest day at our Ridgeline Estate vineyard. We harvested 44 brimming ½ ton bins of Malbec from the very top of the hill. The canopy of this block, like many other vineyards across Sonoma County, is already turning fall colors despite the fact that it is only October 16th. In other seasons, it has been typical to see harvest lasting well into November. This year however has been almost unnaturally early, with Cab and Pinot getting ripe at almost the same time. It proves the old adage that every harvest is unique.
We are very fortunate to work extensively with Charlie Heintz, pictured above, at two ranches - his own home ranch, the Heintz Vineyard, and the Searby ranch, which he cares for. Besides the fact that these two spots produce some of the most delicious and distinctive wines in west Sonoma County, Charlie is a great guy to work with. His family has been farming and logging in the area since early 1900’s. Like many other farmers, they planted apples first, which over time were converted to grapes. The clone 4 chardonnay vines at the Heintz ranch were planted in 1982, and produce a very distinctive bottled of wine, characterized by contrasting elements of rich creamy texture and intense refreshing acidity. Heintz wines were first bottled as designates almost 20 years ago, first by Ted Lemon at Littorai, and followed quickly by Williams Selyem. It is humbling and exciting to have the opportunity to work with such great fruit!
Harvest Update – Calling All Grapes
After a brief threat of additional rain this week, it looks like we have calm clear weather for the foreseeable future. With no rain or heat spikes, it would mean smooth sailing into the end of harvest. We brought in our last Pinot on Monday and will be done with a big Chardonnay push of all the Green Valley (read cold climate) vineyards by Monday of next week. Things in tank and in barrel are showing an unusual tendency to ferment to dryness with no issues, and the wines are already tasting really good. It’s not over yet, and I may be jinxing things, but this has the potential to be a pretty excellent vintage.
The Other Harvest
Like most of my co-workers I love food. Anything fermented, cured, salted, or smoked holds a special place in my heart. I was introduced to the various forms of olive curing last year by Don LaBorde and Marc Myers, two accomplished food processors, and really enjoyed the results. The photo above is my second attempt, with olives from my parent’s trees. There are a couple different ways to attenuate the extremely bitter compounds found in most olives, the fastest of which is the use of 100% lye (sodium hydroxide), followed by repeated rinsing and brining. Don also introduced me to this blog ‘Hunter Angler Gardener Cook’ which had some great suggestions. (http://honest-food.net/)
Note the Buffalo Trace in the background. Don and Marc told me this is also a key element to the olive sorting and curing process.
The Sunday Rounds
With my littlest assistant Everly. With her snazzy boots, camo flashlight, and surly look, she is ready for the cellar.
The picture below is striking. Look at all that fruit on the ground! It represents an implicit (and explicit) agreement between the winery and the grower that quality is of paramount importance to both parties. In fruitful years, fruit is often dropped to ensure that the remaining clusters will get ripe - the vine's ripening machinery can focus on accumulating sugar and maturing tannins on less fruit. Not so long ago this approach to growing grapes was uncommon, and quantity was king. Over time, as winemakers have requested higher quality farming practices and began paying prices that reflect the extra work and diminished yields, farming for wine quality has become the norm.
Ampelography – The Study and Identification of Grapevines
I was cruising around the other day with Jerry Chong, our esteemed Grower Relations Manager, looking at various vineyards, and was thinking back to VIT 102. This was one of my favorite classes since it was taught out in the experimental vineyard and focused, in part, on the arcane skill of ampelography. A big part of the class was focused on morphology of various varietals, and being able to identify vines purely from the look of their leaves and canopy. I had relatively little talent for this, but was incredibly impressed by the oracle-like skills of the instructor Andy Walker, who could have identified a specific varietal with his eyes closed and upside down. Test your skills - can anybody tell me what the leaf is below?
Why Barrel Fermentation?
It is oft said that Chardonnay is a winemakers grape. It is malleable, and can be beautiful in a breadth of styles. So many of the choices that one makes throughout the year can distinctly affect the resultant wine – pick timing, yeast type (or native), ML conversion, stirring, barrel vs tank fermentation, to name just a few. This breadth of styles and techniques in part explains Migrations long R&D cycle (we started making CH in 2001, but didn’t bottle one until 2008!). Barrel fermentation in neutral oak is one of the keys to our program, in that it yields a very distinct aromatic and textural wine profile. The addition of micro-amounts of oxygen during fermentation yields a softer wine with complex fruit aromatics. Compared to tank fermentations, barrel ferments typically have a rounder mouthfeel and a creamy edge to the aromas. Tank fermented Chardonnays tend to have crisper, more distinct fruit aromatics and more apparent acidity. To risk sounding like a wine nerd, I would describe some tank ferments as ‘angular’. As Migration Chard has evolved, we have found that the 90/10 barrel ferment to tank ferment ratio is just right. Of that 90% fermented in barrel, 35% are new barrels.
Harvest Bio – Aline Cresswell – Sonoma County Lab Tech
I have been staring at a blank screen for about 20 minutes, wondering how to start Aline’s bio. Do I go with her sharp intellect, her handsome boat shoes and mismatched socks, her love of academia and all things nerdy, her voracious appetite for knowledge, or her staunch and unwavering belief in Dutch superiority? How to convey in just a paragraph the complexity and depth of her love for raw data, chemical analysis, and the millennium falcon?
Aline has only been with our team for a short while, but has already proven herself to be extremely important, managing much of the data and lab analysis that is so critical to a successful winemaking operation. She hails from the great state of New Mexico, matriculated at Rhodes College where she received a degree in biochemistry, and later attended UC Davis where she received a Masters Degree in Viticulture and Enology. In sum, she knows a lot of stuff, and is a big fan of green chiles. I have also included a picture of her favorite animal, which I had never even heard of, the tartigrade. [Editor's note: We thought the photo was too scary to post, check it out at your own risk!]. Seriously, take two seconds to read about this thing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tardigrade