“Spoiled” Napa Winemaker Learns to Rough It
What happens when you take a spoiled Napa winemaker and move him to a place where there are none of conveniences that he’s grown accustomed to? That’s the spot I found myself in a few months ago when I decided to quit my position as winemaker for Wm. Harrison Winery, in the heart of Napa Valley, and accept a winemaking job at Pacific Star Winery, twelve miles north of Fort Bragg, on the Mendocino coast. To survive, I found myself channeling the “can do” spirit Midwesterners take for granted.
If you’ve never been to California ‘s Mendocino coast, let me describe it to you in two words – rugged and isolated. You can’t get there without passing over at least one mountain and driving for 50-60 miles on twisting, turning roads. Arriving at Pacific Star was like stepping back in time.
Napa Valley has had decades of trial and error to fine tune processes and equipment to coax the best from our grapes. There I was accustomed to having everything I needed at my fingertips. My equipment was relatively new and in good working order. Fermentation could be controlled by heating and cooling the must. One of the best wine labs in the country was only five minutes away, and I could find any type of equipment within a twenty-mile radius. Also, contrary to what you may have heard, Napa wineries do cooperate with and help one another. Over the years, I have often loaned out or borrowed equipment from neighboring wineries.
The nearest winery to Pacific Star is about an hour’s drive away. When I showed up, there was no-one to show me where equipment was, much less describe any of its idiosyncrasies. Sally, the owner of the winery, told me on more than one occasion, ‘Think of it as a treasure hunt…”
What I found was challenging – rusted pumps with remote controls that didn’t work, equipment that was alien to me, no capacity for heating or cooling, tanks that had never been calibrated, an antique forklift and a yellow, rusted, oversized, home-made bin dumper that looked like it came out of a Transformers movie.
The first day of harvest, my crew and I had to break the rust from the Transformer-Bin-Dumper with an eight-pound sledgehammer until we got it working. Then the on/off switch on the destemmer broke and we had to bypass it. Finally, we got things working, and we managed to crush seven and a half tons of Zinfandel. That would have taken about an hour at Harrison Winery–or ten minutes in my old days at Inglenook. Instead, it took all afternoon, with a little time off for whale watching.
Ten days and two rainstorms later, we pressed the Zinfandel. Normally, I would have liked a little more time on the skins, but the wine tasted surprisingly good – fruity, with solid tannins and a good acid-pH balance – and the color was good, so we decided to press. We used a three-ton Diemme bladder press, which was smaller than other presses I had worked with, but a press is a press is a press. At least I had an owner’s manual.
Strangely, when I looked at the diagram in the manual it didn’t look anything like the control panel. I was about to call the company, but then I was told that my predecessor had never trusted the press to run on auto. There were three letters drawn with a magic marker above the manual controls: R — for Rotate, I — for Inflate, and D — for Discharge.
Press day was long and laborious. I had a crew of four, which was twice what I would normally have needed, but it worked out well. We had two fermenters, both too big to lift with the forklift, so the pomace had to be shoveled twice. First, we got as much of the free run out of the tank as we could. We did this by inserting a stainless steel racking tube down through the ‘cap” and into the wine. By rolling the press so that the gate is angled toward the side, the free-run wine can be pumped directly into the press. The wine runs out through the press screens and into the press-pan, while what pomace you pick up (doing it this way, there’s a lot of it) gets captured inside the press so that the grapes stay in the press and don’t go into the tank with the wine.
Finally, when the tanks were drained , it was time for someone to go inside and shovel out the pomace. In the old days, this was a simple process. You climbed inside the tank and shoveled pomace into a pomace pump, which would then transfer it directly to the press via six-inch diameter hoses. Free-run wine was used for sluicing so the drier pomace didn’t plug up the hoses. Pacific Star didn’t have a pomace pump, but that didn’t matter. Modern winemaking has become, in many ways, more labor intensive than it used to be.
Nowadays, we shovel pomace into three-quarter-ton bins, then transfer it to the press by forklift, a process that’s more gentle and you’re not abusing the free-run wine by using it for sluicing. If there’s a rotator on the forklift, you can put the pomace directly into the press. We didn’t have a rotator, so we had to have a man on a platform to shovel the pomace in which meant it had to be shoveled twice. This seemed like cruel and unusual punishment to me, but I shoveled out two of the bins myself and it wasn’t that bad. Toward the end, we had to stop periodically and manually push the pomace toward the ends of the press, leveling it out. This was messy work, but that’s why you wear old clothes to work in a wine cellar.
While my crew attended to other chores, I began pushing buttons on my press. This is where I really missed my old Europress which always could be run on on “auto.” I did my best to emulate what the press would do on automatic – I took it up to .2 atmospheres of pressure, held it there for a minute, then deflated the bag and rolled the press. I repeated the process over and over, gradually increasing the pressure until the pomace was dry. I thought doing it manually would be quicker than on automatic, but I was wrong. It ended up taking two-and-a-half hours (an hour longer than on auto) to get all the wine pressed out. Then it was time to empty the press and fill it for a second time. By the end of the day I was pretty doggone tired of pushing buttons. This day ended the same as our first day of crushing, with the sun going down over the Pacific Ocean . On this day I had absolutely no time for whale watching.
As someone who has worked with bruce for a couple of harvest here in Napa, I kinda wish I was there. To test the skills and jump without a net. But as always as a friend and winemaker I’m only a phonecall (and a 3 hour drive away) if he ever needs a hand .
Thank you, old friend, for that glimplse into your new/old world of winemaking. You are in an isolated region, but most beautiful! I grew up on the Sonoma coast and especially love the rugged winters, stormy seas, muted light, and the sweetest air! I bet all of those same conditions will reward you with fabulous wines! Merry Christmas from Calistoga!