Archive for the ‘Winemaking’ Category

Caymus Special Selection 2011

Monday, January 6th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

I don’t know what to make of this wine. I could laud it. I could criticize it. In fact, I can do both. But, in the end, I think one should simply enjoy it.

To put a little context into this. I’m sitting here enjoying the sun on an bright New Year’s morning. Got back here at 2:30 PM last night after spending the evening at a New Year’s party at my cousin’s house.

As you may well expect, there was plenty of alcohol to go around. Another cousin brought a couple of wines from his stash, and those were definitely the best of the evening.

The first, opened at maybe 9 o’clock, was an Amarone, but I can’t say as I recall the producer, the year or anything else about it for that matter. It was quite good though. As good as it was, it was just the preliminary for the main event.

As we got closer to midnight, we open the second bottle, a Caymus Special Selection 2011.

I have to admit that upon my first taste, I was totally blown away by it. I remember writing an article, or maybe it was just a comment, not too long ago concerning whether concentration or balance was more important in a wine. While I did then, and certainly now, would vote for balance, if you wanted a wine with concentration, you couldn’t find an exemplar better than this one. While most Cabernet Sauvignons aren’t as concentrated as some really big wines, such as Petite Sirah, this one definitely was one of the most concentrated Cabernet Sauvignons I have ever had. One taste, and my reaction was simple: “Wow!” And I would add that, even though Caymus has the reputation of picking very ripe grapes, there was no hint of prune or raisin. The flavor was, simply, outstanding. The words “inky” and “unctuous” come to mind.  This achievement is particularly noteworthy since this was a extremely weak vintage. But, somehow, Caymus had overcome that problem.

After having a small glass, I went back for a second one. And, as with most “Wows” in life, the Wow factor gave way to a more complicated and nuanced reaction to the wine.

Certainly, if I were to run this wine through my criteria of what, to me, is a first-rate wine, it would be found wanting in many respects. As I mentioned above, I value balance over concentration. And I would not say that this was a particularly well-balanced wine. It lacked the acidity that to me is a “must” in a truly superior wine.

Another thing that I really don’t like in wines is excessive oak. Again, you would have to find this wine “Guilty” on that count as well. I find excessive oak often means excessive oak tannins as well, something that should hardly come as a surprise to anyone. While I find grape tannins to enhance a wine (at least until they become over the top excessive), I don’t find that to be the case with oak tannins. I find that they create a drying unpleasant sensation. Which I guess is why I eschew much oak in my wines. To be fair, this is still a fairly young wine, and perhaps over time these oak tannins will integrate better into the total sensory experience. Again, to be fair, I have my doubts that this wine is a good candidate for long-term aging. If balance and acidity are required for a long life (as I certainly believe they are), it’s hard to be sanguine about the future for this wine. Which isn’t to say it’s about to fall apart. But I don’t think I would put this  wine down for 15 years, either.

There is certainly no way that I could say that when I make a wine, I aim for anything close to this one.

And, in fact, the more that I drank it up, the less that immediate “Wow” reaction continued. After the second glass, I had had my fill.

So what’s my final judgment on this wine? It’s really hard to say. It’s hard to forget that “Wow!” factor which is still lodged in my sensory brain cells this morning after. But it’s just as hard to ignore the fact that the the pleasure of the wine did not last. Would it go well with food? It’s impossible to say since I didn’t have it with any, but I tend to think not.

To some extent, you could say this wine was a caricature of itself. Intense, even spectacular, yet floozy at the same time.

I remember that someone, perhaps Melville himself, commented that nobody ever created great literature about a flea. Melville himself went on to pen one of the great pieces of literature about a whale.

So if you’re trying to  create something great, the first thing you need to do is try to create something great. And in that respect, you have to give Caymus credit for making that effort, and, in large, if incomplete, measure, succeeding.

The prolongation of things

Monday, June 24th, 2013

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smI recently read the book by Daniel Kahneman entitled Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s an excellent book and I highly recommend it, even if it’s a little tough sledding at times.

One story that Kahneman tells is the time when the government of Israel decided that it wanted to update the curriculum for a particular course of studies (I forget exactly which, but it doesn’t matter). Once the group, of which Kahneman was a member, had worked on the project for a short amount of time, they all got together and came up with an estimate of how much longer it would take to finish the project. The consensus was that it would take a year to year and a half.

It turned out that one of the people present had actually been involved in similar tasks before, and he was asked how long it had actually taken, on average, for the other groups to finish. The answer: usually about seven years, if they finished at all.

Everyone was aghast to hear this news, and nobody believed it, at least at the time. Seven years later, when they had finally finished, they had all become believers. Of course, by then, the original government that wanted to update the curriculum was long gone, and the new government had lost all interest. So nothing came of the endeavor.

Which brings me to our quest to open a winery/tasting room. The latest twist is that, in an effort to avoid having to build an expensive firewall, we’re asking the county of Solano to interpret their ordinance, which states that a winery needs to be “on the property” in order for a tasting room to be allowed, as meaning the winery simply needs to be “on the property”, as opposed to needing to be indoors.

Of course, I’ve been in Napa (adjacent to Solano County) the last number of months. Except, of course, for now, when I’m in Los Angeles for several weeks. Of course, as soon as I leave for Los Angeles, the planning department wants me to show up for a meeting. Which, of course, I can’t do, being in Los Angeles.

Bottom line, everything is put on hold until I return to Napa. Another few weeks lost.

So my winery/tasting room application seems to be going the way of the Israeli curriculum. What once seemed so straightforward, even elementary, has devolved into a seemingly endless battle with red tape.

I have come to think a good rule of thumb is that when you envision any task that you need to do, and come up with an idea of how long you think it’s going to take, you should probably automatically double your estimate. In fact, you should probably double it a second time. If getting the task done depends upon somebody else doing anything, double it yet again. If that somebody is a governmental entity, I don’t know that another doubling is enough.

I wish I could get upset with somebocy, but I can’t. Everybody, in their view, is just doing their jobs. What is a matter of great moment and urgency to me is just another routine matter to the somebody else whose cooperation I need. If I were in their shoes, I would probably feel the same way.

At any rate, I’m trying to look on the bright side of things. The fact that they wanted to meet is probably a good sign. I have a hard time believing that, when push comes to shove, anyone really thinks that processing wine indoors instead of outdoors makes a whole lot of difference to anything. Hopefully that’s not just wishful thinking.

Our Winery/tasting room: an update

Monday, June 17th, 2013

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smAs many of you probably know, we’ve been trying to get licensed to operate a winery and tasting room in Suisun Valley. We finally got our applications in several months ago. At that time, I hoped that everything would go through smoothly, though I had my doubts.

Well, the doubts won. This has turned into a continuing nightmare of bureaucratic red tape.

It’s hard to put into words how frustrating this is. I truly think that if all I had to deal with was the physical process of getting a winery and tasting room up and going, it would take some number of weeks. But I’ve been at this well over six months now, with no end in sight.

Just to give you some general idea of what we have to deal with, consider the prospect of having to remodel a house. This in fact is something that I have some familiar familiarity with. You figure out what you need to get permits for, go down, make your application, and hopefully get your permits in fairly short order. Sometimes it happens that way, but more often it does not. Of the myriad items that go into your remodeling, it’s almost inevitable that a few of them raise some question that needs to be resolved, usually requiring that you modify your application.

But now imagine that every time you remodel the house, you have to go to not one but five or six different entities in order to get the approvals you need. Well, welcome to the wine business.

You have federal, state, and local jurisdictions to contend with. It is almost certainly going to be the case that with all of them they are underfunded, and they are all trying to deal with way more than they can reasonably handle. So nothing gets done quickly.

Did I say that you have federal, state, and local jurisdictions to contend with? Well, that, unfortunately, is a gross oversimplification. If you just look at the “local” part of the task, you realize that that does not mean dealing with just one department, but several. Right now, I am having to deal with planning, building inspection, and environmental. Each has their own set of requirements, and, as I am finding, the requirements imposed by one of these entities greatly complicates the application when it comes to dealing with another.

Just to give you an example (one that I’m actually struggling through at the moment), Building requires that if there is what they consider to be a manufacturing facility and a nonmanufacturing facility in the same building, there has to be a firewall between the two of them. A winery is considered manufacturing, while a tasting room is not. Firewalls are very expensive. I thought I had a very simple solution to this, which would be to simply do all of the wine processing outside the building. Building inspection was fine with this, and I thought, “problem solved”.

Only, as it turns out, planning considers that their requirement that there be a winery “on the property” means not just that it needs to be someplace on the property, indoors or out, but it that it needs to be inside the building. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the ordinance that they rely upon, and to interpret it is requiring that the wine processing be done indoors is a real stretch.

So there’s a procedure to request an interpretation of the ordinance, which I have done. It’s basically involves sending in a letter to someone who I’ve never met outlining why the interpretation that the wine processing needs to be indoors is wrong. So I spent a whole bunch of time gathering dictionary definitions, and legal ones, of the language in the ordinance. I went all around Suisun Valley taking pictures of wineries and their outdoor processing. So I sent this all in about a week ago, and I’m still awaiting the verdict.

Apropos to this subject was our application to the TTB for our bonded winery. We submitted our application and got back a response that was generally positive, except that it stated that all wine storage needed to be indoors. The compliance person who is processing our application was dumbfounded, particularly since most wineries do most of their wine processing outside. However, a quick call to the TTB processor resolved this issue in just a few minutes. Apparently, as long as you put a lock on your storage tank, the TTB is good with outside storage. So at least that’s one problem solved.

Then we heard back from the state. Our application looks great, but they don’t want to finally approve it and tell our facility is “furnished”. Of course, it’s a little difficult to “furnish” the facility when, because of the planning issue, we don’t know what it’s going to end up looking like. So I guess we aren’t going to get our state approval until we get our planning approval and God knows how long that’s going to take.

I just don’t now know how anyone in the wine business gets anything done. I guess if you’re Gallo, and have compliance people up the kazoo, this is just business as usual. If you’re some tiny little winery just trying to survive in a hostile environment, all this red tape is simply overwhelming.

At any rate, I’ll keep you posted, hopefully with the announcement of our successful conclusion to all of these problems. Stay tuned.

More about being in the Wine Business

Monday, April 29th, 2013

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smMy post last week got a comment that deserves repeating:

“Always nice to see commentary on the blogosphere from another grower who can actually speak to a REAL day in the life of a vineyard owner. I’m having so much “fun” going after wineries for $33,062.50 still owed to me on the “stuff” from 2012 and 2009 harvests while nervously chewing my nails and running the numbers on my 2013 operations budget - and at the same time working towards retrieving the $7,560 owed to me by my “neighbor” for the pressurized 6 inch mainline they broke and replaced with a cotter coupling only to be asked by my attorney for a retainer to fight the 6 inches my three olive trees extend over my “neighbors” property line, never you mind the 6 feet of french drain they’ve illegally run across the very same property line and into my drain tile. And then there’s the paperwork involved with the insurance claim(s) on the Ag theft that occurred two months ago and the 65 vines I lost 1 year ago to a lunatic who launched his truck into my reservoir because he was “having a bad day”. I am having so much “fun” I can barely stand it. Happy Tax Day Mr. Parsons. Jeff, tip of the hat to you this 2013 growing season.”

This came from Thomson Vineyards, which per their website produces wine grapes in the Carneros.  But the gist of it could have come from pretty much any real grower who has to deal with the day in day out problems of running a vineyard, which is similar to running all kinds of other businesses.

I can only add a note of sympathy.  I’d like to say misery loves company.  Only it doesn’t.  But I guess there’s something to be said at least for knowing that you’re not the only one.

As we struggle to pay our bills, I can only second Thomson’s comment about having to go after wineries who haven’t’ paid their bills.  We’d be so much better off right now if it weren’t for the tens of thousands of dollars we’ve had to write off from distributors that have gone belly up, or just not paid for reasons that are far from clear.  The ones that go belly up I can understand.  But the ones that are still actively in business that just never pay is harder to understand.

But what are you going to do about it?  Hire a lawyer in some far off state to try to collect a $10,000 bill.  Fat chance that’s going to end up being a cost effective move.

And then there’s the inevitability of the fact that when something goes not as planned, it’s always for the worse.  The unanticipated truck careening through your vineyard never turns out to be a good thing.

Following up on a recent post, and apropos to the above, we got a response from the county for our winery/tasting room application.  Three pages of “corrections”, most of them of the trivial variety, but I’m concerned about a few.  That followed another letter requiring an environmental review of our septic system.  Since our production is so small I know we comply, but that won’t save having to spend hundreds of dollars, and maybe more, to get a septic engineer to say that.  Which wouldn’t be all that big a deal if we were collecting all the money owed to us…

No matter what, you have to try to keep your eye on the ball, to focus on the big things that will advance your business.  But sometimes you get so consumed fighting rear guard actions that that becomes really hard to do.

So thanks to Thomson Vineyards for at least letting me know I’m not the only one.


Monday, March 18th, 2013

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smI have been a bitter critic of wineries, usually the biggest of the big, that routinely churn out mediocre wines stripped of all that makes wine interesting.  Start with perfectly good grapes, and filter and fine and stabilize and centrifuge them and they lose most of what makes them potentially wonderful drinking experiences.  True, not a few of these wines still manage to be pretty good, but it’s in spite of, not because of, these processes.  It’s not good enough to say you made a good wine, when you really started out with something capable of being a whole lot better.

So I guess I got something of comeuppance last week.  One of our distributors reported that one of our wines (our Petite Sirah to be precise) had been stacked at our warehouse upside down.  Since this wine is unfiltered, and naturally subject to throwing off sediment anyway (it’s a fairly tannic wine), it has been accumulating sediment on the cork surface.

My immediate reaction:  So what?  When I get a wine with sediment, that’s a big plus for me.  It shows it’s a real wine.  It’s a tradeoff I’d gladly make:  a little sediment for a real wine.

Our consumers reaction?  Not nearly so positive.  In fact, downright negative.

It’s a bummer, plain and simple.  If you don’t go the “strip everything out of the wine that any person could possibly find offensive” route, you run the risk that those someones will find the wine wanting, or even flawed.  That this is the furthest thing from the truth, is a big “so what?” if what counts is getting your wines sold.

I can remember tasting some years ago the same wine, one that had been cold stabilized, and one that hadn’t been.  The unstabilized wine was subject to forming crystals when put in a fridge for a period of time.  But my God it was so much better.  Yet pretty much everyone cold-stabilizes their white wines, because, God forbid, a consumer might think there’s slivers of glass in his wine.

Want your wine to be clear as bell, without the slightly hint of haziness?  Bentonite filter the hell out of the wine, and you’ll get that super clear look that everyone likes.  But taste that super clear wine against the pre-filtered version, and you’ll find it has lost a lot of what the wine originally had.

So what do winemakers do?  They routinely bentonite filter their whites.

So what starts out as a vibrant, even profound, wine, gets dumbed down into something innocuous but commercially acceptable.

I can rail about this til the cows come home.  But I am but one lonely voice in the wilderness.

So what to do with our Petite Sirah?  Well, you can have the warehouse spend its time (and our money) to turn all the cases upside down.  Of course, this isn’t the best way to store wine, since you want the cork contacting the wine, not the air (hopefully neutral air) inside the bottle.  Keeping the cork in contact with the wine keeps it from drying out.  Dried out corks let air into the bottle, which will result in oxidation of the wine.  It’s probably not that big a deal for our Petite Sirah, since we don’t have that much of the wine left, and it’s probably not going to go off on us before it gets sold.

Of course, whenever you do anything, it has unintended ramifications. When you turn the case upside down, all of sudden your label is upside down too.  Solution:  plaster new labels over the old ones.

So it really comes down to simple choice: do we stick to our guns, damn the ignorance of the wine consuming public, or do we do what we have to do keep our sales going?  Well, that’s no brainer if there ever was one.  I’m ordering the new labels tomorrow.

I still think those big megawineries are scoundrels guilty of compromising and adulterating their products.  But maybe with a little less of the vehemence I felt a week ago.