Archive for the ‘Winemaker Journal’ Category

The Vintage from Hell

Monday, October 25th, 2010

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

jeff-smThe week was going pretty well for awhile. We were able to harvest our Merlot, which looked very good despite all the problems with the weather this year, on Thursday morning. It was harvested mechanically, and the whole thing went well and quickly. Many find mechanically harvesting too industrial in concept, but it sure does do a good and quick job of getting the grapes off the vine and to the winery.

Friday morning we returned to the vineyard to harvest our Petite Sirah. Unlike the Merlot, this grape, because of its trellis system, couldn’t be mechanically harvested. So we had arranged for a couple of crews of hand-pickers and got going around daybreak at 7 a.m. Since rain was in the forecast, everyone was anxious to bring in their grapes before the weekend, leading to a shortage of crews. So we got started with one full and one short crew.

It wasn’t a pretty day, being gray and overcast, but it was perfectly acceptable picking weather. At least for a few hours. And then the rains came. Not a downpour, just an on-again, off-again, drizzle, occasionally turning into a real though light rain for a few minutes, then stopping altogether for awhile, and then starting up again.

For someone standing out in the clear, the rain wasn’t that big a deal. But for those working on the vines, it was a major problem. The vines get wet, and those working in them get wet as well. By mid-day, the crew had had enough of the miserable conditions, and was ready to take off. We coaxed them to stay long enough to complete a truck-full of grapes, and then they were gone.

The day wasn’t a total waste. We harvested almost half the grapes in the field. While we intended to get the whole field picked, when Mother Nature has other ideas, all you can do is deal with the situation as best as you can.

Also on the plus side, we were able to do a pretty good job of picking the best fruit. As I’ve noted over the last few months, raisining has been a major problem this year. Since pickers get paid by weight, their natural tendency is to pick everything they can, raisined or not.

To make sure we get only what we wanted, we go through the fields with the pickers, examine what goes into each picking bin, and throw out what we don’t want. Once the pickers saw what should be rejected, they were very good about taking only the good bunches. They weren’t perfect, and we did end up throwing out some of what they picked, but by and large, they did an excellent job. I invite anyone wrapped up in the romance of winemaking to spend a few minutes tossing aside raisined bunches to cure them of that romantic hogwash forever.

And, finally, apart from the rain, things proceeded reasonably well. It’s always a little stressful on harvest day, as a lot of things need to all be in the right place at the right time. In our situation, the winery was delivering the macrobins that would be used to collect the grapes literally minutes before the picking was to start. A flat tire and everything comes grinding to a halt. At least there were no flat tires, or lost trucks driving around Suisun Valley trying to find us.

We’d done a few crop estimates prior to the picking, and they indicated we were going to be quite a bit off our normal yields. But once the picking started, they gave the lie to our estimates, as the yields, even after leaving lots of raisined grapes on the vine, were better than we expected. Not high, by any means, but at least not terribly low. We seem to be getting 4 ½ to 5 tons to the acre, which is better than we expected, and not that far off normal for that vineyard.

We wanted to see if we could resume the harvest on Saturday morning, but the winery nixed that idea. They’re battling to crush what’s already been harvested. Too bad for us, as I’m writing this on Saturday morning looking out my window at a rain-free day. But the rains are predicted to come later today and tomorrow, so we’ll not be able to finish up until Tuesday at the earliest. So far we’ve been lucky that last week’s rain didn’t result in a flare-up of botrytis, but there’s always concern that with the next rain we won’t be so lucky, particularly with a grape like Petite Sirah that is prone to rot.

This vintage has been horrible in almost every imaginable way. The amazing thing is that despite all that, the quality of the grapes looks to be pretty good. I have no doubt that our grapes will make good wine. But getting from here to there this year has been a whole lot more difficult than in most years.

Why you really don’t want to hear how a winemaker spends his day.

Monday, February 15th, 2010

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

jeff-smSteve Heimoff recently wrote, in connection with how easy it would be to do a winemaker’s blog, “As for what to say, if you’re a winemaker, all you have to do is describe what you did yesterday or this morning.” Wrong. To show why, I’m going to give you a short summary of what is, all too often, a typical day in the life of a winemaker.

Get up, down some coffee, and think about going to the winery. But more urgent to pull out the checkbook and pay some bills. A couple of hours later, bills paid, start thinking about how to pay the next set of bills (or, on a bad day, the last set). Start beating the bushes to remind your distributors about past their due invoices. By the way, isn’t it time to order up some more product? Hopefully the answer is yes, so that the bills a few months down the road can get paid.

It would be nice to head to the winery, but need to confirm a trip to Chicago, or Albuquerque, or New York, or wherever, to move the product into, and hopefully out of, the market. Confirm dates, go online to book some plane flights.

So it’s already late afternoon. Maybe I’ll get to the winery tomorrow.

I don’t think I could make a steady diet of this stuff on the blog. And I especially don’t think you’d be that interested in hearing about it day after day.

At least I will make it to the winery one of these days. Or, even better, to the vineyard. Weather permitting, I’ll head out there tomorrow. Maybe that would be worth a post.

Just a Short Note Today

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

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

jeff-smHarvest finally started for us yesterday when we brought in our Syrah.  Picking started at 6:45 a.m., but we immediately ran into a problem.  This year nature was not kind in giving us some major heat waves interspersed with an otherwise generally mild growing season.  The effect was a huge amount of shrivel.

Our Syrah is laid out with rows running east-west, meaning we have a north and south side of the canopy.  The north side did fine, since it avoided the harshest of the sun’s rays.  The south side, however, suffered.

When we started picking, we got way too much of the shriveled fruit no matter how hard we tried to convince the pickers to avoid it.  Though we stationed workers (including myself) at the macrobins where the fruit was deposited to go through the fruit and toss out the poorer quality, we couldn’t keep up with the task.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.  After thinking things over, we decided that the amount of good fruit on the south side of the canopy being minimal, and the problem of avoiding the bad fruit insurmountable, we sacrificed the south side of the canopy altogether in the interests of maintaining quality.  So our harvest was short, but at least the quality appeared to be very good.

It was all crushed by mid-afternoon.  We’ll inoculate with yeast either Saturday or Monday.  Between now and then we’ll do some lab analyses of the juice, and in all likelihood make some additions.  We’ll probably bleed off some of the juice, which increases the ratio of skins to juice, which results in greater concentration in the finished wine.

More next week.

Winemaker Journal for February, 2009

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009



I haven’t written a journal entry for awhile, since things were pretty low key after the rush of harvest, and there wasn’t much to say.  But things are beginning to pick up a bit. 

For the 2008 vintage, it’s been something of a waiting game while the wines complete malolactic, or secondary, fermentation, the process where special bacteria convert the malic acid into lactic acid.  For whites, different winemakers have different preferences for whether they want to have complete malolactic fermentation, partial, or none at all.  But for red wines (which I make), it’s a pretty simple formula—complete malolactic fermentation every time.  It’s done primarily for stability.  If you don’t do the secondary fermentation in the winery, it may occur in the bottle, resulting in spritz, not something  you want with a red table wine.  Malic acid is also something that a number of unwelcome microbes feast upon, so eliminating it reduces the possibility of bacterial spoilage. 

Like most wine processes, malolactic fermentation is temperature dependent.  So as our temperatures have dropped, our malolactic (or ML) fermentation has slowed.  Our Syrah has just finished ML.  Our Petite Sirah still has a little ways to go.  Our Mourvedre, which is stored outside where it’s colder than the indoor wines, still has quite a way to go.  Our Merlots finished awhile ago, maybe because they had less malic acid to begin with.

We just performed the acid adjustment for our 2008 Red Côte rosé.  The wine is fairly high in acid to begin with, but we did some trials and found that a little acid bump was preferred by all.  There’s nothing magical about doing these trials.  You just add varying amounts of acid and taste the wines, and decide which you like the best.  Based on the trial, we added a relatively small amount of acid, and we’ll be bottling it in early March.

As the 2008 vintage is slowly progressing, the 2007 vintage has become our primary focus.  We’re planning on bottling our first vintage of our Petite Sirah in late March under the Seven Artisans label.  It’s a massive wine, one that should last quite a while.  Petite Sirah seems to do extremely well in Suisun Valley, and this, at least in my biased opinion, is one of the best produced so far.  They’ll only be 475 cases, unfortunately.  As the vineyard matures, the volumes will increase.  We’d certainly like to have more.

The 2007 Syrah was a bit more problematic.  While it was wonderfully fragrant, in the mouth it wasn’t as full-bodied as we wanted it to be.  That’s where blending comes in.  After several trials, we added some of the 2007 Petite Sirah, which really filled out the palate.  We also added a small amount of the 2008 Syrah (we can add up to 5% and still maintain our 2007 vintage designation), which gave it added fruitiness.  The blending worked well, and we’re real happy with how this came out.  We’ll probably be bottling this later this Spring.

Our 2007 Mourvedre, sad to say, isn’t what we’d like it to be.  We planted an acre and a half of this varietal, which in France and Spain makes some very intense wines on its own, although it is primarily used as a blender in the Southern Rhone.  It seemed like a natural to blend into our Syrah.  It also seemed a good fit for our location because, being a late ripener, it would avoid maturing during the heat we get well into the season in Suisun Valley.  But so far, our hopes have yet to materialize.  Blending is a mysterious process, and sometimes wines that on their own leave much to be desired when blended into other wines do wonderful things.  That, at least, is our hope for the Mourvedre.  It also sometimes happens that, just when you’ve given up, a wine, for no discernable reason, improves.  Barring something working out for the Mourvedre, we may end up having to sell it off to some other vintner.  Unless this year’s vintage of the Mourvedre starts showing us more, we’ll replace it with something else that shows more promise, an expensive but unavoidable step if it won’t produce wines of the quality we want.

November 2008 Journal

Saturday, November 1st, 2008

Artisan Family of Wines Winemaker Jeff Miller’s notes from 2008 harvest:


Wine Innovations: “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it…Until now.”


There is a lot of reason to believe that excessive heat and aridity while the grapes are ripening are detrimental to quality (and quantity). Wines made from those grapes tend to (other things being equal) have less fruit and more tannins. It is often necessary to bring these grapes in sooner than would be optimal in order to avoid shrivel and other heat related problems.

Two Australian researchers, Dr. John Gladstones and Winemaker Erl Happ, have advocated parameters for temperature and humidity during the ripening season. To make a long story short, they recommend temperatures in the 70s and low 80s most of the time.

Our vineyards are located in Suisun Valley, which at the northern end is considered a moderately hot region. We took over several vineyards that were planted to Merlot, a variety which comes from Bordeaux, a region with moderate temperatures. So our problem was how to grow world-class grapes in a region much warmer than Merlot has done its best.


During the 2007 season, we conducted a small trial using misters to reduce the heat and increase the humidity in the vineyard. Much as perspiration cools us, a fine mist, as it evaporates in the vineyard, cools the grapes by as much as 10 degrees. We harvested both the unmisted and misted fruit, and made wine from the grapes in small trial batches.

The experimental results were encouraging from the misted grapes:

  • The misted grapes (with the exception of one small batch, which were harvested when the unmisted were ready for harvest) needed to be harvested somewhat later. This happened because the misting reduced temperatures and increased humidity, which delayed maturity.
  • This delay in maturity we believe is beneficial, as not only do we get the cooling effect directly from misting, but we also move the ripening period into a cooler part of the season. The combination of these two effects results in significantly cooler ripening conditions.
  • The wines that were made from the grapes were tasted both by us as well as other winemakers. The general conclusion was that the misted were fruitier and more balanced. We’re still tasting them as they develop (they’re still only a year old) to monitor their progress.
  • The misting also had some other benefits: 2007 was an extremely hot ripening season, which resulted in a lot of shrivel and raisining. Since those grapes contribute undesirable characteristics into the finished wine, we dropped over 10% of the crop. In the misted area, by contrast, there was virtually no shrivel. Not only does this save crop, but it allows us to wait longer to harvest, as opposed to having to pick to avoid heat damage.

Buoyed by these results, we embarked on a more ambitious program for 2008. We added misting to five acres of Merlot in our Clayton Road Ranches vineyard. We encountered various technical problems, but eventually got the system up and running at the beginning of the ripening season (post-veraison). We ended up harvesting the misted section almost a week after harvesting the rest of the Merlot.

It’s too early to say anything definitive about the wine quality of the misted versus the unmisted. The misted definitely seems, at this early point, to be the fruitier of the two, while the unmisted is more structured. Hopefully, the two will marry into a final blend that’s superior to the sum of their parts.

Varietal selection

Another way of ensuring that grapes ripen under moderate climate conditions is to plant varieties that ripen later. We’ve experimented with small trials of various grapes, and have found two that seem to work very well in our environment.

1. The first is Montepulciano. It originates in Northern Italy. It seems to ripen in late October, and produces a wine with dark fruit flavors and excellent color. We’ve budded over 4 acres of vineyard to Montepulciano.
2. The second is Aglianico, which originates in Southern Italy not far from Naples. It produces a very highly colored, intense wine with very high acidity. We’ve planted two acres of new vines of Aglianico.

We have also tried a small amount of an Italian clone of Pinot Noir. The wine made from this in 2007 was not impressive, but the 2008 version (which we harvested a little earlier) is showing promise. We started trials this year with a number of other relatively obscure grapes, many of Portuguese origin, as part of this varietal selection program. We should have our first harvest of these experimental vines in 2009.

Submerged cap

Submerged Cap

In red wines, virtually everything that matters comes from the skins. The juice itself is basically innocuous sugar water with a little acid thrown in. The problem is getting the good stuff in the skins into the juice. Once the wine starts fermenting, it releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide. The skins form a layer (called the “cap”) on the top of the juice, which the carbon dioxide lifts up and largely out of contact with the juice. To ensure contact between the juice and the skins, winemakers use two main techniques, with a third also being enjoyed.

  • The more common is called “pump over,” which, as its name implies, involves pumping the juice over the top of the cap.
  • The second alternative is to push the cap down into the juice periodically (“punch-down”). The main drawback to both methods is that they can only be performed several times a day, at most.
  • The third method, which is the technique that we’re experimenting with, is submerged cap. The idea here is to physically restrain the cap below the surface of the juice, so that the skins are in contact with the juice 100% of the time.
  • We’ve been successful using the submerged cap technique on smaller batches, but the force of upward pressure resulting from the carbon dioxide is so great that we’ve had only partial success, when we tried the technique on a larger tank. We did succeed in keeping most, but not all, of the cap submerged; however, the carbon dioxide succeeded in pushing about a quarter of the cap through the restraining screen, and essentially destroyed the screen in the process.

    So on the plus side; we did get much better contact than in the pump-over or punch-down systems. On the negative side, we didn’t get the 100 percent contact we hoped for, and the system proved unable to really deal with the pressure generated by the carbon dioxide. So we’re going to have to modify the system and try again next year.

    We’re convinced of the benefits of submerged cap fermentations. Since the chemicals in the wine that result in flavor are largely unidentified, and difficult to quantify, we’ve tried to determine the overall increased extraction by comparing the color of submerged cap versus punch-down wines. We’ve found that the submerged cap wines had 15-20 percent more color.