Harvesting & Pressing Grapes for Kosher Winemaking


Last week, Kosher Assistant Winemaker Yanky Drew and his helper Chananya Zirkind were busy overseeing the harvesting and pressing of Chardonnay grapes sourced from North Fork, Long Island, to be used in making a sparkling wine.

I spoke with Yanky to better understand the ins and outs of kosher winemaking and the specifics of the harvesting, pressing and racking processes in particular. Check out the video embedded above for a look at the process, and then read on for details about each step.

The Two Tenets of Kosher Winemaking

Kosher Assistant Winemaker Yanky Drew prepares to rack the kosher wine.
Yanky explained that there are two main tenets when making kosher wine:

  • The wine must only be handled by an observant Jew.
  • The ingredients used in making the wine (such as yeast and fining agents) must be kosher.

These two principles are the foundation of all kosher winemaking and guide how Yanky and his team operate when producing wine with City Winery.

Cleaning the Press

Yanky and Chananya spent three hours cleaning the press in preparation for the grapes. They used a tweezer-like tool to individually pick out all of the seeds and skin from a previous pressing session. The press has to be completely clean of other fruit that may not be kosher. After all of the fruit was removed, the duo powerwashed the press for good measure.

In general, the rule regarding equipment and vessels used in kosher winemaking is that if it is to be used for storage, it must be kosher, but if it is used for anything but storage (such as transportation), it just needs to be completely clean.

For example, hoses used for moving wine from one vessel to another do not need to be kosher — they must only be clean. However, a tank for aging wine must be a designated kosher vessel.

Picking the Grapes

Grapes used for kosher winemaking can be picked by anyone, and the vineyards do not have to follow any kosher procedures. The only considerations are how old the vines are and what other foods are grown in the area.

Vines must be at least three years of age, and the grapes must not be grown in the same field as other fruits or vegetables. Yanky made sure of this when he visited the vineyard, located in North Fork, Long Island.

Furthermore, if any machinery is used — such as a forklift — it must be operated by an observant Jew. In this case, Yanky manned the forklift.

Pressing the Grapes

This time around, Yanky and Chananya pressed Chardonnay grapes for a sparkling wine.

In maintaining kosher standards, only observant Jews are able to handle the product. Along with keeping kosher standards in the pressing process, though, general winemaking procedures must also be followed in order to produce a high-quality wine. For this press, the team needed to follow sparkling wine pressing protocols, which call for a light, delicate press with many cycles, whether kosher or not.

Racking the Grapes



Racking is the process of carefully moving wine from one place to another.

When a wine is pressed, the first racking occurs when the pressed juice is transported to vessels. Sometimes this happens within a winery, but in this case, it happened at an off-site facility in Long Island. In this case, the wine was racked directly into vessels pre-loaded in Yanky’s van. (Check it out in the video above; it’s quite a site!)

Yanky’s vessels for transportation were all designated kosher. He used two 60-gallon drums, one 15-gallon keg and one 5-gallon glass carboy.

“Kosher Tape” Seals the Deal

“Kosher tape” seals a power switch during a racking, so that only Yanky can turn it off.
To make sure that only observant Jews have access to the kosher wine, Yanky uses “kosher tape” — which is distributed by the Orthodox Union, the supervising agency that oversees the procedures for creating kosher wine — to seal all storage vats, taps and valves. This ensures that only he touches the wine, as a tampered seal will prove otherwise.

Yanky also uses the tape to seal off power switches during racking when a pump is necessary. Only he can turn off the power to the pump.

Kosher winemaking may seem like a mystery for those not well-versed in kashrus, the set of Jewish dietary laws. So, let us know in the comments if you have questions about kosher wines.

The Benefits of City Winery’s House Wine Tap System

I have always been a big supporter of tap wines, and it just makes sense for City Winery to serve fresh and good wines by using this technique, being that there are a number of benefits to this system.

We launched our unique tap system with three wine taps in Spring 2009.  The winery upgraded to five taps in Spring 2010, and in Summer 2011, the system was upgraded to 11 taps total with the launch of the winery’s Barrel Room.

City Winery probably sells the most volume of tap wine out of all wineries and wine bars on the East Coast.

In Europe, bulk wine “vin en vrac” does not always carry the connotation of poor quality.   When you know the right spot and the right wine (either local wineries or a wine shop), buying bulk wine is often a good way to get pleasant everyday wines for a great price. Wine by the tap is similar, but for a winemaker it opens many doors.

Here are some of the benefits behind the tap system.

Lower stress: Wines by the tap do not need to be bottled!! One of the worst tasks for any winemaker is bottling; there are always last-minute problems (not enough glass, not enough labels, incorrect labels, not enough staff, wine plugging during the final filtration, the threat of microbial infection during bottling, equipment breakdowns, etc.). During the winemaking process, we work hard caring for the wines.  We witness our wines fermenting and maturing in front of us.  This evolution is usually slow and we can influence it if it goes awry.  All our attention and care provided over 6 to 18 months can be wasted if we encounter any problems during bottling.   No bottling makes our lives easier — I think we can all agree on that!

Minimal SO2: When bottling a wine, most wineries will increase the SO2 content to prevent any chance of microbial infection during bottling and to preserve the wine after bottling — Recall the obvious sulfite odor found in many recently bottled sweet white wines, such as German Riesling.  I do not add sulphite before “kegging” any of our tap wines. The wine is stored at 60F and covered with inert argon.  We simply don’t need to do anything more to protect the wine.

Truth In wine: Given the wine’s character (our Sauvignon Blanc did not go through malo-latic fermentation), we would have to sterile filter the wine in order to bottle it safely. Such a tight filtration would damage the wine (decrease richness and potentially induce some dryness), but it would be necessary to insure stability of the wine in the long run. Tap wines, however, do not need filtration.

Greener product: With tap wines, there are no supplies (cork, label, foil, bottle, boxes) to purchase, receive and store. As a result, there is no waste, and this product is much greener than traditional bottling. This is a big deal!

Reduced wine losses: There is no need to worry about an oxidized bottle opened last week or unsatisfied customers complaining that our wine is corked. Because it doesn’t go through the bottling process, this isn’t a concern.

More fun / unique wines: There are always some small batches of wine that are odd, but interesting somehow.  They are usually light or hard press wines kept separate from the classic free run wines.  We are speaking about 15 to maybe 60 gallon lots. In these cases, bottling these small volumes is unrealistic, because bottling costs are high and because there wouldn’t be enough product to market with so few cases.  However, with the tap system, we can feature such a wine on tap as a special “barrel/ keg of the week.”

Fewer worries: You can’t even imagine how many ways a wine can go bad in bottle.  It rarely happens because we take great care to prevent any potential chemical instability (protein and tartaric precipitation for whites, copper case and color instability for reds, TCA/corked bottles) or microbial instabilities (re-fermentation in bottle, Brettanomyces development in bottle).  For example, our Sauvignon Blanc has some fresh aromas of citrus, hawthorn with a lively month feeling — it may not be tartaric stable, meaning than a few harmless tartaric crystals might appear (tartaric crystals do not change the wine’s taste but their appearance may make the wine unmarketable). I do not have to worry about this, though, because the wine is stored at 60F in the cellar and is chilled down to service temperature en route to the tap. Even if a few crystals appear, they will remain in the bottom of the kegs.

Wine education: We can also build educational value from our wines by the tap. For example, we could offer the same wine aged in French vs. American oak barrels to guests. The tap system also enables us a unique way to feature wine in wine flights for educating clients.

The Bottom Line

Wines by the tap make sense for City Winery.  This system enables us to prepare our house wines with minimal winemaking intervention: no filtration (or light one if needed), no fining for white wine, no SO2 addition before kegging.

Basically our wines are closer to their true nature — raw.

This system also offers a unique experience for our guests.  While other wine-by-the-tap programs are appearing in sophisticated cities at restaurant and retails shops, they cannot offer what City Winery does:  We produce wines on site in SoHo.  We can take risks others cannot.  We can offer one keg of unique wine if it is tasting great on a given week.  We can offer a wine at different stages of its life.  We can serve our wines fresh and alive since we don’t have to stabilize them for shipment across the continent.

Whether on tap, from a barrel or in bottle, we hope you’ll enjoy a glass of good wine soon. And stop by our Barrel Room to try out some of City Winery’s tap wines.

The Wine Industry Embraces a Classic Meme


Winos everywhere have been huddling in their cellars this week to watch the latest iteration of a meme known as “Downfall” or “Hitler Reacts,” which is based on a pinnacle scene in Der Untergang (2004), a German WWII drama.

The bloggers over at Red to Brown Wine Review uploaded a wine-centric spoof this week, as a reaction to legendary wine critic Robert Parker’s announcement that he would no longer be covering California, in order to focus solely on Bordeaux and the Rhone.

The parody illustrates how “one Californian winery was not particularly happy with this news.”

Check out the video embedded above to share in on the giggles and belly laughs that have thus far only been heard behind cellar walls.

The Great Closure Debate: Cork, Composite or Something Else?

Straight cork (left) versus composite cork (right) closures.
Natural cork has been the wine closure of choice for centuries, but in the past few decades a debate over the benefits and shortcomings of alternative wine closures has flourished.

For the most part, the debate is over whether natural cork closures or screwcaps should be used to close wines. Most of the debate circles purely around perceptions, and there are a number of other types of closures that can be used, including composite cork, plastic and glass.

For most winemakers, though, there are three considerations to take into account when choosing a closure: cost, the type of product being bottled and marketing.

I spoke with City Winery winemaker David Lecomte to get his thoughts on this debate and learn how he chooses closures.

Lecomte says that he’s always believed, “There’s no bad closure; there is only the wrong closure applied to the wrong product.”

For Lecomte and City Winery, though, the only decision to be made is whether the wines should be closed with straight cork or composite cork, as the winery does not own a screw capper machine, which cost in the range of $15,000-20,000. Furthermore, Lecomte does not use plastic closures, as there is an unforgivably large disparity in sealing quality.

Cork wine closures are punched from cork oak tree bark.
Straight cork is made form the bark of cork oak trees, which is harvested about once every nine years. The bark is stripped away from the tree, and individual corks are either hand-punched or machine-punched from the bark (as pictured above).

After each straight cork is removed from the bark, the remaining bark is ground up into granules and compressed together to make composite cork.

Straight cork costs about $0.75-1.00 per closure, and composite cork costs about $0.07-0.18, depending on suppliers. (For the record, screwcaps cost roughly the same as composite corks.) Pricing and lead time for shipping are important for winemakers who must manage budgets and work on close timelines. As a result, closure cost is oftentimes a big deciding factor.

But the product’s profile is also an extremely important consideration. So when should a winemaker choose a straight cork over a composite cork, and vice versa?

“You shouldn’t choose a closure based on what you think. You should choose it based on your product,” says Lecomte. When deciding on which type of closure to use, Lecomte looks at a wine’s profile and its mouthfeel. “If the wine is all about the fruit, has a mellow mouthfeel, is ready to be drank and there is no point in aging it, there is no point in using a straight cork,” he says.

On the other hand, if a wine has the capacity to be aged for multiple years, a straight cork should be used, as a composite cork would limit the wine’s shelf life.

Straight corks provide the longest aging range, says Lecomte. Those used at City Winery have a lifetime of between 10-15 years.

Composite corks on the other hand “don’t seal forever,” says Lecomte. The $0.07 closure maintains its quality for about 1.5-2 years, while the $0.18 closure can last for up to 6-7 years.

Lecomte always runs tests on each shipment of corks to make sure that they are up to par.

Cork contains 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), a chemical compound that is the chief problem child when it comes to cork taint in wines. While all corks contain TCA, it’s a matter of keeping the average TCA content level and the standard deviation within check.

A wine that has been bottled with a cork that is contaminated with TCA is called a corked wine, identified by undesirable smells or tastes from the wine.

While some reports have stated that 5-7% of all wines are corked, Lecomte says that if closures are chosen properly, a winemaker should only experience 1-3% of his wines being tainted. Lecomte elaborated that 1% of that will be completely corked wines, while the remaining 1-2% will just be slightly spoiled.

For winemakers, slightly spoiled wines are a bigger problem, though, as the customer may just attribute the undesirable characteristics to poor winemaking instead of a tainted cork.

The best type of closure is one that seals well and has no TCA content. Lecomte says that 10 years ago, composite cork was the lowest quality of the two types of cork. But today, there is technology that can extract large amounts of the TCA content (and other volatile chemical compounds) from composite corks, making it a desirable choice today. This process lowers the average TCA content level and also minimizes the standard deviation. With composite corks now, there is practically no disparity between corks, giving all closures in a batch equal potential.

Lastly, marketing can be a consideration when choosing a closure type. Lecomte says that he previously worked with a winery in which the marketing department requested that 25% of its Sauvignon Blanc be closed with screwcaps, as the marketing team was opening up a new market. In this case, the wine marketers felt that consumers would be receptive to a closure that was trendy and easier to open. In another case, Bonny Doon Vineyard, a winery based out of Santa Cruz, California, embraces screwcaps as the closure of choice — a move that could be called a marketing decision.

Once a winemaker chooses which type of closure he would like to use, there are also considerations when choosing a specific model — quality, grade, length and supplier are just a few decisions to be made.

What are your thoughts on choosing wine closures? Let us know in the comments below.

The Importance of Topping Barrels

Cellar hand Sikou Nikate tops barrels on the top row.
The City Winery team topped barrels on Wednesday. Topping is the process of filling barrels with wine as small amounts evaporate through the barrel.

Wooden barrels are porous, and as a result, they breathe, causing the evaporation of small amounts of wine. As wine evaporates, an increasing amount of air space opens up between the barrel and the surface of the wine. Too much air space can cause a wine to oxidize — if a wine has been excessively exposed to air during either its making or aging, the wine loses freshness and takes on a stale, old smell and taste. This is known as oxidation.

To prevent oxidation, winemakers top barrels.

Sikou Nikate cleans around the barrel bungs prior to topping.
At City Winery, we top barrels every 2-3 weeks, using the same variety of the wine being topped.

Prior to removing the bung (the stopper that closes the barrel), the City Winery team cleans around it with a sulfur-citric solution, diluted in water. This solution sanitizes the area around the bung and hole, so that bacteria doesn’t enter the barrel during the topping process.

Once the bung is removed, it is placed in a bucket of the sulfur-citric solution, where it is sanitized during the topping to safeguard against contamination. After the topping is finished, the sanitized bung is replaced.

Blogger Erica Swallow tops barrels using a pressurized keg and small light.
We use a pressurized keg and small light to top barrels. The keg is placed on a dolly and trucked around the barrel room, and the light is handy for seeing where the level of the wine is in the barrel.

The idea is to top the barrel so that the bottom of the bung touches the surface of the wine. Topping too full will cause wine loss when the bung is replaced, and topping too low will leave unnecessary air space.

It is especially important to top barrels once a wine is finished fermenting. While fermenting, carbon dioxide is created, protecting the wine from oxidation. After fermentation, though, the wine is more sensitive to oxidation, and thus winemakers should take great care to top barrels when needed.

Let us know if you have questions about topping in the comments below.

An Introduction to Racking Wine

Assistant winemaker Bill Anton racks wines using Nitrogen.
There are a number of processes in winemaking, of which one is racking. The City Winery team has been busy racking wines this week, in order to make room for our 2011 harvest. We’ve been finalizing blends on our City Winery Reserve Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Santa Maria 2010 and City Winery New York City Cab 2010, as well as a number of member wines. So, this a perfect time for an introduction on racking.

What is Racking?

Racking is the process of siphoning wine off the lees to a new, clean barrel, or “carefully moving wine from one place to another,” in the words of City Winery assistant winemaker Bill Anton. Because wine is very temperamental, winemakers must be very careful when siphoning it from place to place. It is important to note that it is not pumped — that would be a harmful process, akin to what happens during “bottle shock,” a temporary condition after a wine has been bottled in which its fruit flavors are muted or disjointed.

Winemakers check wines every few weeks or up to about once per month to decide whether a wine should be racked or not. Frequency depends on the health of a wine. Anton explained that a wine that needs to be racked will have a certain “musty stinkiness” to it, an aroma that winemakers pick up on right away.

What is Lees?

Lees refers to deposits of dead or residual yeast and other particles that precipitate to the bottom of a tank of wine after fermentation and aging. Particles can be more easily precipitated to the bottom of a vat through a process called “fining,” where a fining agent (such as egg whites or bentonite clay) is added to the wine to create a bond with suspended particles. This creates larger molecules that settle more quickly.

There are two types of racking: that which happens before fermentation and that which happens after fermentation. The first time racking occurs is when the wine is merely juice and has just arrived at the winery — this is before it has fermented. In this case, the first batch of lees that settles is called “gross lees” — consisting mostly of fruit pulp, this lees is tested for its health. A healthy, creamy lees can be great for wines.

The second type of lees is “fine lees,” which consists mostly of dead yeast and is found after fermentation.

Lees can contribute positive or negative characteristics to a wine, depending on whether the lees are healthy or unhealthy. Healthy lees can add to a wine’s mid-palate, acting as a natural fining agent and imparting more flavor and color to a wine; when a wine has healthy lees, it doesn’t need to be racked. In such cases, this good lees is left alone and may even be transferred to another wine to share the wealth. The presence of unhealthy lees can lead to reduction, which is detected by the smell of sulfur, rotten eggs, onion or boiled cauliflower, depending on the level of reduction.

When lees has been removed from a wine at City Winery, we recycle it to the kitchen, where white lees is used to make pizza dough and red lees is used to make pretzels. Really dark lees can also be used to paint barrels.

When Does a Wine Need Racked?

A wine’s need for racking varies based on where it is in its life cycle.

Young wines that have not yet been fermented are usually racked when there is a need to decrease the yeast and bacteria count in the lees.

Otherwise, wines that have surpassed the fermentation process may require racking if they have reduced — that is to say that they have been prematurely deprived of oxygen — or are showing tight tannins.

Finally, wines are also racked as they are being prepared for bottling.

What Type of Equipment is Used?

The racking cane connects to the racking hose.
In order to rack a wine, an L-shaped racking cane (pictured above) is placed in a barrel. The cane features a screw-like mechanism at the bottom of the probe that is inserted into the barrel — this mechanism touches the bottom of the barrel and keeps the cane from pulling up lees.

The cane is connected to a racking hose, which transports the wine from the barrel to its destination, usually another barrel or a tank. At City Winery, we use 1.5″ racking hoses with tri-clover fittings for wine movement.

The racking process is a slow one, so that lees are not sucked into the cane. The cane features a site glass, which tells the operator when to stop siphoning — when he or she starts to see puffs of cloudiness (that is, lees), it’s time to stop.

The siphoning process can be powered in a number of ways, including by gravity, by a pump or using Nitrogen, which hooks on the cane and pressurizes the barrel, pushing wine to the hose.

How are Wines Blended?

Small batches of wine can be blended in a blending sump.
This week, City Winery is busy blending a number of wines. Usually wines are blended in barrels or tanks, but small batches of two barrels or less can also be blended in our blending sump (pictured above).

Do you have questions about racking wine? Let us know in the comments below!

Capsuling and Labeling at City Winery

Cellar hand Sikou Nikate and wine aficionado D. Tejada capsuling bottles of wine.
The City Winery team capsuled and labeled a number of member wines on Monday.

Capsuling is the process of securing the wine bottle’s capsule, the tamper-evident secondary closure that gives the wine bottle a finished look.

While there are a number of different types of bottle capsules, City Winery uses those made of tin and polylaminate.

In the capsuling process, the closure is placed atop the wine bottle before it is slid into the capsuling machine, which affixes the capsule onto the bottle using a hard plastic roller that rotates around the bottle neck.

Head winemaker David Lecomte shows wine aficionado D. Tejada how to operate the labeling machine.
After the bottles of wines are capsuled, they are ready for labeling, the process of applying the proper labels to the bottles.

The labeling machine works by affixing a label onto a rotating bottle of wine. The operator must first set the spacing and height details, so that the front and back labels are affixed in the correct positions.

Labeling one barrel of wine (21 cases), usually takes about 1-1.5 hours, but can vary based on a few factors. The biggest factor is bottle shape. Tapered bottles — such as some Bordeaux and Burgundy-style bottles — are more difficult to deal with and can take longer to label as a result.

Furthermore, if bottles have been stored in a cold area and have produced condensation, they must sit to warm up and dry off before the labeling process can be started. Otherwise, bubbling may occur, giving the labels a sloppy look.

City Winery typically orders rolls of 300 labels, which can label 21 cases of wine.

Let us know if you have questions about capsuling or labeling in the comments below.