This time of year is always a busy one at City Winery. Summer is over, and the crowds return to the city, the holidays are just around the corner and with thema flurry of events, and, most importantly, it’s harvest time. This past Sunday we received our third shipment of grapes, about 6 ½ tons of Syrah and Viognier grapes from Alder Springs Vineyards in Mendocino, California. The grapes were picked in the middle of the night when the grapes are at their coldest, driven in refrigerated trucks by two drivers (so the truck never stops) and arrived at our back doorstep here in Manhattan. The grapes we’re greeted by a crew of winery staff, loaded onto a grape elevator, called a “giraffe,” and dropped by the cluster into a destemmer. From there they traveled onto a sorting table to be examined by at least six pairs of hands and cleared of any “MOG” – Material Other than Grapes – stems, leaves, or the errant bad grape. Once the winemakers were sure the grapes were ready, they were dropped onto another giraffe and into the fermenting tanks, where they began the maceration process. With this batch of grapes the winemakers are using a classic technique that most likely originated in the Northern Rhone region of France. They combined 90% Syrah with 10% Viognier– the former being red grapes and the latter being white. It may seem strange to combine red and white grapes, unless you’re making a “blush” wine, but the winemakers had a very particular goal in mind. Syrah grapes themselves are very thick skinned and dark red, creating a big, masculine and tannic wine. By adding Viognier the winemakers are able to create a more mellow wine with lower tannin, and some floral, feminine notes. In the end, we will arrive at a deep red wine full of complexity, but without the possible jarring aspects of a Syrah macerated and fermented on it’s own. These grapes will spend about four days soaking and becoming juice before fermenting for two to four weeks, followed by aging, which can take anywhere from seven to eighteen months. In the meantime, as we wait for this year’s grapes to become wine, we are reveling in current triumphs. City Winery was most recently recognized for its 2012 Reserve Chardonnay from Scopus Vineyards in Sonoma, California. The Beverage Testing Institute awarded a Gold Medal and 93 points to our Chardonnay, which they described as “a fantastically flavorful chardonnay with great structure for the table.” As harvest comes and goes and new grapes begin their journey, it is always a proud moment to know that once they reach the glass our City Winery wines will prove that all this hard work does not go unrewarded!
As mentioned previously, our first shipment of grapes this fall was accompanied by our new 12hl (317 gal) press, affectionately known as the Beast. Well, last week we let her loose. She is more than double the capacity of our old press, and with the ability to be programmed, the operator is now free to press more grapes, rather than buttons. Pressing grapes is actually a complex, multi-step process. It must be done very slowly, building up pressure gradually so that juice extraction is maximized. With each stage of the pressing, there is an interval of relief to allow juice to flow through open channels in the pomace. Without this, the channels would close and much of the juice would be trapped in pockets. Our current process builds up hydraulic pressure in 10 bar increments (one bar equals one atmosphere, or 14.7 psi). We go up to about 90 bar this way. This is actually the pressure of the hydraulic fluid, not that on the pomace, which tops out at around 4.5 bar.
The first step is to bleed juice from the tanks beginning the day before, so that when the door is opened, there is not a gushing flood. The wet pomace is then shoveled out of the tank into half-ton bins that can be moved by pallet jack to the loading dock. The empty press basket is removed from the press by forklift and placed just below the loading dock to be filled. After pressing is complete, the process is reversed: the dry “cake” is removed from the basket and shoveled for a third time into composting bins. The pressed wine is divided into two parts: light press and hard press. Usually, only the light press is aged in oak barrels. If you look in our barrel cellar, most of the wine from each vineyard is marked as “FR” for free run (the wine which freely flows out of the fermenter during the bleed) and “LP” for light press. The hard press is stored in stainless steel kegs and used for a variety of purposes.
Use of the Press Wine
As you might expect, the press wine is rich, dense and as Robert Parker might say, “backward”. It lacks the aromatic complexity of the free run and is fairly harsh and unbalanced all by itself. It is also slightly sweeter than the free run. Some of the sugars locked up in the pulp are released by pressing, and often the press wine will resume alcoholic fermentation until this residual sugar is consumed. The dried pomace has some alcohol left in it as well: this can be distilled into Grappa or the french l’eau de vie de marc most notably. As our wines are aged in oak, they are constantly evolving. Our head winemaker, David Lecomte, monitors each wine assiduously in barrel right up to bottling. Sometimes press wine is added to the free run if he wants to add a bit more depth or structure. Various combinations are tried until his palate is satisfied with the final result. Care must be exercised because adding too much of the press wine could produce harsh tannins and reduce acidity. This is where a winemaker’s talents play a critical role. Only after many years of experience can a winemaker taste a immature barrel sample and know what needs to be done in order to achieve a final result that is worthy.
Check out the gallery below for illustrations of the various steps mentioned above:
Close to one-quarter of our entire fall harvest arrived last Saturday. Needless to say, it was a long day for us, but it was also filled with high expectations. We were not disappointed. The grapes arrived in top condition ready to fill our hungry tanks. In the Pinot Noir department, we received grapes from the Bien Nacido vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley and the Bacigalupi vineyards in the Russian River. Petite Syrah and Zinfandel arrived from Lodi as well.
Assistant Winemaker Bill Anton delivered pallet after pallet of grapes to the loading dock where Sikou Nakate and his trusty pallet jack were waiting to lift and pull each one-ton stack to the loading station. In the case of the Petite Syrah, whose clusters tend to run somewhat large compared to other varieties, the stems had to be snipped into smaller pieces so that they would go through the destemmer properly. Working in shifts, the sorting table was kept busy all day long, with only short interruptions in order to move from one tank to the next. Purple hands and sticky fingers were in abundance.
With our second crush of the season now finished, three-quarters of our fermenters are already full. It is now up to the hard-working yeast cells to transform all that sugary must into wine. We tend to them day and night making sure they complete their important task on schedule. This means regular pump overs, punch downs and temperature regulation. Our lab technicians are busy monitoring the progress and if all goes well, we will start to press and barrel down during the next two weeks. As you can see, timing will be very important so that tanks are available for more crop as it comes in. We are excited about breaking in our new press that will make this process more manageable. Stay tuned for updates.
Last Saturday we had one of our largest crushes ever — 20 tons of grapes! Thanks to our dedicated members, staff and friends, it was processed in record time without a hitch. In fact, they managed to sort the grapes with such precision and care that David’s high standards of winemaking were held in the highest regard. In the time lapse video below, you will see most of the day’s effort compressed into two and a half minutes.
This past Sunday we arrived in the pre-dawn hours for our first crop of the season: 6 tons of Pinot Noir grapes from Carneros. Within the Carneros AVA, these grapes were harvested from two vineyards: Poseidon and Beckstoffer. They were in excellent condition and the sweet aromas made us feel like a part of each vineyard came with them! As a matter of fact, if you closed your eyes on this quiet Sunday morning and felt the warm, bright sun shining on the pallets loaded high with moist grapes, you might have thought you were in the middle of a vineyard.
This delivery was more than just grapes, however. It included our new 5-ton press: we call it the Beast. It will allow us to dramatically increase the amount of grapes we can press in one day. Pressing is actually one of the most time consuming and labor intensive procedures. With our old press, which was quite a bit smaller and not programmable, it would take much longer to press a tank than to fill it with the crush. Below you will find our gallery of photos from the day.
As I sit here at my keyboard in Soho, our first crop of the season is being hand harvested at the Poseidon Vineyard in Napa. These luscious Pinot Noir grapes have reached the point of optimal ripeness and will soon be on their way to City Winery. The small yellow bins that you see above will be stacked high in a refrigerated tractor trailer and covered with a protective blanket of argon gas to retard oxidation. If all goes as planned we will have them in our hands this Sunday! Six tons are expected and will make for a gentle opening to our fall crush (We have been known to crush as many as twenty tons in one day!).
The Poseidon Vineyard, situated in the Carneros AVA at the northern end of San Francisco Bay, was first planted by the Molnar family in 1973 where the cooling winds from the Pacific temper the summer heat. This maritime climate is ideal for growing Pinot Noir grapes so that they ripen slowly and develop phenolic ripeness at the same time as sugar ripeness. Phenolics are a vast group of organic compounds that are responsible for the color, tannins and complex flavors found in wine. Over the years, the quality of this vineyard has been so remarkable that many of the big names in Napa purchase grapes from it, including Joseph Phelps, Heitz Cellars, Sterling, Pride Mountain, Acacia, and Mumm (The PinotFile, Volume 9, Issue 11, September 11, 2012).
Those of you who read my last post know how busy we have been preparing the winery for the biggest crush of the year. Time is of the essence so that when the grapes arrive they are crushed and placed into fermentation tanks without delay. Today we finished cleaning and reassembling our conveyors and made sure the tanks are fully cleaned and sanitized. As you can see below, these are big tanks (6,500 liters or 1,717 gallons) and require a person to actually get inside to do the job thoroughly.
Work schedules are being drawn up and provisions made to have the fermenting juice, pulp, and skins, aka the must, attended every day from early morning to late at night. For the next two weeks or so, it will be like incubating very precious farm eggs: keeping the temperature just right, making sure there is proper ventilation (or circulation in this case), and constantly monitoring the development. And this is only the beginning of what we hope will be our most phenomenal harvest to date!
As August draws to a close here at City Winery, word is arriving that our fall crop is going to be extraordinary this year. The growing season in California has been nearly ideal so we are expecting to have our fermenters filled to capacity in the next few weeks. Crushing up to one hundred tons of grapes takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears so we reach out to many of our staff, members and friends to pitch in. In other words: ALL HANDS ON DECK!
The work itself is quite exhilarating for those who appreciate the art of winemaking. Seeing the freshly picked grapes as they arrive opens a new window into the enjoyment of wine. Suddenly you make a direct connection between these luscious, aromatic fruit and the flavors that make wine such a distinct and delightful experience. Tasting a Pinot Noir grape and comparing that to a fresh Cabernet Sauvignon grape immediately reveals the source of their differences. The Pinot Noir’s bracing acidity and crispness contrasts with the thicker-skinned Cabernet Sauvignon grape that is rich and chewy.
But the real miracle is to witness the transformation from juice to wine. The combination of crushed grapes and juice, known as the must, begins it’s metamorphosis as a beautifully sweet and intensely flavored mixture. As the yeasts begin their work, the sugars are replaced with a complex variety of compounds that add a wide range of new tastes and aromas. Gradually the must becomes more wine-like over the roughly two-week fermentation process. During this period, the must is tasted and analyzed twice a day in our lab. Adjustments are made in order to insure the best possible outcome.
The preparations for the crush are moving into high gear. The fermenters need to be thoroughly inspected and cleaned, as do all the conveyors, destemming machine and sorting tables. Pumps, hoses and fittings are being put in order for managing the must. New barrels are being acquired and must be tested for leaks and other imperfections. Existing barrels are undergoing a thorough inspection, then washed and set in racks for receiving new wine. Our basket press will be taken out of storage and similarly prepped. Once a crush begins, there are no timeouts, so everything must be in near perfect working order. In the event of an equipment failure, we review our backup procedures. As they say, “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst” is the order of the day.
The winery is a hub of great activity and anticipation as we strive to improve every aspect of vinification each harvest. David Lecomte, our head winemaker, is never satisfied with just maintaining the status quo, no matter how diligent. We have been upgrading and intensifying our laboratory analyses with new staff and protocols. This will allow David to prevent or more quickly correct any must issues before they cause a wine fault. A week ago we received a new bottling machine that will allow us to substantially increase our capacity. This is important for the harvest because it will free up barrels and rack space as the aged wine can be put into bottles more quickly.
September marks a new beginning for City Winery with its sister facility in Chicago now open and ready for its first harvest. Together we watch the ripening grapes in California, Oregon, Washington and elsewhere with renewed excitement. With our combined knowledge and experience, this fall offers us an opportunity to make the best City Winery vintage yet.
Most of the wine produced at City Winery is aged in oak barrels for periods ranging from six months to over two years. When first placed into the barrel, some of the new wine is absorbed into the wood, especially if it is new. Gradually, air will be drawn into the barrel as this happens. Since wood is not an airtight container, some wine is also lost to evaporation. To prevent oxidation the barrels must periodically be “topped” with additional wine to eliminate any air space. The following video is a tongue-in-cheek look at topping barrels, meant to be entertaining as well as informative. Shot entirely on-location at City Winery.
Intro: A lone cellar intern contends with wine barrels that need topping. The consequences of letting the wine oxidize lead to an out-of-control chemical reaction that has everyone running for cover.
We are moving into the last month of construction and the finishes are starting to take some shape. The winery equipment arrived and the stainless steel fermenting tanks designed by David Lecomte and manufactured by Vinquip from South Africa are set in place looking really cool. The tanks will give us a capacity to crush about 90 tons of grapes a season or the equivalent of making 6000 cases of wine.
We have the first prototype of the wine bottle chandeliers hanging in the entrance hall way, the first of 6 and the color needs to conform, but the 6 foot tall bottles will look really cool against the full 30 foot tall glass curtain wall being completed this week.
The bottle wall, which curves along a coat check and will serve as the railing for a staircase up to our mezzanine is being finished now. This will be a really dramatic visual set in the restaurant amongst our large fireplace, and tap tasting bar. The bars and painting get done next week and the floors put in – its taking wonderful shape.