Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pumpkin Pickin'

Like their wine industry fathers and fathers’ fathers, Steve and Bev Borra’s grandkids Dominic, Trevor, Chantz and neighbor Chase spent the summer as pumpkin and gourd growers among the family vineyards. And now their beautiful bounty has been harvested and is ready to head to market.

With some almost appearing like some sort of spaceship, they are all very unique and will be wonderful to decorate with or simply heat and eat.

The boys are selling them at the Borra Vineyards tasting room Fri – Sun from 12 – 5pm. So come on by the winery for a bottle or two to go along with some mighty fine pumpkin pickin’ while supplies last.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Busiest Week

“You will not see a busier week,” was how Borra Vineyards winemaker, Markus Niggli, described last week’s crush.

Much of the focus was on picking old vine Zinfandel, Barbera and Merlot to be shipped to eager wineries in the Midwest and back East, the same way Borra and other Lodi wineries have done for generations.

On Friday, following four days in a row of early-week temps just over 100˚ F, Borra’s top-notch field crew picked Merlot from the “backyard” Borra Vineyards Home Ranch on the north side of the winery, as well as some Barbera.

Inspection of the Merlot revealed small berries with many already raisined or completely sun-fried in the center of each east-west running row due to bad fruit set. Unfortunately, what should be 40 tons from the field may only pick out to 15 tons.

That meant Borra’s crew, headed by Manuel Maldonado, were instructed to carefully select only the best “muy buena” Merlot grapes.

Borra is very fortunate to have a crew that has been working the same vineyards for years. Many small wineries are at the mercy of the availability of hired picking crews. It’s not uncommon for a winemaker who wants to pick on a Tuesday to be told the pick can’t happen until Friday.

With the Borra family owning both Borra Vineyards and Lodi Irrigation, this year-round crew can alternate between irrigation installation and vineyard work. As Markus says, “It’s a great cross venture with another business. During crush they’re not that busy, so they’re here and they’re fast.”

Each harvest seems to work about the same: as half-ton Macrobins were filled, cellar lead Federico hauled them a couple hundred yards back to the winery.

Meanwhile, Antonino from Lodi Irrigation, and others pitched in to help build sturdy thick cardboard bins to be used to ship grapes back East. Each bin was lined with a tough plastic bag before over a half ton of fresh-picked Merlot was dumped in.

To help insure freshness, a column of dry ice crystals was inserted down the center of each mound of grapes to form a cooling core that would last for the entire long trip ahead.

A tie of the bag, placement of a lid, and a few strap ties were the finishing touches before temporary storage in one of Borra’s refrigerated containers – which quickly filled to capacity awaiting a truck. (Trucking companies seem to be overcommitted this year.)

The next day, Markus and the crew pulled in the remainder of the Home Ranch Barbera, then hitched up the tractors to head down the block to Steve’s daughter’s – Gina Borra Granlee’s – house, a stone’s throw away.

That property is also home to the Borra “Church Block” vineyard: a mish-mash of inter-planted varieties including Alicante Bouschet, Carignane, and Petite Sirah. All these old, gnarly head-trained vines were picked at the same time and mixed together, yielding about 5 to 6 tons that will become Borra’s special Members Reserve Field Blend, made only for the winery’s La Dolce Vita wine club.

Markus will throw in about 3 to 4 tons of the just-harvested Home Ranch Barbera to top up the tank holding the Church Block collection, allowing the entire batch to ferment together.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Explaining a Vintage with an Espresso Shot

Our winemaker, Markus Niggli finds new uses for breakfast cups and lab equipment to explain Lodi's greatest vintage yet...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Preserving Flavors

With early next week’s weather threatening to crack 100˚ for days in a row, nearly-ripe white Mokelumne Glen Vineyards Gewürztraminer was facing the very real possibility of raisining and damaging sunburn.

Even though Borra’s winemaker, Markus Niggli, didn’t think flavors were optimal, he called in the crew to save the grapes from over-cooking and preserve delicate flavors by picking them last Thursday.

In the cool of the morning, almost three-quarters of a ton were harvested and delivered to the winery in two bins with grapes at a nice 50˚. (By contrast, I was picturing a line of trucks carrying 20-ton grape loads waiting to be weighed-in at Woodbridge Winery.)

Since he’d be getting a smaller load than expected – now a common observation with the 2010 harvest – he deviated from his normal procedure by “chaining” his crush equipment together.

Rather than dumping all the whole clusters directly into the wine press, Markus hoped to get more juice from the batch by first crushing and destemming the grapes and then immediately spreading the crushed grapes into his press.

Such an unusual set-up meant that his two-man crew of Federico and Platon would spend more time getting the equipment ready and cleaning up afterwards than on the actual crushing of such a small quantity of grapes. These small lots drive cellar crews crazy, feeling like they didn’t accomplish much for all their work.

Pre-crush, the Gewürz tasted, “Sweet. With a floral aspect,” said Markus. The sugar came in at 23˚ Brix, with acid at 3.7 pH and lots of berries showing a reddish tint.

As we watched the juice cascade from the slats in the bottom of the press like rain from a cloudburst, Markus said he would have preferred the sugar to be at 26˚ Brix, but didn’t have a problem with this white wine grape being red, “With Gewürz we want red berries, actually. The green berries are not really ripe enough. That’s why the juice is so dark.”

With quality control in mind, I grabbed two wine glasses from the lab and scooped up enough juice collecting in the pan under the press to get a good taste. Markus assessed, “Slightly green. Tannins are there. TA is low. 3.75 pH. Will need acid. If I get a barrel and a half, I’ll be happy.”

“Need acid,” means Markus will add tartaric acid early on to balance the sweetness and help preserve the wine at a pH closer to 3.4.

The nearly-empty press was rotated and inflated up to about 0.8 bar of pressure before it became clear that we weren’t going to get more juice out of this batch, which barely filled the bottom of a 500 gallon tank.

50 parts per million of sulfur dioxide were added to the sweet brownish juice to kill off unwanted yeasts and bacteria before the cube-shaped tank was forklifted into Borra’s refrigerated container for a three-week cool fermentation.

Provided the Gewürz turns out nicely, “I hope to be able to put it into the White Fusion again this year as 3-10% of the blend,” said Markus.

Monday, September 20, 2010

First Fruit for Borra

Borra’s Manuel and Federico led a crew of about a dozen strong backs up at the crack of dawn to pick Chardonnay from Borra’s Gill Creek Ranch, north of Lockeford, last Friday, September 17.

When I arrived at 8:30 a.m., Federico showed me 11 half-ton full plastic Macrobins, indicating they were about half done pulling in the target of 11 tons for the day.

Except for barely 1% of the bunches showing a few brown raisins as the result of minor sunburn during this season’s two spurts of over-100-degree temps, the Chardonnay looked like radiant golden small-berried jewels.

I crouched down inside an empty bin, riding in the tractor’s trailer as Federico took me on our bumpy way out between the vine rows to visit the hard-working crew.

Along with an occasional few words of Español and pre-recorded raptor wails, the only sounds were the constant snapping of vines back into place as Chardonnay clusters were sickled off to fall into small plastic rectangular bins beneath.

These bins were dumped with a regular delayed rhythm into Macrobins on a tractor trailer, while two crew members standing on the sideboard teased out brown leaves and imperfect grapes with small shears.

Steve Borra soon arrived with winemaker Markus Niggli and an avid Borra fan and wine buyer, Cliff Aaby. “Whatever is sunburned we take out,” explained Markus.

Obviously very excited about this year’s high quality so far, Markus went on, “Fruit looks really insane. It’s about 26 Brix, pH is below 3.4. Fantastic.”

By about 10:30 a.m. the bins had been loaded onto a flatbed truck and trailer, and were on their way to the winery – not Borra’s, but rather Van Ruiten Family Winery.

Chardonnay and most white winegrapes have been traditionally dumped right into the wine press, stems and all, ever since the early Robert Mondavi days, when it became known as “whole cluster press.” It’s a way of locking-in the more delicate aromas and flavors – the best feature of cool whites – that would otherwise be lost with extra handling, warming and oxidation.

Borra’s press is right-sized for small lots of already-crushed and fermented red grapes, but would require many separate loads taking all day and into the night to be done with this Chardonnay.

On the other hand, as Van Ruiten has successfully grown to now become a medium-sized winery, their equipment has grown as well, and they are one of the few homes for a towering Bucher press. Think of the press as a humongous home juicer, if you will.

Borra’s 11 tons of Chardonnay would take only about 3 hours from loading to the final squeeze – much more efficient and better for quality than using a small press.

Macrobins were dumped one at a time into a hopper with an auger helping to ensure an even and less damaging delivery of grapes up a conveyer to load the press. Two cellar crew members equipped with plastic red rowboat oars help speed the work of the auger.

An improvised filter made from a Macrobin with a hundred drill holes serves to catch any big grape chunks that would otherwise wash out down into the drain, eventually plugging it up.

A big improvement on the backbreaking old wooden screw presses, the modern press is fully computerized and programmable, inflating, rotating and deflating on a flexible schedule.

Calling Van Ruiten’s winemaker, Ryan Leeman, from the field, Markus requested a gentler “Champagne” program that means he’ll get fewer gallons of juice from the grapes, but he’ll also nearly eliminate any raisin taste from those sunburned berries.

Soon this raw Chardonnay juice will be transferred back to Borra’s winery for fermentation.

This is a good example of the sort of teamwork between wineries that is consistently raising the quality of all Lodi wines.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Euro Moth Inspection

Yesterday, starting at 8:00 a.m. sharp, the Borra Home Ranch Merlot and Barbera vineyards on Armstrong Road were inspected for the European Grapevine Moth by a team from the joint Federal/State Emergency Program of the California Department of Food & Agriculture and the USDA.

Mandatory inspections are the result of the quarantine that was set up August 3rd when two male moths were discovered in traps near Kettleman Lane and Curry Road. A couple thousand of these orange traps containing female moth pheromones and sticky flypaper are hanging throughout vineyards to detect any unlucky adult males that might be flittering about.

A swarm of moth caterpillars nearly destroyed a vineyard in Napa last September and none of us want the same to happen to our Lodi vineyards.

The Home Ranch Vineyard, against the north side of the winery and tasting room, is within the quarantine area, whereas Borra’s Gill Creek Ranch, on the east side of Elliot Road north of Lockeford, just missed being in the quarantine area.

Wineries that harvest winegrapes and crush them all within the quarantine area may pretty much go about business as usual. Borra, however, has a good business in selling grapes to wineries across the country, and the only way to legally ship grapes outside of the quarantine is with a special Certificate of Quarantine Compliance from the inspectors.

As explained by inspector Vincent Hicks using a finger to draw a diagram in the dirt, the first – and probably most time-consuming step in an inspection – is to establish a grid to make sure a statistically significant sampling of grape clusters is taken to determine whether or not the moth is present in the vineyard.

Their “systems approach inspection” has a 95% probability of finding moth caterpillars – if they are lurking – based on a “hypergeometric table” that determines the sampling grid for the vineyard. (The statistics can get pretty involved.)

For the layout of the Home Ranch Vineyard, that meant that Vincent needed to mark with green tape every 15th row of vines, where 2 bunches would be cut from every third vine down the row.

Altogether, Borra’s Manuel and his helper snipped off 300 bunches into 5 gallon buckets for the team of 4 to inspect on a folding table out amongst the vines.

The inspection team went about cutting and teasing apart berries on the bunches, looking carefully for caterpillars or evidence of their presence, such as messy little poops or tiny silk homes in the middle of bunches that look like a spider webs.

Fortunately, the team didn’t find any evidence of the moth when they called it a wrap at around 10:30 a.m. All they found was “nothin’ but spiders,” per inspector Dave DeWall. “And there’s a lot of them,” added Vincent.

In fact, spiders and getting occasionally yelled at by upset growers are the chief on-the-job hazards of the inspectors, who work through 3 to 5 vineyards a day, with around 100 under their belts so far this season.

Had a suspicious caterpillar been found, it would have been shipped up to Sacramento for expert identification to be sure it really was a European Grapevine Moth. And if it were, then Borra and growers within a half-mile radius would be notified that if they wanted to move fresh-picked grapes out of the area, they would need to be fumigated. In that case the entire quarantine area may need to be enlarged as well.

If inspection teams keep coming up empty-handed, then when the 10 head scientists supporting the program meet in Napa during the beginning of November, they’ll recommend the quarantine be lifted sooner rather than later.

What impressed me was the kindness and respect displayed by the inspectors. More than once they asked what we wanted to do with the inspected grapes when they were done. They looked a bit surprised when I said, “Dump them.” Which lead me to explain, “If Lodi were getting $3,000 a ton, maybe we’d save them.”

Meanwhile, Markus now has three permits good for a two week period to ship fresh Borra Merlot and Barbera out of California. All he needs to do is slap a “diamond” label on the grape bins and include a copy of the certificate of compliance.