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.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sampling Gewürz

Last Friday, winemaker, Markus Niggli, and I (Jon Bjork, the Lodi Wine Guy embedded at Borra during crush), hit the field to check on some Gewürztraminer at Mokelumne Glen Vineyards.

Located between Lodi’s Mokelumne River and Bokisch Vineyards at the end of Cherry Road in Victor, these vines may supply an extra layer of complexity to the up-coming 2010 White Fusion.

Bob Koth, owner of Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, is an extremely passionate grower, as demonstrated by his almost crazy desire to grow German winegrape varieties in Lodi.

We tasted through a row of Gewürz and also wandered off into some Kerner and Dreirebe. The Dreirebe is traditionally made into a dessert wine harvested later in the season, however the berries were already packed with explosive amazing terpenoid flavors that were a favorite of my kids that afternoon.

Our verdict on taste was that the Gewürz needed more time to build more distinct flavors. That was confirmed by a sugar reading on about 10 squished bunches that showed 21.8˚ Brix.

Markus also stepped into his field office on the tailgate of the white pickup to check the water pressure in a single Gewürztraminer leaf. Based on a reading of just over 5 bar, there is no need to irrigate this row.

We’re looking for at least another week of warm days – if that’s possible this oddball cool season – before sampling again.

The Next Generation

Our La Dolce Vita club members have been privy to some insider information that was included with their last wine shipment.

Now it’s time to let the rest of the wine drinking world in on what’s going on. Here’s the scoop from our club postcard:

“For awhile now I’ve had the pleasure of making wine with one of the most detail-oriented and determined cellar hands around. My right-hand man, Markus Niggli, has been a sponge, soaking up what I’ve spouted off from my years of hits and misses. Knowledge has also seeped into his head from a bunch of other up-and-coming winemakers/growers.”

“His excitement for winemaking is infectious. Makes me feel like I’m looking at a mirror when I first fell under the influence of “the wine bug.” You just want to crush every grape you taste to see if it makes a good wine or not.”

“I’m therefore happy to promote Markus to winemaker, responsible for the next generation of Borra wines you’ll be drinking from here on out.”

“As for me, I still get to hop on the tractor and work the vines, stick my nose in some barrels, give my two bits of feedback whenever I want, and - the best part! - twist caps off our latest Zin and Petite for plenty of ‘quality control.’ Salute!”

- Steve Borra

So next time you see Markus, give him a congratulatory pat on the back before you ask him to pour you his latest creation.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sampling Crushed Grapes

On Thursday, we sent Manuel out to our Gill Creek Ranch Vineyard in Clements Hills, located along Elliot Road, hugging the north bank of the Mokelumne River.

Manuel’s mission was to pick about 10 bunches or so of winegrapes from each of our vineyard blocks and squish them into 5 gallon buckets to be driven back to the winery on Armstrong Road.

After the grapes have mixed and marinated for an hour or so, Markus blows the dust off our handy Atago refractometer to check, “where the sugars are.”

“Zin looks to be 21.1˚ Brix. That’s OK, and means we are looking at the last week in September to pick,” says Markus, “based on about 1.5˚ Brix rise per week.”

“The Merlot has shattered and light small berries less than 22˚ to 23˚ Brix,” he said, which translates into potentially very nice wine, but less than usual. We take about 10 tons for our wines, but sell the rest of the vineyard to other wineries.

“The Viognier is 20.7˚ Brix – pretty low, but we would like to pick in September. The Chard is still tasting green and very much behind even though it is 23.5˚ Brix. We really want the flavors. Might be 3rd or 4th week of September.”

After Labor Day is when sampling will begin in earnest. This was just a preview.

So with harvest perhaps two weeks behind average, Markus has time to get all the crush equipment ready and organize the winery before spending 4 days a week in the ripening vineyards.