Written by Neil Bernardi, Duckhorn Wine Company's Vice President of Winemaking, PJ Alviso, our Director of Estate Viticulture and special guest bloggers. This collection of insights on the farming, winemaking, production and all things Duckhorn Wine Company is a great way to experience the excitement of winery life.
This past weekend I joined Brian Rudin and John Kapranopoulos, our Canvasback Winemaker and Western Sales Manager respectively, at the Taste of Washington event in Seattle. This is an annual celebration of Washington wine, in all its diverse splendor, put on by the Washington State Wine Commission. The Commission is focused on promoting the wine industry at home and abroad, and raises significant amounts of money for education as well. Check out their detailed and well-designed website here, and take a look at their interactive map of AVAs throughout the state. Note how tiny Red Mountain is!
We had the opportunity to pour Canvasback wines alongside other great wineries from across the state. Immediately the quality and diversity of Washington wines was apparent, with great examples of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon blends, the Bordeaux reds, and even rare Portuguese varietals. Washington state is a fascinating place. With 50,000 acres planted statewide, it is the second largest state in the union in terms of grape growing. However, to put that in perspective, there are 45,000 acres planted in Napa Valley, 60,000 acres planted in Sonoma County, and a whopping 300,000 acres planted in Bordeaux! Washington is a gem, and has such incredible potential for future growth. I have no doubt its reputation and impact on the world of wine will continue to grow.
After having a chance to taste through many Cabernet Sauvignons from across the state, it was apparent also that Red Mountain is a special place to grow uniquely intense and powerful wines. It was fascinating to note the consistent potency and structure of the wines, regardless of the producer. Brian is (in)famously known for calling it a Grand Cru site, and in my opinion the wines truly support that notion in the Washington context. That is not to say that great Cabernet’s aren’t being made across the state, but the distinctiveness of the Red Mountain terroir sets it apart as a special place that can consistently grow great wines.
It is springtime in Northern California! The birds are singing, the soil is getting warmer, and there are signs of life everywhere. The budbreak in the vineyards is proceeding in earnest, and we in the winery are starting to think about the growing season, and to plan for next harvest. As mentioned in previous posts, we are finalizing blends and closely monitoring the developing 2015 vintage.
On a personal note, I am prepping my garden for this year’s plantings, and harvesting some long lived winter crops. I braised the chard with some home-cured pancetta, garlic, and radicchio, and drank it with the 2015 Paraduxx Rosé, which was fantastic! Don, our Paraduxx winemaker, did a fantastic job making this Rosé, primarily made from hand-picked and whole cluster pressed Syrah. The wine has great acidity and great balance.
One of the great unsung heroes of Duckhorn Wine Company is our long time employee Belinda Weber. B-Web, as she is fondly nicknamed, has worn many different hats at DWC. Her current role is Director of Digital, Consumer, and Trade Marketing, and she has been a guiding light in nearly every marketing, label and PR decision we've made over the last 17 years. She has brought us into the 21st century by integrating us seamlessly into 'the social media' and creating a great visual experience for our fans and customers online and beyond. All of the beautiful catalogs you receive from us are the result of her terrific work. As hard as she works to make DWC look good in front of the camera and on the table, she works to stay out of the limelight, always working with a quiet humility that is rare in our world. Thanks Belinda for everything you do!
This is the time of year when the winemaker focuses on finalizing blends from prior vintages. This involves endless tasting, mixing, spreadsheets, and excitement about the emerging wines. It takes quite a bit of work to take one’s various barrel lots and put together a seamless and balanced blend that represents the best of what a particular vineyard could do in a certain vintage. This is especially true up at Goldeneye, our Anderson Valley winery, where we have the ability to ferment and age so many different vineyard blocks separately. It is true that it creates quite a bit of complexity, but it gives our winemaking team the ability to make incredibly fine blending calls. This complexity oftens means that Michael Fay and Michael Accurso, our Goldeneye winemaker and assistant winemaker, respectively, will taste many iterations of each potential vineyard designated blend, each with minute volume differences but impactful flavor differences in blend.
When all this work is done, and each vineyard designate blend is complete, the final phase of selection is to taste individual barrels from each blend component, to make sure that they are the best for the blend. It is amazing to me that one can taste very significant differences between wines aged in the ‘same’ new French oak barrel, meaning from the same cooper, with oak from the same forest or grain tightness, and with the same toast level. Once the final barrels are selected, they are racked into tank and blended!
I had the great pleasure yesterday of tasting through the new 2014 vintage Migration wines with winemaker Bo Felton. The intent was to get a sense of how they had progressed since bottling in August, and to assess their readiness for release this spring. While still youthful, the wines were remarkable, and promise to be some of the most elegant expressions of our designated vineyards yet produced. While tasting, a few things were notable, primarily the ability of great vineyards to maintain their special characteristics from year to year, despite very different growing conditions. Our Charles Heintz 2014 bottling has that signature Heintz character, as it has since we started working with Charlie’s fruit in 2009. It was also exciting to see some of the newer vineyard designates like the Bien Nacido Chardonnay in the lineup and see that they can definitely hold their own in a very good grouping. That they were all unique, yet well-crafted expressions of great sites is a testament to Bo’s winemaking technique and philosophy.
Oftentimes the best thing a winemaker can do is nothing at all, and it takes restraint, respect, and maturity to allow great sites to express themselves. These wines have a purity and transparency that I find admirable, delicious, and illustrate his respectful approach to wine.
It is one of the great pleasures of being in the wine business that we get to spend time in some of the most beautiful places in the world. I wanted to augment PJ’s great post about pruning with a couple of pictures, taken over the last few weeks, of some of the more remarkable vineyards visited. The first is of our Longwinds vineyard in Washington, which is on its second leaf, pictured here under the watchful eye of our Canvasback winemaker Brian Rudin.
It is strange for a California winemaker to walk through a vineyard with snow on the ground, but it is another one of the many fascinating facets of growing grapes on Red Mountain.
The second is a panoramic shot taken of a portion Napa Valley from the Silverado Trail. I think it is notable because it captures a rare break in the near constant storm action we have seen since Thanksgiving. After 4 years of drought, I think we are all thankful for the rain, despite the many consecutive dreary days.
Once the hustle and bustle of harvest has past, and the wines are put to bed to begin aging in barrel, our winemaking team begins to turn its attention to the previous vintage and next part of the cycle: blending and bottling. This is one of my favorite parts of the cycle, though to some extent we are always blending and tasting something in the cellar. This is a fascinating, gratifying, and sometimes nerve racking process of assessing the wines in your cellar, and using trial and error to find the right blend. It takes a lot of time and energy to get a sense of each wine, oftentimes requiring many tastings. Additionally, the blending process is surprisingly non-linear, and it is hard to predict what combination of lots will make the best, most harmonious wine. For example, one would assume that putting the two best lots in the cellar would make an incredible blend. In reality, it is not always so, and the complexity of the wine matrix, with all the subtle combinations of tannin, anthocyanin, and acidity, makes trial and error a necessity. Taking consistent notes, tasting in a consistent manner, and having a trained group of tasters are all key elements of the tasting and blending process. Each of the winemakers hone each blend until it is ready to present to the larger team. Since the first vintage of Duckhorn in 1978, it has been our custom to present the final blend options to the larger group of winemakers, garnering valuable perspective and feedback on each wine, as well as giving the team a vision of what is to come. Pictured below is the team tasting through potential 2014 Canvasback blends, which is especially fascinating for California winemakers learning about a new region.
At Duckhorn Wine Company, I am convinced we have a truly unique team dynamic. Each of our brands has a dedicated winemaker, each a specialist in her or his field, with extensive experience in the world of wine. In addition, these are all folks who love their craft. As a result, we have some pretty incisive, yet wide ranging discussions on the finer points of winemaking, style concepts, blending, etc. I feel lucky to be a part of such a dynamic team, and feel like I learn something every time we get together.
A quick update for those of you out there anxiously awaiting the final results of the beard growing competition, noted on this blog during harvest. The contestants were judged at our annual harvest party by the entire company, the person receiving the largest applause to be crowned champion. Though there was great applause for all three, Joe Uhr, wearing white in the photo below, took the prize. Congrats Joe!
I am not usually a pairing guy. This is in part because as winemakers we are always looking for the unadorned truth of wine, to get a sense of its flaws and beauty, as we steward it towards completion. Food combinations, while lovely and delicious, can obscure the wines nature. I recognize that I am probably missing out on a lot of deliciousness and should probably just enjoy wine and food for what they are. That is harder said than done, and is perhaps the downside of making your passion your profession. However, every once in a while I taste a food and wine combination that is so startlingly good, so mind numbingly delicious that the light goes on and I get what pairing is all about. Just such a thing happened the other night, as my family and I gathered for our Christmas dinner. The main courses had been served (which were delicious Mom!), the kids had scurried away to play with toys, and the adults were left at the table to chat and feel stuffed. I opened a bottle of the 2011 Migration Split Rail Late Harvest Chardonnay, which is now becoming a thing of beauty as it ages, and my mom served roasted chestnuts. We cracked them directly on the table, making a mess in the process, and the smell of the toasted, delicious nuts filled the room. The combination of the sweet, dried apricot botrysized Split Rail and the warm nuttiness of the chestnuts was remarkable.
Thanks to everyone on the Duckhorn team for a remarkable 2015, and a Happy New Year to all!
November is a special month in the winery, especially after the intensity of harvest. Typically we are finishing off fermentation, pressing off skins, putting wines down to barrel, and carefully monitoring ML conversion. This year was so early many of our wines are already finished with ML conversion! Activity around the winery slows, and there is plenty of time to taste through the last vintage red wines and start the blending process for Sauvignon Blanc (which tastes amazing)! There is also plenty of time to consider how fortunate we all are to live and work in such an beautiful place, and to be thankful for everyone who makes Duckhorn such an incredible place to work. Many thanks to our amazing team, and Happy Thanksgiving to all!