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Wine, Women and Chemistry

Shadow Run's winemaker, Susan Evans

Some of my favorite scenes and sounds from the harvest season include the laughter and banter between the men and women who work in the vineyard.  Pruning thousands of grape vines in a week is tedious at best.  It is also an art form – I watch an experienced crew complete the precision work required to prune each vine in a minute or two and think of the 1990 fantasy, Edward Scissorhands.  Pruning may be tedious, but harvesting grapes is just brutal work.  But the sun comes up, the music is lively, and there is always enough energy to work hard, flirt and tease.  The laughter in the vineyard is contagious.

Are you surprised to learn that women comprise about one third of our farm crews?  The wine industry is strengthened by the inclusion of women in every sector.  Our vineyard crews are ably managed by Mindy Allen, a woman who certainly has nerves of steel, evidenced as she organizes crews to meet the competing demands of (sometimes crazed) vineyard owners.  Weather drives the growing season and farming crisis seem to happen at the same time, all across the region.  “Bud break is early – I need a crew to prune NOW”, “rain is in the forecast, I need the Cab picked NOW”, “the sugars in the grapes are shooting up, I need a harvest crew NOW.”  And Mindy has the ability to turn on a dime to direct her troops accordingly.  She is also of course, responsible for the safety, the well-being and the salaries of these men and women.

I was working on my master’s degree in viticulture when our vineyard was first planted and didn’t have the hands on experience necessary to manage the vineyard.  I learned a lot from my text books, but I learned so much more from our (then) vineyard manager, Hilary Graves.  Hilary taught me how to quickly assess, by visual signs, and by the quick touch of hands cupped to leaves, the adequacy of water content in a vineyard.  She also taught me how to train a young vine, how to determine grape “ripeness” by taste and seed color, and the most environmentally sound method for eliminating certain pests (shoot them).

As I write this blog, I think of all the women who are involved in and advise us on the one hundred details of our small business from the selection of French oak barrels (hmmmm, medium or light toast, oak from the forests of Vosge or Allier?) to the purchase of wine bottles and labels.  The very talented Christina Benson designs our wine labels, is the creator of the Shadow Run logo, and is responsible for all of the Shadow Run art work.  We turn to Annamarie Howard of Scott Labs for advice on strains of fermentation yeasts and even bacteria.  Bacteria?  Yes, a dose of friendly bacteria is sometimes needed in the wine, and the knowledge of when and how much is part of the chemistry of wine making.

Dr. Brenda Baker in her lab.

One of our favorite women in this industry, Dr. Brenda Baker, is a biochemist and owner of Baker Wine and Grape Analysis.  Dr. Baker suggests that wine is “a living organism” that can and will change, for better or worse, as it evolves in the barrel or in the bottle.  For that reason, winemakers, from novice to rock star, and from all over California’s Central Coast, rely on Dr. Baker to analyze, advise them on that magical potion we call wine.  If the Shadow Run family had a dime for every winemaker conversation overheard that started or ended with “Brenda said…” we could buy a lot more new French oak barrels.

In this video Dr. Brenda Baker walks Aaron Hunt (Shadow Run Vineyards) through her lab and introduces him to the amazing technology that she uses to analyze all manner of delightful liquids including wine, grape juice (before it becomes wine), beer and olive oil.

So, when you are sipping on that rich, delicious, perfectly lovely glass of wine, remember the women who managed the vineyard, picked the grapes, understood the chemistry, created the packaging and guided the wine from barrel to bottle to divine!

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Harvest is upon us!  For a would-be cellar rat / winemaker like myself, that means every weekend is spent in Paso Robles, helping to harvest or process grapes.  Because every varietal we grow is ready to harvest a different time -- unless it doesn't reach ripeness, but that is a story for another blog entry -- we're harvesting a different block every week and have grapes in all stages of winemaking for the next month or so.

In addition to harvesting and processing grapes, we've got the usual ancillary activities such as driving samples to Dr. Baker at www.bwga.net, attending harvest festivals, constantly testing and tasting for ripeness, consulting with fellow winemakers, keeping things going in the tasting room, and shooting these behind the scenes videos of the process.  In the near future our Shadow Run Vineyards YouTube channel will be changing it's name to The Aaron & Dave Wine Show as we venture off of the property to show you more of Paso Robles, other wineries, the characters that work and live there, and whatever else might come up on our travels.

A few words about this years harvest:  Something happened in Paso Robles -- everyone has a theory but no one is definitively sure -- and the average harvest tonnage we're bringing out of the vineyard is about 60% down from previous years.  This could have been caused by a late freeze no one noticed, strong winds blowing pollen off and preventing pollination, who knows.  Regardless of the cause, it's forcing wine makers to do some scrambling.  When mother nature delivers an unexpected hand, the winemaker must make quick decisions to deal with the new reality.  This might mean co-fermenting grapes for an unplanned blend, making different use of barrels and containers that planned, buying additional juice from other vineyards to make a new blend, or forgoing making a much desired stand alone varietal or blend.  This is the nature of winemaking:  there is never a recipe to be followed.  Good winemaking comes down to smart reactions to the unexpected.  And a good network of vendors and colleagues who can help you make those adjustments.

In this video I cover -- at a very high level -- the first part of what happens to grapes coming out of the vineyard, on their way to becoming wine.  Please enjoy the video and if you have any questions or comments, don't hesitate to post them.

Aaron

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Pruning the Vineyard, Balance in the Vineyard

Aaron introduces us to the vineyard at Shadow Run, and to some of the choices that are made in the vineyard, including how and why we prune. "You can't put in what God left out." Shadow Run Vineyards and Winery is a family-owned business located in the Paso Robles wine region of California.

We shot this video right after the vineyard had been pruned.  Deciding when to prune and how to prune is one of the many tools the vineyard manager has at her disposal to establish the balance in the vineyards that produces grapes that produce great wine.

Timing is especially important for pruning at Shadow Run Vineyards, because when you prune can effect when you get bud break.  If you get an early bud break, and mother nature decides to drop the temperature below freezing one or two more times before Spring is over, we're going to kill a lot of buds and we're not going to get grapes.  If we prune late, and as a result we get a late bud break, we've probably already missed the late Spring frosts and are into safer nighttime temperatures.

How you prune determines what the vine structure will look like, and how many grape clusters you get.  There's only so much goodness stored up in a vine, and having too many clusters of grapes will spread that goodness to thin.  For the premium wine we make, we want no more than 48 grape clusters per vine.

Although a lot of the work done at Shadow Run is done by either Les, Susan, or myself, this is one task we hire a crew for.  They work quickly, efficiently, and just like the crew we'll later hire to support harvest, always do a good job.

Great winemaking starts in the vineyard, and always comes down to balancing many different factors that will determine the ultimate product.  You can't put in what God left out, and the winemaker can't make great wine out of anything other than great grapes. 

The next big consideration will be testing the vines for nutrients.  To produce the grapes we want, the vines need the right levels of various nutrients and if we have to we'll add them.

Next time you're at Shadow Run feel free to go check out the vines, and ask lots of questions if you like.  We love talking about the work.

Cheers,

Aaron

 

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How do we chose specific barrels and how does it affect the wine?

I feel slightly guilty blogging about this barrel room topic (relating to micro reactions in the sleeping wine) when there is so much going on in the vineyard right now!  Flowering, petiole (leaf stem) pulling for nutrient analysis, bulldozers, profoundly hung-over laborers, fire trucks, etc.

That being said, it's an important topic, I went to the trouble of shooting this video, and there are some wine nerds out there that might want to know how and why a small winery chooses the barrels it does.  We'll get back to "The War in the Vineyard" in a future article. As I referenced in the previous post, barrels play a role in slowly imparting just the right amount of oxygen to the wine at a very slow rate to allow it to continue to develop, but not to lose any bright fruit flavors because of too much oxygen.  Barrels also impart oak sugars, oak flavors (such as spice), and conveniently give us a place to store the wine.

We have a lot of choices in the barrels we chose.  We can buy French, Hungarian, or American made oak.  We can buy tight grained wood which imparts flavors slowly, or loose grain oak that dumps all it's flavor in a matter of a year or so.  We can buy new or used.  Used barrels have less sugar and flavor to impart, but they cost a lot less and -- more importantly -- aren't going to put too much oak flavor into a delicate, light wine that would be overwhelmed by new French oak.  Pour big, robust, tannic Syrah into the same new French oak barrel, and it's got enough muscle and personality to take those big oak flavors and integrate them nicely into a balanced wine with lots of everything.

If you'd like to know more visit us as Shadow Run for a barrel tasting and compare juice from the same vineyard in three different kinds of barrels and see what you like.  Or, buy me dinner and I'll tell you all about it.

Cheers!

Aaron

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