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women winemakers

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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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The Fruits of Summer

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The Fruits of Summer

Licking that fresh, sweet peach juice from your sticky fingers is the first step toward your informal education in wine sensory appreciation...savor the fruits of summer...no further instruction needed.

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For Love of White Wines

The Shadow Run beauties including our Sweet Baby Jess, Grace and Melissa.  All three a study in contrasts:  delicate but not light weights, intriguing without drama, complex and yet the perfect casual company on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  Thirsty yet?

The Shadow Run beauties including our Sweet Baby Jess, Grace and Melissa.  All three a study in contrasts:  delicate but not light weights, intriguing without drama, complex and yet the perfect casual company on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  Thirsty yet?

My assessment of any winemaker’s talent is always enhanced tenfold when I discover that she or he can create a beautiful white wine.  Creating a luscious, nuanced white is a thin cord balancing act built on both science and art.  The natural delicacy of a white wine quickly reveals flaws that cannot be camouflaged by time in oak, enhanced by oak sugars or softened with age.  Guiding a white wine to maturity requires a refined approach, constant vigilance to retain the delicate flavors, the fruit and floral nose that are the hallmark of a great white wine.  And when the flavors are layered and complex, with each sip revealing yet another hue, then I am in white wine heaven.

I have the great fortune to work primarily with viognier, also known as the winemaker’s grape for its elusive qualities.  A great viognier should reveal layers of stone fruit including apricot, white and yellow peach, perhaps lychee nut  and honey, heightened by a hint of lemon.  The characteristic viognier nose is floral, perhaps honeysuckle or white flowers.  My favorite wine writer, Karen MacNeil describes viognier as “chardonnay’s ravishing exotic sister.”  Ahhhhh, so true.  But viognier grapes, allowed to ripen on the vine too long can produce a wine that is oily, with high alcohol and insufficient acid to balance the rich flavors.  Harvest too early and the resulting wine shows more citrus and acid, resembling a crisp sauvignon blanc from California’s Monterey County.  A delicious flavor perhaps, but not viognier.  That precise harvest moment seems to arrive and depart very quickly, and missing that perfect balance of flavors and acid can leave the winemaker with less than ideal fruit and dreaming about the next vintage, another chance for the dream wine.

Frankly, I work harder and spend more capital on our whites.   I think about them more, I worry about them more, I love them more.  I ferment our whites in huge French oak puncheons in a cold environment and then age the wine on the “lees” that is, on the spent yeast cells.  While the wine is aging in barrel, I stir the lees three times a week to enhance the body and mouthfeel of the wine, hoping to again capture that creamy mid palate that has become a hallmark of Shadow Run whites.

Our family has put precious capital toward my addiction, equipping the winery with state of the art equipment for producing white wines.  If you have spent time in our barrel room, you may have noticed the pattern of pipes that run across the ceiling and down to our stainless steel tanks.   Those pipes are filled with glycol (think anti-freeze) that flows into the “jackets” on our tanks and allows me to achieve below freezing temperatures to cold stabilize our white wines.  Our stainless steel bladder press (The Beast) is an engineering marvel which envelopes the grapes in an enclosed cylinder, allowing us to gently press whole grape clusters while protecting the delicate juice from oxygen which in the early stages can destroy aromas and flavors.  Nail biting in the winery isn’t related to chemistry equations, but to programming The Beast to achieve exactly the pressure and rotations that will achieve the ideal results. 

White wines are my passion.  And the search for the best, from me and from other winemakers never ends.  And each year I have the chance to try yet again to create that wine that will satisfy my ambitions of perfection.  Happily I will never make the perfect white, so I am driven to try again and again.

Cheers!

Susan
 

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