• Barreling Through The Years

    February 27, 2018 15:30

    Barreling Through The Years

    Barrel time in wine country is important enough to have its’ own celebration in the form of two Barrel Tasting weekends in March. 41 years ago the Barrel Tasting, originally sponsored by the then Russian River Wine Road (now simply Wine Road) a group of wineries located near the Russian River, began as a way for people to discover northern Sonoma County. 41 years ago there were less wineries hence wines to try-it was at the beginning of the wine renaissance here. Today you have the joy of discovering new and old friends in the mix with over 100 wineries thieving samples out of the barrel for you. The event takes place between Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys.

    Back in those early years there were less than 30 wineries participating. I have been here for 33 years and have worked a majority of those weekends. We went from trying to keep up with cleaning glasses to having folks ‘BYOG’ followed quickly by the first branding efforts with an official logo glass for $5. Numbers of wineries now range over 120 participating! Futures were added later on and not much has changed except the number people attending going from 100 to 25,000 at the peak in 2008. These days we see less people than at the peak-much less-which in turn gives us more time for visitors to taste and ask questions. Winemakers and cellar crews stand at the ready to talk about the wine and process of barrel aging. Join us this year as we feature the Past, Present and Future of our Alto Vineyards Sangiovese-a library release, our current 2015 vintage and the 2016 still in barrel. A splash of Sangiovese in my Dino with a toast to 40 more years of barrel tasting.

    **You still have time if you want to attend, tickets are sold at the door.

  • Taking the Cellar's Temperature

    February 4, 2016 17:47

    If it is February then it must be barrel time. This is one of the busiest months in our barrel room for the cellar crew. Led by Hipolito Cano, our cellar master, the 2014 wines that have aged for one year are being emptied to make room for the new vintage of 2015. An important aspect of our barrel room is its’ temperature especially while aging 2000 barrels.

    Rule of thumb for cellar temperature is more or less 55 degrees Fahrenheit. This is used for keeping barrels at the right temperature for slowly aging the wine during its 12 month stint. For bottled wines you’d like to cellar this is also the rule. In the case of barrel aging, if the temperature is higher-let’s say by 5 or 10 degrees, the wine would age faster than if kept at a lower temperature. Too low and it will slow it down even more but not give those microorganisms that age the wine the right temperature. The same can be said for that bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon you’ve been aging.

    If you have followed me for a while you’ll know I reference Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa Florida. If you are a wine lover make this part of your bucket list. Some of the wines on their list go back to the 1800s and they are in great condition. The reason? The cellar is kept at a very low temperature-40 degrees. They give you a tour too-take a parka! So we’ll keep our cellar at just the right temperature. Now for a splash of Cabernet in my Dino, cellar temperature of course!

    Today's temperature-taken after barrel work. The temperature will go down as the evening sets in with vents opening to the night air, capturing natural air conditioning.

    Cellar Thermometer

  • Barrel Redux

    March 12, 2015 16:43

    How many bottles of wine do you get out of each barrel? What does “MT” stand for? Where does the oak come from to make the barrels? I’ll answer them in order and I will include some other aspects of the Barrel Room and barrels in general. We get about 300 bottles of wine (25 cases) from each barrel. We store 2000 of them which equals 600,000 bottles total. To take it a step further we make 70,000 cases of wine with a total of 840,000 bottles. And we are still considered at the larger end of ‘small’ production. The initials ‘MT’ stand for medium toast, which is the overwhelming choice when it comes to the level of toast in a barrel for us. The toasting of the staves and heads (barrel ends) brings more flavor to the gradually aging wine. By toasting the oak you get aromas and flavors like vanillin and spice. They aren’t in the forefront but they do add complexity. Oak or Quercus Alba, American oak in this instance, is grown in and around Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin. We think this type of oak suits our wines and is used almost exclusively (we do incorporate French oak for a couple of our wines). The life of a barrel typically sees about 8-10 vintages here because we use 25% new oak combined with seasoned barrels. This also gives us wine that is mellow rather than overly oaky-my dad always says he’d rather taste the grape than wood. Stop by this weekend-I’ll be thieving our 2013 Merlot. I will be happy to answer your questions! Click here for ticket information.

    A peek at a few of our barrels--did you know our Barrel Room is naturally air conditioned?
    Vents open to the night air and close during the day keeping it a cool 48-55 degrees.

    Barrel Room

  • Going through hoops

    January 20, 2015 17:44

    Cellar activity comes alive in January as we transfer the previous vintage, 2013, out of barrels and then fill them back up with the 2014 wines. There are two activities which help age our young wines. One is the container and the second one is the atmosphere found within the barrel aging room itself. We didn’t install air conditioning in this large building but the temperature here is regulated by vents that open to the night air, close in the morning and maintain a steady temperature throughout the year-on average 55-60 degrees. Each of our red wines are aged for 12 months. As the year progresses, the barrels are ‘topped off’ with additional wine every three months because, as it ages, a portion evaporates. Even when we are keeping the barrel room at a cool temperature we have loss, which is the reason behind aging wine in a porous container like an oak barrel. Slow oxidation over time concentrates flavor, adds character, and gives more structure through acidity-the less water and alcohol the resulting wine has, the more these shape and define the wine. There is a tipping point however because with too much evaporation, there is a chance of spoilage. With air getting to the wine there is a chance that it will turn bad, in a word vinegar. Another way of alleviating rapid loss is humidifying the room. In California the humidity level is rather low. By using these two relatively simple steps makes the wine in your glass much more complex, tastes better and is easier to drink upon release. Now where is my glass-I’m ready for some nicely aged Merlot.

    The sight glass is a gauge used when emptying barrels, letting the cellar crew know when they have reached the bottom-more air, less wine and it keeps the lees at the bottom of the barrel.

    Barrel Sightglass

  • Barrel Know-How

    January 14, 2015 17:48

    How big are those barrels? We use 59 gallon size barrels which holds enough wine for about 24 cases, give or take a bottle or two. Why do we barrel age wine at all? Think about it in this way. If you have a raw piece of wood that needs the edge taken off and you’d like to use it as a frame, you’d take it to the shop and start sanding and shaping it. The same thing happens in barrel-the wine is raw and rough when it is transferred and aging for one year, on average, helps to smooth out those edges. There are more benefits to aging including aeration, concentration and oak notes like toast-something the cooper (barrel maker) does to increase the flavor components in the wine. The process gives the wine, over time, more complexity as it takes on some aspects of the wood itself. Aeration slowly incorporates oxygen thereby smoothing the tannins; concentration is next and with evaporation of water and even alcohol you get concentrated flavors. Did you know we lose about a gallon or two to this process? Oak flavor comes from the toasting of the wood-which caramelizes (bruleé anyone?) and infuses the aging wine with extra flavor. More later as I take a few more blog posts to talk about this important step in a wine’s life. Thirsty? How about a nicely aged Cabernet in your glass.

    Cellar crew member Hector Lopez with a barrel wand, emptying one vintage to make room for the next.

    Hector Lopez

  • Barrel Room

    January 13, 2015 17:51

    As you enter our Tasting Room you can’t miss the big window that is positioned between the connected buildings-this was one of the last additions to the winery and was completed in 1986 as our production was increasing and there was a need for more barrel space.  It is a portal into the inner workings of our winery even though it seems as if nothing is happening, especially if you are stopping by on weekends. There is more going on during the week when the cellar crew is here. At times it looks like a bunch of barrels stacked neatly—in reality six high with a total of two thousand of them aging away to be exact.

    The crew spends December through March emptying barrels of the previous vintage and filling with the new. This is a part of a wine’s journey where it seems like there isn’t anything going on but we, with inside information, know there is. The process itself is oxidation but a very slow oxidation because the barrel room is kept cool and humid. The barrel itself isn’t airtight and allows a minute amount of oxygen in to soften the wine, making it supple over time. We keep the barrel room adjusted with a humidifier because the lack of humidity, especially here in California, will make the wine oxidize too quickly leaving a chance of spoilage. Each barrel is taken down three times during the course of aging to replace the wine lost to oxidation thereby preventing any possible spoilage. The actual time spent in wood not only slowly ages the wine it also steeps in the oak, imparting the element of toasted wood, cedar and smoky aromas detected in barrel aged wines. This adds another level of complexity and plays an important role in bouquet and taste of the finished product. Our winemaking style calls for 25% new oak blended with seasoned barrels. This helps us keep a balance between the fruit and the oak components for a ‘just right’ taste in your glass of red wine. A toast (pun intended) to the barrels with some Zin in your glass.

    Barrel Room