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Monday, May 22, 2017

Achieving Spiritual Enlightenment in Wine Tasting

This really isn't a blog entry that is intended to get too deep. I wanted to share some experiences I've had, dealing with customers.....the normal folk that come to the winery, and the wholesalers that purchase our wine for their stores or restaurants (which I will cover in another blog). They are quite a different breed you know, and both have their unique set of dispositions regarding wine in general.

To begin. I have seen a progression in regard to learning and enjoying wine. Those brought up as the "Coke Generation" are used to their sweets and this tends to reflect how people begin to drink wine. They may start with muscats, or muscadine wines, which are really really sweet. Some are downright syrupy, while others, like our Hog Island Sweet White, have been blended to bring out the best of these grapes without having the experience of swallowing a teaspoon of sugar. For those from up north, maybe an introduction to Rieslings or Mosels provide the same sweetness fix.

From here wine drinkers tend to try the semi-sweets or the fruitier dry white wines. Chablis used to be a big hit, but Chardonnay seemed to take over. A stainless steel Chardonnay isn't over-oaked, and can show you how well a particular grape can taste if you just leave it alone.

Now the big step: going from whites to reds. There are what I would call "gentle reds", and then there are the reds with much more personality, if I am allowed to describe a wine with those traits.

I would include in these gentle reds wines like Shiraz (or Sirah....same grape) and Merlot. Both are French, originating from different regions. They tend to be easy to swallow, have some character without jumping right out at you. They are a nice way to ease into the Bordeaux wines that I describe as being able to stand up for themselves. These more robust reds, as far as French wines are concerned, include those that can be used in a Meritage blend, a blend legally defined as requiring a minimum of 3 Bordeaux grapes. These include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet                                           Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.    

Lastly, if you want to "graduate" to the heartier, bolder reds, take a short trip eastward on the Mediterranean and land on the shores of Italy. Whether it be a Tuscan Red, or a Barolo or a Montepuciano, all of these wines provide a punch.  These tend to be higher in tannins, appear drier, and have strong fruity aromas.

Now purists might say I've forgotten quite a few grapes in this quick summary, and they're right. I didn't slot in any of the Spanish wines, and wines such as Beaujolais, Sauternes, Pinot Noir, along with hundreds of others all have their place in the world of wine enjoyment.

And of course even within the specific wine types themselves there can be significant variations in how they are presented and hence how they are received. I have poured plenty of wines to people who declare they hate reds, only to find our medium bodied, light on tannens Cabernet Franc gets us at least to 2nd base for many (some we hit triples!). Terroir and the wine maker can have a major influence on how these wines turn out, year to year.

All of this gets me to understanding our customers. They may be anywhere along this path to wine enjoyment and experience. Some never gravitate to anything other than the sweets. Others are willing to try our lineup of wines recognizing that they are still in the everlasting journey of broadening their wine knowledge. (And others will proclaim they are willing to try, make ugly faces when we provide tastings of dry wines, and only smile when we finally get to the sweet wines which we pour last.....oh well).

But on rare occasion I find the consequent wine drinker. They have run the list I've described. Yes, they have their favorites, but they also recognize the flavors within each of these levels and have an appreciation on when and where each of these wines fit into their daily lives, and daily meals. It is the dry red wine drinker who can still sip a sweet wine with dessert. The white wine drinker who can enjoy a Port after dinner. They judge the wine not on their preferred selection, but against it's peers or how it will fit in the overall scheme of wine drinking.  They tend to be rather humble in their wine knowledge, though they are really at the top of the pack. They are continually learning and realize they will never learn it all.

I met one this past weekend.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Google Has Everything You Need To Know

On most nights Diane and I retreat to the tv room, plop on the couch, and veg out watching a few hours of junk programming. There are nights of little interest, but we force ourselves through Wheel of Fortune (why don't they allow the viewer to see the puzzle board all the time instead of sending the camera off to the contestant?; seems unfair to me), or Jeopardy, a show designed to show you how stupid you are compared to everyone but the High School kids they occasionally have on. And when you work on a farm/winery with a schedule that goes 7 days a week, sometimes knowing that Castle was on Monday nights helped put you in a new week. Of course with Castle now gone I am having trouble on knowing exactly where I am in the week.

So here I am, at around 8 o'clock in the evening getting an email  message originating from our website. Normally they are pretty good but I cringe never the less on what could be pressing at that moment to ask a question or make a statement. The last one came from Joel and he said he had some solids in the bottle he just drank from. He said they were like grains or clumps of sand. He went so far as to define them as solid and crunchy. He asked: "What could it be?"

We try to get back to these customers as soon as we can. Everyone has a to do list, and quick responses resolve most issues. This was handled promptly by my grabbing my Samsung and finger spelling a precise but, in my case, always a long winded answer. "It occurs primarily on the reds where we don't ultra-filter the wine like the big box wineries." I said.

I can never just say a few words, so I went on to say it occurs in processing where the juices sit on the skins a few days prior to pressing, and ultimately the solids make it past the filtering system and into the bottle. With settling and temperature changes, clumping takes some of these minute particles and makes the larger clumps. "No concerns here", I continued. "Solids can actually contribute to the flavor profile."

Normally I don't hear the customer's comments afterwards. I don't know if they think I'm a know-it-all or a jerk. But Joel was nice enough to get back to me the next day, quoting Google. "Normal, not a problem at all. Second, it will not harm you." Whew, I felt relief that Joel didn't think he was poisoned.  "Third, it does not indicate bad wine and often signals good wine". Another sign of acceptance.

Google did say that chewing the crystals might impart a bitter flavor. This is something Joel and Google have apparently done......I have never felt the need to chew the solids at the bottom of the glass or pour the last little bit out of a bottle that is more sediment than wine.

I'll have to trust them on this.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Serve Reds at room temperature: "Are you kidding me?"

There are generally 3 questions we hear at the tasting bar, time and time again. These are (1) Do you grow your own grapes?, (2) What is it in wine that causes headaches?, and (3) At what temperature should I serve my wines?

The answer to #1: We grow most of the grapes that are in our wine....there is one however that we don't and for that one we look high and low for one that the winemaker approves of. Surry County with it's hot humid (day and night) summers makes it uneconomical to grow thin skinned whites.

For #2: This is a blog subject in and of itself, so the quick answer here is it could range from over indulgence to sulfites (scientifically not likely, though one can be allergic to sulfites) to tannins and then some. Every body has different tolerance levels for different things, and to choose one thing to pin it on would be too easy.

Now, on to #3: At what temperature should I serve wines? This is really not that hard a question, but it compares to the easy answer one gets on what do you pair with chicken or fish and you constantly get White Wines, of course.

Serve whites chilled and reds at room temperature is the common understanding. Serving whites chilled is generally easy to agree on, since most people keep their refrigerators set at about the same temperature, i.e. around 40 degrees. There are those that set the frig. lower, say around 35 degrees or so. This as a basic setting is OK once you recognize there may be some colder spots on the shelf, and those items tucked in the back might get a little frozen. For wine this isn't much of an issue.....our wine never makes it back where it can get hidden.

As for room temperature, this is where it is very easy to "loosen up the crowd" by throwing the question back to them. "Well, room temperature is room temperature!" they proclaim. Unfortunately, as they are describing it, no it's not. The problem is that in their restaurant experiences this is what they're told, and that is how it's served, the temperature of that room. Yuch! I have been served reds that were stored under stairwells, or against the warmest wall in the restaurant which happened to have the kitchen on the back side. For someone who takes a fair amount of pride in raising the grapes, getting them into the wine making process, and eventually through bottling and sale to the customer, all I see here is the equivalent of torture. These grape juices are still considered young and impressionable and unable to defend themselves.

Room temperature is cellar temperature, not the 70 degree temperature the restaurant thermostat is set at.  According to Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson ( 1 of 23 female sommeliers in the world), she says room temperature was the case when wine was served in cottages and castles! Since people tend to want to deal in absolutes, I say this is about 55 degrees.

Now, how do you get there? What I did was put together a rather unscientific experiment by inserting a chef's thermometer in a bottle, and in a glass of chilled wine and counted the minutes it took to get up to 55 degrees. This was more a measure of pure discipline as I stared at my wine, determined not to cheat and start sipping it. Gosh it took so long.

Our refrigerator is set just below 40 degrees and our kitchen was around 72 degrees as Diane started to crank up the heat by cooking dinner (told you this wasn't very scientific, but it makes a point). The bottle took just shy of an hour and a half to get up to 55, while the glass of wine only took 30 minutes. Obviously this is way too long to wait to dive into a good Cab, and it might make you consider keeping your reds in the basement instead of the refrigerator to get them table ready sooner. But if you didn't finish that dry Bordeaux the night before, it is the best way to keep it another day or two with the least possible chance for mischief. I'd rather have a cold wine than a bad wine any day.

But then again, it is rare we put a partial bottle back in the refrigerator to live another day !

Friday, March 24, 2017

All Politics Is Local

Nothing better describes the priorities and values of rural life than a newspaper headline in the latest issue of the Smithfield Times. In bold letters, the headline reads "IW will allow chickens, but they must be 'documented' " Granted, this headline is below the fold, but that doesn't make it any less important than the other articles on the front page.

Documenting chickens is the result of some passionate pleas by local citizens to keep chickens in their backyards. Certainly there is a bit of tongue in cheek sarcasm in choosing this description, but the locals take it very seriously. As towns try to figure out how to expand their tax base, whether it be by pushing new industry in a corner of the county, or trying to add hundreds of high rise or low rent housing units in available space, there is the competing desire to maintain some resemblance of rural / agricultural life that the area has been known for during the last 300 years. The tussle over keeping chickens in something other than a farm setting has become the battle cry of these normally quiet citizens.

"Cried like a baby" when a hawk wiped out his chicken flock, said one chicken owner. "They are my companions. I do talk to them." was a comment made by another. "A stress-reliever" was a positive tribute given to these 2-legged creatures.

Just to have to discuss having "illegal" chickens in one's yard brought on stress, not to mention having to explain to the children how their favorite pets might have to be removed from their property.

And now if you want to use politically charged rhetoric and characterize chicken lovers as gun-totting vigilantes who would protect their flocks at all costs, it would bring the discussion to a new low.

I don't know if sanity eventually took over, but the Isle of Wight (IW) Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to allow up to 6 chickens in certain residential backyards, no roosters allowed however. This rooster exclusion is not without merit (and let's not make it a sexist thing). Roosters are noisy, and would gladly poke your eye out given a chance, and basically do nothing to help the egg-laying benefits of chickens. There is a problem here though, and that is Tractor Supply or Farmers Service do not guarantee the sex of the chickens they sell. So if a rooster develops, an axing in the dark (so PETA doesn't get uptight) may be the only solution, but a good coq au vin recipe might be the way to arrive at some benefit for the slaughter.

The good news: one can now obtain a zoning permit to have chickens (permit fee is waived.....hoorah!)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Temperature Variations and How They Affect the Grapes

                                                             (bud break - 2016)

One of the more popular questions I get from customers is: "Are the grapes affected by the fluctuation in temperature we see in the early Spring?" I wish the answer could be provided with a simple yes or no, but the fact is that only a long-winded answer provides the detail needed to fully understand what happens.

To begin we have to go back to October or November. It is after harvest now, and the grapevines have been collecting the needed carbohydrates to get them through the winter and jump start their growth the following Spring. As the temperatures start to drop, there is something called "cold weather hardening" where the shoots begin to change from their green color over to brown, and as time goes on a covering of bark will develop. The buds, as small as they appear to be, begin going through a dehydrating process that will provide a kind of protection from the icing conditions that are apt to follow during the winter months.

I am not sure when we arrived at our "rule of thumb", but what we have found is that when temperatures begin to warm up, we forecast our bud break (or bud burst) when we have 10 straight days of 50 degree average temperatures.During these warmer days, the air and the soil begin their climb, which influences the flow of water and nutrients from the soil up into the trunk, and eventually to the buds. To put it in more scientific terms, the warming of the soil is associated with the increased osmotic pressures in the xylem, with the upward movement of the water containing various cellular signaling molecules, hormones, and nutrients. The buds become re-hydrated and they become deacclimated (i.e they get re-introduced to warmer temperatures and less resistant to cold spells). You know all this is in high gear when you go into the field and find that the vines are bleeding from all the pruning cuts made during the winter.

If the vines have started to wean themselves out from their winter mode, there is apt to be plenty of water now in the trunks and buds. A reduction in temperature in and of itself is not really a problem here.A mild short term cold front is likely to just calm them down a bit, but a freeze has the potential of causing severe frost damage by killing the newly formed buds or splitting the trunks. A prolonged cold period can also cause problems, because once a vine has decided to come out of dormancy, it is very difficult to return to it's resting phase.

So what can be done? Prayer is on the list of viable options. There are other choices however, and one has to consider the cost vs. the potential losses. For a consistent year to year problem, wind mills have been set up to keep air flowing through the vines. Having a helicopter hover over the vineyard is a variation of this. Burning tires(certainly not preferred)  or having other small fires may raise the temperature in the vineyard. I have heard of spraying oil on the buds, which may delay bud break by 2 to 20 days. And yet another option might be to spray water on the vines, thinking that a thin layer of ice might protect the buds from even colder damage.

What we did last year was to "long prune", which recognizes that we will loose some buds but hopefully we have enough good ones left to achieve the harvest levels we need. Delayed pruning was not really an option for us because we have a lot of vines but not a lot of hands to perform all the pruning required in a limited time before bud break.

Now let me add two other variables to this. Grape types come into play. Our Seyval Blanc has already seen some bud swell, which puts it on the teetering edge of popping open. Our other varieties show bud formation by their hard knobby presence, but they haven't shown signs of increasing in size due to tissue wetting. Some say that younger vines have bud break sooner than older vines; I have not seen any consistent example of this. Lastly, how much water is in the soil has an influence too. Wet Falls, melting snows, or Spring rains all add water to the root absorption zones, and it this water that finds it's way up to the trunks, buds, and shoots via capillary action or transpiration.

I have looked at last year's temperature charts which confirm my 10-day hypothesis (a sample of one year I might note). In this month of March 2017, even though we have had fond memories of warm spells, the fact is that the longest period of 50+ average daily temperatures has been only 3 days (March 7th through 9th). What I do see down the pike in the last week of March is a forecast of a week long string of very warm 80+ days but sub-freezing temperatures at night. These all satisfy our 50+ rule. All I can say is: "Pray".

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

It's All About The Wine

As we slowly perform our final pruning tasks in the vineyard, doing some last minute weedwacking, and making plans for what we want to do in regards to fungicide spraying and fertilizing, we often are too concerned with how we want this coming season to perform than the final results of this past year.

Spring not only brings on bud break, which is apt to be really early this year, but it corresponds with the bottling of the 2016 harvest. We try to get it done in March and April; after that it starts to become warm in the winery which may negatively affect the wine. Diane, who has the primary winemaking responsibilities, is doing a balancing act as to how to apply all the fluids we have in the tanks. From what is still there,there is nearly enough to make 600 more cases of wine. Some of our prior year wines are running low or have run out. Others have been a rousing success and have to be replaced or backed up.

She recently released two wines that are starting to have a nice customer following, even after only a few weeks. Our Petit Verdot, another one of our red Bordeauxs, is an inky red color, more body than our award-winning Cabernet Franc, with the dark cherry, red currant, and spice notes. Those that fell in love with our Cabernet Sauvignon have now made this their new favorite. This is our first vintage year for this grape.
  The  other wine that we released just last week is our new Hog Island Sweet White. Over the last 2 years we have offered it's counterpart, a Hog Island Sweet Red, which is very port-like with 3% residual sugar. We sold out of the 2014 and are now in the 2015 vintage year. The "White" is a blend of Seyval Blanc and Scuppernong, which is an American grape, quite sweet in nature and when the time comes to harvest it, it is the size of a ping-pong ball. The Seyval Blanc "tames" the Scuppernong, which is a cultivated muscadine. The Hog Island Sweet White is more in line with the local's preference for sweet wines, just as they like their sweet tea. If one had to find a comparison, I would say it is like a Moscato, with 10% residual sugar.

So, as we head into the 2017 season, our motivation is that the quality of our wines start in the vineyard. The healthier our fruit, we believe, will be positively reflected in our wines.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Just a One Bull Town

Number Eleven.

For those of you that follow my blogs, if there is any conclusion you come to, it's that none of my lessons have come to me the easy way. And increasing the size of my herd is one of them.

I remember when I purchased my first four cows, all having been inseminated and confirmed pregnant. I did the quick math and thought 9 months from then I would have 8 cattle. And then 12 months from then another 4 to make 12. And then another 12 months later up to 20. You get the drift. Compounding cattle is soooo easy.

If you travel back in time I had to ditch 2 of the cows with their new calves because they were killing me with their nightly escapes through the fence. There weren't holes in the fence. The fences were't collapsing for any reason. They were 4-wire fences that were tightly built. Cows didn't care. Every night they would go over to this one particular a body slam, and off the entire herd (8 cows and calves by this time), traveling the back way 1 1/2 miles until they "joined" another herd of cows in another farmer's field. Sound travels easily in the flat lands, and my cows knew where their fellow bovines were. The grass had to be greener over there, right?

So in this business you trade off trouble makers or lack of sleep and stress will kill you. Moving them to someone else's herd isn't sending them trouble, because the herd dynamics in the new location, not to mention the scenery, is different and it quickly eliminates their escape instinct.

The following year I was now down to 2 cows and 2 heifers (their female calves). I had them all  A.I.'d, but only one out of 4 took. Talk about bad odds. And the one that took gave me a bull calf. Geez.......and this was using sexed semen which was to have given me an 85% chance of getting a female calf. Where are the statistical odds when you need them to  work in your favor?

I watched the bull grow, and fortunately I was able to trade it off for another bull from a farmer located one county over. He also has Red Angus.....400 of them! Didn't feel like line-breeding my stock, which is what they call a son being allowed to impregnate it's mother and sisters who happen to be near by. My new bull is tagged #11.

The following year I did the A.I. thing again. Even had the Vet come back and confirm that all 4 were pregnant. He used the ole "hand up the you know what" method instead of his Ultrasound machine. He said they were all pregnant, but once again the touchy-feely method had it's flaws. Only my 2 new cows provided calves; the 2 oldest cows didn't take. Don't know what the Vet felt, but it wasn't a 1st trimester calf in these two instances.

If you've been keeping count, I now have 7 cattle: 2 older cows, 2 new mommas, 2 heifer calves (thank heavens sexed semen worked this time), and a bull. Recognizing I purchased my original 4 cows in December 2012, we are now 4 year's later and I haven't quite gotten my head count to where I started. So easy.....I think not.

Now let's see if the bull has better results than semen in a straw!