A Halloween Goblin -- Or, I Wanted to Be With You Alone (and Talk About the Weather)

The 2010 vintage's inspired no shortage of hand-wringing, second-guessing and general perplexedness in winemakers all over California. Typically warm-climate vineyards metamorphosed into cool-climate spots this year, which is why we at the j.brix project still have Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard Syrah fruit hanging on the vine at the end of October. (Last year at this time, we'd already barreled down the finished Syrah, and had shifted our focus away from takeout pizza and In-N-Out Burger back to actual cooking. With fresh ingredients. And wine pairings. Imagine. Oh, I'm sure that'll happen once more.) 

We started the harvest season on September 21 with our Grenache rosé pick, and it looks like we'll have our final pick on Oct. 30 when we travel those 200+ miles again for Syrah, depending on what happens with the rain that may or may not come this week. The forecast shifts, seemingly, hourly. The weather obsession that necessarily comes with winemaking is only amplified by the Weather Channel phone app; whatever did people do before they had all this information at their fingertips? Obsess less, I guess? Yes.

Goblin in the Cellar

So, what's happened around the winery lately? Well, we've had a week without punchdowns (ah, no more 5 a.m. duty calls -- until the next batch gets started, anyway). The freshly crushed fruit of the last update fermented away naturally and perfectly smoothly, and we pressed and barreled the wine on October 15.

2010, so far, has presented us with a rosé of Grenache that's truly captivating (I can't wait to share it!); and a barrel of Riesling that's been ... some kind of lesson in many, many things. Bestowed with the working moniker "The Green Goblin" before it was even picked, this little baby wine brings new meaning to a few words; I won't mention them all in print. Just one: patience.

We knew we wanted to pick early, to try to make a California Riesling that combined all the gorgeous aromatics and flavors of the variety with the bracing acidity and lower alcohol levels typical of Germany and Alsace. When we tasted the fruit and found amazing flavors of white peach and almond -- with sugars at our target level -- at a much earlier point in the season than we'd expected, we made the call to pick. 

I did some gentle foot-treading, and we pressed the remainder of the whole-cluster fruit that evening. We dry-iced the juice to keep it cold, and let it settle overnight. The next day, we moved it into two neutral white French oak barrels, where it fired right up. For the first few days of fermentation, the fizziness enhanced the peach and apricot flavors -- how exciting! 

Then, the Goblin reared its head; and, oooh, did someone say acid? Did I say acid? Well, I would, if words could come out of my mouth, which might still be permanently fixed in a tongue-sucking expression that roughly translates into "are-there-still-teeth-in-there-I-don't-know-for-sure."

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Little E, upon tasting a drop of the Riesling. He sincerely wants to say, "This is phenomenal!" but instead is thinking about how to nicely say, "Wow, that's some acid!" If, that is, he could speak at all. Because of the acid.

We knew, when we picked the fruit earlier than anyone else, that there would be acidity that would (and will!) need time in bottle to calm down and integrate. Those beautiful, aromatic fruit flavors will shine again, once all the components weave themselves together. But since this is our first foray into making white wine, we also didn't know a few things.

Things We Didn't Know

  • Pressed white grape juice can look scarily not like white grape juice the next day. The key word being white.
  • White-wine grapes tend to give up less juice in the press than their red counterparts.
  • Less juice at press means that even with an (almost) half-ton of fruit, you won't have a full barrel when you finish fermentation.
  • A less-than-full barrel after fermentation means you have to do something to eliminate the headspace in that barrel, since oxygen = bad.
  • In order to eliminate said headspace in your precious barrel of currently Goblin-esque Riesling, you will give a not-insignificant chunk of your paycheck to a store you have, in fact, never previously visited, in which everything costs one dollar. You will visit this store on more than several occasions, upon finding that your last trip(s) did not procure enough of what you needed. You will clean out this store's, and at least two other branches of this store's, stock of large clear glass "gems," found in the floral supply aisle.
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A mere $1 per pound for the magical gems. (A pound isn't as much as you might think it is.) Also, if you needed these for your wedding floral arrangements, or something, in the greater San Diego area, and couldn't find them at any of the Dollar Tree stores in town like you expected, well, I'm sincerely sorry about that. For the love of Riesling, you see.

Et Cetera

Meanwhile, we've done a few recent blending trials on the 2009 vintage, which is just about ready to bottle, and have come out with some rather surprising and delicious results. More on that later. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to head to the cellar. Something about sanitizing and placing more magical gems in a barrel of Riesling.

Until next time!