How is wine made? It's a pretty simple question, with a rather complicated answer. In my first blog entry for Illahe Vineyards, I will try to explain our process for making pinot noir. But making wine is more than just a process—it's an experience. In this blog, I really wanted to share that experience by talking about the music, the details, and the silly stories that made harvest 2011 at Illahe an unforgettable experience.
Most winemakers say that cleaning is 90% of winemaking, and that is especially true during harvest. Harvest means working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for six weeks; it is exhausting for everybody, so we try to help each other when we can. Some mornings I would come in an hour early, put on Arcade Fire, and start setting up the sorting line, so we could get off to a good start. That means cleaning the sorting table, where imperfect grapes are removed; then cleaning the destemmer, where grapes are crushed and destemmed.
After sorting and destemming, the grapes go into a plastic fermenters; each fermenter holds about 2500 lbs of grapes, resulting in about 200 gallons of wine.
Punchdowns: Soul Patrol: Can you Feel the Funk?
After we have filled the fermenters with grapes, we let them soak for 2 -5 days before adding yeast. Sometimes, wine will mysteriously begin fermentation on its own—we call this natural yeast or wild yeast fermentation. Once fermentation begins, we perform two or three "punchdowns" per day. Because dried grape skins float on top of the grape juice, we climb on top each fermenter and punch the grapes down into the juice, to keep the skins wet and stir up the juice. It's a strenuous process, and often requires some energetic music to keep you going. Brad has an eclectic record collection at the winery, and this funky album was always a popular punchdown anthem. Extra credit has to go to our harvest intern Jacob, who would often come to the winery alone at midnight to do an extra round of punchdowns.
After five days of cold soaking, and about two weeks of fermentation, we suck the juice out of the fermenter, and press the remaining grapes in a traditional basket press. While it sounds pretty simple, dumping 2000 lbs. of grapes can be quite a process...one that involves forklifts, snow shovels, and buckets. During one very long day of pressing, Brad played every Steely Dan album in his collection; seven albums that gave us five hours of music - enough to pull juice and press three full fermenters.
2011 was an exceptionally late harvest, and had to scramble to get all our reds in barrel before Thanksgiving. The weekend after Thanksgiving is the busiest tasting weekend of the year in the Willamette Valley, and Thanksgiving day was set to be our first day off in six weeks. To do that, we had to get all of our wine in barrel by Tuesday, clean up on Wednesday, and relax on Thursday. While this seemed like a reasonable goal, our barrel washer broke the Friday before Thanksgiving, and by Sunday night, panic was setting in. Monday we got our barrel washer back, and Tuesday we spent 14 hours racking 52 barrels of wine - almost 90% of our pinot! As the night wore on, silliness set in, and soon we were blaring the Hare Krsna anthem while dancing in the cellar.
Cleanup usually happens around ten o'clock at night. If you're crazy enough to enjoy working ten hours a day, seven days a week, then you're probably crazy enough to enjoy scrubbing equipment at the end of each night. Everyone grabs a beer, we crank up the James Brown, and we scrub the winery until it shines. Hopefully we get 5 or 6 hours of sleep before coming in the next morning, putting on the Arcade Fire, and setting up the sorting line for another day of winemaking!
The only thing better than making wine while listening to records is drinking wine while listening to records. So Friday, February 11th, we will be having a Wine, Fondue, and Vinyl Valentines Day Party. We will pair some Brazilian Bossa Nova with Gruner, Riesling, and Cheese Fondue, and some smooth 70's jazz with Pinot Noir, Tempranillo Port, and Chocolate Fondue. If the weather is nice, we might even have horse drawn vineyard tours! We hope to see you there.