Mark Aselstine
November 5, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Sorting Tempranillo in Sonoma at Vinify

For wine retailers, the time period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is by far the busiest time of the year.  For a winery, the equivalent time of year is harvest.  It’s an interesting dichotomy given that October and the beginning of November is a time period when we’re really trying to gear up for the holidays, but wineries aren’t always available, or at least the people we want to spend time with and get to know, aren’t available.

Instead of not visiting wineries during October like we have in previous years, this year I decided to work a few days of harvest at a couple of different custom crush facilities in Sonoma.

A trip from a couple of weeks ago brought me to Vinify.  I’ve mentioned Vinify in this space before, but I originally found Vinify through a neighbor and their introduction to Matt Duffy and his Vaughn Duffy wine label.  Duffy also is the winemaker in charge at Vinify which helps approximately 30 wineries to make world class wine out of a warehouse space in Santa Rosa.

One picture I wish I had available happened as I was first pulling into the parking lot.  The wine industry isn’t exactly known for having a group of early risers, so arriving before 9am as I did that day, sometimes would leave me some time for coffee (at least) before anyone else showed up.  During harvest though, things are different.

I found multiple trucks carrying grapes (mostly Pinot Noir) to be dropped off at Vinify and a few of the other production facilities in this industrial park. Additionally, the picture I wish I had was the group of 10 winemakers sitting on the curb, much like little kids like my toddler and his friends at the park, although the winemakers were waiting for their grapes to come in.  It’s the kind of image that consumers would enjoy seeing and I wish the industry would share more often.  It’s easy to forget, but winemakers love their job and I think as a group, are incredibly thankful that they get to do something they’re so passionate about.

Ok, so I’ve worked enough around a winery at harvest to know a few things.  First, winemakers love having new guys around, especially one’s that are willing to get their hands dirty.  I’m guilty of that, I enjoy seeing the winemaking side of the business, that’s of course why we’re all here. Winemakers and other winery staff also more than willing to find a bad job for you to do.  I knew going in that Pinot push downs were a really great job, for an intern.

Duffy in all his wisdom (and probably to get me out of his hair for as long as possible) got me hooked on with Jon Grant who makes wine at Vinify for both his Straight Line label, as well as for his Couloir Wines label.

A little background on Jon, first and foremost you’ll recognize one name above all others-he’s the assistant winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars.  Turley won’t need an introduction for many of our readers, but I do think it makes sense to point out that if you were choosing a single winemaker and winery to learn from in California today, Turley would have to be at, or near the top of that list.  I mention that simply to say that there is a pedigree here.

Jon’s Couloir Wines label is his Pinot Noir project and shows an interesting take on how a winemaker with a varied set of interests can break those wines apart to make the most sense for consumers.  Couloir offers four different Pinot’s, each from a different vineyard around the state of California. It feels almost like cheapening the experience if I mention that all four were rated at 90+ points by Wine Enthusiast.  Of note is the Monument Tree (the highest rated at 93pts) to me simply because I’ve become something of a fan of the vineyard after running into vineyard designate wines made from Monument Tree Pinot fruit at Copain and more recently an aged bottle from Drew Family Cellars. It’s a really interesting vineyard that’s well known for being among the coolest climate Pinot vineyard around, certainly among the coolest in the Anderson Valley.  If you have a friend or wine lover who doesn’t believe that California Pinot can be restrained, refined and almost classy-find a wine from Monument Tree and change their mind forever about the vast possibilities.

Of more interest given my experience is the Straight Line label and specifically the Tempranillo.  We actually shipped the Straight Line some time ago (2 vintages ago perhaps), but had never run into Jon personally before this day at Vinify.  The fruit for the Straight Line Tempranillo that I encountered came from a vineyard in Lodi, while there are other grapes that come from Terra Alta (one of my favorite California vineyards based on experiences with Blair Fox down in Santa Barbara).

In any case, I learned a few things about Tempranillo that day:

First, the destemmer doesn’t really help that much.  Evidently, an extraordinarily high percentage of jacks gets through because the berries cling more tightly to the jacks than do other varietals.  Those clinging jacks aren’t a problem with the whole stem ferments that happen as part of Straight Line, but this batch was meant to be de-stemmed.  It’s a testament to how much Jon cares about his finished product to see him bending over in a sort of back breaking labor, to get every possible jack and stem out of the half ton bins.  

I also learned at least two things about making wine at a custom crush facility like Vinify.  First, it's damn hard to find a good towel.  Secondly I learned that there is a real sense of community at these custom crush facilities.  Over the course of a couple of hours you could hear a winemaker or two complaining or mentioing how this vintage is different, worse or better.  Almost universally you'd have another winemaker offering some type of encouragement.  It was striking to me since wine retailers generally hate each other.  When I run into other retailers at tasting events they act as if we have nothing to talk about.  A couple of weeks ago a wine club competitor of ours launched a redesigned website, I told them congrats and that it looked great....only to be told to leave them alone.  Winemakers are a different bunch to be sure because even though they are competiing with each other, there was a lot of discussion about how to deal with the challenges that kepy coming up during these early days of harvest.  There's a real sense of community and a large amount of community knowledge available for winemakers that probably isn't available or discussed in other industries.

In any case, Jon makes some good wine and any winemaker willing and able to sing along to a 50 Cent song is someone we plan on seenig more of in the future.

Lastly, thank you to everyone at Vinify for putting up with me.


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