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Cristom Vineyards

2013 Vintage Report

Becky Boyd’s Vintage Experience 2013

I’m in sales.  I’ll own up to liking to look nice and presentable and working “banker hours”.  Yet, through all the years in hospitably I’ve always had this deep rooted, masochistic desire to get the real experience of working a harvest.  Wine stained and calloused hands, unkempt and uncaring; these are the qualities of a winery intern I needed to experience firsthand.  Sleep deprived and sans make-up and nice clothes, I trade in my sales hat for muck boots.

Coming through one of the driest summers we’ve had in documented history.  Vineyard manager and rockstar, Mark Feltz jokes about the possibility of harvesting by Labor Day, which would be the earliest harvest in 20 years.

It was early September, when I really feel the energy and angst of the upcoming and early harvest begin around the valley.  However, here at Cristom, Winemaker Steve Doerner just laughs and shrugs as he realizes the mountain of work left to do in the winery before we can start bringing in fruit.  I figure, since he’s been making wine for more than 30 years, you he knows intuitively it will all get done.

September 14th the first fruit came in…the parking lot block of Louise.  “Organize this, clean that, put some fittings on tank 10…”  I think to myself “what is Peroxy Carbonate? What’s a ‘C’ clamp, how do I turn the hot water on in this joint?”  The other two interns are well seasoned and hustle around knowing exactly what that jargon means.  I allow myself to feel a little inept for a minute.  I take my place on the sorting line, next to other interns and longtime assistant winemaker, Andy Zorzi.  The fruit looks good, real good.  I can do this!

The ever-evolving jigsaw puzzle that is the Cristom winery was still full of towering pallets of wine and bottling equipment, even though it’s the start of harvest.  Moving pallets around and moving around pallets became part of the everyday routine.  My relationship with the pallets jacks grew deeper every day. I never did forge a close relationship with the fork lift.

Day by day, the fermenters started to fill.  Each day, I am managing ferments and taking readings of brix and temperature of each, which make for interesting data to say the least. Fermentation gives off heat.  Healthy and happy yeast makes for happy ferments.  CO2 fills the air.  Punch down regimes and the harvest work-out should be easily marketable as the next fad in exercise trends…Winery cross-fit?  I’m eating all the time and I’m losing weight?!  Harvest abs, whoo hoo! Punch downs at 8am, 4pm, and midnight, oh yes, midnight, the latter, truly testing my resolve to 1) stay up that late and 2) stay coherent enough to do the job right.

The first long processing day; “pre-deluge”, we clocked about 10-12 hours. Tom remarks enthusiastically, “Now that’s a good work day!”  It was those long days that I curse myself for going gluten- free months prior and forgoing my right to indulge in a good beer at the end of the day.  Thankfully, they make gluten free beer these days too.  I will survive yet another day.

In sales, everything that happens during vintage is spun to accentuate the positive.  As an intern, I could at least allow myself to take things more practically, literally and de-romanticize them. For example, after we’ve been processing fruit all day and as the sun flirts with the horizon ,readying itself to set, we take those short  enjoy those couple of minutes during the golden hour, a truck pulls up with and few extra tons you didn’t expect.  You know you won’t be going home any time soon, but you pour yourself the 16th cup of coffee that day and you divert your eyes to the sorting line.  The sorting line is where we see first the results of Mother Nature.  Unripe, over-ripe, botrytis, bird damage, stem ripeness, second sets, leaves, material other than grapes….we are the border patrol. I sorted with enthusiasm, not with the tired eyes of experience.

As fermentations wind down the days of pressing and barreling begin.  Here at Cristom we barrel down dirty and sweet.  Now, to the layperson that may sound crude but simply meaning without settling and not being 100% dry from alcohol fermentation.  It’s part of the laid-back, “wine-will-make-itself” attitude.  I’m getting a feeling that this is one of the most intuitive wine making teams around!  All decisions based on a feeling rather than numbers.  Like a team of ‘grape whisperers’ rather than highly trained professionals.  An exercise in humility… perhaps knowing that the juice can’t help but turn into wine, and maybe more of luck of the draw with good fruit?

As someone who repeats the Cristom story numerous times a day in the tasting room, I find the infusion of new terminology thrilling. I can imagine Steve and the experienced cellar team at Cristom also appreciates a little infusion of variety as well. Ergo, the interns are all encouraged to create our own “experiment”.  With inexperience on my side but with the endorsement of Steve and Tom, I decided to do a co-fermentation experiment.  I inoculated one of two identical fermenters with Malic Acid culture so it would start secondary fermentation simultaneously with primary. Boom!  See, I can talk the talk.  Who wants to talk malaides?

In summation, working in the trenches as a harvest intern was everything I hoped for.  It was a chance to wrap my mind around the nuts and bolts of winemaking.  Giving me the opportunity to clean more equipment and squeegee more floors than I ever imagined.  It even allowed me a chance to make peace with the resident fruit fly population, whose abundance was more than a presence but rather a force to reckon with.  Knowing that every morning as I pour myself a cup of coffee, I can expect to pick out at least a dozen fruit flies from it. Like kamikazes they dove into any open container, mouths and nostrils being equally susceptible.  All things I consider being acceptable harvest experiences and given the opportunity would definitely sign up for again.

-Becky