Spending my winter break in Napa and working at Bin to Bottle seems like more of a vacation than work because the weather is so wonderful (in the mid 60′s everyday) and working at Bin to Bottle is fantastic! Last weekend, Eric and I visited 6 wineries on Saturday and 7 wineries on Sunday. John Wilkinson, the CEO of Bin to Bottle, was able to set up 3 winery visits for us at Gargiulo Vineyards, Reynolds Family Winery, and Whitehall Lane Winery. We were able to get tours and tastings at each winery with VIP service. It was an outstanding experience because not only did we get to ask lots of questions and not feel pushed, we were able to see other operations and talk about their winemaking techniques. We also had a tour of the newly renovated Silver Oak Cellars and were able to taste their wines, too. Today, one of the cellar workers at Bin to Bottle, Danny, was able to get us tours and tastings at Stag’s Leap Winery and Opus One. Both wineries were incredibly well designed and looked beautiful. They are both well known for their wines not only throughout the valley, but throughout the country. What a treat it was to get a tour of both of them.
At Bin to Bottle, this was my week to work in the cellar. On Monday, I worked with Will to help finish up with a rack and return that he was doing. I did not have a lot of experience working with barrels before this week. I had worked with them a bit in Illinois this past summer and at Sheldrake Point this fall, but not nearly enough to have any skill with them. I found it difficult to fill them in the beginning using only
a valve to stop the flow. This method worked great once I figured out exactly how much wine was in the hose and what the correct point to stop the wine was. Once I got the hang of it, there were no problems. I filled barrel after barrel right to the top.
Tuesday consisted of more racking, but this time I helped Paco. He taught me how to rack using a technique called bull dogging. This is a way of removing the wine from
the barrel without using a pump. Nitrogen flows into the barrel from a pressurized tank. The increased pressure in the barrel forces the wine out. This method is much slower, but since it is pushing the wine up instead just sucking, the lees are disturbed less which provides a much cleaner racking. I think we racked close to 70 barrels that day using the bull dogging method. It took about the entire day and when we finished, I cleaned up the hoses and the area we were working in.
A lot of winemakers wanted their wines racked this week, so Wednesday was another racking day. This time we racked 50 barrels using the regular racking. The racking was quick and easy. When the wine goes into the tank, a sample is given to the lab so the amount of SO2 to be added can be determined. However, when this sample was given to the lab, the results came out at 10ppm which was extremely low considering we had added about 60ppm at the beginning of racking. This was the first clue that something was wrong with the SO2 analysis. After mixing the tank and pulling multiple samples, the results were still low so the lab workers began trying to fix the Tiamo winery analysis machine. This machine is capable of running SO2, pH, TA, and potassium with only one sample. The solutions were changed and remixed multiple times, but the results were still off. I quickly jumped in and tried working with their old Aeration-Oxidation apparatus which had not been used in over 5 years. Many of the wine makers and even the lab workers were unsure of how to determine SO2 levels by A-O because either they had never done it before or they had not done it in years. Luckily for me, I had spent a good part of my summer running SO2 by A-O and I even got a chance to teach how to do it this past semester while TAing for the Wine and Grape Composition and Analysis class. I spent about 1 hour trying to get the apparatus to work, but I had no luck. After changing the solutions and trying many different ideas, I came across the conclusion that the indicator was bad. Without an indicator, it is impossible to determine the endpoint of titration and, consequently, the SO2 concentration. Eventually, the machine decided to work again for no apparent reason and they began to read the SO2′s. This delay caused a lot of the rackings that were taking place to be stopped since the amount of SO2 was not known. Near the end of the day, the wine was just returned to the barrels and SO2 would be added later.
Thursday began by pulling 13 samples for a client that was coming in to taste some of their wine later in the day. I went into the barrel room and had to locate the barrels and collect samples from the correct ones. They were tasting the difference between neutral oak and french oak to see how it impacted the wine. After that, I helped hand bottle some magnum (1.5L) bottles. This specific bottling run required the use of Velcorin, a toxic chemical with a very short half life that is effective at killing many bacteria and some yeasts in wine. We were bottling the wine from a hose coming right off the Velcorin machine. Once we began bottling, we quickly realized that the corks we had for the bottles were too long and did not fit into any of the corkers we had. We even tried to modify two of them to make the cork fit, but we had no luck. Instead, we used shorter corks which was not ideally what the client wanted, but the wine had to be corked. I spent the rest of the afternoon collecting and organizing all of the fermentation details from harvest into a binder. With 75 clients and over 1,300 tons processed at this one facility, the task of sorting through all of them took some time but I was able to finish by the end of the day. Thursday night, John Wilkinson invited Eric and I over to his house for dinner where we were able to meet his family and talk more about the wine business and the future of the internship.
On Friday, we went on a tour of a cooperage here in Napa called Demptos. Demptos is a global company that started in France and is now stationed throughout the world. I had been on a tour of a cooperage before (Canton Cooperage in Lebanon, KY) but it had been some time and I was glad to go on another one. Mark, our tour guide and friend of John’s, gave us a wonderful tour and shared a lot of information. A barrel is made by first cutting down an oak tree and shaping the wood into staves. Demptos
produces French, American and Hungarian oak barrels. The wood is allowed to air dry in it’s country of origin before it is shipped to the producing facility. When the staves arrive, they are in bundles of 32 which is the perfect amount to make a barrel. The staves vary in width so when they are being placed, the worker must change out staves to make the staves all fit well. The top of the barrel is then pounded into position using an iron ring and sprayed with water to prevent cracking as the barrels is toasted. The barrel is then placed on top of a fire and is allowed to toast for about 5 minutes. The slightly warmed barrel is then transferred to another fire where there are pneumatic jaws on the floor beside the barrel that slowly squeeze the bottom together over 6 minutes to form the barrel shape. Another ring is then pounded onto the bottom to help keep the barrel’s form. From there, the barrels are ready to be toasted. They are placed over yet another fire that is burning off of the ground to keep the air circulating within the barrel. Periodically, the barrel is flipped around at the discretion of the worker. Once the outside barrel temperature has reached 170 degrees, the barrels are finished toasting and are inspected for any cracks that may have occurred during the toasting process. If any cracks are found, those staves are removed and pre-toasted ones are inserted. The bung hold is then drilled into the barrel.
In a different room, the boards that will make the heads of the barrels are toasted and stacked up. The boards are put together using nothing but double sided nails and a bit of the cattail plant. The cellulose found in the plant helps create a perfect seal and prevents any leaks that might occur between the boards. The heads are then shaped and pounded into the barrel. The final rings are added to the barrel once the barrel has been sanded. The final touches go on the barrel including a final sanding and a laser burning of the Demptos logo, the type of oak, the year, the toasting and the winery’s name if desired. There are so many different types and shapes of barrels that it baffles me as to how someone would decide which barrel is right for them without testing them all out first. I guess that’s just something I will have to experience.
Once we made it back to Bin to Bottle, I helped Reyna do a tank to tank racking of some wine and then cleaned up the winery and lab a bit. In the middle of the day on Friday, the whole staff stopped working for about an hour to enjoy a monthly company barbecue. The food was all homemade and absolutely delicious! What a great idea it is to have everyone relax and enjoy themselves once in a while. This will be something I will definitely implement if I ever run a winery.
Only one week left here in California. Before I know it, I will be leaving the wonderful weather and heading back to Ithaca, NY where it will most likely be snowing. This week, we are booked full of meeting with alumni that are in the wine business here in Napa. I cannot wait!