Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Balancing Act: Vintage and Personal Life

N.B.  We'll now plan on having a blog post up at least every Monday (Peter Bell, Winemaker), Wednesday (Kelby Russell, Intern Winemaker), and Friday (Tricia Renshaw, Assistant Winemaker) - with guest posts when we can trick people into saying they will.  Appropriately, given the title and subject of this post, it is unfortunately coming a day later then intended.

For many visitors to our winery and wine regions around the world vintage is an exciting time to visit.  Even if they do not have the chance to come up and tour the winery, there is something that tells them the harvest is on and important work is at hand.  This excitement is absolutely shared by all of us in the winery, vintage is hands-down one of the most entertaining times of the year.  What tends not to get mentioned, however, is that vintage is also the most intense time of the year.

When I first showed up at Fox Run to learn about winemaking last year the biggest surprise was the sheer amount of work that gets done during our vintage.  Even with an appropriately sized staff on hand, six days a week (minimum) of work for 10 to 16 hours a day is almost a given for somewhere around two months.  Considering how strenuous the work can be, this also means that sleep is all we can think about as soon as work is over.  Throughout the vintage we'll try to post entries and videos about the sorts of work going on and why, but taking a step back from these details the biggest question we confront is how to maintain some semblance of normal life in all the work and chaos.

To an extent, there is no way to get around the hours being worked and you have to accept that your personal life will suffer temporarily for it.  My goal during vintage is simply to not lose ground; periodic phone calls and emails to (urban) friends that wonder if I dropped off the face of the (rural) earth.  Trying to catch one dinner a week with family, even if I'm not especially garrulous after a long day.  There is no way I can exercise daily anymore, but if I get in a few runs and lifts a week, then I will at least be conditioned enough to pick up where I left off come late November.  Yes we tend to get in shape and lose weight during the vintage, regardless of how much we eat, but it is a tough hill to climb to come out of vintage in time for Thanksgiving-Christmas and not be able to run anymore.

Besides maintaining, the other thing that is frequently done is bringing some aspects of personal life into work.  Vintage meals are a classic for us; sitting down for a communal meal from our cafe with wine from our cellar to take a dinner break during a tough day.  Music and radio, already ever-present at our winery, take on even more importance for giving us new things to listen to and discuss.  For someone of my generation, where all communication begins with the internet, the lab computer becomes somewhat crucial for at least one quick visit a day.

In the end, no one would ever say that vintage isn't a blast.  Come December, however, the prospect of normal work-hours make the evenings seem like a wonderful gift - even if it is getting dark at 5:00pm.

In Glee,

Music of the Day:

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Day In The Life...

N.B.  The following is an hour-by-hour account by winemaker Peter Bell of how this past Saturday, September 19th progressed at the Fox Run Winery.  As you can see, we're certainly busy at the intersection of the start of vintage and the end of bottling season:
  • 6:15 am: Peter Bell arrives in time to see a beautiful, monochromatic, mist-infused sunrise unfolding over the east side of Seneca Lake. But it’s time to defuse the tangle of hoses, pumps and filters that were left from yesterday’s marathon of juice racking, chaptalization, inoculation and overall chaos that is typical of the opening days of vintage. We’d gotten out of the winery a bare ten hours earlier.
From the Night Before
It's always good to know where your gloves are during vintage.
  • 7 am: Time to start sanitizing the bottling line. Like many other local wineries, Fox Run still has several tanks of 2009-vintage wine that are ready and willing to get bottled. The tasting room staff are crying out for Ruby Vixen and Fox Trot Red, two of our customers’ perennial favorites, while the winery staff are more motivated by a longing for empty tanks. More grapes are due to be picked in a few days, and the juice has to go somewhere.
  • 7:30 am: Peter Howe pulls in, and revs up the forklift to get all the glass into place for the long day of bottling. He spent the last hours of Friday getting the rolls of labels in place on the labeler, adjusting the bottling line to the right bottle size, and making room in the warehouse for today’s onslaught of bottled wine. It’s a good thing that no rain’s been in the forecast, because our ‘second’ warehouse is the concrete pad outdoors.
  • 8 am: Kelby and MacKenzie arrive, and barely have time to put in earplugs before setting to work. Today’s major task: bottling about 1000 cases of three different wines. Other jobs await those who aren’t assigned bottling line duty.
  • 8:30 am: The membrane filter, our last line of defense against microbes that might wreak havoc on the finished wine, has the good taste to plug up, rendering it eminently disposable. Peter comes to blame the well water that was used in the sterilization process: heavy water use at this time of the year often sucks up subterranean sediment. Kelby and MacKenzie stay busy, since it’s time to add yeast nutrients to one of the tanks of Cayuga juice.
  • 9 am: A new membrane ($230.00) is installed, sterilized and checked for integrity. Bottling begins in earnest. Peter racks a tank of Chardonnay juice for a custom winemaking client, stays in touch with the bottling crew, and makes a cup of coffee. 
  • 12:30 pm: The bottling crew breaks for lunch. Assistant winemaker Tricia arrives after delivering her older daughter to riding lessons. She gets busy with cellar tracking records, then dives into a barrel-to-barrel evaluation of our 2009 Pinot noir wines. These wines are looking spectacular, what with their sweet raspberry and spice aromas and mouth-filling sweetness. They wait for further attention in November. This is also an opportunity to assess individual barrels, with an eye on which coopers’ products have performed well with our fruit.
  • 2:45 pm: Peter chats with a visiting Chilean vineyard owner while keeping an eye on the almost-empty bottling tank. We move on to our second wine of the day, Ruby Vixen. 
  • 4:30: Mackenzie departs, promising to be back dark and early on Monday for more bottling. Former cellar hand Stephen Hickman, now a Harvard nanotechnologist, is pressed into service helping to bottle our third wine of the day, Classic Chardonnay. Tricia and Peter clean tanks, take a steady stream of phone calls, and try to plot out the next week’s work.
Tricia Substitutes in at the Bottling Line
It takes someone special to keep smiling during a long bottling day!
  • 6:30: Tricia subs for Kelby on the line, to give Kelby the opportunity to fire up the Weber grill. A talented cook, he is determined to keep his co-workers happy and well fed. He’d stopped at Wegman’s on the way to work to load up on dinner ingredients. Winery cleanup continues  -- “winemaking is 49% cleaning s***, 49% moving heavy s*** around, and 2% drinking beer” according to this spoof:

  • 7:45: Over one thousand cases of wine have been bottled. We shut down the line and sit down to a meal of corn on the cob, fennel and fish, all grilled over charcoal. At least one bottle of wine finds its way down our throats.
Starting the Grill
Food and friends are crucial after a long day of work, but so is music (see below).
Our lovely dining music by the man, the myth, and the legend.
  • 8:30: The bottling line is sterilized with hot water, some sense is made of the warehouse, and temperatures of juices and fermenting wines checked. Some of the mess will have to wait till tomorrow.
  • 10:00: Lights out at the winery.

Music of the Day:

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    Monday, September 13, 2010

    Carrying our Sparkling Wine Forward

    Bread dough. Mushrooms. Toast. Hazelnuts. Wine makers and (especially) wine writers tend to exploit an almost limitless collection of terms to describe the aroma and flavors of wine, but those four are singularly rare compared to words like berries, spice and tree fruits – except when it comes to sparkling wine.

    Champagne and its derivatives owe their immense appeal to their almost ethereal delicacy. Suggestions of flavors, wisps of specific scents, and mouth-cleansing acidity are the hallmarks of a good sparkling wine (bolder styles, like Spumante, are really in a different category altogether).

    But sometimes too much austerity can be a bad thing. Grapes that are pressed as whole clusters, rather than being crushed first, yield a very soft juice that in turn makes an extremely delicate base wine. So far so good – but clever winemakers often use the early stage of the process to build in tiny hits of complexing flavors that make the base wine taste like more than green apples.

    Complexing our Sparkling Base Wine
    Transferring our sparkling base wine into neutral oak barrels, see below.

    At Fox Run, we customarily ferment our Chardonnay for sparkling wine in barrels rather than stainless steel tanks for that express purpose. The short contact time – a week or two at most – plus the use of barrels that are a few years old means that there’s no danger of making an overtly oaky base wine. Instead, the wine picks up some very subtle ‘biscuity’ or ‘toasty’ notes that will eventually enhance the finished wine’s come-hither qualities.

    Our current-release Blanc de Blancs, for sale online and at the winery, was 100% barrel-fermented, and offers all the engaging flavor notes we are looking for.

    By: Peter Bell, Winemaker

    Music of the Day:

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    Wednesday, September 8, 2010

    It's (Not) the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

    Hello, All!

    When someone talks about a winery or wine making, I think it is safe to say that everyone's thoughts go immediately to the harvest season.  Sunny and crisp days, cool nights, apple cider (donuts), beautiful foliage; these are the images that those of us in the Finger Lakes are fortunate enough to associate with our harvest.  With the distinct chill in the air recently, we're certainly all starting to feel that way at the winery as well as readying our music selections for the fall.

    But not so fast!  Harvesting our gorgeous clusters of grapes is all well and good, but where exactly are they going to go?  Obviously the juice is going to spend at least some time in our tanks after being pressed from the grapes, even if it will very quickly be on its way to barrel aging.  By extension, this means our tanks need to be empty of last year's wine ahead of the harvest.  And thus, before the harvest, comes a period of time just as busy and important in the winery: bottling season.

    Where are the Fall Colors?
    None here, but Pete's tie-dyed shirt keeps things light on the bottling line.

    This was one of the first lessons I learned upon entering the winery, that bottling season is the often invisible crunch time that we have to survive just to make it into the current year's grapes.  Harvest and our memories of it are always tinged with romance, but make no mistake that the intense and long days of bottling wine are just as crucial (if not as fun).

    Hope we will have an update on our sparkling wine to post tomorrow and maybe some more behind-the-scenes discussion on the bottling season, so stay tuned as we continue our ramp up into the vintage!

    Music of the (Bottling)Day:

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    Friday, September 3, 2010

    Drink New York, Baby! Fairgoers beat the heat

    Fox Run Vineyards' timely release of their Drink New York Riesling has proven to be a winner in helping fairgoers beat the heat of a four day stretch of 90 degree days. It has been the top selling wine in the Fox Run booth hands down. It is a perfectly balanced riesling that has been appealing to sweet and dry palates alike. The pairing of Drink New York with the NYS fair has been an added bonus.

    Drink New York Riesling, Fox Run’s new value label, is medium sweet and packed with apricot, papaya and lime aromas. Rich and refreshing, it’s sure to be a hit with consumers seeking an affordable and delicious Finger Lakes Riesling. Discover why the critics are saying, "Drink New York, Baby!"

    That quote, which is printed on the back of our label, comes from a 2001 Los Angeles Times article titled, "Who Makes the Best Riesling? New York, Baby" where the writer describes Finger Lakes wineries, including Fox Run, as "consistently producing Rieslings that can compete with the world's best."

    Yum...this makes me want to chill down a bottle of our Drink New York Riesling for dinner tonight!