Monday, December 6, 2010

Roll Out (Wash?) The Barrel

As I sit at home this evening looking at the beautiful snow falling outside, I can't help but be reminded of barrel washing.  This feeling, strange as it seems, is even harder to avoid after having spent four hours wandering around the wilds of northern Wayne County searching for a Christmas Tree in the wind and snow earlier today.  (Christmas Tree searching is a process which never ceases to amaze me for how long and complicated it manages to become for every additional person involved: there may be more platonic ideals for a "Christmas Tree" than there are for "wine.")

Why should associate cold and blowing snow with barrel washing and, other than the obvious, what exactly is the whole "barrel washing" thing about?  Given the weather outside today, fortunately it has absolutely nothing to do with what is currently happening in the winery at Fox Run or this year... hopefully (*hint* *hint* Peter).  Last year, however, when I first started working at Fox Run we were faced with a vintage and set of winemaking challenges quite distinct from 2010.

Rather than warmth and extraordinarily early ripening, and thus the early harvest we had this year, the 2009 harvest lasted much longer into the autumn.  Where we had started to catch our breath this year around the beginning of November, to the extent that our red wines were already near or through fermentation, in 2009 we had just received the last blocks of red grapes around the beginning of November and didn't reach a relaxing moment until nearly Thanksgiving.  With the 2009 red fermentations just completing around Thanksgiving, it meant that some of them were not ready to go into barrels until the beginning of December.

This is all well and good, but to get red wines into barrel at Fox Run - and most other wineries - means transferring (technically, racking) the red wines from the previous year that are in barrels to tanks.  This frees up the barrel space, along with some new barrels every year, but the old barrels that have been emptied need to be thoroughly rinsed and cleaned before we put in the new wine.  This basic step in sanitation is absolutely crucial, as there are spoilage organisms that can survive on the inside of a barrel and live on into the next filling.  While there are some people who are proponents of the aromas these spoilage organisms create as "complexing," I'll leave that subject for Peter or Tricia to tee-off on another day.  Suffice to say, we want our barrels clean.

To accomplish this, we have a rack that can be hauled outside to our crush-pad and setup so two barrels may be fork-lifted onto a cradle that suspends them off the ground and also allows them to be spun around so the bung hole can face downwards for draining.  After the lees in the barrel have drained away to some extent, we insert an attachment into the barrel that connects to our pressure washer and excoriates the inside of the barrel with a powerful, rotating, spray of 170 degree water.  Following a few minutes of this to (hopefully) sanitize the inside of the barrel, we turn off the burner and allow cold water to cool off and rinse the barrel before moving on and filling them again.  All of this must be accomplished in relatively quick succession, from the emptying to the cleaning to the filling (certainly within a day) due to the sanitation concerns and, when two people are really on their game, we can empty/clean/fill around 30 barrels in a day.

The hitch comes with the cleaning portion, however; not only does it take the longest of any step in the process, it also has to be done outside.  Last December, if those in the Finger Lakes and snow belt remember, was absolutely miserable.  Exceedingly cold and snowy for this region, there was a period where the Rochester airport measured snowfall for 120 hours in a row.  This would be bad enough on its own, but - as much as we love him - Peter seems to have a sixth sense for knowing when to plan on having someone else do something outside on the absolute worst weather day within seven days.  It certainly isn't intentional, and is a strange phenomenon that the rest of us joke about, but last December it was as uncanny as it was brutal.  Following a few days of nice weather we would have to do barrel work again, due to the late vintage, and this would inevitably be a day with driving wind, a sub-zero windchill, and pelting snow.

So as I look at my window at the foot of snow that has accumulated in under 2.5 hours (thin lake effect snow-band that setup over Newark), I am certainly moved by how beautiful it is.  But I am also very glad to be inside and with our 2010 barrel work a month-old memory.

Winter pruning is a different story, but we'll make sure to have a guest blogger address that when it is appropriate!

By: Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team

Music of the Day:
  • Robyn - Body Talk; "Dancing On My Own" (Pop Song of the year from one of the most infectious and intelligent musicians out there.  The fact she isn't famous or getting radio play with music like this, when Katy Perry or Lady Gaga are, is a musical crime.):

Support Artists, buy the music you like!

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