Winemaking is located at the juncture of poetry and chemistry. It’s not a place you’d want to hang out if you were in any kind of hurry, I was thinking last Saturday as I tasted through 2006 Russian River Pinot Noir barrels with my partner in crime, Greg LaFollette.
One of the great enjoyments or exasperations of winemaking, in fact, is the time it takes to do all the things that resist end-arounds and short-cuts. Boutique winemaking is like writing letters in longhand with a quill, while the rest of the known world is instant text messaging, emailing, and, yeah, blogging. Ancient practices have been updated without any corresponding increase in speediness; human sweat continues to trump technology.
Once they probably used hollow reeds to suck wines-in-progress out of the amphora for a sample swig. Now we barrel-taste by sucking juice through a narrow plastic siphon tube from 60-gallon oak barrels. That’s about all the difference, 3000 years later. We still purse our lips, breathe in, try not to get it up our nose and hope for the best. As soon as the juice rushes through we squeeze the tube and aim it toward the glass we hold in our other hand. Usually we get a little less precise as the hours wear on, which is why you see all those claret stains on wine barrels, which are not leaking from within.
But that’s the easy part. The thing that Greg and I were doing, that most boutique winemakers become skilled at, is a form of rock-climbing that doesn’t involve rocks. These filled barrels tower up as high as fifteen to twenty feet on steel racks, and although you can use a ladder, there’s a good chance you’ll also quickly learn to rise to the top level by adroitly climbing up between vertical column of barrels, more or less wedging yourself skyward as you hoist your weary torso up with a grunt from one barrel to the next, left then right then left as if ascending a narrow gap by staggering your steps between ridiculously large boulders.
In one hand you hold your torch—small flashlight, standard equipment—and in the other, your siphon hose and tasting glass. It’s not quite an Olympic event, but there’s enough going on—and an unforgiving concrete floor below—to make you pay close attention. Over several hours we tasted through ten barrels from six different vineyards.
By “tasted “, I mean that we siphoned off a small amount into our glasses after illuminating the dark bung hole with our torch and sucking up the fluid. By “tasted” I mean that each time we swirled the new wine, sipped it, gurgled it, and spit it out—sometimes in an arc, twenty feet above ground. By “tasted” I mean that we tried not to swallow, because wine is the enemy of winemakers. When drunk even in small amounts, it tends to dull the taste buds—that’s the alcohol at work—so you learn quickly to spit, into floor drains, and accurately whenever possible, or anywhere you can when not possible, the way tobacco chewers treated the world around them as one vast spittoon in The Old West.
As for the 2006 wines-in-barrel we tasted, and the different flavor that each of the different barrels is imparting to them, slowly but surely—more on that in the next installment. They were tricky to harvest for a variety of reasons, but all that may soon be forgotten.