There are good problems to have, so the aphorism goes—and this is one of them. Thanks to your willingness to take a flyer on an unknown upstart— my ’05 Segue Cellars Russian River Pinot Noir—I’m sold out of it. That may sound less impressive when you learn that I made a mere 50 cases, that three got soaked up by oak in the barrels or spilled on the winery floor or consumed by mysterious midnight imbibers, I’ll never know, but in the end 47 cases and a few bottles became my entire inventory. Now there are four—two for the newly inaugurated Segue Wine Library ( my home basement, complete with mousetraps, if you really must know) and two stashed away for my first Segue public tasting event at Pinot Days in San Francisco in late June.
125 Cases +/-
This year I’ll be producing about 125 cases of the ’06 Segue, the same blend as the ’05, and as an new addition, a single vineyard from the DuNah Estate in Russian River, where Rick and Diane DuNah tend their grapes with more care and devotion that some parents lavish on their offspring. If interested in reserving a case or more, simply email me —firstname.lastname@example.org— and I ‘ll contact you with details.
The ’06 harvest was a bear—lots of fruit, ripe all at once, major logjams at Owl Ridge in Sebastopol, the custom crush facility I use, and just enough rain at the end to invite smelly mold, the notorious botrytis. How to separate out the bad clusters from the rest? Pretty much the same way that winemakers have been doing that for 3000 years—one handful at a time. As a forklift tilts a bin carrying close to a ton of grapes at the top of a funnel-shaped shoot, you and your manic cellar rat crew line up on either side of a sharply angled conveyor belt.
The clusters pour down, thousands of them, like a purple tsunami and as they cascade toward the crusher-destemmer at the bottom of the conveyor, you reach in with furious intensity and grab the clusters that look moldy and throw them over your shoulder onto the concrete floor, much the same way that Henry VIII tossed moose bones to the hunting hounds at his banquets. Perhaps. But while Henry VIII got up and walked out , possibly to polish off another wife, when finished as a grape-sorter you go nowhere. You’re in for the long haul, up to six hours and thirty tons of grapes at a time. You sweat, you ache, but hey—you’re in the thick of the action.
Nose to Nose
There’s a good chance that most of these delicate, thin-skinned, cranky and highly temperamental Pinot Noir grapes, about the price of gold nuggets these days, won’t wind up in your own bottles. They’re likely to be grapes purchased by other boutique winemakers at the custom crush to ultimately be pressed and racked and bottled to compete with your wine on the open market.
That’s handcrafted, garagiste winemaking. The usual laws of competition apply, and don’t. We all know that one winemaker’s crisis this year—too much fruit for the capacity of the fermentation tank, a sudden attack of brettanomyces yeast that give off a bouquet of horseshit—may well be ours next year, and so with few exceptions, we take care of our own business and pitch in without complaint when another one of us needs help. Survival. There’s also sense of camaraderie about the enterprise that draws on the social aspect of winemaking.
Yes, it’s nice to rub sticky elbows with your professional friends, but beyond all that there’s the nature of wine itself. It comes to us through the senses of taste and smell, our two most elusive, subjective ways of interacting with the world around us. Is my nose for cinnamon and tea leaf in that Pinot the same as yours? Is the blackberry I’m tasting in this glass that thing you keep calling dark cherry?
Winemakers have the same problems as wine drinkers in identifying and agreeing on aromas and tastes. We’re just asked to do it more often, so we get more practiced at It. That doesn’t make us less curious about how our sniffers and tongues compare to the guy with his nose in the glass beside us, and that’s one reason we’re always handing each other our works-in-progress, barrel samples. We smile when a colleague says “delicious” and wince when she says “It disappears, mid-palate.” Beyond that, if the wine’s not going in the direction we want, we can stare at the chemistry panel numbers on it all day long and still be stymied, but when a fellow winemaker we trust says something like, “I’d think about doing a tartaric (acid) add,” we’re apt to jump on that advice.
There are no formulas that guarantee perfect results. If there were, we’d find another line of work. Garagistes aren’t formula folks. Which of course brings me around to the Segue ’06, now in barrels and behaving itself nicely. In the months ahead it will fall apart briefly, collect itself, stumble again and catch its balance and I trust, find its voice, something like an actor in rehearsal before opening night.
That’s all part of the process, but if I’ve done my fieldwork diligently, the fruit I’ve chosen will ultimately prevail to produce the wine I want. No amount of manipulation makes up for mediocre grapes. That’s why the French have no word for winemaker. They say you don’t make wine, you raise wine, and if you’ve raised it correctly in the vineyard and shepherded it gracefully through production, you may get to praise of all the elements that combine to create that satin goddess in your glass, Pinot Noir.