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Nov 17, 2017

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Planting and Bottling
by Brendan Eliason
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.5

Just as the Annie promised, "The sun did come out tomorrow." After the rain of winter, the sun finally emerged, and the grapevines are now out of hibernation and growing (even if they're more than a month behind the normal schedule). It's now officially the start of a new season, and a new year of winemaking.

Spring is as close as I get to parenthood. (Collective Societal Cringe of Terror). No, I'm not immediately planning on having children; rather, this is the season when we plant (or replant) our vineyards (Collective Societal Sigh of Relief). Last year, after harvest at David Coffaro Vineyard & Winery, we ripped out 1 1/2 acres of sauvignon blanc and are now replanting this section with a selection of red varieties -- petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, shiraz and mourvedre.

There are two basic occasions when wineries plant new vines -- when they have new land that's never been planted or when they're removing existing vines and replanting. There are a number of reasons to replant an existing vineyard. One of the primary reasons over the last 10 to 20 years has been due to the infestation of Phylloxera.

Phylloxera vastatrix is a root louse and a nasty little bugger. Take the most irate Los Angeles driver on a bad day, multiply by 10, give him an assault rifle and you're getting close. Although originally from the midwest United States (around Missouri), Phylloxera has spread to most wine-producing regions around the world with devastating results. In France, during the late 19th century, about 6.2 million acres of grapes were destroyed in about 30 years. For perspective, right now in California there are only about 350,000 acres planted to wine grapes. So in 30 years France lost 10 times California's total acreage. Like I said, a nasty little bugger.

Phylloxera has also smacked California, infecting about 90 percent of its vineyards. It kills the vine, specifically Vitis vinifera (the species that makes wine), by chewing on the roots. The only way to combat Phylloxera is to replant your vineyard with grafted rootstock. Grafting rootstock means taking a wild species of grape vine (that Phylloxera doesn't like) and grafting a Vitis vinifera variety (such as zinfandel) onto it, so you have a Phylloxera-resistant root system and a zinfandel-producing vine on top. Almost every vineyard in California (and most of the world) is planted like this.

The silver lining of Phylloxera is it gives winemakers/vineyard managers a chance to redo things the right way (i.e., utilizing the proper techniques through experience to replant vineyards for maximum quality). The end result is greater diversity of varieties planted, a better matching of varieties with specific regions/climates, an abundance of new technology, better farming practices and, in the long run, better wine.

When Dave Coffaro decided to rip out his sauvignon blanc vines, the process was pretty straight forward. As soon as harvest was over, we used a bulldozer to tear out the vines, and put them all in a pile away from the field. We disked the field, loosening the dirt and making the field as level as possible to get it ready to plant. After this we had to make some choices. Dave needed to decide what varieties to plant, what rootstock to use, what trellis system to use, how wide to make the space between the vine rows, how wide to make the space between the actual vines and a multitude of other smaller questions. Although not overly complex it's very important to make the correct decisions because, since grapes are a perennial crop, if you make a mistake you might not be able to fix it unless you tear out the vineyard again, which, of course, is very costly.

After the technical decisions are made, it's a lot of physical labor. We're lucky to have a great vineyard crew to do most of the work. Markers (in our case drinking straws) designate where the vines will be planted. The vineyard rows are laid with metal posts that're placed every five vines to hold up the trellis system. The crew stretches wire down every row and attaches it about five feet above the ground. Along this wire is attached our drip irrigation tubing that'll be used immediately to soften the ground and later to water the young vines.

We have all of our vine grafting done by a local grapevine nursery (Sonoma Grapevine), which sends us what they call green benchgrafts. These consist of wild grapevine roots, grafted onto the grape variety of our choice. The benchgrafts measure six to 12 inches in height and consist of new shoots and leaves. These baby vines are then meticulously planted down the rows as straight as possible. As a matter of professional pride, any planting crew, vineyard manager or vineyard owner that has crooked vine rows will be ribbed and teased by everyone in the area (and sometimes by complete strangers).

As a final step, peach-colored growtubes are placed over each newly planted baby vine. Growtubes are basically like little individual houses for the new vines and will help protect them from deer, rabbits and other animals. With that done it's just a matter of watering them occasionally and checking them every week or so. No diapers to change. No waking up at 3 a.m. every night. No puking on your shoulder. Maybe I'll just stick to grapevines for a while.

Just as the process of making wine begins with new plantings in the vineyard, it ends in the winery. Many wineries believe in aging their reds for many years in oak barrels before bottling. But Dave prefers to bottle our reds about six to nine months after harvest. There are many reasons for this, the primary being that our wine tastes the best at this point. This gives us the balance we're looking for between complex, forward fruit, and the finesse and smoothness of barrel aging.

In the past we've used a mobile bottling line. These lines are truck-and-trailer setups that have a full bottling line installed in the trailer and drive from winery to winery like hired guns. They're popular with smaller wineries because bottling equipment is expensive, and it's often easier to simply hire someone else to do it for you. Unfortunately, in the past, we've had some quality problems with mobile lines and therefore we've bought our own bottling equipment this year.

Aside from purchasing the new line, our most interesting decision has been what kind of cork to use. Our options were to go with natural cork, a synthetic/natural cork or a full synthetic. Natural cork has always been associated with good wines and at one point in history this association was warranted, since cork was the best means available for sealing wine bottles long term. Today this is really no longer the case. Recent (and some not so recent) advances in materials and packaging technology has given us newer and technically better ways to seal wine bottles. It'll be many years, however, before any of the newer sealing methods are used by the majority of the wine industry. We're among a quickly expanding group of wineries that're looking into better ways to seal our bottles.

Natural cork has many great attributes, including resiliency, durability and aesthetic appeal. It also, unfortunately, has many problems, including sterility, uniformity and sealing strength. Out of these problems, sterility is by far the worst problem. Currently about 5 to 7 percent of all wine bottles that use natural cork go bad because of contamination in the natural cork. In proper terminology this contamination is called being "corked." (To me it tastes like licking a wet horse. Please don't ask me how I know this.) This is not counting wines that go bad because of leaks or other natural cork problems. If you do the math it can get scary. A small winery like ours (3,200 annual case production) will lose about 125 cases of wine every year due to contaminated natural cork. At our retail pricing that's about $30,000 worth of wine that we lose due to contaminated natural cork. That sucks.

Lucky for us and winedrinkers everywhere, there have been great strides made in the development of synthetic corks. Currently, there are three major synthetic cork makers on the market. The first is SupremeCorq, and it's 100 percent synthetic. SupremeCorq comes in a wide range of colors, and it looks like a chunky piece of plastic (actually they're made from the same polymer that artificial heart valves are made from). SupremeCorqs are 100 percent sterile and seal tighter so they leak less. The only down side is that they're somewhat difficult to remove with some wine openers.

The second synthetic cork available is made by a company named Altec. Their corks are molded with a blend of high quality natural cork and a synthetic polymer. They guarantee zero cork taint and seal about twice as tightly as normal cork, preventing leakage almost completely. They also have the advantage of looking more like real cork. These are the corks that we switched to last year. Unfortunatly we've found that, although we like them in general, they really do seal twice as tight as a normal cork, which has been more of a problem than a benefit when it comes to pulling them.

For next year, we're seriously considering looking at a new type of synthetic cork that's just hit the market. It's made by NeoCorq, and looks like a foam-filled tube. It sounds sort of weird but so far we like the results we've gotten from testing it. We'll bottle a small batch of our wine with the NeoCorq and if we still like the results we'll completely switch over next year. Expect to see a lot more synthetics used for premium wine production. as consumers start to recognize the benefits of alternative methods of sealing wine bottles.

Once we've decided on the cork, bottles, labels, foil, etc., the rest of the bottling process is pretty simple. Right now all of our wines have been blended and are sitting in barrels. There are seven different "blends," each representing a finished wine. First we pump out the barrels representing a specific blend and put the wine into large separate tanks so that the differences in the barrels are eliminated. (Small differences in barrels can cause wines from the same blend to taste slightly different.) Next, we attach a hose from the tank to the new bottling equipment.

The basic bottling equipment consists of a sparger (to push oxygen out of the bottles), a filler (to fill the bottles) and a corker. We also have a labeler that fastens the foil capsules and applies our labels. It's actually a very cool process to watch. Basically, we attach a large tank of wine to one side of the line and in a matter of about 10 to 20 feet we get fully corked, labeled and boxed bottles of wine that're ready to be shipped to our customers (in a couple months).

We always wait a couple months to ship our wine because of a phenomenon called "bottle shock." In many ways you can think of wine as a complex, living entity. Now just think how pissed you'd be if one day you were sucked out of your home, tossed in a large tank, shoved in a small bottle and stuck in a dark box. It takes three to eight weeks after bottling for wine to adjust to its new environment and start tasting like it did before it was bottled. Once this happens we're ready to ship it off to restaurants, stores and our individual customers. Another vintage gone.

God, they grow up so fast, don't they?

Check out Brendan's "Harvest Diary -- A week in the life of Crush at David Coffaro Winery" at

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